Damiba’s Ousting

On one level, the ousting of Paul-Henri Damiba just eight months after he led the ousting of President Roch-Marc Christian Kaboré on 31 January of this year, is a simple story. Damiba staked his legitimacy on ending Burkina Faso’s Jihadist tragedy. At the beginning of April, he announced there would be a stocktaking of his ‘reconquest mission’ in five months’ time, billed as an ‘appointment with the nation’. The underlying pledge was that by that point, Burkina would be liberated from ‘the forces of evil’ – the Islamic-State and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jihadists plaguing the so-called ‘three-border area’ of the Sahel (the other countries concerned are Mali and Niger). But when the appointment finally came in early September, it took the form of an uninspiring, somewhat deflated speech, parts of which now sound prophetic. Our ‘grave problem’, Damiba explained, was the result of multiple failures, ‘first of all from us, defence and security forces in charge of defending our territory and protecting our populations. Internal divisions have weakened us.’ His account of the progress achieved so far was essentially that this was only the beginning of the beginning – not even, à la Churchill, ‘the end of the beginning’.

The studied humility was sensible: 24 hours after Damiba’s address to the nation, Jihadists remotely detonated a bomb on the road to Djibo, the largest town in the country’s northern Sahel Region and a symbol of the Burkinabe state’s resistance against the forces of evil. It became a symbol of Damiba’s failure. The bomb destroyed a heavily guarded convoy bringing food and other supplies to the besieged town, killing 35 and wounding 37, all civilians. Dijbo was once the largest cattle market in the three-border area, with traders travelling from as far as Senegal to attend its weekly fairs. It is also the birthplace of Burkina’s first Jihadist armed group, Ansarul Islam, now merged into the Al-Qaeda franchise Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). In recent years, JNIM has occupied all the rural districts around Djibo and established a sadistic version of Sharia that sent many fleeing to the town, now the last state sanctuary in what has become Al-Qaeda country. Djibo thus became a refuge of over 200,000 people – nearly four times its official population – living under a JNIM blockade that has stoked the joint scourges of famine and hyperinflation.

The coup against Damiba was set in motion in Gaskindé, a small town just south of Djibo, where another supply convoy fell to a Jihadist attack on 26 September. This time, at least 11 soldiers were killed along with dozens of civilians, while the convoy trucks were capsized and burned. Details suggested that the sloppy military strategy associated with Kaboré’s tenure remained unreformed, and anger among the troops reached the same perilous levels as before the January coup. Two days after the attack, Damiba flew to Djibo and told the soldiers stationed there that he ‘felt for them’. But to no avail. One widely-circulated WhatsApp message I received in the days before the coup correctly read the temperature: ‘Be careful with your comings and goings, it would seem things aren’t smelling right with the troops, possible temper [grogne] with uncertain outcomes. Letting you know just in case. You never know. Thanks.’

The troops at Djibo did not believe that Damiba ‘felt for them.’ When he spoke of ‘internal divisions’ in his stocktaking speech, he may have been thinking of the effective military caste system found in many armies in the region. This is the division between ‘special forces’, trained to protect the powers that be, and the common soldier. The two other coup-makers in the region, Assimi Goïta of Mali and Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea – who came to power in May and October 2021 respectively – were both commanders of their countries’ special forces, and Damiba was a member of Burkina’s, the Forces Spéciales, established by Kaboré in June 2021. These élite corps enjoy superior treatment and status. In mid-September, Burkina’s regular troops heard that Damibo was granting the special forces a bonus – each was allegedly promised six million francs (about 9,000 USD) and a villa – in spite of the fact they were not fighting on the frontline.

A further aggravating factor was that most officers of the special forces – including Damiba – were once members of the infamous Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP in the French acronym), former despot Blaise Compaoré’s own special forces. Compaoré, the man who toppled charismatic revolutionary Thomas Sankara in 1987, was chased out of the country by insurrectionists in October 2014. The RSP survived his fall and predictably staged a coup to restore him a year later. The attempt, labelled ‘the stupidest coup in history’, failed after a week and the RSP was disbanded. It became clear to the public that Damiba was still an RSP man to the core when he tried to engineer the return of the exiled Compaoré to the political stage in July, under the pretence of ‘national reconciliation’, just four months after a court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for ordering Sankara’s murder. Compaoré flew to Ouagadougou and stayed a few days in a state villa, arousing such anger that air traffic controllers at the capital’s airport reportedly considered preventing his plane from departing so that he could be arrested.

Damiba’s actions rekindled the major conflict in Burkinabe politics, between revolution and rectification. The latter is the name that Compoaré gave to his policy agenda some years after he took power in 1987, and is viewed by partisans of the revolution as irredeemably reactionary. Damiba appeared as a rectification man in a country where the more acceptable attitude among opinion leaders is revolution. The name he gave to his governing outfit, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, soon became suspicious; ‘what exactly did he wish to restore?’ ‘Restoration’, according to a democracy activist I interviewed in August in Ouagadougou, ‘sounds like the opposite of revolution’. (Shades of Charles II and Louis XVIII, the latter better known in Burkina). Damiba meant to ‘restore’ the integrity of the national territory, but it was a poor choice of words, especially since he also refused to use the rousing Sankarist call, ‘the fatherland or death, we will vanquish!’, replacing it with a watered-down ‘for the fatherland, we will vanquish’, which imprudently reminded people of the real thing.

In January, the Burkinabe broadly approved of Damiba’s coup – some of them boisterously, others cautiously – because they were tired of Kaboré’s incompetence in the fight against Jihadists who had embraced mass murder as a war tactic. This meant that Damiba could stay in power only if he succeeded where Kaboré had failed. But since he had so clearly failed by the deadline he set, and there was no democratic means to remove him, a coup was preordained. In May, facing off with protesters at Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, he told them, ‘If you are so strong, then make your own coup d’état and rule the country as you see fit.’ Speaking to angry but unarmed civilians, the jibe sounded like easy derision, but others were listening.

Those others, the military rank-and-file, were already feeling betrayed – but apparently they did not want to act violently at first. In late September, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the new coup leader, was sent by the disgruntled soldiers to meet and talk with Damiba. He spent a week in Ouagadougou, but his requests for an audience were ignored. Frustration played a visceral role in the coup, which at first sight looks like the revenge of the lower-caste on the battlefield against the upper-caste who are not. Even members of the auxiliary civilian-staffed force VDP (French acronym for Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland) took part. But there may be more to it than this. In the initial phase of the coup, Traoré, faced with the resistance of Damiba – who controlled much of the capital and the security services in it – went on national television and announced that his adversary had found refuge at the French military base of Kamboinsin, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. ‘He could plan a counter-offensive’, he warned, against ‘our firm commitment to reach out to other partners willing to help us in our fight against terrorism’ – in this context, an ostensible allusion to Russia.

This was an intervention in a debate of sorts (I say ‘of sorts’ because only one side is actually heard) on the ‘diversification of partners’, a euphemistic phrase for ditching the French and finding another patron, preferably Russia. But it was also a ploy: Traoré knew that, although Damiba was not actually in Kamboinsin, this rumour would detonate a public-opinion bomb given Burkina’s rampant Francophobia, and thereby force the incumbent to negotiate. It was a risky move – the French Institute and the French embassy, both located in the city centre, were attacked by angry mobs and had to be defended by the coup-makers. But it worked. Damiba negotiated his resignation, while Traoré insisted that France had not interfered, explaining that his phrase ‘other partners’ did not necessarily mean Russia (the US was thrown in). His first interview was given to Radio France Internationale – an outlet reviled by the militant Francophobes of Ouagadougou – not to Sputnik or Russia Today, whose audience in the Francophone world is highest in Burkina.

At the time of writing, many issues remain unresolved. The coup aims to be a form of rectification, to use a word perhaps unpalatable in Ouagadougou. Damiba had deviated from his mandate, and now the army intends to return to it. ‘We must do in three months what needed to be done in twelve months,’ Captain Traoré asserted, a statement that indicated the continuity of objective, only now with significantly less time to fulfil it. But it is not yet clear who would lead this process. Traoré, a thirty-something low-ranking officer who claims to be uninterested in power, may not be the most suitable candidate. But who might be? Abdoulaye Diallo, a political activist keen on revolutionary figures – he is working on a documentary about the life of Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings – told me in August that only a Promethean figure of the calibre of Sankara could pull Burkina out of its quagmire, not uncharismatic soldiers like Damiba (or Traoré?). This is a bit like hoping for a Shakespeare or two in every generation. But one may wonder how such an intensely national and ideological leader as Sankara would have fared in a regional conflict and in the current geopolitical fog of war.

Damiba made the point that he was trying everything: the stick and the carrot. He beefed up military control of the territory (maillage territorial) as well as engaging in talks with the Jihadists. What he did not do was to increase support from foreign powers or regional cooperation, in particular with Niger and Mali, two measures without which it is impossible for Burkina – and indeed Niger and Mali – to win the war. Damiba preferred French help, which was provided only in emergencies on the ground and without fanfare, for fear of antagonizing the more active sections of public opinion. But Niger, France’s ally in the region, and Mali, which is in the Russian camp, are opposites. Damiba sent feelers to Bamako and visited Niamey, in an awkward dance that did not get him very far. A new leader, whoever he is, must have the skills for carrying on with Damiba’s stick-and-carrot approach, navigating the treacherous shoals of Burkina’s volatile public opinion – where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the now in-the-open master of the Wagner mercenary enterprise, has started his manipulations – and working with neighbouring states. A tall order, but an imperative.    

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.


Pride and Fall

‘Number one: stay close to the Americans’, said Boris Johnson in his last Commons address as prime minister, echoing Churchill’s verdict on the wreckage of UK statecraft in the Suez Crisis. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute thought Johnson’s advice to his successor superfluous, given the strength of the Atlanticist consensus at Westminster. The Washington Examiner, on the other hand, detected a dig at leadership contender Rishi Sunak for being ‘soft’ on China.

Stay close to the Americans: but at the same time, know your place. ‘Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America’, reads a Financial Times headline after the market turmoil prompted by Kwasi Kwarteng’s unofficial budget last Friday. ‘Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation’, argues FT associate editor Janan Ganesh, who goes on to point out the positional differences: sterling isn’t a major reserve currency anymore; UK producers don’t have simple access to a continental market since Brexit; gilts aren’t Treasuries. In these circumstances, Kwarteng’s back-of-an-envelope, rolling programme of debt-financed tax cuts – ‘Reaganism without the dollar’, Ganesh calls it – presumes too much.

The week’s events bring to mind the historian Correlli Barnett’s trenchant commentaries on British decline and lingering great-power reflexes. Tory Britain in the 1950s was an American satellite ‘posturing as an equal’, he argued in The Verdict of Peace (2001). It was a characteristically sharp turn of phrase from Barnett, who died recently at the age of 95. Few public intellectuals in Britain have questioned national shibboleths so trenchantly and doggedly as he did, from a conservative perspective, over a long career of book-publishing and commentary. His obituary in the Guardian described him as controversial – nothing worse than that – while The Times was puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on the Establishment, since ‘it was not as if life had dealt him a poor hand.’

He was born near Croydon, on the south-eastern approach to London, in 1927. His father, who worked for an American bank, named him after the Baroque composer. Croydon was an early Luftwaffe target in 1940 on account of its aerodrome and Barnett recalled as a schoolboy listening to the drone of enemy bombers, the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, ‘the whistle and crash of nearby bombs that rocked the house’. He took a second in modern history at Oxford, his special subject the theory of war. National Service was spent with the Intelligence Corps in British-mandate Palestine as it conducted sweeps for underground Zionist paramilitaries. There he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem (‘the corpses lying on slabs in the morgue, spittle still bubbling out of their mouths’) by the Irgun group of future Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Civilian life in the fifties proved anti-climactic: a graduate traineeship at the North Thames Gas Board, then a job in public relations. He recalled ‘stretching a little effort over a long day’, pouring his energies into a novel instead, The Hump Organisation (1957), which charted the progress of an Oxford graduate at a sleepy industrial conglomerate in the Cheshire countryside, in the manner of a Boulting brothers farce. But his true métier became apparent with The Desert Generals (1960), a history of the North African theatre in the Second World War – ‘war in its purest form’, across the arid plains. Barnett took aim at outsize British veneration of Montgomery, hero of Alamein. Strong sales enabled him to quit his desk job for freelance writing, topped up with consultancy work for the BBC.

A second war book, The Swordbearers (1963), sympathetically narrated the experience of four First World War commanders-in-chief – von Moltke, Jellicoe, Pétain and Ludendorff – as they grappled with high command in an era of mass mobilisation. ‘War is the great auditor of institutions’, Barnett observed, a theme to which he would return. In Britain and Her Army (1970) meanwhile, he mounted a ‘hazardously long march’ from Tudor abolition of private armies of retainers to the Wilson government’s 1967 white paper liquidating British deployments east of Suez. ‘A history of the institution that the British have always been reluctant to accept that they needed’, Britain and Her Army regarded colonial retrenchment as imperative but complained that Whitehall appeared to regard troops stationed in western Europe as just ‘a plate-glass window’ to trigger the nuclear alarm, should the Russians attempt to break in. Greater strategic flexibility was called for.

