Friday, March 30, 2012
If you mention the name Minou Drouet to your French friends in Paris, not many of them under the age of fifty know whom you’re talking about. But older people know very well, even if they don’t all know the same thing. What do they think they know? She was seven –or was it eight? –years old. She wrote some poems. She didn’t write some poems. In any case, they were a hoax, une supercherie; it was really her mother who wrote them. She was the victim of her publisher, of the press, of her family. She was a talent, but she was a flash in the pan. She had no talent at all – what was it Cocteau said about her, something witty and bitchy? And Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies – didn’t he weigh in, too?
There is a faint sense of embarrassment when people admit that they remember her, as if they’d just as soon forget that their world made all that fuss about nothing, and they moved on to more elevated subjects… in fact, you can’t find a book by Minou Drouet in any bookstore in Paris, not even her phenomenally successful Arbre, Mon Ami, which was published in early 1956.
In his introduction to Arbre, Mon Ami, Rene Julliard explained that it was his friend Professor Pasteur Vallery-Radot “of the Academie Francaise” – the grandson of Louis Pasteur – who had first told him about Minou. Vallery-Radot had heard about her from Lucette Descaves, of the Conservatoire de Paris, who was giving the little girl piano lessons, and who soon entrusted Julliard with a batch of letters she’s received from her pupil. “Never had I lit upon a vein of such richness,” Julliard wrote. “I at once discovered a freshness and liveliness of feeling, a gift for imagery, and a power of expression that were quite exceptional, in short, a poet.” He decided to publish but not in the standard way.
In late September 1955, five hundred copies of a forty-eight-page sampling of Minou’s poems and letters were meted out to “certain critics and amongst my friends.” And at once a storm broke – a dispute that divided the literary and journalistic world into two houses – a sort of minor Dreyfus Affair.” As Time put it in late November – beneath the heading RAGE OF PARIS –“In France, where literature can be a front-page issue, the biggest story of the week – and the year’s liveliest press brawl- raged around the blond head of an eight-year-old princess. Was little Minou Drouet a genius or a fraud?
At the prompting of both suspicious journalists and staunch defenders, Minou was required to write poems before witnesses, one of which she produced while paying a visit, alone, to the Julliards. “Maison Plantee sur le Sable” begins
House planted on the sand
like a pine tree in the wind
house that echoes with song
and sighs of the sea
It’s a cry of longing for a small beach shack that the Drouets rented on the Atlantic coast. She asks if she can write a letter home, and in twenty minutes it’s done” “Mama dear, come get me… I’ve been so unhappy…I slide my arms around your neck, and my little heart is clothed in sadness." Within days this letter is reprinted in France-Soir.
The tormenting of the child never let up. In a letter to Mme. Julliard, Minou wrote, “Our street is vomiting journalists non-stop. They keep on and on with their questions. It feels like the whole world is after me…I wish I were dead. They keep on and on at me with their questions. I think the only words I can utter are fear, pain and death.” As Roland Barthes commented – and, years later, Minou quoted him – “One can prove imposture; never authenticity.”
By the time Arbre, Mon Ami was published, in January 1956, the publicity had been so unrelenting that within a few months the little book had sold forty-thousand copies. The celebrated actress Madeleine Renaud recorded a group of the poems and letters. A jazz band, Michel Attenoux et Son Orchestre, released the “Minou Drouet Stomp” – you can find it in a recent CD collection, Jazz in Paris.
A month after publication, Minou was put to the severest test of all. To resolve the controversy Minou agreed to take a test for membership in the Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. She was left alone in an office (from which ‘the telephone had been removed to prevent all communication with the outside world’) and given a choice of two topics to write on: “I’m Eight Years Old” or “Paris Sky”. “My eight years were already too sad,” she said. “I chose Paris Sky.” Within twenty-five minutes she had written a few dozen lines, and the judges, as Life put it, “admiringly awarded her membership. ‘I’ve won, yelped Minou.” Life’s translation, in part:
flesh which in hiccoughs
spits into our faces
through the open jaws of rows of houses,
a stream of blood
between its luminous teeth
cocktail of night and fear
which one savors with little licks of the tongue
with little catches of the heart
from the tip of a neon straw.
Soon after the publication of her book, Minou’s life began its transformation from that of a controversial child poet to that of a full-fledged celebrity. She mixes with cabinet ministers at the Julliard’s; she collaborates with famous singer-songwriters like Gilbert Becaud; she’s photographed with Maurice Chevalier (he’s kissing her hand) and at the premiere of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s The World of Silence (She’s ten, and that big bow is still in her hair.) She demonstrates her guitar playing for Andres Segovia. Pablo Casals teaches her is “Song of the Bird.” In Rome, she encounters Vitorio De Sica, and “quickly we were inseparable – we spent the entire day together.”
