Friday, August 24, 2007

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Sydney Morning Herald, 25/08/2007)

Robert Service, Comrades: A World History of Communism
Macmillan; $80; 571pp
Nicolas Werth, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
Princeton University Press; 223pp

In his recent book, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens responds to the charge that he and his fellow critics of religion are inclined to overplay the crimes committed in the name of God and to underplay the crimes committed in the name of secular ideologies such as Nazism and communism. Needless to say, the case of communism presents the greater challenge here (Nazism, although not a Christian ideology, cannot be called a secular one). But Hitchens makes the excellent point that Stalin was able, and indeed set out, to exploit the massive reservoir of credulity created by centuries of czarist rule and sullen acquiescence to the Russian Orthodox Church. ‘Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.’ (Original emphasis.)

The British historian Robert Service, in Comrades: A World History of Communism, goes further. For Service, communism is a religion, an emancipatory ‘secular credo’ complete with millenarian overtones (apocalypse followed by paradise), an emphasis on scriptural exegesis (each communist party, Service writes, ‘was a synod of hair-splitting political discussion’) and a theory of historical inevitability that, from the outside, looks suspiciously like a doctrine of predestination. Marx and Engels, Service suggests, enthusiastically encouraged devotion, with the consequence that they were ‘treated as prophets whose every word had to be treasured’. They were ‘infallible progenitors of an omniscient world-view’ and ‘remained unconsciously influenced by religious ideas about the perfect future society and the salvation of humanity’.

To suggest that communism is religious in character is not a particularly original point, but it is a hugely important one, for it gives the lie to the view that communism, for all its attendant evils and failures, was essentially a rational experiment that the human race was bound to make – that it grew, that is to say, out of the Enlightenment, as opposed to fascism and Nazism, both of which were deeply irrational. Service suggests that irrationality was not just there in the DNA, but that it suffused the entire communist experiment. As ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ ceased to mean dictatorship by and came to mean dictatorship over, the ‘comrades’ fell back on the very things with which they claimed to be doing away: hierarchy; leader-worship; nationalism.

Readable without being particularly well written, Comrades suffers from its own ambition to tell the story of communism entire. No less than a third of the world’s (earth) surface was communised at some stage in the twentieth century and to move from the ziggurat of the Soviet terror-state to Cuba under Fidel Castro to the ‘alphabet soup’ of British communism is, for the reader, a vertiginous experience. Divided into chronological blocks, which are further divided into shortish chapters describing developments in particular countries, the book is very skilfully organised, but lacks that attention to local detail without which history ceases to live.

Moreover, it is the human stories that constitute the genuine challenge to the Marxist-Leninist view of history, predicated as that doctrine is on the notion that historical forces, and not individuals, determine events. One death, said Stalin, is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a mere statistic – a callous but nonetheless keen observation. With communism, we need to get up close and personal. The devil really is in the detail.

Nicolas Werth’s Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag brings us nearer the scene of the crime. Werth is a leading French historian and major contributor to The Black Book of Communism (a truly stakhanovite effort of scholarship). Here, he focuses on one grisly episode in the spring of 1933, when 6000 people were dumped on an island in the midst of the River Ob in Siberia. Starving and freezing, the abandoned group (‘socially harmful elements’ – so-called – from the display-case cities of Moscow and Leningrad), quickly descended into savagery and, in some cases, cannibalism.

This is an utterly harrowing account of the ‘bloody implementation of a utopia’ and an exemplary analysis of the Soviet state, with its labyrinthine regulations, its ‘number culture’ and ‘pseudocategorisations’ – all of this underpinned, of course, by the most spectacular cruelty. The official reports of the ‘semicadavers’ held in the transit camp at Tomsk are some of the saddest things you’ll read – prose poems of almost unbearable misery. Witness Evguenia Markovkina, 18,

deported from Tuapse with her sister, 17, and her two brothers, 13 and 5, because her father, who died in 1931, had been a shady operator in the past. The five-year-old died en route. Since no one was authorised to leave the convoy, the boy’s body was thrown out the window.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hammy House of Horror (The Weekend Australian, 04/08/2007)

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver (eds)
The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction
MUP; $34.95; 273pp

Prepare yourself for some really bad weather.