Then came The Collapse of British Power (1972), the opening instalment of his Pride and Fall quartet, a sweeping historical polemic of twentieth-century British decline. Barnett reached back to the post-Napoleonic era to trace Britain’s long descent into a ‘bankrupt American pensioner’ under Lend-Lease in 1941–42. Imperial overstretch and a liberal national culture had blocked the concerted programme of industrial renewal needed to counter Germany’s rise after 1871. Conventional balance-of-power considerations reasserted themselves in 1914 but a laissez-faire governing elite afterwards allowed economic modernisation to lapse, as moralising internationalism reached new heights in the ‘pseudo-religion’ of the League of Nations. England at last recovered the flinty resolve of its best mercantilist days when the Second World War was upon it, but Churchill failed to plan beyond victory, mortgaging the future to a rising American superpower that didn’t reciprocate his misty-eyed infatuation. US loans papered over the dilapidated state of the country’s heavy-industrial base, flattering to deceive about its wartime record, argued volume two, The Audit of War (1986). The UK was ‘not so much a victor in her own right’ in 1945 ‘as simply on the winning side’.

The Lost Victory (1995) homed in on the record of the post-war Attlee government, by and large classical-liberal in outlook, which failed to retool the economy before European and Japanese competitors recovered from wartime devastation. Britain’s large helping of Marshall Aid instead leaked overseas into the Sterling Area and troop deployments as far afield as Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, while ‘New Jerusalem’ liberals like Beveridge prioritised welfare and housing over the productive economy (a policy of ‘parlours before plant’). The Verdict of Peace (2001), the concluding volume, surveyed the years of resumed Conservative rule between the Korean War and Suez Crisis which cemented a ‘fateful pattern of national overambition coupled with industrial underperformance’. In only four decades since the First World War, the country had blown its position as the most powerful industrial machine in Europe through the hangover of Victorian liberalism, a failure to implement technical educational training, and the pretensions of a world role.

In each volume, the damning judgements flow uninterruptedly for a hundred pages or more without so much as a section break. They rest on realist assumptions about an anarchic state system: ‘small “l” liberalism might be desirable in friend but serves ill as a guide to a nation’s total strategy in a ruthless world of struggle.’ Paul Addison described Barnett in the LRB as ‘probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism’. Barnett certainly benchmarked British inertia against Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrialisation, and his anti-liberalism and emphasis on total strategy may have had a Prussian air. All the same, the epithet doesn’t capture the oppositional quality of Barnett’s elite-patriotic politics, for which Gaullist might be a closer fit. He envied France its home-made nuclear deterrent and the greater freedom-of-action this afforded, arguing in The Times in March 1982 against the Thatcher government’s purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the Pentagon.

The eighties were Barnett’s years of highest public prominence. Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, secretaries of state under Thatcher, both cited his various diatribes against welfarism, industrial mismanagement and liberal-arts bias in the state-education system. But the author retained his dissenting cast of mind, deflating Falklands triumphalism with a call to drastically curtail the Royal Navy’s high-seas role and to ‘shed such unprofitable bits of [imperial] pink in good time’. Within the academy, David Edgerton opposed Barnett’s account of industrial archaism within the state-military complex and Jose Harris deflated his claims about the novelty and profligacy of the Beveridge-Attlee welfare state, while the economist-mandarin Sir Alec Cairncross shrugged that bolder government action was unlikely to arrest the spiral of relative economic decline.

A critic of nineties ‘humanitarian interventionism’, Barnett likened Blair to a Victorian proconsul and contrasted his unctuous liberal rhetoric to the worldly self-interest of prime ministers past: Walpole’s policy of non-engagement in the War of the Polish Succession (‘50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman’) and Castlereagh’s scepticism about Holy Alliance plans for carte-blanche counter-revolutionary action. NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia and semi-permanent occupation of Kosovo was ‘money better spent on our own health service, education and training, and sink housing estates’. The War on Terror which followed exaggerated the threat from ‘a scattering of bedsit plotters with homemade bombs’. Bush and Blair’s grounds for attacking Iraq were obviously spurious and illegal, and their invasion spread death and mutilation far beyond Baathist prisons and execution sites. The US assaults on Fallujah (‘mini-Stalingrads’) were more destructive than Saddam’s 1988 gas attack on Halabja. Like the Afghan occupation, the Iraqi campaign had merely opened up a long Western flank to guerrilla attack. The only thing to be done was withdraw, and avoid further such entanglements with US foreign policy.

Irate at Cameron’s support for Blair’s wars, Barnett demanded in the Tory Spectator magazine in 2006: ‘The Conservatives believe in personal independence, why not national independence in foreign policy?’ The American link had lost its strategic value with the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued, and become ‘potentially dangerous to British interests so long as American policy is run by narrow technocrats with juvenile political understanding like Rumsfeld, and religious zealots like Cheney and Bush who see world affairs as a Manichean conflict between good and evil’. Barnett regarded Russia’s 2008 rout of the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia as a reversion to nineteenth-century Realpolitik rather than a new Cold War, and considered Bush a greater threat to world peace than Putin. What might have been his take on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine – European, but outside NATO? Johnson rushed headlong to sanction Europe’s largest gas exporter without first reopening the UK’s only gas-storage facility, closed in 2017 in blithe assurance of a ready supply on the open market: a penny for your thoughts on that piece of statecraft, Correlli.

British pomp and British realities: the Johnson government announced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on American lines in the 2021 integrated defence review and despatched the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, causing consternation in some quarters of Washington. Its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is struggling with technical problems at the moment and can’t travel further from port than the Isle of Wight. At what point, asked Barnett apropos the 1953 coronation, is the line crossed from moral reassurance to flattery of prideful illusions?

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘The Family Firm’, NLR 75.


Concerning Godard

After decades in which inscrutable titles signed Godard popped up as regularly as clockwork in the film festivals, while the image of their maker deteriorated from rebel into dirty old man, if not technologically obsessed sage, it is stunning, leafing through the filmographies, to remember how much these films counted as events for us as we waited for each new and unexpected one in the 1960s, how intensely we scrutinized the political engagements of the Dziga Vertov group, with what genuinely engaged curiosity we asked ourselves what the end of the political period would bring, and later on what we were to do with the final works of the ‘humanist’ period, where they came from, and whether they meant a falling off or a genuine renewal.

Throughout all this we were entertained or provoked by the increasingly ignoble ‘thoughts’ or paradoxes which either demanded meditation or inspired a mild contempt, tempered by the constant reminder that visuality, if it thinks, does so in a way not necessarily accessible to the rest of us; while his films went on ‘thinking’ in chiasmatic images: Belmondo imitating Bogart, Piccoli inviting Bardot to use his bathwater (‘I’m not dirty’), the world conquerors exhibiting their picture postcards, Mao’s Cultural Revolution taking the form of the most infectious music, the world ending in a traffic jam, a character scarfing up yoghurt with a finger in the bathroom, two African garbage collectors reciting Lenin, our favourite film stars baffled by their new roles, an interpolated series of interview-interrogations in which ten-year-olds are asked about class struggle, and fun-loving models, about the latest decisions of the CGT, ‘la musique, c’est mon Antigone!’ – narrative deteriorating steadily all the while only to end up in 3-D or in images as thick as butterflies in front of the face.

All this then building inexorably towards the final impertinence, in an unmistakable voice now indissociable from his idea of pedagogy: namely, that History is (nothing more than, nothing less than) the history of cinema. Well, why not? If everything is narrative, always mediated by this or that picture on the poster, as in the battle cuttings of the hell sequence of Notre Musique (2004), the images themselves have to fight it out, like people chasing each other, shouting and jumping into cars – along with their distinctive historical styles – silent or sound, black and white or technicolour; maybe this is all he knows of History anyway, what he calls cinema.

And alongside the history of cinema, there is the history of a film, where does it come? From the images themselves, as he extracts them from the most sublime of his later films, Passion (1982), unfolding itself into the even more sublime lineage of Scenario du film “Passion” (1982), which, out of the Mallarmean blank page (or plage, or grève) a young woman appears who tries to start a strike (grève). In that case, there must follow the factory she strikes against, along with its owner, and then his wife, and then the hotel she runs. And finally a mystery guest from some place beyond the film, himself trying to make a film with a narrative, himself plagued by images, the world’s great paintings, tableaux vivants of the world’s great paintings, reconstructions in miniature of their architecture – Jerusalem through which the crusaders ride, driven forward by Dvorak’s inexorable piano concerto, just as the potential film’s producer is harassed by unwilling bankers and money-lenders. The would-be foreign director is as disabled as the other characters (stutter, cough), he cannot return the love of any of the women, he cannot turn these images into narrative scenarios, he finally gives up and goes home to History itself (Poland and Solidarność). So now the film becomes an allegory of the new Europe and its ‘peu de realité’: great actors stand for France, Germany, Hungary, Poland (the great traditions) with a presumably Swiss director; fundamental themes like love and labour can never be represented; great paintings are as mute as The Voices of Silence Belmondo reads in the bathtub; but Godard has his scenario, he can now begin to film his fiction film.

Scenario now rewinds the tape, runs the whole thing backwards, breaking the fiction back up into its component parts, lingering over the images, superimposing them, returning to origins, identifying the origins of itself. So now: two films about the same thing, two films sharing the same body = Cinema. Cinema, film’s mirror stage.

Cinema equals visuality, sounds, words (with glimpses of money), it is life itself or living as such, everything is cinema. Maybe the late films try to climb back down the other side, begin with the narrative, the scenario, and then tear it apart, with raucous glee give us the pieces in joyous collision, punctuated by raw gunshots, silent films with sound, history going backwards.

He lived, ate, breathed, slept movies. Was he the greatest movie-maker of all time? A party game question. What he was, if anything, was Cinema itself, cinema rediscovered at its moment of disappearing. If cinema really is dying, then he died with it; or better still, it died with him.

Read on: Michael Witt, ‘Shapeshifter’, NLR 29.


The Pundit

Fame has been kind to Ian McEwan, but not to his writing. Few under the age of fifty remember him as the author of the short story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975), the novella The Cement Garden (1978), or the Cold War spy thriller The Innocent (1990) whose taut, gothic explorations of sexual taboo and violence earned him a reputation as a provocateur and the moniker ‘Ian Macabre’. Starting with the critical success of his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998) and the commercial success of Atonement (2001), which was adapted into an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning film starring James MacAvoy and Kiera Knightley, McEwan’s plots have slackened into melodrama, and, starting with Saturday (2005), the cool reserve of his narration has succumbed to the temptations of intrusive and unenlightening commentary. With the exception of On Chesil Beach (2007) and Sweet Tooth (2012) – set in the early 60s and the mid-70s respectively – McEwan’s post-Atonement subject matter has been ripped from the headlines. As befits a regular of the international festival circuit with the occasional byline in the Guardian opinion page, his treatment of issues such as the Iraq War, climate change, euthanasia, artificial intelligence and Brexit could be described as narrativized punditry. For this, McEwan has been rewarded with increasing extra-literary prominence. In 2000, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the late Elizabeth Windsor; in 2016, the Daily Telegraph named him ‘the 19th most powerful person in British culture’, an honour at once dubiously conferred and comically specific.

His latest novel, Lessons, finds the author, now an autumnal 74, in the mood to encapsulate his life and career. McEwan lends a number of biographical details to his protagonist, the ‘less-than-brilliant’ cad and dilettante Roland Baines. Among them: the 1948 birth in Aldershot, the working-class Scottish father who works his way up the ranks of British army and class system, the childhood in Tripoli and Singapore, the boarding school education at Woolverstone Hall School (which appears in the novel as Berners Hall, ‘the poor man’s Eton’), the late-in-life reunion with an older brother given up for adoption, the hobbyist passion for scientific inquiry and the news cycle, as well as several of his own published opinions. Everything, it might seem, except literary fame, which McEwan gives instead to Alissa Eberhardt, Roland’s first wife and the mother of his son, Lawrence. Regular readers of McEwan will also find incidents and thematic preoccupations from his earlier novels alluded to or repurposed in omnibus-fashion for this one.