She even wins Cocteau over. His famous comment – the one thing everyone remembers about Minou –is quoted in many versions. In her memoirs she recalls it this way: “All nine-year- olds have genius –except Minou Drouet.” But one day at a book signing he came up to her and hugged her. “He was so charming that you couldn’t hold anything against him.”
Most impressive of all, at the age of ten she’s granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII. When she and her mother arrive at the Vatican, her mother warns her to behave herself, but “I forgot all these instructions when a monsignor, dressed in a long violet soutane, came to meet us in and outer chamber. He leaned toward me in a friendly way”:
“Minou Drouet, I very much like your poems.”
I answered like a shot:” And I like your robe a lot too. It’s really well cut!”
Maman threw me a look. A nun, standing by, sketched a smile. We followed the monsignor. In the innermost chamber a priest pointed to a massive gold throne and said “His Holiness is going to sit here to receive you.”
I looked at the throne. I raised my eyes. I pointed to Jesus on the Cross that was hanging on the wall.
“His Holiness is going to sit on this throne? And what’s the One up there going to say about that – He’s only got two pieces of wood!”
A burst of laughter from behind me. Pope Pius XII had just come it. “I don’t think anyone’s said anything like that in the entire history of the Vatican,” he remarked.
In her early twenties, Minou published some fables, a novel for children, and a novel for adults, but the irresistible impulse to write had left her when she was fourteen. “When a bird no longer feels the desire to sing, it stays silent.” Her mother contacted Parkinson’s and needed her, her marriage petered out, and in her early thirties she retreated to La Guerche-de-Bretagne, to the house where she had grownup. There she cut herself off completely from her public past, making no appearances and refusing all interviews, until 1993, when, having remarried – her husband, Jean-Paul Le Canu, is a local garageman – she published a reticent and skimpy memoir, Ma Verite (My Truth). But the public was indifferent. Her celebrity, like her talent, had disappeared.
That leaves the poems and letters. The poems are what grabbed attention back in the fifties, and they are still remarkable for their combination of naivete and richness of imagination. A passage like the following is not the typical effusion of a seven- or eight-year-old:
I was the clock face
whose hands bit the fleeting
moved on to what is
already no more
and from what is already no more
life is born in me.
A child who had been mute and isolated (orphaned and blind), both burdened and blessed with overwhelming feelings that she couldn’t express, is bursting out, giving us the unmediated outpourings of an over-full heart. Is it great poetry? No. But its no supercherie, it’s real.
And in a way Minou is even more remarkable in her letters. Perhaps the most extraordinary are those addressed to her friend Philippe, who’s fifteen and has sworn to marry her when she grows up, and with whom, she has made a pact: They will always think of each other at exactly eight in the evening. This is from the last letter that appears in Arbre, Mon Ami:
My darling, it’s eight o’clock, our eight o’clock. You remember the night when you said to me, in our cedar, “I love you so madly that if you want I’ll go and find you the moon.”…Philippe, at the stroke of eight o’clock I plunged the sliver of crystal you sent me into the sea, at the place where the moon trembles, and I held it out to you, the moon, that living petal in its crystal cage. And I threw back my head and held out my hair to you, my hair in which you loved to bury your face, it was the color of sad water and tasted of salt, and its tendrils were saying to you: You’re loved.
This is Minou Drouet before she’s eight – a primitive, an ecstatic, an original. A few years later, she’s become a phenomena, a scandal, a by-word. “I was a lost child,” she says. “I was only a pathetic little animal, “ she says. “What crime did I commit to be persecuted in this way? She asks. There is no answer. That she survived at all is a testament to her strength. That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme. Le Canu is the price she’s willing to pay.
November 6, 2006
Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2011
Thursday, March 29, 2012
I saw Jack three times when he was out here in 1957. Al Hinckle and Neal and I went over to see him when he staying in that little cottage over in Berkeley with his mother.. It just happened to be the day his box of On the Road arrived – none of us knew he was going to get his book that day, And of course we were all thrilled – Jack’s first book! – I can still remember Jack sitting at that big old round table with the stack of books in front of him. All of us were bending over him – hovering over him- and flipping through pages and trying to read this or that. And Jack was going through real agony – he really and truly was. He kept apologizing to us, He says,” You gotta understand now, I was mad at you here… I was mad at you here…” He was apologizing to us through the whole book and you know we could’ve cared less. We were just so excited that Jack had had a book published, and I don’t think any of us – at least I didn’t – we never really thought about Jack being famous. It wasn’t about fame – that wasn’t it. What made us so happy there that day was just the togetherness and the fact that he had done it. There is was, and it was in print! But he was just completely embarrassed.
