It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.
The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.
And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.
And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated? After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.
The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.
Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.
I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.
Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.
Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.
If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.
The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.
As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.
A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.
There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.
The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.
This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.
This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.
One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.
Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.
As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.
And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.
But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.
The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.
There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio. I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)
As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.
This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver.I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.
A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.
Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.
The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.
And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.
The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.
If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.
You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.
Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?
Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.
Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.
I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:
Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)
Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.
Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.
But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born? So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.
Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.
The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.
But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.
Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.
So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.
To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them.
This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.
This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.
Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:
Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.
In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?
But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?
But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.
In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.
It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.
Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.
Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.
But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)
Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.
Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:
…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”
“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”
“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”
It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.
I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do. It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.
But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?
I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?
Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.
While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.
In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.
That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.
Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.
That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.
Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.
A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.
Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.
Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.
To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?
Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.
It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!
A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:
Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.
Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.
You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:
Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure:
Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.
You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)
Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.
To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.
And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.
The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.
He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:
The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.
I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream.
There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it.
I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, “The Repairer of Reputations.”
I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.
Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:
CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask. STRANGER: Indeed? CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you. STRANGER: I wear no mask. CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.
If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.
Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go. Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.
The Repairer of Reputations begins:
Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…
Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.”
If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.
But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.
What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.
Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922.
So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?
A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening. For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen?
And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity.
But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.
And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉
Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.
The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.
Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.
Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.
Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”
Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”
There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.
So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?
Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.
Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.
Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!
Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless. But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…
Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.
That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.
But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.
The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.
It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:
“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”
Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.
Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:
“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…
The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”
The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.) The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.
Is this fascism, as we understand it today?
Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.
Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.
To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.
There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.
That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?
Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”
And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…
Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.
This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.
With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.
Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.
But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.
The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.
There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.
Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.
In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?
But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)
Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.
But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.
I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.
And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.
Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?
The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.
Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.
There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.
Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.
Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.
The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.
The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.
As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:
“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”
This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”
The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.
That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:
“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”
The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.
However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.
Let me start by saying I’m pretty tired of World War II films. There have been a lot of good ones, but there have been so many that at a certain point, I became exhausted with the period. It feels sometimes like the movie industry is barely aware of other times in history.
It’s understandable, of course; the period is full of drama, tragedy and fascinating stories. And the Nazis, with their horrific atrocities, cruel ideology, sinister iconography, and reputation for machine-like efficiency, are the perfect villains.
But all the same, I’ve seen so many movies about WWII that it takes a lot to convince me another one will contain something I haven’t seen before.
Jojo Rabbit is a film about a ten-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler. Johannes is a fanatical believer in the Nazi party, even as the tide of war is turning against them. He is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, and his joy at learning how to fight for the Fatherland is only momentarily dampened when two older boys taunt him for his refusal to kill a rabbit in order to prove his devotion, which earns him the mocking nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”
He is consoled at this moment by his imaginary friend, to whom he often turns for encouragement: his ten-year-old mind’s idealized version of Adolf Hitler.
Imaginary Hitler is played primarily as a goofy, comical slapstick character, egging on Jojo’s fantasies of fighting glorious battles in a jovial, often nonsensical way. He seems like a lovable if rather silly father figure–something which Jojo craves since his own father is away in the war.
Unfortunately, taking his imaginary friend’s advice leads Jojo to an accident with a grenade, from which he needs a lengthy rehabilitation period. During this time, his mother Rosie more or less demands that the Hitler Youth leader now demoted to office work find odd jobs for her son while she is out working.
Jojo is assigned menial tasks such as distributing propaganda posters. One day, on coming home, he hears a noise from the bedroom that belonged to his now-deceased older sister and goes to investigate. He discovers a hidden panel in the wall, where there is a small nook concealing a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa.
Jojo is terrified, and Elsa commands him not to tell his mother that he knows about her, threatening him with his own Hitler Youth dagger. Jojo retreats to his bedroom, to discuss with imaginary Hitler what to do about this existential threat.