It was a wild, dark night, but as I have always been in the habit of burning a lamp all night my room is of course lighted, although dimly … (Mary Fortune, ‘Mystery and Murder’)

The wind rose, pressing upon the window panes, rolling into the room from the fire-place that glimmered like a faint, tall, white, threatening figure in the middle of the opposite wall … (Francis Adams, ‘The Hut by the Tanks’)

The wind had risen with the moon, and the night foreboded tempest. The rushing of the swollen stream mingled with the lashing of the rain, as it beat faster and faster upon the panes … (Marcus Clarke, ‘The Mystery of Major Molineux’)

Thus the ‘pathetic fallacy’ – the use of the elements to establish mood – is pressed into service again and again in The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction. Nothing wrong with that, except (and despite the gloomy cover of this book, which depicts a lightning-blasted tree set against a stormy sky), Australia is a fairly sunny place. Hence the question begged by this anthology. Can we talk of ‘Australian Gothic’? Was the gothic ‘Australianised’ in the way that it was clearly Americanised by such great writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce?

The editors’ answer is that it certainly was, but such evidence as they’ve marshalled is of uneven value. Given that the British settlement of Australia started at a time when the gothic genre was just beginning to hit its straps (Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764), it comes as no surprise to find that the earliest stories in this anthology are steeped in Old-World atmospherics (it helps that they tend to be set in Tasmania). The curlicued, mid-Victorian mandarin is the perfect accompaniment to the well-worn plots, especially in the mouths of doctors and policemen – those men of the Verifiable Fact, the scoffing representatives of capital-R Reason:

That any man in these days of enlightenment, and possessed of his full allowance of brains, should insist upon the existence of a ghost … was a matter beyond my comprehension, and as I turned into Mr Longmore’s stately bed after that gentleman had taken up his quarters on a couch in the dressing-room, I am afraid I allowed myself to consider for a moment how long in all probability it was likely to be before this far-seeing merchant should become the inmate of some asylum … (Mary Fortune, ‘Mystery and Murder’)

The stories with a more Australian flavour are, on the whole, a lot less enjoyable. Dangerous though the outback is (and notwithstanding Joan Lindsay’s novel of disappearing schoolgirls, Picnic at Hanging Rock), it just doesn’t strike me as all that creepy. Rosa Campbell Praed’s ‘The Bunyip’ (1891) and Henry Lawson’s ‘The Bush Undertaker’ (1892) are perhaps the most successful stories, the latter being especially evocative of the way that a life of dust and sun and loneliness can unseat the reason. But neither story is particularly chilling, nor, it has to be said, that gothic, gothic implying a combination of horror and Romanticism.

Towards the end of the anthology, the editors are looking hopelessly stretched. William Hay’s ‘An Australian Rip Van Winkle’ (1921) is so badly written it’s almost unreadable, while Katharine Susannah Prichard’s ‘The Curse’ (1932), a sort of imagistic prose poem, is really just a curiosity, and a rather pretentious one at that. ‘AZURE, magenta, tetratheca, mauve and turquoise: the hut, a wrecked ship in halcyon seas.’

Another editorial blemish is the prevalence of spelling mistakes. One of the most egregious of these comes at a moment of great suspense, in Marcus Clarke’s ‘The Mystery of Major Molineux’ (for my money, the finest thing in the book). The eponymous mystery is that Major Molineux is demonically possessed, though only on Thursdays. It is as the clock is striking midnight that Dr Fayre hears a noise:

At that moment I heard a stealthy football in the passage.

Now that really would be an Aussie touch. But no, it is only the butler, Bagally (he of the scowl and the stealthy footfall), carrying a tray of meat upstairs in order that he might placate his master, suddenly gripped as he is by his demon. Needless to say, it’s a wild, dark night and the wind is pressing upon the panes.