When you are going through a book like that, just reading a line here and there, you’re not getting any real sense of it. Without meaning to, Jack made us all a little more curious than we might have been otherwise. Of course, we would all have read the book in any case. In fact, later, I found a lot of little things in On The Road that just didn’t match what I remembered but even if it had been the greatest flop in the world, on that day we would have thought it was great, because it was our friend who wrote it. But Jack was sure Neal would disapprove of it; he was in total agony from the minute Neal laid eyes on it. I mean it was obvious he really didn’t want to show us the book – he didn’t want any of us getting into the book. And if we were going to read it, he didn’t want to be around when we did. He couldn’t stop making excuses and apologies for different parts that he knew weren’t quite right. He’d say, “You’ve got to understand that I had to change a few things here and there.” But none of us really cared.
Afterward, Neal and I discussed the book many times. Well, in the beginning, Neal was thrilled. I mean, no one could have given Neal a finer compliment- in his eyes. He was proud that someone found him interesting enough to be written about, but especially someone that he thought so much of as Jack – someone he admired as much as he did Jack. The strange thing about the two of them, when they were with each other, it seemed like they were totally unaware of the other’s real feeling. This was true even for Neal- even though he knew Jack had written so much about him. I mean, they knew that they cared for each other; but I think on both their parts they felt the friendship was unequal. They, Jack and Neal, each felt it was more on their part that it was on the other side. Do you understand what I am saying?
They were both very envious of one another. It never interfered with their association, but it was a very obvious thing when you’d see them together. Everything that Neal was, Jack would want – had wanted – would like to be. And everything Jack was, Neal would have given his right arm to be or to have. Neal not only envied the school Jack had; he also envied the football thing, the athletic ability, the good looks, the ability to sit down and write the way Jack did. There were just so many things Neal didn’t have that came naturally to Jack. On the other hand, on Jack’s part, he envied Neal for his powers with women, of course; but he also envied Neal’s whole attitude, the confidence that real projected that Jack lacked; Neal’s ability to go anywhere and to act sure of himself. I think the woman part of it was small. I mean, Jack was very envious of Neal’s ability to talk with women so easily, and talk them into anything so easily, but I think that’s on any man’s mind.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
If my mother had wanted a life with Neal, it wouldn’t have been a life of driving frantically around San Francisco looking for kicks, it wouldn’t have been the life Neal had later with Kesey and all those hippies taking acid on the bus. If Lu Anne could have had her dearest wish, Neal would have gone to college, he would have become the writer he wanted to be. He wouldn’t have become the Merry Prankster. If they had stayed together, this would not have been the story.
Lu Anne’s great sadness was that Neal didn’t become everything she thought he could be, and that she didn’t become everything she thought she could be with him. There was a song that Barbara Steisand sang, an adaptation of Johnny Ashcroft’s “Little Boy Lost,” that hit my mom very hard when she heard it. That song was very profound for her, because the words were exactly what she felt for Neal. It went something like “Little boy lost/ in search of little boy found/ you go on wondering, wandering…/Why are you blind/ to all you never were / really are / nearly are…” The song was about a boy, or it could be a man, who keeps searching for something that is really close by, but he never realizes it, and keeps wandering farther and farther from those things which are really most important to him.
My mom felt that Neal remained the Little Boy Lost, that he was never done traveling and “always unraveling” as the song says. After Jack’s book came out, Neal became stuck in the role of the gut searching on the road, and he couldn’t get beyond it. My mom told me that she a Neal were looking forward to everything in the early days. Everything was a possibility then – going to New York, becoming a writer. Neal was reaching out for something better, and then somehow he got sidetracked.
The loss of Neal for Lu Anne wasn’t like a daily loss, like a loss of someone who’s been with you every day. They didn’t interact that much during the later years of their lives. But it was the loss of youth, and the dreams of youth, and the possibility of youth. When she lost Neal, all her youthful dreams were shut down. The future had been something that seemed open to her, an suddenly it was it was finalized – it was over. Over the years, she talked about how he died too young, but the thing that bothered her the most was that he died sad. Their youth, their dream, was gone.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
The Blasket story matters not alone for the sake of the island itself, or the people who once lived there, or the literature it produced, but for how it reflects back at us our lives today. Almost from the moment Tomas O’Crohan’s book The Islandman first appeared, it’s been like that – life on the Blasket seen in stark contrast to modern lives that, in the right light or the wrong mood, can seem to fevered, insubstantial, or inauthentic. The Blaskets speak to us not only of what they once were , but how we, the rest of us, are today. “It was a simple culture,” Thomson wrote of the island, “but free from the rapacity and vulgarity that is destroying our own.” True or not, the assertion, like others over the years from critics and scholars, makes the Blaskets into a kind of half-silvered mirror that, even as we look back through it to the past, shows us ourselves and something of how we live today.