Jojo, of course, believes completely in every anti-Semitic trope Nazi propaganda ever employed. And of course he would–it’s all he’s ever heard in his whole young life. However, since Elsa is older and stronger than he is, and since revealing that his mother is sheltering her would get her into trouble as well, Jojo is left with only one choice: to negotiate.
The result is a series of cautious interviews with Elsa, during which Jojo asks her various questions in an effort to learn the secrets of the people he so fears. Elsa at first is annoyed by his absurd, bigoted questions, and gives facetious answers, but slowly, the two form an almost sibling-like relationship.
Meanwhile, Jojo’s mother tries to manage things as best she can. In one touching scene, she and Jojo argue during dinner–she is gladdened by news of the Allies’ advance, Jojo is outraged at her disloyalty to the Reich. Jojo says he wishes his father were there, and, incensed, Rosie puts on his father’s Wehrmacht jacket, smears soot on her face like a beard, and gives a stern-but-loving impression of her husband.
This scene was fantastic. If you want a taste, you can see the beginning of it here. Prior to this, I’ve only seen Scarlett Johansson in action movies and one dreadful period drama. I was really impressed by her performance in this film, and this scene was the best example.
As the situation deteriorates further for Germany, things become more and more desperate. The film’s comedy mixes with horrific tragedy. The horrors of war, and of the Nazi government in particular, are not sugarcoated despite many of the film’s lighter elements. There is death and destruction and more than one heroic sacrifice. And at the end of the horror, Jojo and Elsa are faced with a very different world than either of them grew up in.
I’ve skipped over quite a lot in this review–there are some extremely interesting supporting characters in this film, such as the Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf and Jojo’s friend Yorki. Every performance in the film is terrific, but it would take quite a while to describe exactly why.
Normally, I would try to give them all their due, but this is another one of “those” reviews, where I need to go on at length and build up my case, so I’m not going to give you an analysis of every character on top of that. I’m sorry to do this to you twice in one week, but I just had to post this on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.
What’s up with that? (If you’re expecting me to answer this straightforwardly like a normal person; I’m very sorry. You must be new here.)
Let’s start with the most basic question: what kind of film is it? It’s usually listed as a comedy-drama. Sometimes words like “war” or “dark comedy” or “satire” get thrown in as well.
So what’s the comedy part? Well, as I said, imaginary Hitler does a lot of silly, goofy, slapstick stuff. Many of Jojo’s lines are humorous, in the way they depict a naive child trying to seem mature and wise despite having been brainwashed with propaganda all his life. And the supporting characters do some comical things–such as Captain Klenzendorf’s ludicrously flamboyant redesign of the German uniform.
What’s the drama part? Well… it’s World War II. People get killed. Including–I’ll try not to spoil too much–good people. People we like, who don’t deserve it. This ain’t Hogan’s Heroes–the stakes feel real.
This definitely qualifies it as “dark comedy,” in the sense that the humor revolves around very non-humorous subjects. And most dark comedies are also usually satires.
For example, take the 2017 film, The Death of Stalin. It’s a slapstick comedy about the political struggle in the Soviet Union during the power vacuum created by… well, you’re smart; you can probably work out what event they were dealing with.
The point of mixing grim subjects like state-sanctioned murder and blatant propaganda with vulgar comedy in Death of Stalin is to underscore how fundamentally absurd the Soviet government was. The situation was bleak, but also laughable in the sheer illogical madness the lunatics in charge had created in their relentless pursuit of power.
There is something similar going on at times in Jojo Rabbit–maybe most obviously in the scene where the gestapo raids Jojo’s house, in which, despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, there is a bit of comic business where everyone must greet everyone else with a “Heil Hitler!”
But there’s more to the story here. After all, slapstick satires of Nazi Germany and its leadership are not exactly ground-breaking. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictatoror The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (both released in 1940) covered that concept pretty well.
The key lies in the opening credits, when we see footage of cheering crowds saluting the real Adolf Hitler, set to a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This segues to a scene of young children frolicking at the Hitler Youth camp. It looks almost pleasant; kids having a good time at summer camp–except for the extremely unsettling presence of swastika banners and SS lightning bolts.
