Don’t Read ‘Mein Kampf’ – Read Clive James

    “God does not rule the world outwardly by gravitation and chemical affinity, but inwardly in the heart of man: as in your soul, so will the destiny of the world in which you live and do.”  – Egon Friedell

If one ever attempts to read Hitler’s writings (and, for heaven’s sake, don’t – take my word for it), one is bound to be impressed by how boring he was.  There is an astounding amount of scholarship on the subjects of Hitler’s personality and thinking, an abundance which is puzzling when you consider that he left an entire book for us on the subject.  Crack open Mein Kampf and the need for all that scholarship becomes clear: the man was basically incoherent.

Which is maybe better for everyone – Hitler’s ideas were toxic and demented and the world would have been better off without them.  But we run a risk if we forget them: we need to be able to recognize them if we see them again.  And to do that, we need to understand them.

All this was brought to mind by something that Clive James wrote in his late-life masterwork, Cultural Amnesia:

“Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom German-speaking culture had gained lustre.  That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination.”

It is worth noting that, while this may in fact be what Hitler thought, he could never have expressed it so well.  And though it is impossible to read James and not be grateful for his lucidity of thought, it pains one to see Hitler’s thoughts expressed so well.  They do not deserve so graceful a presentation.

That quote is taken from James’ essay on Egon Friedell.  Friedell was a Jewish actor and writer living in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century.  James may indeed understand Hitler’s thinking; Friedell certainly did: during the Anschluss, as the S.S. came down his street to arrest him, he jumped out his window to his death, shouting as he did to the pedestrians below to warn them to safety.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia really is a wonderful book, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in twentieth century history, the arts, or the general emotional arc of humanity.


Saturn Devouring His Own Son

First came the chasm, according to Hesiod, and then Earth.  Earth “bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven”.  With Heaven, she had many offspring, who were the Titans, the youngest of whom was the “crooked-schemer Kronos [Saturn in the Roman tradition], most fearsome of children”.  Most fearsome, perhaps, but all the Titans were gnarly, and their own father loathed them from the beginning, so he locked them all away underground and refused to let them out into the light.

Earth fashioned a reaping hook of adamant, and approached her terrible children.

“Children of mine and of an evil father, I wonder whether you would like to do as I say?  We could get redress for your father’s cruelty.  After all, he began it by his ugly behavior.”

Only Kronos was willing, and he ambushed his father Heaven and castrated him.  Freed from their cave, the Titans had many children of their own.  Kronos lay with Rhea and fathered Hestia, Demeter, Hera, and Hades.

However, Earth and Heaven told Kronos that he was fated to be overthrown by one of his own children, so when each of them was born, he ate them.

This mythic episode inspired two disturbing paintings, one by Rubens, and one by Goya.


Rubens - Saturn Devouring His Own SonSaturn Devouring His Son (1636) – Peter Paul Rubens

Goya - Saturno Devorando a Su HijoSaturno devorando a su hijo (1819 – 1823) – Francisco Goya

Goya’s depiction, the more frightening, was painted between 1819 and 1823, as one his Black Paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his old age.  He never named the paintings, and in all likelihood he never meant them to be displayed.

Eventually, Rhea, overcome by grief for her lost children, tricked Kronos.  When she gave birth to Zeus, she wrapped a stone in cloth and gave that to Kronos, who swallowed it whole.  Rhea raised Zeus in secret until he was old enough to battle and defeat his father and free his siblings, who had been trapped, apparently also whole (despite the artistic imagination), in their father’s stomach.

Hesiod’s Theogony.

M. R. James and the Antiquarian’s Vagina

In 1904, Montague Rhodes James published his first book of ghost stories, ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’. Remembered best now for those and later stories, M. R. James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. He wrote, among other things, ‘The Apocalypse in Art’, which created a phylogeny of illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse, and he translated the New Testament Apocrypha. In 1905, James became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

For a man who spent his scholarly life looking backward, James wrote prescient horror stories. In ‘A School Story’, two men compare the ghost stories of their school days. Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

James is at his creepiest at times like this, when he leaves things unsaid. The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to the reader’s imagination is that readers bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter. Darryl Jones, who wrote the very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James’, spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones decides, “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’). It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’. Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”, or, as Jones himself puts it, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place. In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind” (what else could that be, really, but a vagina?). He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.”

“…’Abbot Thomas’”, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Is every cave, odoriferous or not, a nightmare vagina? James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”. He may even have been a homosexual; does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination a vagina? Is a dark, dank, smelly cave never just a cave?

Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James, with offending introduction by Darryl Jones.


    The other night, I watched a movie called ‘Hellbenders’.  Written and directed by J.T. Petty and starring Clancy Brown (who you may remember as the Kurgan from ‘Highlander’) and Clifton Collins Jr., ‘Hellbenders’ is the story of the Brooklyn chapter of the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, a group of men and women who live lives of sin and debauchery so that their souls are always damnation-ready.  They are called to exorcisms, and when they meet a particularly powerful demon, they tempt him to possess them and then kill themselves, thus dragging the demon back down to hell with them.

    They run into trouble when the Catholic Church tries to shut them down on the same week that Surtr is freed and sets the Apocalypse in motion.  Surtr is called an ‘old god’ in the movie, but nerds may recognize him as a Norse jotunn, a giant, who does, in fact, feature prominently in Ragnarok – apparently, he brings forth the flames that will devour the earth.

    The movie received poor reviews (only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example), but I kind of loved it.  It was farcical, obviously, and campy, but it was genuinely funny.  The Hellbound Saints are an unprepossessing yet dedicated lot.  They earnestly keep a ledger book of sins, consistently falling short in both severity and frequency of sin. They are schlubby in the extreme; their main sin seems to be drunkenness.  They are unlikely saviors, totally un-battle-ready, and I found them completely charming.

     More than that, I think it’s a great premise, and I’m a complete sucker for a great premise.  It reminded me of one of my favorite Borges stories, ‘Three Versions of Judas Iscariot’.  Borges is too astonishingly good and beautiful to summarize without extreme discomfort, but, with humility: in it, Borges tells briefly of a fictional scholar, Nils Runeberg, who comes to believe that Christ’s sacrifice was total, his abasement for the salvation of mankind complete:

    “God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions.  To limit his suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is to fall into contradiction…God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss…he chose an abject existence: He was Judas.”

    I’ve always thought that an incredibly interesting and sophisticated bit of thinking on Borges’ part, and I enjoyed the less-sophisticated, but still very enjoyable, mirror in ‘Hellbenders’.  It presents a, to me, compelling theological paradox: can you go to hell for sins which you have committed for holy reasons?  If you are doing an evil thing in an act of godly sacrifice, are you really committing evil?  Or is it the religious equivalent of a justifiable homicide?

‘Three Versions of Judas’ can be found in the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges.

Little Suck-a-Thumb

My attention was called the other day to ‘Der Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures’, a book of admonitory childrens’ poems written in German in 1844 by Heinrich Hoffmann.  Hoffmann was apparently a good-natured, liberal, and humane psychiatrist who write ‘Struwwelpeter’ to entertain a friend’s son.  As the subtitle suggests, these poems were considered merely amusing and not terrifying by the standards of the day.

Here is my favorite, ‘The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb’:

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!

The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

     The poem is accompanied by several illustrations.  Here is the climactic one:

Great Tall Tailor

I am particularly struck that the great tall tailor has lost his hat in his hurry to remove Conrad’s thumbs.

The translation and image here were taken from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Struwwelpeter.  If you enjoyed it, go and read about Augustus, who wouldn’t eat his soup and so died.