No one anytime soon is returning to live on the Blaskets; the hundreds of islanders who over the years left it behind for America and Canada might scratch their heads, incredulous, at the thought. But this truth doesn’t deny anther truth, that the island has something for us yet to learn. George Thomson once lamented that he’s “failed in the work I had set out to do –that is, bring the people of the Gaeltacht into modern civilization while retaining their own culture.” But there is another work to do – to conform modern civilization with the story, the example, the contrast, of places like the Blasket: As counterweight to a “progress” that sometimes seems too headlong, or not progress at all; as repository of those old ways of pre-modern life worth reclaiming today, or at least revisiting; as testimony that life’s satisfactions lie amid people, individually or together, undistracted by the ceaseless swell of clatter and activity, goods, gadgets, and pixels that constitutes our lives today.
“We were poor people who knew nothing of the prosperity or the vanity of the world,” said Peig Sayers. She and the other islanders lived hard lives, buffeted by the extremes of nature, isolated and narrow. Still, most of the time, it was enough. Whereas today – doesn’t it seem? – nothing is ever enough.
Or, seen another way, it’s too much, leaving us to yearn for just a little less of everything. Today, right beside Facebook Nation and the rest of the twenty-first-century world, coexists a twenty-first century counterculture in sometimes uneasy union with it: Slow food, locally grown. An intimate urbanism built around compact, walking-scaled city neighborhoods. Vacations offering respite from the hammer and thrum of modern life – camping, long-distance bicycle touring, folk-dancing camps, trekking in Nepal, hiking along the Appalachian Trail. Each offers at least a hesitant, momentary step into a slower, less technologically-tangled life; one of less choice, less convenience, closer to nature, maybe some taste of real community. A little, in short, like Blasket in its prime. The Blaskets ‘may be a broken-down culture,” wrote Thomas Barrington in 1937. “It may be a culture run to seed. But seeds are scattered over a field prepared for them will produce a new crop.”
Are we required to judge as distorted or naïve all that the superbly educated men and women experienced on those windy heights above the sea? Must we dismiss it on the simple if undeniable grounds that their place on the island was temporary and artificial, their immersion incomplete, their insight skewed?
Today they would all be termed “privileged”. Each was spared the island’s grimmest truths, was buffered from the village’s social pressures, could come and go as he or she pleased. What George and Marie-Louise and Marstrander lived was not what the islanders lived. Australian scholar Irene Lucchitti says Synge’s sympathetic picture of the Blaskets “recognizes neither the realities of poverty nor the ordinary complications of Island life.” Synge and others may have hauled nets, collected turf on the hills behind the village, rowed until their muscles burned. But, unlike the islanders, they weren’t consigned forever to labor and hardship. Their prospects ranged beyond the sea-ruffled edge of the island. They were on vacation, or they were on leave, or they were doing research, or they were working on their Irish. Usually it was summer, and the sun shone; come winter, they were back in the city. With not matter what clarity Synge, Thomson, and the others could see the harshness of island life, they nonetheless enjoyed the mental leisure, the freedom from exigency, to see it warmed by softer light…
Or so, voicing this objection, speaks Maturity, the grown-up part of us that insists on being hardheadedly realistic. But of course that was not the part of them the Blaskets claimed. Because for them the Blaskets were their youths, their Land of the Young.
Synge, twenty-seven when he first visited Aran, was older at the time of his visit to the Blaskets, thirty-four. George was twenty. Marstrander was twenty-three. Sjoestedt was twenty-four. Brian Kelly was twenty-eight, as was Robin Flower. “To him,” his bilious friend Edward Meyerstein wrote of Flower on a trip to the island, “this place is a dream of his youth.” And it was something like that for most of them.
“Dream” suggests unreality, fantasy, nothing to be taken quite seriously, what the crimped adult in us is quick to smack down as ephemeral or silly. But –like Utopia, with its paradoxical intimations of impossible and ideal; or for that matter, the Irish Tir na nOg, Land of the Young, itself –“Dream” also suggests something rare and good, on a higher, if elusive plane, a vision of a happier time or a better world. And it’s this we see again and again among the Blasket visitors – their idyllic days on the island transmuted into a personal vision, into sensibilities that reached across their lives and into old age.