At 481 pages, Lessons is the largest canvas McEwan has worked on; its jacket copy calls it an ‘epic’. Like many contemporary novels so hailed, it is far too short. From its first mentioned incident – which takes place in 1940 – to its last – which takes place in 2021 – McEwan dispatches twice as many years as In Search of Lost Time in a little over one-tenth of the page count. The ‘lost decade’ following Roland’s comprehensive failure at his O-Levels in 1964, during which he pursues odd jobs, tours with a country rock outfit called the Peter Mount Posse, travels as far as Big Sur and the Khyber Pass, and satisfies what he sometimes calls his ‘pathological’ sex addiction, is lost not only to Roland, but to the reader as well. Because the third person narrator does not stray from Roland’s point of view, the lives and motives of the book’s vastly-more intriguing villains – Peter, Alissa, and his Berners Hall piano teacher Miriam Cornell – are left in various stages of underdevelopment.

Everything in Lessons, whose story concludes within a year and a half of its publication date, gives the impression of having been written in extreme haste. Its prose, for example, is pocked with first-order clichés (‘trying to escape his own demons’), second-order clichés (‘a demon he hoped to slay’), dull metaphors (‘Time, which had been an unbounded sphere in which he moved freely in all directions, became overnight a narrow one-way track down which he travelled’), mixed metaphors (‘ten on the pain spectrum’), limp similes (‘Some love affairs comfortably and sweetly rot. Slowly, like fruit in a fridge’), oxymorons (‘a settled, expansive mood’), pleonasms (‘the photograph which would posthumously survive her’), catachresis (‘domestic violence – generally code for men hitting women and children’), jejune diction (‘the creepy shifting shadows’, ‘the magical or silly element’, ‘shivery’, ‘mushy’), trivializing double entendres (‘Lucky too that so far no child was left behind’), pomposities (‘They rose in his thoughts as a black hammerhead cloud of international disorder’), flagrant abuse of self-reflexive questions (‘Would Roland have had her courage?’, ‘What held him back?…Courage. An old-fashioned concept. Did he have it?’, ‘In the face of it would he, Roland, have risen to Sophie and Hans’s courage?’) and barely-concealed cribbings from more talented stylists like Nabokov (‘parenting, its double helix of love and labour’, ‘seven paces up her short garden path, his signature taps at the door – crotchet, triplet, crochet, crochet’). Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in.

McEwan’s novel is not so much an epic as it is three novellas in a trench coat. Novella 1: eleven-year-old Roland is molested by Miriam during a piano lesson and is groomed by her between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, which precipitates the aforementioned ‘lost decade’ and scares him off from intimacy and discipline for the better part of his life. Lessons: our interpretations of events often do more harm than the events themselves; ‘most’ of the ‘problems’ we blame on others are in fact ‘self-inflicted’; forgiveness is essential to freeing oneself from the effects of trauma. Novella 2: thirty-seven-year-old Roland and his seven-month-old son are abandoned by Alissa, who, having witnessed her own mother’s sacrifice of her career as a journalist to marriage and family, decides that being a parent is incompatible with her vocation as a writer, and retreats to a remote village in her native Germany, where she becomes ‘Europe’s greatest novelist’ and a contender for the Nobel Prize. Lessons: just as a ‘cruel act’ which makes a work of art possible ‘made no difference’ to our assessment of them, the ‘quality of the outcome’ did not excuse the cruel act; Roland wouldn’t ‘swap his family for her yard of books’. Novella 3: twenty-something Roland meets Peter and his wife Daphne; the former goes from prima donna lead-guitarist to abusive Thatcherite businessman to philandering Brexiteer and ‘ennobled junior minister in the Johnson government’, whereas the latter becomes his best friend, confidante, co-parent, and – following her Stage 4 cancer diagnosis – second wife. Lessons: reason and fair play are no match for cunning and the will-to-power; making a commitment to someone other than oneself is ‘the best thing’ one ever does.

If this all sounds pat, it has less to do with the necessary evil that is plot summary in book reviewing, than to the didacticism with which McEwan imparts these and other praecepta in the novel itself. Yet perhaps worse than the way the book comes pre-interpreted for the reader is the way it comes pre-criticized. McEwan does not fail to anticipate the objection that what makes Roland’s case notable is that, statistically, male teachers are more likely to sexually abuse their students than female teachers, and that, historically, male artists are more likely to disregard family obligations in the pursuit of their creative ambitions than female artists. Nor, in the novel’s climactic scene, a fight in the Lake District between Roland and Peter over the urn that contains Daphne’s ashes, does McEwan fail to have Roland acknowledge that what the two septuagenarians are doing is ‘absurd’. Indeed it is – all the more so for being a bathetic allegory for Brexit (a Remainer and a Leaver duke it out for the right to bury the ashes of the United Kingdom) as well as a reprise of the fight scene of Amsterdam.

In an op-ed, anticipating objections strengthens one’s case; in fiction, however, it draws unwanted attention to the hand of the author, without whom the particular element that is being apologized for would not exist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is hardly exonerating that Roland self-effacingly describes an article he writes as ‘plodding, earnest, lifeless’, and the journals he keeps as ‘hasty’ and ‘without interest’ compared to the writing of his wife and mother-in-law. We do not get to see Alissa’s prose, which is frequently compared to that of Nabokov, who, judging from the synopses Roland provides of her novels, would have dismissed them and – by extension – Lessons as ‘topical trash’.

The trench coat is History. Draped loosely from the backs of these three narratives are hundreds of named political and cultural events, persons, and phenomena, starting with Dunkirk and ending with the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which range from the genuinely consequential to the merely newsworthy to the unmentionably trivial. The ones that are important to the plot are the White Rose movement (through which Alissa’s parents meet), the Suez Crisis (which precipitates Roland’s return to England from Tripoli and his matriculation at Berners Hall), the Cuban Missile Crisis (which inspires him to pay a call on Miriam so he can lose his virginity before the world ends), divided Cold War Berlin (it is thanks to the Mauerfall that he learns the reason for Alissa’s disappearance and that she will be soon publishing her first novel) and Brexit (which precipitates his final conflict with Peter).

At first it seems as though the effect of ‘public events on private lives’ is going to be the major theme of Lessons. ‘Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, miniscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence’, he writes. ‘His case was not special – all fates are similarly constituted’. McEwan wisely abandons this Forrest Gump-like conceit midway through the book in favour of a much more plausible, if still unsatisfying, depiction of the way citizens of wealthy countries like the UK typically encounter history: as a spectacular entertainment mediated by newspapers, television, and/or the Internet. The historical events appear to serve two narrative functions: as substitutes for the kinds of concrete details other novelists use to convey the quiddity of a character’s experience of the world and as markers for the passage of time. Because of their sheer quantity, however, and because the vast majority of them are simply referred to rather than assimilated into Roland’s consciousness, time feels curiously static in Lessons, which has the unfortunate effect of making the dramatic ‘reckonings’ McEwan stages between Roland and Alissa, Miriam, and Peter seem, well, staged. At a certain point, historical events become little more than narrative boxes for McEwan to check off. He tells us, for example, that Roland ‘made a list of the people he knew who died of AIDS’, but since we don’t see the list, and we hear nothing more of persons who might have been on it, this kind of detail trivializes what it refers to more than if it had simply not been mentioned at all. As with his raiding of female narratives to gin up sympathy for his otherwise undistinguished male protagonist, McEwan’s use of historical events in Lessons is guilty of borrowed gravitas.

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to draw lessons from history than it is to manufacture them in fiction. In his final days, Roland rereads the ‘forty journals’ he has been writing ‘since 1986’, the year the novel opens, and which function as its ur-text. ‘Reading back…did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life’, he reflects, and from the single excerpt we have been shown 150 pages previously – which mentions, inter alia, Islamofacism, the NHS, Scottish Independence, Princess Diana, a certain satirical columnist at the Telegraph, and the Booker Prize – it is easy to see why: the journal entries are a mishmash of noted events and reported speech.  ‘There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned’, he goes on to lament, as he operatically consigns the journal ‘one volume at a time’ to a fire bowl in his back yard. A self-described ‘centrist’ and ‘liberal’, Roland’s blind spot remains, to the end of his life, his politics. For those who are inclined to examine them a little more attentively than Roland seems capable, at least one ‘obvious theme’ emerges.

Time has done its inevitable work on a number of Roland’s cherished illusions, particularly to his whiggish conviction that economic liberalization produces political liberalization – refuted, in his view, by China – and that history is a slow, but inexorable march towards an ever-more-open society – refuted by democratic backsliding in Putin’s Russia, Trump’s United States, and post-Brexit Britain. Surveying the present, Roland is rightfully anxious about the world he will leave his granddaughter. His ‘bad dream’ for the future is two-fold and incompatible: that the planet will not support life long enough for her to see the end of the 21st century and of ‘freedom of expression, a shrinking privilege, vanishing for a thousand years’, as it had done in Europe during the Middle Ages. A pretty pass, to be sure. Especially for a man who has just torched his complete works.

Assessing his personal responsibility for this turn of events, Roland says: ‘Enough! Those angry or disappointed gods in modern form, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Gorbachev, may have shaped his life but that gave Roland no insight into international affairs. Who cared what an obscure Mr. Baines of Lloyd Square thought about the future of the open society or the planet’s fate? He was powerless.’ Let us state the obvious: Hitler, Nasser, et al are not gods, but people, as are, a fortiori, Johnson, Cameron, Blair, Major, and, yes, even Thatcher. As he so often admits, Roland is a member of the most affluent and freest generations history has ever known; if he finds himself powerless to secure these privileges for future generations, it is not exclusively due to impersonal forces beyond his control, let alone the whims of a handful of world-historical individuals. Nor is this simply a matter of moral judgment: even if you were inclined to cut Roland some slack on the grounds that no one person ought to shoulder responsibility for the state of the world, a reader, who has at this point been subjected to nearly 500 pages of the views of the ‘obscure Mr. Baines’ has every right to care, not least because McEwan is implicated in them.

Roland spends the seventies as a member of the Labour Party, living in a cheap Brixton flat and leafleting for Wilson and Callaghan. Through his then-girlfriend Mireille, a French journalist with a diplomatic passport, he travels to East Berlin, where he strikes up a friendship with an agronomist named Florian Heise and his family. He returns often to smuggle banned records – Dylan and the Velvet Underground – and books – the classics of liberal anticommunism: Koestler, Nabokov, Milosz, and, of course, Orwell – across Checkpoint Charlie. His friendship with the Heises and his unwillingness to qualify or contextualize his critiques of the political conditions in the GDR puts him increasingly at odds with his fellow Labour Party members back home, who regard actually existing socialism as the ‘lesser of two evils’ compared to US Imperialism. Disgusted by what he perceives as their apologetics and moral equivalence – after all in the West, you are free to listen to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and read Animal Farm – he drifts ‘rightward’, in the words of one of them, towards the party’s ‘middle class intellectuals’ who support the ‘democratic opposition’ in Eastern Europe. After Florian is arrested at work, has his house turned over by the Stasi, and is threatened with the breakup of his family – as a result, Roland wrongly imagines, of the illegal reading material – Roland hands in his party card.

When his one-man influence campaign on behalf of the Heises inevitably fails – the family is not broken up but is relocated to the dismal village of Schwedt – Roland pays a tribute to Florian the only way he knows how: with the purchase of tickets to a Dylan concert at Earl’s Court, in ‘a symbolic act of solidarity’. It is June 1981 and for the past three months Roland’s largely African-Caribbean neighbourhood, Brixton, has been undergoing sustained rioting following the Metropolitan police’s Operation Swamp 81, an aggressive, blatantly racist response to protests against high unemployment and dangerous housing conditions in the area. Having spent fifteen pages describing Roland’s time in East Berlin and the plight of the Heises, a tossed-off allusion in a single line of dialogue is all McEwan devotes to the unnamed Brixton Uprising.

Here we have an unwitting parable about the perils of making ‘freedom of expression’ the core of your politics. In the abstract, Roland’s criticisms of the GDR’s censorship policies are not wrong, but as a British citizen, he has no power to change them, and aside from having to listen to disagreement from other British citizens, he will not suffer for his views. Roland’s views are far from fringe – in fact, they are aligned with the ruling party’s foreign policy platform – so his principled stand on the matter is acquired on the cheap. While he engages in consumerist acts of symbolic solidarity with people living in other countries, he does not lift a finger to help his neighbours, who are not only living in worse economic conditions than people in the GDR, but are also suffering, like them, ideologically-motivated repression by the security forces of a state apparatus. It is a state apparatus that Roland is theoretically in a position to do something about, or would be, if he hadn’t just abjured meaningful political activity in a fit of pique.

This is by design. The function of ‘debates’ over ‘free speech’ in neoliberal societies like Britain is not to ensure that citizens retain a potent tool to criticize state policy, it is to defang criticism of its material effects, in part, by deflecting attention, energy, and personnel that might be directed towards raising the tax rate, reducing economic inequality, rolling-back privatization, or preventing a mass extinction event, back on to abstract debates about virtues of free speech, whose opponents are always, conveniently enough, located to the left or beyond the border. In fact, free speech debates are not debates at all – free speech is the condition of the existence of debate in the first place – but are rather a form of political blackmail not unlike the one Squealer levels at the supporters of Snowball in the book Roland smuggles through Checkpoint Charlie for the edification of the thought-policed citizens of the GDR: ‘you wouldn’t want Mr. Jones back would you?’