I remember seeing a documentary once about Hitler’s rise to power, and the way his speeches and events attracted throngs of cheering supporters. From what I gather, during his ascent he really did have an almost rock star-like following, complete with groupies.
Hitler-as-lovable-imaginary-pal/celebrity… young children playing amid symbols that every modern audience instantly associates with death camps and bodies piled in ditches… what on Earth is this film saying? If it’s out to satirize Nazism, why make it look so benign; like some sort of fan club?
One of the most interesting aspects of crowd psychology is the observation that people in large groups are not as smart as any one of them is individually. The old saying about groupthink “none of us is as stupid as all of us” summarizes it well. Large groups of people are roughly as intelligent as children–naive, easily-swayed, and in search of a leader (parent) to guide them.
Understanding group psychology is critical to understanding Nazism and the other authoritarian movements of the early 20th century. Once you realize that while 1930s Germany may have been composed of many brilliant individual scientists, doctors, artists, designers, soldiers, thinkers, tradespeople, businesspersons etc., their collective psychology was about as easy to manipulate as a ten-year-old boy’s: anyone who seemed confident and strong and promised them grand adventures of glorious conquest while wearing cool, scary-looking uniforms could get plenty of buy-in from the people.
Obviously, that didn’t work on everyone. But it worked on enough people. Tragically.
We all know, now, that the Nazi upper-echelon was composed of people who were evil psychopaths. Armed with this knowledge, it is unsurprising that the policies they implemented were evil and insane. The student of history looks back and wonders, “Why didn’t the German people see what was happening?”
The answer is that the evil psychopaths were handed the levers of power with the consent of enough of the people. This is not because all of these people were as evil or insane as the men they ushered into power, but because they, in the child-like state induced by mob psychology, were all too eager to be deceived by the implausible ethno-nationalist fairy-tale they had been told.
The German philosopher Oswald Spengler said of Hitler, “We need a real hero, not a heroic tenor,” implying that Hitler was merely play-acting at being the kind of leader the country truly needed. Despite this, Spengler voted for him anyway–because he too, despite being a man of learning, was susceptible to ethno-nationalist flights of fancy. So it goes.
Put in patriarchal terms, Hitler was playing at the role of father to a nation that collectively wanted just such a figure. Hitler tried to present himself as following in the tradition of beloved strong leaders from Germany’s past, like Otto von Bismarck and especially Frederick the Great. But he wasn’t. Both Frederick and Bismarck were pragmatic administrators, not single-minded zealots willing to destroy their own nation in a doomed bid for martial glory.
I dislike allegorical interpretations as a rule, but I think it’s reasonable to read Jojo and the imaginary Hitler he creates to stand in for his absent father as a representation of the German national psyche at the time–believing in comforting lies rather than admitting the awful truth, until the appalling costs become too great and too personal to ignore.
My interpretation of the film is that it’s a dramatization of how a collective mental disease progresses. But collective anything is difficult to portray, and so young Jojo is the substitute for “the people”–a malleable mind representing herd psychology.
I said before the film was polarizing, and so you may well ask, did I love it or hate it?
Well, I loved it. I thought it was one of the best World War II films I’ve seen, because it offers an insight into just how such a horrific event could have happened. Usually Nazis in film are portrayed as nothing more than cardboard villains, but in this film, the truly sinister thing about Nazism is made apparent: the awful seductiveness of it. How it could so easily become normalized, especially among young people who knew nothing else.
But if you were expecting a true satirical comedy, I can see you would be disappointed. Even offended, perhaps. Because the objective of the film isn’t to satirize Nazism. It’s more of an examination of how Nazism took root, which is a very dark and uncomfortable subject, and it’s frankly not very much fun to think about, so they sprinkled in some jokes. Otherwise it would just get too damn dispiriting.
And whatever else may be said about Jojo Rabbit, it isn’t dispiriting. It ends on a hopeful, if bittersweet, note. The fever has broken, the film implies, and the children have a chance to build a better future.