Around the time of George Thomson’s eightieth birthday, he was visited by Irish scholar Sean O Luing, a native of West Kerry, who’d been intrigued by Thomson ever since reading Fiche Blian ag Fas. It was a memorable day for O Luing in Birmingham, he and George talking of the prospects for the Irish language in Ireland, of links between Greek and Irish. “As he was speaking,” O Luining wrote, Thomason “got up and paced the room, a light came into his eyes, his voice which at first had been weak, grew stronger, the years fell away, and I found myself listening to a man who spoke with the animation and fire of youth.”
For Thomson, the Blaskets seemed to have defined a [personal state of grace, a time when he was tied to his fellows in a way he perhaps never was again.
By the old wooden stove where our hats were hung,
Our words were told, our songs were sung,
Where we longed for nothing and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside.
These are lyrics from a song, “Bob Dylan’s Dream” He wrote it when he was just twenty-one. Even then, it seems, he cherished the memory of yet an earlier, magical time, full of easy fellowship:
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be live that.
For Dylan in his dream, at least from the other side of the confounding gates of memory, younger was simpler, and simpler was happy. When we yearn for simplicity, for lives less saddled with stuff, for time less crowded and closed down, it’s usually our youthful selves we want back- for the earlier years when as young officers, assistant professors, or junior engineers, we sat “simply in that room again, in pub, bar, or coffee shop, with friends. For times when, typically, we had less, yet more.
It is not entirely mysterious, really, what this something-lost was. We only have to turn to the visitors themselves to see what captured their imaginations; persistent themes run through their writings. They tell of the peculiar dignity and grace of the island people, of their abiding hospitality. They tell of their bravery and strength and capacity to endure. They tell of how, with reading, writing, and pre-packaged distraction such a small part of their lives, vitality shot through their everyday human interaction. They tell of the islanders as creators of joyful music, exuberant dance, and artful language, not mere consumers of them. They tell of time taken to enjoy moments of extraordinary natural beauty. They tell of men and women measured not by the narrow yardstick of performance, doing one thing capably, but of an adaptability that left room for doing much well, living life well.
Hard to stack up against food prices, mils-per-gallon, music downloads, life expectancy, stock options; they don’t compute. What, then, should we do with these “losing” graces. As we think of the Blaskets, how they touched the visitors, and what we might draw from them today, how are we to retrieve them, ensure they don’t slip irredeemably from sight? How are we to treat virtues to amorphous, soft, and tentative to count, too sweet and admirable for any place but our dreams?
Robert Kanigel just retired as Professor of Science Writing at MIT and is the author of six previous books:
The One Best Way
The Man who Knew Infinity
Apprentice to Genius.
Monday, March 26, 2012
My month has been dominated by education. Home life overshadowed by A-level examination horrors, I escaped to London to address a conference of schoolteachers. On the train, in preparation for the inaugural Oundle Lecture, which I was nervously to give at my old school the following week, I read H.G. Wells's biography of our famous headmaster: The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, a plain account of the life and ideas of Sanderson.
The book begins in terms which initially seemed a little over the top: "I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy." But it led me on to read the official biography, Sanderson of Oundle, written by a large, anonymous syndicate of his former pupils (Sanderson believed in cooperation instead of striving for individual recognition).
I now see what Wells meant. And I am sure that Frederick William Sanderson (1857-1922) would have been horrified to learn what I learned from the teachers I met at the London conference: about the stifling effects of exams, and the government obsession with measuring a school's performance by them. He would have been aghast at the anti-educational hoops that young people now have to jump through in order to get into university. He would have been openly contemptuous of the pussyfooting, lawyer-driven fastidiousness of Health and Safety, and the accountant-driven league-tables that dominate modern education and actively encourage schools to put their own interests before those of their pupils. Quoting Bertrand Russell, he disliked competition and "possessiveness" as a motive for anything in education.
Sanderson of Oundle in Northamptonshire ended up second only to Arnold of Rugby in fame, but Sanderson was not born to the world of public schools. Today, he would, I dare say, have headed a large, mixed comprehensive. His humble origins - northern accent and lack of Holy Orders - gave him a rough ride with the Classical "dominies", whom he found on arrival at the small and run-down Oundle of 1892. So rebarbative were his first five years, Sanderson actually wrote out his letter of resignation. Fortunately, he never sent it. By the time of his death 30 years later, Oundle's numbers had increased from 100 to 500, it had become the foremost school for science and engineering in the country, and he was loved and respected by generations of grateful pupils and colleagues. More important, Sanderson developed a philosophy of education which we should urgently heed today.