A self-appointed scourge of secular and religious ‘totalitarianisms’ and the other forms of ‘unreason’ subscribed to by the ‘delirious masses’, Roland fancies himself a man of the enlightenment, but does not seem to remember that on the flipside of the coin that reads Sapere aude is written: Argue as much as you like, and about whatever you like, but obey. He does not see that if he is ‘powerless’ and ‘obscure’ to the extent that no one ‘cares’ about his ‘opinions’, it is because whatever power he might have had he gave away long ago thanks to his rather myopic obsession with ‘the shrinking privilege’ of ‘free expression’. Roland wonders whether he should not perhaps have stayed in the Labour Party after all to ‘argue for its centrist and liberal traditions’, but concludes that he would have been ‘driven miserable and mad after four consecutive defeats’. This is not only a bizarre thing to say of a party which has recently ousted Jeremy Corbyn in favour of Keir Starmer, it is also a rather unfortunate testament to the flimsiness of his convictions. It never crosses Roland’s mind that one of the reasons Labour has suffered four consecutive electoral defeats is because of supporters like him.  

Whether free speech really is ‘shrinking’ is – you guessed it – a matter of debate. On the one hand, more speech is being produced by more people than ever before. Yet just as Roland does not regard all repression by state-apparatuses as equally deserving of his attention, he does not regard all speech as equally laudatory. When, despite being a legendary ‘hermit’, Alissa is ‘cancelled’ for making a transphobic joke on an ‘American TV chat show’ – the incident is an allusion to the reaction to a 2016 comment made by McEwan – Roland attributes it to her mix of ‘acerbic rationalism’ and ‘seventies feminism’ rather than to her penchant for verbal cruelty and blithe disregard of others, which he, his son and his mother-in-law have all experienced. Following outcry, an Ivy League university withdraws Alissa’s honorary degree, her speaking tour falls apart, Stonewall and anonymous commentators on the Internet criticize her, and her US and UK sales drop. We are supposed to think that the ‘Young Puritans’ Alissa has offended are overreacting, but it is worth noting these are all instances rather than violations of free expression: private institutions and persons withholding what they had previously chosen to grant – praise, honours, money – according to their best lights at the time. Liberalism giveth and liberalism taketh away.

On the other hand, we need look no farther than the recent assassination attempt on McEwan’s friend Salman Rushdie – the 1989 fatwa against The Satanic Verses is among the events catalogued in Lessons – to concede that freedom of expression is not as secure as we would like it to be. And we may grant that, as a novelist, McEwan has a legitimate interest in its preservation. But it is precisely qua-novelist that he has a special responsibility to freedom of expression that goes above and beyond that of the pundits who argue in its defence in op-eds or even that of advocacy groups like PEN that raise money and awareness on behalf of writers around the globe who have seen their work banned or who have been imprisoned, attacked, harassed or murdered for publishing it. It is this: to create a work of literature whose aesthetic power justifies the privilege in the first place. Without such power, all we have is yet another commodity – far too disposable a peg on which to hang the values of an entire civilisation. Just as people living behind the Iron Curtain had no shortage of reading material as mediocre as Lessons, the market is currently condemning far better books than it to smaller print runs than a samizdat. A bestselling, Booker Prize-winning Commander of the British Empire, McEwan is not obscure, nor is he powerless, according to the Daily Telegraph. Lessons was written in perfect freedom. What did he need it for?

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Forever Orwell’, NLR 87.


Imagining the Seventies

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ A number of European artists working with the moving image have recently offered answers to this question. Éric Baudelaire, Filipa Cesar, and Jean-Gabriel Périot are just a few of the most prominent to return to the period and its legacy of vanguard film practices. A 2015 exhibition at London’s Raven Row comprising some fifty hours of moving image work, ‘The Inoperative Community’, was devoted to what its curator Dan Kidner described as ‘the long 1970s (1968–84)’; a key motif was ‘the limits of political activism and the fate of left political subcultures’. Today, these years of interchange between the avant-garde and progressive movements of various stripes seem to exert a determined pull on a younger generation. Is this a classic case of left melancholy, a nostalgic turning-back that is also a turning-away from the impasses of the present? The fetish for radical chic is unrelenting, and it is easy to counterpose the complicities of the present with the convictions of the past. Yet there is no denying that it is easier to see after the dust has settled, and the long 1970s offers a range of aesthetic and political histories that are enduringly relevant, some perhaps newly – or differently – visible in the light of the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ is also a question that Peter Wollen asks his ten-year-old daughter Audrey in Kerry Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere (2002). The split-screen video was positioned near the entrance of ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’, held this summer at Camera Austria in Graz. The exhibition’s curators, Oliver Fuke and Nicolas Helm-Grovas, framed their inquiry as a ‘belated’ encounter, foregrounding the distance that separates them from their subjects. The effect was to partake in the retrospective impulse animating much recent artistic and curatorial practice while also interrogating its stakes. Thanks to meticulous research, the two offered a very different response to Wollen’s question than his young daughter. While she answers, ‘I don’t see anything’, Fuke and Helm-Grovas see plenty. The exhibition succeeded in staging a dense network of relations between theory and practice, between Mulvey and Wollen’s work and the social context that informed it, and between the heady moment of the mid-1970s and its enduring afterlives.

The core of the exhibition consisted of films made by Mulvey and Wollen, together and separately. Their best-known features, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), played in alternation as a single projection. An array of other works were displayed around the room on monitors with headphones, including their diptych portrait Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1984) and Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s Disgraced Monuments (1994) which examines the fate of Soviet statuary after the fall of the USSR. Initially working as critics and theorists, Mulvey and Wollen ventured into filmmaking in the early 1970s to put into practice their conception of ‘counter-cinema’, one which would embrace radicalism of both form and content. In a 1976 conversation in Afterimage, they described Penthesilea as an attempt to bridge what Wollen had identified a year earlier as the ‘two avant-gardes’ – on the one hand, ‘experimental or avant-garde film’, and on the other, ‘political film, in the agitational or militant sense’. (In another testament to the contemporary fascination with the long 1970s, selections from this little magazine, including Mulvey and Wollen’s ‘Written Discussion’, have just been reissued as The Afterimage Reader.)

Forging a counter-cinema meant breaking not only with Hollywood, but also the medium-specific purism of the film co-operatives and realist practices that located their politics exclusively at the level of content. Riddles of the Sphinx tells the story of Louise – a mother who is politicised through her daily experiences and a close female friendship – in thirteen single-shot chapters. Yet all familiar articulations of filmic space and, as a corollary, conventional forms of identification are refused; in their stead is a series of 360-degree pans that rotate with indifference to the action. These are interrupted by title cards and bookended by other material, including a to-camera lecture by Mulvey on the topic of the titular myth. Braiding together semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism, and the post-Godardian revival of Brechtian aesthetics, the film dispenses with the pleasures upon which cinema habitually depends, installing in their place the pleasures – powerful, too – of critique.

In Graz, a vitrine displayed the small mercury maze that appears in the final shot of Riddles, a children’s toy repurposed as enigmatic (non-)ending. Surrounding it were archival documents, scribbled notes and diagrams, salutary reminders that behind these seminal films and polemics lie the false starts, speculations and revisions that form part of the process for us all. On the opposite wall were two sets of index cards that appear in Penthesilea: the first, typewritten prompts used by a thirtysomething Wollen, then a visiting professor at Northwestern University, as he delivers a lecture in a house in Evanston, Illinois, parsing the construction of the film (‘…our film is un-natural. It is a film which avoids conventional cuts, but not discontinuities or breaks. It is a montage film…’; the second, handwritten in block capitals, are seen scattered around the same space and intermittently captured in close-up by the roaming camera. These artefacts had a multivalence, at once seeming to consign Mulvey and Wollen’s work to history, yet also rendering it palpably present in the here and now, by supplementing the immaterial film image with the materiality of things. These were things that have survived from the world of the films, the world of the 1970s, to meet us in our own beleaguered time. And if things can survive, so can ideas. The wager of the curators seemed to be that Mulvey and Wollen’s theory and practice should and could return to challenge the present with the force of anachronism.

Around the corner was Victor Burgin’s Gradiva (1982), a series of seven captioned photographs that reimagine Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novella of the same name, famously analysed by Sigmund Freud. The work primarily featured in the exhibition as an emblem of the longstanding dialogue between Burgin, Mulvey and Wollen; likewise the presentation of Mary Kelly’s Primapara: Bathing Series (1974), twelve photographs depicting the body of the artist’s infant son in fragmenting proximity, closely linked to her landmark work, Post-Partum Document (1973–79). In the context of the assorted film props and documents, though, Burgin’s photographs took on an added resonance. Gradiva is, after all, a story of archive fever, of the impossible dream of defeating time by rematerializing the past. In Jensen’s novella, an archaeologist becomes obsessed with a woman he sees represented in a Roman bas-relief sculpture and goes to Pompeii in search of her. There, he believes he finds her, alive. It falls to this woman to explain that he has misrecognized her, that she is not from the ancient past but is familiar from a time much nearer yet nonetheless gone, his childhood. For Derrida, the story spoke of the ‘painful desire for a return to the authentic and singular origin’ – in short, of the longing for an impossibility, one perhaps familiar to anyone who has engaged in historical research. 

Something of this desire could be felt in the exhibition, insofar as it was directed by the urge to recover a time when British cinema was marked by commitment, experimentation, intellectual seriousness and independence – qualities that have undoubtedly atrophied in the intervening decades. Yet as much it was warmed by the flush of archive fever, the presentation deftly avoided succumbing to its delirium. True to their stated embrace of belatedness, the curators chose not to present a time capsule of the 1970s, but rather opened their inquiry outwards by presenting Mulvey and Wollen’s later work, as well as instances of artists engaging with their legacy in the twenty-first century. Holly Antrum’s contribution self-consciously pointed to the danger of over-identification with the archive. The artist presented a vitrine of barely legible pages written in pencil, facsimile copies of documents in the Peter Wollen collection at the British Film Institute National Archive, credited to the fictional researcher Markéta Hašková. The implication being that in trying to remain as close to Wollen’s notes as possible, Hašková sacrifices not only her own perspective, but also loses sight of the material’s substance.

In Em Hedditch’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (2006), Mulvey sits at a desk reading, much as she did in Riddles over thirty years before. She recites passages from her much cited (and much misunderstood) titular essay, now and then explaining why she chose to do certain things, such as her controversial choice to describe cinema as having a universalized masculine form of address. Occasionally, clips from films such as Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) appear onscreen, illustrating the article’s claims. It would be wrong though to consider the work as simply an adaptation of Mulvey’s essay, in the form of ‘videographic criticism’ that prevails today; the sparing use of clips alone should be a clue that something different is at stake. Hedditch’s gesture is better understood as an act of intergenerational memory, and symbol of the overarching conceptualization of the exhibition.

Similar concerns inform Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere, which borrows its title from Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs (1976) as well as something of its approach from their France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977). Wollen remains out of frame, asking his daughter philosophical questions concerning time, existence and the image. The setting is domestic, their rapport intimate. Theory becomes the stuff of bedtime stories; the theorist becomes father, caretaker, teacher. Periodically, panning shots of the Los Angeles cityscape appear, presenting a geography distant from the Englishness apparent in Wollen’s voice, articulating an additional notion of the ‘here’ and the ‘elsewhere’. As in Hedditch’s collaboration with Mulvey, the act of unfaithful remaking serves to pile temporal layer upon temporal layer, allowing a return to privileged moments in the film historical past while nevertheless remaining firmly anchored in the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’ reminds us that the wording of Wollen’s question is crucial. One cannot see the past the way one sees a film or a memorable prop exhibited in a gallery space. The 1970s, or any other vanished decade, can only come into view through acts of imagination and creativity. This was something Mulvey and Wollen themselves knew well: as the latter puts it as he roams around the Evanston house in Penthesilea, reading from his index cards, ‘It is only through the detours of fantasy and dream that we can return to history and act there’.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Brecht in LA’, NLR 136.


Pipe Dreams

When a famously hard-headed statesman starts believing fairy tales, it may be a sign that all is not right with the world. In late July, former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble gave an interview to Welt am Sonntag, a centre-right Sunday paper. In it, Schäuble publicly renounced his life-long vision of a French-German Kerneuropa, or core Europe. Apparently, with the war in Ukraine, the possibility of even imagining a sovereign Europe with an independent foreign policy now required more than that. The vision he produced was, however, so unworldly as to suggest – coming from a figure known for his ruthless political realism – the opposite: a subversive admission that, with the war, all dreams – left or right – of a Europe with what Macron calls ‘strategic sovereignty’ are nothing but pipe dreams now.

