Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Millions of Americans must be deeply disturbed by recent events in Charlottesville, though we doubtless grieve in different ways. I am discovering a kind of “elder grief”. Among the more or less contemporary novels that made a big impression on me when I was young was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. It was published in 1948, and I must have read it in the early Fifties, at a time of considerable civil rights “turmoil” in Arkansas. The novel is about many things, but principally the situation of disintegrating black communities in South Africa on the eve of the imposition of the formal apartheid system. There was a lot in it I didn’t get, starting with the (for me) exotic and unpronounceable African place and personal names. But there was a lot I did get, beginning with an unvarnished but not unsympathetic depiction of the historical burden of racial fear.
What sticks with me still is the book’s title. The aging process is complicated, and full of mellow surprises; but it makes vivid the apprehension of mortality that for most of one’s life is a mere abstract inevitability. One hopes to cast off the mortal coil with one’s affairs in reasonable order. And one’s affairs extend far beyond a few legal documents. They begin with one’s beloved family, but extend certainly to one’s beloved country, and well beyond that. How can one fail to see that our beloved country is in a bad way, is spiritually ill? You might say I’m burdened with gerontic fright. In a plangent, lyrical passage from which he took his title Paton wrote: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear”.
There is a temptation to exaggerate, of course. There is some comfort to be had, I suppose, in the realization that the country has at times been sicker, as for example in 1858, say, yet still pulled through. John Brown, at the foot of the scaffold in 1859, spoke not of sickness but of guilt—that is, of moral rather than physical pathology. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” It does seem very sad that even a century and a half after a cataclysmic civil war remarkable for its human hecatombs and prodigious material destruction we are still mired in its detritus and haunted by its ghosts. But a sticky, gooey adhesiveness is far too often a characteristic of history. Our great imaginative writers have often understood this more clearly than our political leaders. “The past is never dead” wrote Faulkner; “it’s not even past.”
One of the more famous remarks of Karl Marx is this: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” The idea of “changing the world” seems on the one hand grandiose and preposterous and on the other noble and necessary. What I most admire in the several generations of students I have had the good fortune to encounter is the large incidence of a vivid, optimistic idealism that I believe must necessarily leave the world a better place than they found it. On the other hand in surveying the huge social changes that have come across America in the comparatively brief span between the birth of my grandparents and the majority of my eldest grandchild I find that most of it is to be explained in terms of large and impersonal forces like “technology” and “demography” rather than in those of identifiable, benign human volition.
I want to resist the more reckless analogies, of which there are plenty going around, involving Nazi Germany; but it does seem possible that we shall see more unpleasant vignettes reminiscent of pre-Nazi Germany. In Charlottesville a “disturbed youth”—of whom we seem to have a nearly endless supply in this country—murdered a woman he cannot have known and probably could not have seen even as he was murdering her with a speeding automobile. Political fanaticism so pure as to justify murder is a frightening thing indeed. And there is no great distance between justifying murder and demanding it. Some years ago I wrote a book about four important anti-Communist writers of the Forties and Fifties. The whole project was an accident. It started with my stumbling upon a forgotten bestseller—Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, 1940—a book that had a significant influence on popular American views of Soviet Communism. It purports to be the autobiography of a German Communist agitator and secret agent active in the northern seaports from Danzig to Antwerp in the Twenties and Thirties. The book is in fact an historical novel; but some of its most vivid parts are undoubtedly direct reflections of the author’s experience. Prominent among these are the accounts of Hamburg street brawls between demonstrating and counter-demonstrating Communists and Nazis—two groups whose ostensibly bitter ideological opposition masked for too many their deadly affinities of political fanaticism. These bloody battles took place in many German cities, often with appalling carnage. Though as we know the Brown Shirts eventually emerged as the undisputed masters of barbarism, things were for a time touch-and-go, and the honors for the atrocities were pretty evenly divided. Valtin reports that Heinz Neumann, a leading Communist propagandist, gave the following pep talk to his marchers: “I want to see bodies!” That’s not a very appealing political vision. Our situation in America is I hope and believe very different. Political violence is still a shocking aberration condemned by all sensible people rather than an accepted cultural norm to be adjudicated according to some ideological balance sheet. (“Trump Again Says Two Sides at Fault in Rally Violence” is this morning’s blaring headline.) But I still fear we may not have not seen the last body in the streets. Cry, the beloved country, indeed.