He was said to lack fluency as a public speaker, but his sermons in the school chapel could achieve Churchillian heights:
Mighty men of science and mighty deeds. A Newton who binds the universe together in uniform law; Lagrange, Laplace, Leibnitz with their wondrous mathematical harmonies; Coulomb measuring out electricity... Faraday, Ohm, Ampère, Joule, Maxwell, Hertz, Röntgen; and in another branch of science, Cavendish, Davy, Dalton, Dewar; and in another, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Lister, Sir Ronald Ross. All these and many others, and some whose names have no memorial, form a great host of heroes, an army of soldiers - fit companions of those of whom the poets have sung...There is the great Newton at the head of this list comparing himself to a child playing on the seashore gathering pebbles, whilst he could see with prophetic vision the immense ocean of truth yet unexplored before him…
How often did you hear that sort of thing in a religious service? Or this, his gentle indictment of mindless patriotism, delivered on Empire Day at the close of the first world war? He went right through the Sermon on the Mount, concluding each Beatitude with a mocking, Rule Britannia:
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Rule Britannia!
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Rule Britannia!
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Rule Britannia!
Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake. Rule Britannia!
Dear souls! My dear souls! I wouldn't lead you astray for anything.
Sanderson's passionate desire to give the boys freedom to fulfil themselves would have thrown Health and Safety into a hissy fit, and set today's lawyers licking their chops with anticipation. He directed that the laboratories should be left unlocked at all times, so that boys could go in and work on their own research projects, even if unsupervised.
The more dangerous chemicals were locked up, "but enough was left about to disturb the equanimity of other masters who had less faith than the head in that providence which looks after the young". The same open door policy applied to the school workshops, the finest in the country, filled with advanced machine tools which were Sanderson's pride and joy. Under these conditions, one boy damaged a "surface plate" (a precisely machined plane surface, used for judging the flatness of objects) by using it as an anvil against which to hammer a rivet. The culprit tells the story in Sanderson of Oundle:
That did disconcert the head for a little when it was discovered. But my punishment was quite Oundelian. I had to make a study of the manufacture and use of surface plates and bring a report and explain it all to him. And after that I found I had learnt to look twice at a fine piece of work before I used it ill.
Incidents like this led eventually, and not surprisingly, to the workshops and laboratories again being locked when there was no adult supervision. But some boys felt the deprivation keenly and, in true Sandersonian fashion, they set out, in the workshops and the library (another of Sanderson's personal prides) to make an intensive study of locks.
In our enthusiasm we made skeleton keys for all Oundle, not only for the laboratories but for private rooms as well. For weeks we used the laboratories and workshops as we had grown accustomed to use them, but now with a keen care of the expensive apparatus and with precautions to leave nothing disorderly to betray our visits. It seemed that the head saw nothing; he had a great gift for assuming blindness - until Speech Day came round, and then we were amazed to hear him, as he beamed upon the assembled parents, telling them the whole business, 'And what do you think my boys have been doing now?'
Sanderson's hatred of any locked door which might stand between a boy and some worthwhile enthusiasm symbolised his whole attitude to education. A certain boy was so keen on a project he was working on that he used to steal out of the dormitory at 2 am to read in the (unlocked, of course) library. The Headmaster caught him there, and roared his terrible wrath for this breach of discipline (he had a famous temper and one of his maxims was, "Never punish except in anger"). Again, the boy himself tells the story.
The thunderstorm passed. 'And what are you reading, my boy, at this hour?' I told him of the work that had taken possession of me, work for which the daytime was all too full. Yes, yes, he understood that. He looked over the notes I had been taking and they set his mind going. He sat down beside me to read them. They dealt with the development of metallurgical processes, and he began to talk to me of discovery and the values of discovery, the incessant reaching out of men towards knowledge and power, the significance of this desire to know and make and what we in the school were doing in that process. We talked, he talked for nearly an hour in that still nocturnal room. It was one of the greatest, most formative hours in my life... 'Go back to bed, my boy. We must find some time for you in the day for this'.
That story brings me close to tears.
Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers,
Sanderson's most strenuous labors were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest... he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.
In spite of - perhaps because of - Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."
Sanderson died in 1922, after struggling to finish a lecture to a gathering of scientists, at University College, London. The chairman, HG Wells himself, had just invited the first question from the floor when Sanderson dropped dead on the platform. The lecture had not been intended as a valediction, but the eye of sentiment can read the published text as Sanderson's educational testament, a summation of all he had learned in 30 years as a supremely successful and deeply loved headmaster.
My head ringing with the last words of this remarkable man, I closed the book and travelled on to University College, London, site of his swansong and my own modest speech to the conference of science teachers.