So, in Schäuble’s view, what geo-strategic moves might convert Europe into a sovereign power, after the Zeitenwende? The French-German tandem has clearly failed to prevent the war, or even to have a say in it. Therefore, he proposes, Poland should be invited in – ‘as an equal and equally important member of the leadership for European unification’ – to make it a triumvirate, a directorate of three. The three would operate outside the European Union, since provisions for defence under the Lisbon Treaty ‘do not measure up to current challenges’. Berlin, Paris and Warsaw would invite other European states to join their ‘coalition of the willing’, as Schäuble agrees with the interviewer it will be. The same principle would also apply to issues like immigration and asylum policy. The attentive reader notes that this would result in a ‘Europe à la carte’, replacing the EU’s supra-national institutions with what in Brussels is called, with an obligatory shudder of disgust, inter-governmentalism. In the longer run, it might sideline the Brussels establishment as a whole in favour of a multinational strategic alliance, led by the three sovereign states. So far so good.

But this is only the beginning. The main task for the triumvirate would be to build up a European nuclear arsenal. If France has the bombs, Germany has the money. And since ‘Putin’s aides (!) threaten us every day with a nuclear strike’, Schäuble argues, it is clear that, ‘in return for a joint nuclear deterrence, we Germans must make a financial contribution to French military power’ and ‘engage in enhanced strategic planning with Paris’. Repeatedly, Schäuble insists that none of this must contradict the three states’ commitment to NATO – in other words, to American military leadership. ‘What France must deliver’, in return for the German co-financing of its nuclear force, ‘is that everything must fit in NATO.’ In fact, one reason why Schäuble wants Poland coopted into his directorate is that Warsaw would guarantee that ‘European defence would not be an alternative but complementary to NATO’. The general rule, per Schäuble, must always be: ‘everything with NATO, nothing against it.’

Schäuble’s proposal for a reorganization of Europe can only be understood as a product of despair: a last attempt to keep alive something like a minimally credible prospect of European strategic independence. For this, however, he must make gravity-defying leaps of faith. To accommodate the rise of the eastern states as a new European power centre, following the Russian attack on Ukraine, Schäuble invites Poland to join Germany and France as a European co-hegemon, apparently hoping that this will pull Warsaw out of its symbiotic relationship with Washington. (Remember that Poland’s Law and Justice government has just presented Germany with a trillion-euro bill for World War Two reparations, confident that this will help it win next year’s election.) Schäuble also expects that France will not only accept a third country as co-governor of Europe but concede to Germany and Poland together what it has consistently since the 1960s refused to Germany alone – namely, a voice on the use of its nuclear arsenal.

One of the pillars of US power in Europe is the German signature to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, making Germany dependent for its defence during the Cold War on the American nuclear umbrella. Today such dependence takes the form of the presence of an unknown number of American nuclear bombs on German soil, together with a licence for the German Luftwaffe to carry American nuclear warheads at American command to American-picked targets, using fighter planes purchased from the United States, which is officially called ‘nuclear participation’. There is no reason to believe that the United States could be convinced, NATO or not, that Germany would need to get its hands on French nuclear warheads, too, even if only indirectly by paying for them. There is also no prospect whatever that France will allow Germany and Poland a say on when to put Paris at risk for the sake of Berlin or Warsaw; in the past, French attempts to get Germany to share in the costs of the force de frappe were repeatedly abandoned when in return Germany wanted to have a look, just a look, at the French nuclear target catalogue.

One also wonders how someone who has been around as long as Schäuble could seriously expect that a European security policy co-directed by Poland could be anything but an extension of the security policy of the United States. The two main objectives of Polish foreign policy are, after all, independence from Germany and a strong US presence in Europe to keep Russia in check, instead of the country’s unreliable European neighbours – who, unlike the US, might, when push came to shove, fear for their own security. Unfazed, Schäuble hopes for his triple nuclear alliance to seek a partnership with ‘a Russia that respects the basic rules of cooperation among partners’. Surely, he told Welt am Sonntag readers, the Poles too would agree that partnership with a Russia that is ‘committed to renunciation of the use of force, the inviolability of borders and the fundamental rules of international law’ would be politically desirable: ‘With such a Russia we can and want to cooperate in good faith.’ Of course, with Putin ‘this will be difficult’ – though not, according to Schäuble, impossible.

Upon closer inspection, Schäuble’s Franco-German-Polish triumvirate looks like the fata morgana of a thirsty traveller in the desert. Someone like Schäuble cannot be in doubt that for Poland and its protector, the United States, a negotiated European security architecture that includes Russia has been ruled out since the 1990s. Their preferred outcome for the war in Ukraine is a defeated Russia, ‘weakened’ (Antony Blinken) and kept in check by superior military force. Europe, in this scenario, is led not by Germany or France but by the United States, and not just on the Eurasian continent but globally, particularly in relation to China (which Schäuble mentions only once in passing). In addition to situating his ‘sovereign’ triple alliance in NATO, Schäuble suggests that the UK, the self-nominated subcomandante of the US worldwide, should also have a role in it. That someone like him should be reduced to pious hopes that the United States will look the other way while European states conduct their own independent foreign policy may be taken to indicate how effectively the war in Ukraine has shifted Europe’s centre of gravity both to the East and, with it, to the West, toward the United States.

Where Schäuble is, for a change, in line with the European Zeitgeist is that the EU as a really existing international organization plays no role at all in his project; actually, it is explicitly excluded from it. What he has in mind, without saying it, is what Macron in his more exuberant moments calls a refondation of Europe. In recent years von der Leyen’s outfit and the supra-national ‘Community method’ it administers has lost reputation, rather dramatically, among European national leaders. Brussels’ handling of the pandemic was widely considered a disaster, even though it was Merkel who had burdened it with the procurement of vaccines. The EU was also blamed for not having stored masks and protective clothing, for being generally unprepared for a medical emergency like Covid and for trying, in vain, to make Schengen member states keep their borders open in times of rising infection rates.

A little later came a gradual realization that the EU’s celebrated NGEU Corona Recovery Fund was far too small and too bureaucratically managed to do anything for the country for which it was primarily meant, Italy. This was evidenced by the downfall, after barely eighteen months in office, of the EU’s financial white knight, Mario Draghi, as Prime Minister of his home country. Add to this the haggling with Poland and Hungary over ‘rule of law’ at a time when Eastern Europe was becoming geopolitically the Union’s rising region, not to mention the EU’s total absence when the Minsk Accords fell apart and the United States emerged openly as the chief power managing the conflict with Russia on Ukraine. As Realpolitik raised its ugly head, the EU turned into an auxiliary organization of NATO, charged among other things with devising sanctions against Russia which mostly backfired, and with putting together a common European energy policy, a mission impossible from the beginning.

The extent to which the leadership of Europe has migrated to the US – and the degree to which the EU has lost control over itself – is demonstrated by the politics of the accession of new EU member states, an increasingly messy battleground for the conflict over who runs Europe and for what purpose. In the 1990s, the US let it be known that as part of its New Order, the EU had to take in the former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Hungary, Czechia, to beef them up economically and reorganize them institutionally, so as to anchor them firmly in ‘the West’; later the Baltic states, former republics of the Soviet Union, followed suit, as did Bulgaria and Romania. At the time the EU was also expected to admit Turkey, its main merit being that it was a long-standing NATO member, which would have given ‘Europe’ joint borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, plus an intra-EU military occupation in northern Cyprus and a potential war with an EU member state, Greece. This was prevented by France together with Germany under Merkel, world champion in the art of passive resistance, although officially of course Turkey remains a candidate for accession.

Integrating new members places heavy demands on the EU bureaucracy, which must teach them the intricacies of the so-called acquis communautaire, the endless set of rules that states must implement as a precondition of entry. Moreover, to firm up their allegiance to capitalism, new members must be afforded economic support; the poorer they are, and the more there are of them, the bigger must become the Union’s structural funds, funded out of national budgets. As so often elsewhere, moreover, money may fail to buy love and new member states in the East may have their own ideas on whether they should follow orders from Brussels or not. As a result, waiting periods have become longer in recent years, as negotiations are dragged out under pressure from member states. The last country to join was Croatia, admitted in 2013 after ten years of negotiations and with its institutional reforms concluded to the satisfaction of the EU, if not of its anti-corruption authorities. Still on the waiting list are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, the so-called West Balkan states, without however much prospect of admission in the foreseeable future, given the opposition of France.

Enter Ukraine – which, through its omnipresent president, demands full membership immediately, tutto e subito; hardly without encouragement from its American allies, who need someone to pay for the reconstruction once the war ends. Dressed as so often these days in blue and yellow, and never afraid of sounding kitschy, von der Leyen announced on Twitter on 18 June that ‘Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream’. But what seemed to become a fast-track trip to Brussels was soon stopped dead. While clearly the West Balkans must have protested, existing member states seem to have realized that the accession of Ukraine would finally blow up the EU’s budget; not to mention that Ukraine’s oligarchic political system would have made Poland and Hungary, the ‘illiberal’ arch-enemies of the EU-Parliament’s majority, look like Scandinavian democracies.

In this situation, it was Olaf Scholz who, once more in true Merkelian spirit, pulled the stop by demanding that the EU, before letting in any new members, should itself undergo ‘structural reforms’ of a sort of which it is predictably incapable. One of his proposals concerned the composition of the Commission. Today, there is one commissioner for every member state, which adds up to a college of 27; already too big, as a Brussels adage has it, to meet in full without members using binoculars to look each other in the eyes. This, of course, is no reason for the smaller member states not to insist on one commission seat per country, given that the EU pays its commissioners significantly more than the smaller and poorer countries pay their prime ministers. 

Reducing the number of commissioners will require an amendment of the Treaties to which each member state must agree. In a speech in late August at Charles University in Prague, a companion piece to Macron’s Sorbonne address of 2017, Scholz demanded, on top of this, stronger rule-of-law provisions in the Treaties and more effective powers for the EU to sanction member states for infractions, knowing that this would be unacceptable to Poland and Hungary, and presumably to others as well. (Circumventing both the EU and NATO, Scholz also suggested a joint air-defence system for Europe, set up by Germany together with neighbouring member states. One will see what comes out of this.) Scholz furthermore insisted on majority voting of the Council on EU foreign policy, presumably with votes weighted by country size, to prevent the new Ostblock outvoting Germany and France on behalf of the US. Of course, in the EU ending unanimity requires unanimity, a roadblock that even Merkel had been unable to get around.

Meanwhile in Germany, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, is letting the German public know that the war in Ukraine may last many more years and that Zelensky will continue to need economic and military support, including ‘heavy weapons’. With the exception of the Honourable Member from Rheinmetall, one of the world’s leading arms producers, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, MP for the FDP and chair of the Bundestag defence committee, today’s Greens are easily the most belligerent of German politicians, representing a generation that was spared from military service, unlike the despised peaceniks of yesteryear. This adds a peculiar flavour to their unending expressions of gratitude and admiration for the brave Ukrainians who ‘defend our values’ by risking their lives, under a strict compulsory draft.

It also explains their unqualified identification with the war aims of the now governing wing of Ukrainian nationalism. (Baerbock: ‘Crimea belongs to Ukraine… Ukraine defends our freedom as well, our order of peace. And we support it financially and militarily, as long as needed. Full stop.’) Sending arms, and seeing them in use from the safety of their living rooms – Twitter offers any number of jubilant German armchair accounts of Ukrainian artillery hitting Russian targets, much like video gamers reporting their exploits – comes with almost daily assurances, echoing Biden and his crew, that Germany will never send troops to the Ukrainian battlefields where Ukrainians ‘fight and die for all of us’. Clearly this helps the new bellicists to root for the war being fought to the very Endsieg, without risk to themselves or their children, insisting that there can be no negotiations on ending the war before it will have ended with an unconditional Russian withdrawal.

So far, the Greening of what the Germans used to call Friedenspolitik has been remarkably successful. The space for legitimate public debate on peace and war has narrowed dramatically. The chief of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Orwellian-named Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, publicly assured the government that he would keep a watchful eye on everyone claiming that the Russian attack on Ukraine might have been related to a previous American military build-up around Russia – in other words, on all Putinversteher. The press, quality or not, recites as the ultimate wisdom of international relations the ancient Roman imperialist adage, forgotten by sentimental peacemongers like Willy Brandt: si vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. This is to proscribe the more recent insight, which goes back in part to none other than Friedrich Engels, that with modern weaponry, preparing for war may unleash an arms race that precisely gets you the opposite of peace.

The unprecedented American military build-up over the past thirty years – including the arming of Ukraine after 2014, among the most impressive preparations for war in recent history – and the unilateral cancellation of all arms-control treaties from the Cold War era, must never be mentioned in this context. In fact, anything that refers to the prehistory of the invasion of Ukraine is anathema, especially the Minsk negotiations and the winter months of 2021, except for that mythical moment when ‘Putin’ discovered his genocidal hatred of everything Ukrainian. Another article of faith, which makes for an ideal credo quia absurdum loyalty test, is that Russia, which was unable to conquer Kyiv, less than a hundred miles from the Russian border, will, if allowed to survive the war in Ukraine, invade and conquer Finland, the Baltic states and Poland, to be followed by Germany and, why not, the rest of Western Europe, for no other reason than a general disdain for the West European way of life.