My subject, under the chairmanship of an enlightened clergyman, was evolution. I offered an analogy which teachers might use to bring home to their pupils the true antiquity of the universe. If a history were written at a rate of one century per page, how thick would the book of the universe be? In the view of a Young Earth Creationist, the whole history of the universe, on this scale, would fit comfortably into a slender paperback. And the scientific answer to the question? To accommodate all the volumes of history on the same scale, you'd need a bookshelf 10-miles long. That gives the order of magnitude of the yawning gap between true science on the one hand, and the creationist teachings of some schools on the other. This is not some disagreement of detail. It is the difference between a cheap paperback and a library of a million books.
What would have offended Sanderson about teaching the Young Earth view is not just that it is false but that it is petty, small-minded, parochial, unimaginative, unpoetic and downright boring compared to the staggering, mind-expanding truth.
After lunching with the teachers, I was invited to join their afternoon deliberations. Almost all were deeply worried about the A-level syllabus and the destructive effects of exam pressure on true education. One after another, they came up to me and confided that, much as they would like to, they didn't dare to do justice to evolution in their classes. This was not because of intimidation by fundamentalist parents (which would have been the reason in parts of America) but simply because of the A-level syllabus. Evolution gets only a tiny mention, and then only at the end of the A-level course. This is preposterous for, as one of the teachers said to me, quoting the great Russian American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (a devout Christian, like Sanderson), "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Without evolution, biology is a collection of miscellaneous facts. Before they learn to think in an evolutionary way, the facts that the children learn will just be facts, with no binding thread to hold them together, nothing to make them memorable or coherent. With evolution, a great light breaks through into the deepest recesses, into every corner, of the science of life. You understand not only what is, but why.
How can you possibly teach biology unless you begin with evolution? How, indeed, can you call yourself an educated person, if you know nothing of the Darwinian reason for your own existence? Yet, time and again, I heard the same story. Teachers had wanted to introduce their pupils to life's central theorem, only to be glottal-stopped dead in their tracks: "Is that on my syllabus? Will it come up in my exam?" Sadly, the teacher had to admit that the answer was no, and returned to the rote learning of disconnected facts as required for A-level success.
Sanderson would have hit the roof:
I agree with Nietzsche that 'The secret of a joyful life is to live dangerously.' A joyful life is an active life - it is not a dull, static state of so-called happiness. Full of the burning fire of enthusiasm, anarchic, revolutionary, energetic, daemonic, Dionysian, filled to overflowing with the terrific urge to create - such is the life of the man who risks safety and happiness for the sake of growth and happiness.
His spirit lived on at Oundle. His immediate successor, Kenneth Fisher, was chairing a staff meeting when there was a timid knock on the door and a small boy came in: "Please, sir, there are black terns down by the river." "This can wait," said Fisher decisively to the assembled committee. He rose from the chair, seized his binoculars from the door and cycled off in the company of the small ornithologist, and - one can't help imagining - with the benign, ruddy-faced ghost of Sanderson beaming in their wake. Now that's education - and to hell with your league table statistics, your fact-stuffed syllabuses and your endless roster of exams.
That story of Fisher was told by my own inspiring zoology teacher, Ioan Thomas, who had applied for the job at Oundle specifically because he admired the long-dead Sanderson and wanted to teach in his tradition. Some 35 years after Sanderson's death, I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.
"I don't know... (crescendo) I don't know... (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr. Coulson! Mr. Coulson!"
He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr. Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr. Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson. What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture.
Sanderson's tradition that the whole school, not just the choir, even the tone deaf, should rehearse and bellow a part in the annual oratorio, also survived him, and has been widely imitated by other schools. His most famous innovation, the Week in Workshops (a full week for every pupil in every term, with all other work suspended) has not survived, but it was still going during my time in the 50s. It was eventually killed by exam pressure - of course - but a wonderfully Sandersonian phoenix has risen from its ashes. The boys, and now girls I am delighted to say, work out of school hours to build sports cars (and off-road go-carts) to special Oundle designs. Each car is built by one pupil, with help of course, especially in advanced welding techniques. When I visited Oundle last week, I met two overalled young people, a boy and a girl, who had recently left the school but had been welcomed back from their separate universities to finish their cars. More than 15 cars have been driven home by their proud creators during the past three years.
So Mr Sanderson, dear soul, you have a stirring, a light breeze of immortality, in the only sense of immortality to which the man of reason can aspire. Now, let's whip up a gale of reform through the country, blow away the assessment-freaks with their never-ending cycle of demoralising, childhood-destroying examinations, and get back to true education.
A Devil’s Chaplain; Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science and Love by Richard Dawkins; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2003
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Especially after it was abandoned and reduced to ruins, it would be easy to imagine that the Blasket community had been around since antiquity, or at least since the Middle Ages, or at any rate was steeped in ageless tradition. But the settlement of the Blaskets was recent enough, the generations going back to the early settlers few enough that creation myths of a sort around this or that aspect of village life sometimes took hold. One of these concerned music.