Seen this way, the fact that the special €100 billion defence budget announced by the German government three days into the war will have its first effects on the ground only in five years’ time does not mean that it is wasted; it only means that it has nothing to do with the Ukrainian war as such. What Germany is preparing for, following a request from its American friends that it could not refuse, is a world that is one big battlefield impatiently waiting for out-of-area NATO interventions for the propagation of democracy and as an opportunity for overfed post-heroic citizens to stand up for ‘Western values’.

Thus in mid-August, in yet another demonstration of its unshaking loyalty, the German government sent six Eurofighter jets on a trip half around the globe to Australia, on their way passing by mainland China and Taiwan, for joint maneuvers with South Korea and New Zealand and to demonstrate German readiness for more. The German press sheepishly let it be known as background that ‘the new strategic concept of NATO mentions China as a challenge’. One of the six war planes turned out to be defective and had to be brought back home, but the remaining five arrived safely, as far as one knows, at their far-away destination, refuelled in mid-air by an A330 flying tanker, which made the FAZ proud of the state of German martial prowess. The trip followed the outgoing Merkel government’s sending a frigate, the Bayern, on a tour to the Indo-Pacific, formerly known as the South China Sea, to display both trans-Atlantic loyalty and East-Pacific resolve. So much for European strategic autonomy.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘An Avoidable War?’, NLR 133/134.


Looking East

‘The fantasy of an instinctively peaceful world may be comforting, but it is again coming to an end’, Alex Karp, CEO of Peter Thiel’s CIA-funded Palantir, wrote in an ominous open letter to European leaders a few weeks after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A co-founder of the company – and Thiel’s Stanford roommate in the early nineties – Karp warned the continent of the high cost of complacency in the face of the ‘aspirations of autocratic rule’, and reminded them that for the past two decades Europe ‘has stood on the sidelines of the digital revolution, whose principal participants are still essentially all based in the United States’.

The message was straightforward: innovate or die. Adopt Palantir technologies as the US military has done, or risk domination. Elsewhere, Karp has been no less pointed. ‘Military AI will determine our lives, the lives of your kids’, he said in an interview at Davos in 2020. ‘This is a zero-sum thing. The country with the most important AI, the most powerful AI, will determine the rules. That country should either be us or a western country.’ At the beginning of June, Karp travelled to Ukraine to make a similar pitch about the role of technology in modern warfare to President Zelensky. The meeting marked the first visit of a CEO to Ukraine since the war began (Karp would later gush that Zelensky was one of the very few heads of state he’d ever met who he could imagine serving as a successful CEO).

A few weeks later, a sprawling transatlantic ‘innovation’ architecture was announced that will facilitate precisely what Karp and Palantir have been advocating. At NATO’s summit in Madrid, the alliance declared the creation of ‘the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund’ to invest in start-ups and other entities working on technologies ‘with great military potential’ – including artificial intelligence, autonomy, big-data processing, biotechnology and human enhancement. As Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained, ‘the NATO Innovation Fund will help bring to life those nascent technologies that have the power to transform our security in the decades to come, strengthening the alliance’s innovation ecosystem and bolstering the security of our one billion citizens’.

The fund is described as a complement to NATO’s new Defense Innovation Accelerator of the North Atlantic, known by its unsettling anthropoid acronym, DIANA. Modelled on the US Defense Research Projects Agency, DARPA, whose best-known achievement is the creation of the internet, DIANA will encompass sixty innovation sites in twenty NATO member states. With its European headquarters at Imperial College London, the endeavour is said to be a ‘joint effort between private sector entities, non-governmental entities, and academia’ to ensure the alliance ‘can harness the best of new technology for transatlantic security’. A further ten accelerator sites will provide financing and mentorship to technology start-ups with potential application in warfare, and there will be more than fifty ‘dedicated test centres’ spread across the alliance.

The news was met with enthusiasm by those in the habit of issuing grave pronouncements about the West ‘falling behind’. An editorial in the National Interest even declared that ‘innovation could save NATO’. These cyclical efforts to ‘save NATO’ by finding a new raison d’être for it every decade or so brings to mind the quip about the alliance ‘attempting to justify its own existence in ever more imaginative ways’.

This push for ‘innovation’ is the product of grander developments. Madrid saw the unveiling of NATO’s new strategic concept, its first since 2010. The 16-page document describes a very different world than the last, one in which ‘the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace’, and – echoing the Biden administration’s rhetoric – ‘authoritarian’ actors are threatening our democracies. The Russian Federation represents ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area’. But in a historic move, China is explicitly described as a ‘systemic challenge’ for the first time. ‘The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’, the concept states (relatedly, NATO invited the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand to the summit – another historic first). While the document says that allies ‘remain open to constructive engagement with China’, the intention is to reconfigure NATO as anti-China military alliance, on belligerent US-UK lines.

That NATO identified China as a systemic challenge at the same time it announced a vast program to accelerate technological innovation is no coincidence. While NATO and companies like Palantir have seized on the invasion of Ukraine to push this agenda, Russia is not the West’s main competitor in the field of new technology. ‘NATO is primarily concerned with Chinese (rather than Russian) innovation in the field of emerging and disruptive technologies’, Simona Soares, a fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote in a German Marshall Fund report last year. ‘China is the main geopolitical driver behind allied innovation plans.’

The reorientation is especially significant for the EU. ‘For the first time since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, European powers now view an Asian power as a direct threat’, Jo Inge Bekkevold, a former Norwegian intelligence official and fellow at its Institute for Defence Studies, proclaimed in a recent article for Foreign Policy. Bekkevold envisions an emerging division of labour for the alliance, with the US focused on China, the EU on Russia.

Until recently, there had been optimism about the trajectory of EU-China relations. The draft of an ambitious comprehensive investment agreement was drawn up, after protracted negotiations. In 2018, EU military forces conducted a combined naval exercise with the People’s Liberation Army at a Chinese military base in Djibouti. In 2020, China surpassed the United States to become the EU’s largest trading partner. And while Beijing has repeatedly blamed ‘US-led NATO’ for the war in Ukraine, it has largely refrained from directly criticizing the EU. Editorials in Chinese media assert that ‘a weaker Europe serves US interests’ and describe the heavy price, in soaring food and energy prices, that Europeans are being made to pay for US imperial ambitions. ‘China and the EU should act as two major forces upholding world peace, and offset uncertainties in the international landscape’, Xi Jingping told EU leaders at a summit in April, exhorting them to reject the ‘rival-bloc mentality’ promoted by the US.

Relations however have been deteriorating in recent months, with many European countries abandoning their ‘tightrope diplomacy’ with China and lining up decisively behind the United States and NATO. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Beijing’s reticence to criticize Russia for it, has hastened this process. In April, EU chief diplomat Joseph Borrell published a blog post titled ‘On China’s Choices and Responsibilities’ excoriating Beijing for its ‘pro-Russian neutrality’. All three Baltic States have pulled out of the 17+1 China-CEE initiative – established by Beijing a decade ago to strengthen relations with Central and Eastern Europe. Last week, the German ambassador in Beijing used her first public speech in the country last week to raise concerns about China’s zero-Covid policy and tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

It is little wonder then that developments in Madrid have met with a frosty reception in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned the new strategic concept, lambasting NATO for promoting conflict, confrontation and ‘a Cold War mentality’. When Germany subsequently announced that it would send warplanes to take part in US-led exercises in the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese foreign ministry’s response was mockery, saying that this ‘will probably lead to some bad memories and associations in many countries in the world’.

NATO member states may be more united behind the US than ever before, but there are likely to be disagreements over some of the technologies in development. Of greatest concern are lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) or ‘slaughterbots’, which can search for targets and kill entirely independently. Several NATO members, including Belgium and Germany, have been much more reticent about these than the US and UK. The rise of this kind of technology has conjured fears of a new arms race with China. Karp is unapologetic about this: he says that Palantir is working on ‘a new Manhattan Project’. The company is certainly prepared to go further than most. In 2019, it took over the Pentagon’s Project Maven after Google abandoned it over ‘ethical concerns’. The controversial project, which prompted walkouts from Google employees, aims to construct AI-powered surveillance systems for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Dissenting voices have expressed serious concerns, though have been given predictably little space in the media. ‘DIANA and the NATO innovation fund will divert researchers and research funding in key civilian areas – e.g AI, big data – thus reducing the potential benefits for health and environment, at a time of increasing poverty, inequality, pandemics, and ecological disasters’, Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, wrote in an email this week. ‘Innovation programs like DIANA are most likely to increase and entrench militarism for decades to come, undermining security for all’.

But all of this is welcome news for some. Europe is decisively lining up behind the United States and NATO; talk of ‘decoupling from China’ abounds. There is little ambiguity about what is happening. With the vast majority of the Global South loathe to impose sanctions on Russia, the current global competition is one of ‘the West’ against the rest. This serves the interests of the US and Silicon Valley quite well. ‘The core mission of our company’, Karp said at Davos in 2020, ‘always was to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it’s ever been.’

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.



A well-known member of the British left once discovered to his surprise that several of his socialist friends, including myself, had all attended the same school. We weren’t, however, public schoolboys in flight from our privileged backgrounds; nor was the school the kind of place where you call the teachers Nick and Maggie and are encouraged to have sex on the floor of the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic grammar school in Manchester, run by an obscure order of clerics, and like most Catholic schools in Britain its pupils were almost all descendants of Irish working-class immigrants.

There have been a number of prominent Catholics on the British left, most of them what the church would call ‘lapsed’. To be lapsed is less a matter of ceasing to be a Catholic than a particular way of being one – a fairly honorific way, in fact, which includes such luminaries as Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney. The result is that nobody can ever leave the Catholic church; instead, they are simply shuttled from one category to another, rather as a retired Brigadier is still a Brigadier. The political philosopher Raymond Geuss confesses in his latest book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, that his religious upbringing failed to make him even a bad Catholic; yet bad Catholics are what the lapsed really are, often productively so. They can be heretics in the truth, to use John Milton’s phrase. Geuss may not go along with the church on such minor matters as the existence of God, but he insists that none of his fundamental attitudes have changed since his schooldays, which the clerics who taught him would no doubt be delighted to hear. As a staunch anti-liberal, he remains a bad Catholic to the end.

Catholics who become leftists don’t tend to do so simply by way of reaction to a right-wing, deeply authoritarian set up. Nor is it that they are predisposed by their upbringing to left-wing sects which like the church believe themselves to be the sole proprietors of truth, and which have their own secular version of schisms, heresies and even popes. It is rather that you can move from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. To be raised a Catholic is to have no feel for liberal individualism. Catholics are not impressed by the sovereign autonomous subject. In fact, like Geuss, they are far too little impressed by it. They think instead in corporate terms, and are instinctively ill at ease with Protestant inwardness and solitude. The more positive side of ritual observances is that what matters is what you do, not some inner angst or ecstasy. Catholics also hold that human existence is an institutional affair, and is thus inherently social. Nor are they rattled by the idea of doctrine, or even of dogma, which they understand in its original sense as meaning whatever is taught. Reason has its limits; but it is not an inherently corrupt facility, as radical Protestantism claims, and within its constraints one must argue and analyse as precisely as possible. Endless open-mindedness is to be admonished rather than admired. The truth will set you free. The late left-wing theologian Herbert McCabe once told an Anglican bishop that the difference between the two of them on a certain issue was not a matter of emphasis, but that he, McCabe, was right and the bishop was wrong. Or, he added, if he is right, then I am wrong. It is an authentically Catholic note.

To be a Catholic in Britain is to grow up aware that you are a semi-outsider, and thus to be slightly wary of social orthodoxy. An Irish heritage is likely to intensify this sense of exclusion. The Catholic church in this country still has a lively sense of a history of persecution, though more as the object of such bigotry than the subject of it. Some Catholics refer to themselves jocularly as Papists, in the same way that gay men and women may call themselves Queer. All this, too, can shift some of its members leftwards, not least because they will have absorbed at school something of the church’s social teaching. This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is scarcely pro-capitalist either. On the contrary, a series of papal encyclicals have denounced the unbridled pursuit of profit and the injustices of class-society. It is probably no accident that Bono and Bob Geldof are both Irish ex-Catholics. They would have heard a good deal about overseas missions to the poor in their most impressionable years. Like socialists, Catholics are internationally-minded. There is a sense in which a Catholic from Canada speaks the same language as one from Korea.

Raymond Geuss’s family were not Irish emigrants; his mother was from Pennsylvania and his father from Indiana. Yet he, too, imbibed a suspicion of liberalism from his private Catholic boarding school near Philadelphia (which notably was staffed in large part by Hungarian priests, among them post-1956 refugees), a gut feeling which was later to be philosophically elaborated at Columbia University. Not Thinking like a Liberal interweaves an account of his upbringing as the son of a steelworker and a secretary with pen portraits of three university teachers whose critiques of liberalism helped him theorise his schoolboy intuitions in secular terms. His school, he argues, managed to steer a path between liberalism and authoritarianism. Rather than being obsessed with sex and scholasticism in the usual Catholic manner, it was a civilised milieu in which the names of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and Freud were not unknown. My own alma mater was rather less urbane. When I asked for studies of Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant in the form of Speech Day prizes, I was refused them on the grounds that all four philosophers were on the Vatican’s Index of forbidden books, and was handed instead a work of excruciating tedium by an elderly Irish Jesuit.

It is refreshing to find a portrait of a Catholic school which diverges from the brutal Joycean stereotype; but if the anti-liberalism of the place is typical of such establishments, one doubts that the same is true of its anti-authoritarianism. My own clerical headmaster, a borderline psychopath whose only distinction was to have grown up in the same small Irish town as Henry James’s grandfather, not only thrashed us mercilessly but gave the distinct impression that he would have done the same to the teaching staff if he could have got away with it. During the last hours of his life, his fellow clerics refused to gather around his deathbed to recite the customary prayers for the dying. One suspects that Geuss had it easy.

What he learnt from his religion teacher was that no individual is truly independent and free-standing; that we have no spontaneous access to our inner selves; and that the good is neither available through mere introspection nor reducible to what individuals happen to want. His mentor, in short, was a moral realist, a position perhaps more popular then than it is now. There are, he maintained, moral and religious questions which could not be reduced to matters of taste, choice or opinion, and not all values and opinions were to be tolerated. It was a mistake to think of Christianity as a theory formulated as a book. It was rather a constellation of historical practices, events and institutions in which certain beliefs were embedded, and from which they could not be abstracted. The Protestant fetishism of the word (sola scriptura) overlooked its entrenchment in what Wittgenstein around the same time was calling forms of life. It assumed a false transparency of the sign, in contrast with a more Catholic insistence on semantic obscurity and the inherent pluralism of the interpretative process. Whatever other intellectual crimes may be laid at Catholicism’s door, fundamentalism, which is essentially a mistaken theory of language, isn’t one of them. Even so, Geuss might have noted the irony that the founder of the art of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, was a Protestant theologian.

As a student of political philosophy at Columbia in the 1960s, Geuss encountered three left-wing critics of the liberalism of which his school had taught him to be sceptical. Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, rejected the liberal idea of a single impartial political framework that could be agree upon by divergent interests and values. Having had access to some of the materials from which John Rawls fashioned A Theory of Justice, he published The Poverty of Liberalism, a critique of Rawls’s work avant la lettre, which notes among other things that in Rawls’s view the most egregious inequalities can be defended on the grounds that the poor would be even worse off without them. Sidney Morgenbesser was a teacher whose casual conversation was so brilliant that one would have ‘paid for admission’; but apart from some suggestive aperçus about the relation between reason and commitment, it is hard to extract an extensive account of his thought from Geuss’s biographical jottings. The same is true of his discussion of the now largely unknown Robert Denoon Cumming.

If Geuss were less suspicious of what he calls ‘world views’, he might acknowledge that one at least of them offers a more dialectical assessment of liberalism than he is willing to countenance. Marx’s attitude to the creed is a supreme example of the virtue of granting your antagonist all you can, which in his case means recognising that autonomy, self-realisation, a hostility to autocracy and the like are part of the substance of socialism rather than an alternative to it. Had Geuss approached his subject historically as well as philosophically, grasping the revolutionary élan of liberalism in the Europe of the ancien regimes, he might have come to see that there is more to it than the prejudices of Rawls. He did, after all, go on from Columbia to study Adorno and Heidegger in Germany; and while reading the former confirmed his distaste for the liberal mind, we hear nothing of how reflecting on the latter might have bred a certain respect for it.

What has remained constant in his thought for fifty years, Geuss informs us in a somewhat foolhardy flourish, is a conviction that ‘the tradition which runs from Locke, through J.S. Mill, to Rawls was not the place to look for insight into anything’. To which one might retort with Millian equipoise that the liberal heritage may be politically ineffective but it is by no means intellectually barren. The book doesn’t really argue a case against the doctrines it dismisses in so cavalier a fashion, but this isn’t the point. It is less an intellectual intervention than a loving tribute to a set of thinkers without who the author wouldn’t be who he is. It is more anecdotal than argumentative; but it is also just the kind of book one should write in one’s retirement, when the cut and thrust of argument has faded, the dust gradually clears and you see in a long retrospect who and what really matters to you.

Read on: John Baptiste-Oduor, ‘A Pragmatist Maverick’, NLR 125.


Useful Spectres

In the EU-NATO protectorate of Kosovo, a small bureaucratic matter just provoked a spasm of violence. It was practically a routine occurrence, but trigger-happy Cold Warriors were quick to announce the beginning of a new Balkan war. The threat of a new conflict in the Balkans – to be instigated by Russia in concert with its Orthodox brothers in Serbia – has proven to be a useful spectre for the West, used to justify NATO expansion, distended budgets and the continued presence of the so-called international community. But it has also proven useful for Russia, allowing Moscow to claim that it still has a best friend in Europe, even as Belgrade moves quietly towards the West.

At issue this time were identification papers and license plates. Last month, the government in Pristina announced plans to introduce new measures that would require the Serbian minority to obtain provisional, Kosovo-issued documents and plates for their vehicles. Kosovo today has a population of a little under two million, of which about ninety percent are Albanian; Serbs are the second biggest ethnic group, comprising between four and seven percent. Pristina considers these reciprocal measures, as citizens of Kosovo need Serbian documents and plates in Serbia. The bureaucratic confusion is an outgrowth of Kosovo’s contested status. Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its southern province and holy Serbian land.

On 31 July, in Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo’s north, locals expressed their discontent with the new rules by blocking roads near two border crossings with Serbia, now something of an annual ritual. Police were also reportedly shot at by unknown gunmen. Kosovo’s imperial viceroy, the US ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier, brought the situation under control by directing Prime Minister Albin Kurti to delay implementation of the new measures by 30 days. The status quo – an uneasy but relatively durable peace – was restored. Observers in Kosovo remarked that the moment reflected Kurti’s so-called ‘political maturation’. Tacit capitulation to the authority of the US embassy was an admission that all major government efforts require coordination with Kosovo’s colonial administrators.

It has been a dramatic turn for ‘Kosovo’s Che Guevara’, who once led street protests against privatization and set off tear gas in parliament. Kurti’s political philosophy was modelled on anti-colonialist struggle in the so-called global south; his party, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje, means ‘the movement for self-determination’. A decade ago, the US ambassador accused the party of sending threats to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a champion of US intervention in Kosovo whose Albright Capital Management was controversially in the running to purchase the state telecommunications company. But those were different times. Last month, Kurti was in Washington for the third time since April to sign the $202 million Kosovo Compact with the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, represented by Chief Executive Officer Alice Albright, Madeline’s daughter.

The international community’s decades-long tenure in Kosovo has long been the subject of considerable criticism, both from human rights organizations and within Kosovo. NATO’s bombing of what remained of Yugoslavia in 1999 was purportedly to halt atrocities committed by Serbs, and initially met with much gratitude from the Albanian population. (Former Obama State Department official and current USAID head Samantha Power would later say that the bombing was also ‘partly about NATO credibility’). A number of international agencies, unaccountable to the population, were subsequently established to administer peace and democracy. The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) have been criticized for their failure to protect minorities from ethnic violence. The Council of Europe would also accuse NATO of ‘obstructionism’ in its investigation of alleged torture in KFOR-detention camps, and its human rights envoy described Camp Bondsteel, the US military base in Kosovo, as ‘smaller version of Guantanamo’. The European Union’s Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) meanwhile was dogged by serious accusations of corruption and bribery – exactly the kind of thing it was intended to combat. In 2020, the year its tenure was supposed to come to an end, Kosovo was ranked 104 out of 180 countries by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a testament to EULEX’s failures.

This recent controversy over papers and plates is compounded by wider tensions. Serbs in Kosovo say that the government in Pristina has not kept its promises, failing to implement a critical part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement with Belgrade: the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, a political body that would govern the ten municipalities in Kosovo where Serbs comprise a majority. Much of the disagreement is rooted in the ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the negotiations. For Serbia, the association is a third layer of government that should protect the rights of Serbs; for Kosovo, it is only a civic association, without any executive power. Kosovo’s Albanians on the other hand feel they have waited far too long for full sovereignty. Although Kosovo declared independence 14 years ago, it remains only partially recognized as a sovereign state (Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it is currently recognized by 117 countries. Five of the EU 27’s states do not recognize it). Many also feel that the Serbs in the north have been treated well enough, pointing out that they have not paid for their own electricity in 23 years – in recent times it has been paid for by the government of Kosovo, at a cost of 40 million euros last year. Pristina is keen on resolving the issue, and local Serbs know that electricity bills are coming soon.

As the unrest in the north appeared to be stabilizing, a couple of well-known cold warmongers took to social media to report that Serbia, with backing from Russia, had just attacked Kosovo. A litany of unsubstantiated rumours spread: a new front in the confrontation between Russia and the West had opened; Serbia was invading; men wearing uniforms of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group had been spotted. Francis Fukuyama joined the chorus, tweeting a recent photo of Kurti and himself with the comment that he ‘deserves our support in his present confrontation with Serbia’. It was a fitting epitaph to the end of history, given the centrality of the Kosovo precedent in resurrecting it. 

It is important to pause here and say that in Kosovo, reckless rumourmongering of this kind has gotten many people killed. In March of 2004, the drowning of three Albanian children – a day after a young Serbian man was shot – was erroneously blamed on local Serbs. Sensationalist media accounts followed. Over the next two days, Kosovo saw the worst ethnic violence since the war ended in 1999. When it was all over, 19 people were dead and more than 900 injured. Some 29 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were severely damaged or destroyed. More than 800 homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and Ashkali were attacked and destroyed. Over 4,000 people were displaced. As an OSCE report detailing the media’s role in fanning the flames of the violence states: ‘Without the reckless and sensationalist reporting on 16 and 17 March, events could have taken a different turn. They might not have reached the intensity and level of brutality that was witnessed or even might not have taken place at all’. Elsewhere the report issued a more general warning: ‘in a post-ethnic conflict society such as Kosovo, biased reporting alone can lead to violence’. Presumably, at least some keyboard Cold Warriors are aware of this, and yet they do it anyway.

Kurti has also been eager to invoke the spectre of conflict. In recent months, he has realised that he can garner greater support in Western capitals by drawing parallels with Ukraine. He recently told Italian media that the risk of war was ‘very high’, and emphasized that Kosovo, like Ukraine, was ‘a democracy bordering an autocracy’. Critics of these ominous pronouncements argue that he is prioritizing pleasing the West and the diaspora over people living in Kosovo. Inflation is at 14.1 percent, while the unemployment rate is 25.9 percent (youth unemployment is particularly grim, at nearly 50 percent). Nemanja Starović, the State Secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued last week that Pristina was trying to portray Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić as a ‘mini Putin’ and Kurti as ‘petit Zelensky’, in hopes that any escalation ‘would by default trigger US and NATO support for Kosovo’ regardless of who started the violence.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ukraine is among the states that do not recognize Kosovo. But there have been new efforts to change that. Serbia has drawn Western criticism of late for its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia. There have been calls to revoke its EU candidate status. Images of football hooligans in Putin t-shirts marching in support of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in central Belgrade have added to the outrage. Serbian public opinion is decidedly more sympathetic to Russia than that of any other country in Europe: according to recent polls, only 26 percent of Serbs view Russia as responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Serbian government media reproduces many Russian talking points about the war. Kurti has seized on these external markers of Russian-Serbian brotherhood to garner foreign support for his efforts to assert control over the North and advance Kosovo’s independence. On 6 August, an MP in the Ukrainian parliament registered a bill to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

Upon closer inspection, however, the image of Serbia as a faithful servant of Moscow starts to fall apart. At the United Nations, Serbia has consistently voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Serbia has been a member of NATO’s bilateral Partnership for Peace program since 2006. In recent years, Serbia has participated in more military exercises with NATO than it has with Russia. While Western media has fixated on the presence of Putin coffee mugs at tourist stands in Belgrade, Serbia has quietly held high-level meetings at NATO headquarters. Last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked President Vučić for his ‘personal commitment’ to the partnership between Serbia and NATO. The Serbian armed forces have also worked closely with KFOR, the NATO security force in Kosovo, for many years. Serbia might be pro-Russia before the domestic public; but behind closed doors, it is closer to the West.

You wouldn’t know any of this judging by media accounts from any side. The myth of eternal Serbian-Russian brotherhood is simply too useful to everyone: Russia, NATO, Kosovo and Serbia. But it is also possible that if Cold Warriors continue with the reckless dissemination of rumours of war, they will get the violence they want.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Kosovo: The War of NATO Expansion’, NLR I/235.


Forest of Images

At the very end of 1939, a young soldier in the 31st dragoons of the French Army was granted leave to be married. His regiment had been stalled in Northern France, in the endless pattern of military manoeuvres typical of the so-called Phoney War. A few days later, on 2 January 1940, he sat in a stiff chair at the Mairie of the southern city of Perpignan wearing a suit he had bought second-hand and rummaging through his pockets for his mother’s ring. He had not laid eyes on his fiancée, Renée, who sat beside him, and who would commit suicide four years later, for fourteen months, when she had seen him off at the train station and had handed him a sandwich wrapped in tissue paper, which he did not manage to eat.

Almost as soon as he was married, Claude Simon was sent off again, back to the northern front, where his comrades had to remind themselves that the German enemy might strike at any moment. It was there in the Ardennes town of Les Deux-Villes, as the ground froze and thawed and froze again, that Simon heard for the first time a phrase that would stay with him for the next twenty years of his life: les chiens ont mangé la boue – or, as Richard Howard has it in his authoritative translation of The Flanders Road (1960): ‘the dogs ate up the mud’.

This odd expression was one of many memories from the most disastrous war in French history to haunt Simon. The shocking, brutal, and swift collapse of France in 1940 became for Simon –as for all his compatriots – a bleeding enigma, a macro-event bursting with incommensurable details that called at once to be repressed and to be accounted for. The earth along the frontlines which seemed to have been torn up by rabid beasts; the dead horses which appeared, in their process of decay, to be returning to the mineral and fungal substrate that created them; the hurried holiday matrimonials; the military so anachronistically and poorly equipped for the coming onslaught that it was almost laughable (almost); the image of a man so desperate to die in battle that he appears, under the cover of courage, to commit suicide: these were some of the black holes from which Simon sought over and again to retrieve the light of clarity.


That last image, of a mounted army colonel frozen like ‘an equestrian statue’ before a barrage of sniper fire, is the centrepiece of Simon’s most remarkable work devoted to the war: The Flanders Road, republished in English this year. In it, the novel’s narrator, Georges, relives much the same experience as the author himself. Simon’s division was one of 18 stationed in the Ardennes, the weakest segment of the Allied lines, where the Second and Ninth Armies were operating under the assumption that a German assault through the forest would be so slow and difficult as to give France plenty of time to prepare a defence. On 10 May, 59 Wehrmacht divisions, ten of which were armoured, blindsided the French and their English allies and began the blitzkrieg which would push both armies to the sea. When Rommel’s 7th Panzer division crossed the Meuse in the early hours of 13 May, it proceeded along the very road between Solre and Avesne where Simon’s regiment was stationed – the Flanders Road of the novel.

What Simon lived through in the war would never leave him: the collapse of the French Armies at the Meuse, being taken prisoner by the Germans (a period of petrifying limbo examined in the novel); his early morning escape from a POW camp to the zone libre; his three years spent in the chaotic fringe of displaced artists gathered in southern France; his recruitment into the Resistance, for which he acted as a sort of intelligence agent; his return to painting (the artist’s first love), fueled by an infatuation with the works of Cézanne and Picasso, whose innovations would bleed into his prose; his plunge into novel-writing, with the completion of Le Tricheur (1945); his return to Paris before liberation, where he would lend his apartment on the rue Montparnasse to the Resistance, the same apartment where Renée, his wife, committed suicide (for reasons we will never know), mere weeks after the war’s end. It was the material of and for a lifetime.

The basis of the central event in The Flanders Road involved one colonel Rey, commander of the 31st dragoons. In the novel, he is Georges’s commander, Captain de Reixach, the altered name looking like a crossroads at which a word sounding like ‘king’ and another sounding like a pained grunt meet. Decimated after six days of retreat and repositioning, the regiment hides along the road littered with ‘wreckage and refugees’. The lines of command are scrambled. An order comes in to proceed on foot. Another to mount horses. In the novel, Captain de Reixach, riding senselessly into the middle of the road with his sabre, knowing that German soldiers are hiding nearby for an ambush, proceeds with

his arm raised brandishing that useless ridiculous weapon in the hereditary gesture of an equestrian statue which had probably been handed down to him by generations of swordsmen…the sun glinting for a second on the naked blade then everything – man horse and sabre – collapsing together sideways like a lead soldier beginning to melt from the feet up and leaning slowly to one side…

Like Rey, de Reixach is slain by sniper fire, right before the young soldier’s eyes. Had he simply been stupid? Gone crazy? Or did he ride intentionally toward his death in an act of suicide disguised as valour? The question is simple enough, and the ambiguity of its answer mysterious enough, to drive a plot. But for Georges, the significance of de Reixach’s death has much more to do with the remarkable pose he strikes, like an heirloom from his nation’s past, that ‘dim figure against the light so that it looked as if he and his horse had been cast together out of one and the same material’.


The problem of understanding the war, for Simon, was equivalent to the problem of historiography. To impose a line or an arc upon time is, as Hayden White put it, to emplot the past – to make it tragic, romantic, epic, and so forth. Simon’s primary characteristic as a novelist – indeed that which made him an exemplary Nouveau Romancier and a rare jewel among Nobel Laureates when he received his prize in 1985 – was his desire to find and create other narrative shapes, ones which frustrated the closures of life and death, comedy and tragedy. Ones which allowed him to linger among the difficulties and the traps of storytelling as such.

In articles written and interviews given throughout his life, he was quick to explain that he constructed the narrative of The Flanders Road according to the shape of a three-leafed clover, or trefoil. That is, the narrative proceeds in three loops or lobes, each one beginning and ending at the same point, a motion which repeats itself in the manner of the uncanny: difference through repetition. We see this repetition most memorably in the image of a decomposing horse, which Georges and his infantry-mates encounter three times in the course of their travails within the blasted landscapes of the Ardennes. The horse, ‘no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters covered in mud’, is both there and not there, both at the end of its life and at the beginning of its recomposition into earth, both ‘horse’ and ‘what had been a horse’, lying dead with its legs in a foetal position, as if about to be born.

The idea that the soldiers do not reach the end of their route, but rather constantly return to the intersection of the end of one loop and the beginning of another, is one that ramifies through Georges’s (and, by extension, Simon’s) interrogation of history’s emplotment. If history is conceived as a kind of eternal recurrence, as repetition with a difference, what do such repetitions offer us? The novel does not quite provide an answer. What they don’t offer us, to be certain, is progress. This is embodied by the figure of de Reixach himself. He is in fact related to Georges through the latter’s mother, Sabine, whose letter explaining the relation de Reixach holds in his hand at the start of the novel. Georges grew up contemplating a portrait that once hung in his home depicting de Reixach’s (and, thus, his own) ancestor, a man who lived during the French Revolution, admired Rousseau, and voted to execute King Louis XVI. As a revolutionary, de Reixach’s ancestor dropped his noble particle, becoming, simply, Reixach. He, too, died by apparent suicide: after commanding a Napoleonic regiment as a cavalry officer in the disastrous failure of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), Reixach returned home and was soon after found dead from a bullet wound to the head. Two French military disasters, two suicides, separated by more than a century, and, seemingly, no lessons precipitated by history.

With each repetition, in fact, Georges grows more uncertain. As he seeks out and seduces de Reixach’s wife, Corinne, in order to find answers about what really happened to the captain, he comes to believe that perhaps de Reixach killed himself because of Corinne’s past infidelities. He wonders, in turn, whether the same might have been true for his ancestor, or whether the latter case was not a suicide at all, but a homicide committed by his wife’s lover. Was it the war, then, love of country and the pain of national defeat, that brought both men to their deaths? Or was it something much more personal? The possible emplotments begin to multiply as George narrates them, and as Simon writes them, coagulating without cohering.


In an essay for a conference volume exploring the works of the Nouveau Roman, Simon writes that The Flanders Road follows ‘the horsemen in their wandering (or the narrator wandering in a forest of images)’. As with many of Simon’s parentheticals, this one is more significant than the main text alongside which it appears. The looping motion of the horsemen reverberates across narratological layers, passing from performed action to Georges’s attempt at historiography. This is mirrored in the novel’s unexplained shifts between the first- and third-person perspectives: we begin with an ‘I’, telling of the letter in de Reixach’s hand, and then, at first sight of the decomposing horse, the ‘I’ becomes ‘Georges’, indicating that the narrating subject has become estranged from himself, and therefore from the events being narrated, i.e., the past. (In an essay on the novel, Merleau-Ponty credits Simon with inventing an ‘intermediate person’, a narrator both there and nowhere.)

The French experience of the Second World War offers two possible narratives of recurrence, as the critic Lynn A. Higgins has put it: ‘reversal disguised repetition’ or ‘repetition within reversal’. In the first instance, the Flanders disaster’s apparent repetition of Napoleon’s 1813 defeat in Spain is a reversal of circumstances: in 1813, France was the invading force; in 1940, it was being invaded. In the second case, 1940 is a shocking reversal of French victory in the Great War which betrays, at its core, the thoughtless – and catastrophic – repetition of the forms and gestures of that earlier conflict. In his book Strange Defeat (1946), the French historian Marc Bloch, who lived through both wars, describes in sober terms exactly what was so shocking to Georges about de Reixach’s pose as the latter was gunned down: France’s greatest mistake in 1940 was to believe that the new war could be fought with the same tactics and the same equipment as had won them the previous one (‘our leaders, blind to the many contradictions inherent in their attitude, were mainly concerned to renew in 1940 the conditions of the war they had waged in 1914-18. The Germans, on the contrary, had been thinking in terms of 1940’). The image of de Reixach brandishing his glinting sabre contains, in nuce, both the paradox of the French war effort in 1940 and the dialectic of history that both Georges and Simon are trying to grasp.

All of this repetition, all of this looping, creates a pooling effect whereby the concrete particulars of the past become vaguer and more dissolute as the waters of confusion rise, and which Simon captures with his trademark, digressive style. I am not exaggerating when I say that the meat of his work is to be found in his many parentheticals. As the critic Daniel Deneau has argued, there are about 550 sets of them across the novel, ‘enclosing approximately 25% of the total text’. In at least 40 passages, Simon nests parentheticals within parentheticals, further provoking the state of suspension into which this common typographical sign is designed to throw readers. As Deneau writes, ‘an opening parenthesis is like an order to inhale air and then to pause – with the expectation that there will be a signal to exhale’. Simon closes all but five of his parentheses (probably left open by accident), though many of them are pages long. The movement of his prose, which some have justifiably called Faulknerian (Simon adored Faulkner), is commensurate with the movement of the narrative. It is indeed like a series of looping breaths: the long inhale deepening and expanding, and then the exhale which can happen quickly or slowly, bringing one back round again, the end of one breath signalling the beginning of the next.


We may wonder why Simon returned again and again to his experiences of 1939-1940, which continued to drive his major works, including Les Georgiques (1981), and L’Acacia (1989). We can gain a clue from the context in which Simon wrote The Flanders Road, nearly 20 years after the events it describes. France, after two decades of deliberately repressing the cataclysmic, self-indicting nature of its collapse in 1940 – two decades, that is, of operating a black-and-white regime of morality, of collabos versus résistants, in a bid both to apportion and to psychologically export responsibility and guilt – now found itself embroiled in another conflict spelling failure for the nation: the Algerian War. In Napoleonic fashion, Charles de Gaulle, hero of the previous war, returned to the helm of the republic to restore order. Simon, looking up from his novel manuscript to glimpse the tall, awkward figure of de Gaulle on his TV screen, might have seen another reversal disguised as repetition, or else a repetition within a supposed reversal.

To decide, he would have to remember. And to remember, he would have to work, to wander like his horsemen, and indeed like his narrator, in a brief flash of Quixote, throughout the forest of signs. This is the opposite of Proust’s famous ‘involuntary memory’, whole worlds of association opening out to Marcel with the slightest pinprick of specific sensation. Simon must retrace the event to return to it under a different aspect, ever so slightly different. As he writes in the preface to Orion aveugle (1971), there are no paths of creation other than ‘those opened step by step, that is to say, word after word, by the forward progression of writing’. In a way, he must become, like the old Reixach, a devotee of revolution, whose definition he included as the epigraph to Le Palace (1962), the novel that succeeded The Flanders Road: ‘Revolution: a body’s motion around a closed curve, retracing the same points in succession.’  History was taking another breath; he would try to trace its contours.

Read on: Alain Robbe Grillet: ‘Condition of the Novel’, NLR I/29.