The way Sean O Criomhthain like to tell the story later, an islander, Mike, one day crossed the sound, hoodwinked a Dingle man into letting him take a fiddle he didn’t pay for, brought it back to the island, and learned to play it. “That was the first fiddle of their own which the islanders had.” They called it a sliver, for its shape. Ultimately, Mike left for America, but not before two other islanders learned to play the fiddle and saved up to but their own. Soon “all the lads of the island were becoming interested in the fiddle and some of them set about making one.” For string, the used fish-net cord; if the instrument showed special promise, they’d contrive to get proper strings for it. “Within a few years there was a sliver in every house in the village…[and not] a boy or girl on the island who couldn’t knock some smattering of music out of it.”
Following the fiddle onto the island was the melodeon, or “box”, a small accordion introduced early in the twentieth century and catching on quickly. At the height of the melodeon craze, nightly dances sometimes kept young people up almost till morning. “They had little else to do during the day,” Sean seemed to grumble, “except to bring a couple of loads of turf from the hill and dress themselves up for the night.” Some fine evenings, they’d bring a visiting box-player over to the Spur at Seal Cove, near the northern tip of the island. Out of sight of the village itself, it was large enough and level enough to accommodate two dance sets at once and, said Sean, “many other activities if you wished!”
In the village itself, it was often at Peig Sayer’s house where the furniture would be cleared for the evening’s dance. “The room would be lit by a turf fire and an oil lamp, and a tiny red lamp before the holy picture,” remembered Robin Flower’s daughter Sile, a teenager at the time, who visited the island during some of the same years as George Thomson. The room was full to bursting, the boys “crouching on their haunches,” ready to jump up and ask a girl to dance before the music started. “And then it was very, very lively dancing, reels and sets.” At evening’s end, in the blackness of the night, they’d wend their way home. “The boys were dying to get a kiss from us. We thought this was terrific at age fourteen or fifteen,” she remembered. “Finally we arrived home, and this howling mob of boys would be outside the window, waving through the window and blowing kisses at us.”
It was impossible not to be moved by weeks or months spent in a setting so alive, in the shelter of the darkness, to the lilt of song, the whine of the fiddle, the drone of the melodeon, the play of dancing feet, the abandoned pulse of young bodies. No visitor was immune to it. “The sharp sound of their heed irons are still ringing in my ears,” wrote Marstrander of the dancers. Synge wrote of four Blasket couples dancing a polka:
The women, as usual, were in their naked feet, and wherever there was a figure for women only there was a curious hush and patter of bare feet, till the heavy pounding and shuffling of the men’s boots broke in again. The whirl of the music and dancing in this little kitchen stirred me with an extraordinary effect. The kindliness and merry-making of these islanders, who, one knows, are full of riot and severity and daring, has a quality and attractiveness that is absent altogether from the life of towns.
Robin Flower capture the dancing in verse:
‘Rise up now, Shane,’ said a voice, and another:
‘Kate, stand out on the floor’; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the en; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying…
Now, the island, one needs reminding about now, was not some easy-living tropical paradise. It was a hard and unforgiving place, difficult to wrest a living from. Clinging to its precipitous cliffs, rowing and sailing overs its roiling waters, you couldn’t long forget the essential seriousness of life. Marriage mattered; so did birth, so did death, and not much else. The islanders, many said, possessed dignity and poise, heroic grace. Many of them tapped a deep religiosity. Given then pleas to Jesus and Mary marking everyday Blasket speech, it would be possible to imagine the island pious or prudish. And many islanders did hold firmly to the tenets of their faith and conform to every standard of decorum between the sexes.
All this was true.
But it was also true that the Great Blasket was an island. And islands ae famously places of freedom and abandon, of rules relaxed, of stricture and release held in balance. The idea in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World – a man kills his father and is hailed for his manly daring – was hatched on an island, in Aran. The Blaskets inspired him in another idea, for a play set on an “island with a population of wreckers, smugglers, poteen makers…startled by the arrival of a stranger.” No priest inhabited the island; one was rowed in for the Stations, to take confessions and say Mass at the school, but that was just once a year. Otherwise, the church, its institutions and representatives, could seem far distant indeed. “While life was reasonably good there was little talk of priests or ministers,” recalled Sean O Criomhthain. “The ordinary person doesn’t spend his life talking about religion.” The great litanies of ought-and-should could seem remote, mainland verities not so much rejected as forgotten or ignored.
Sometime before George Thomson came to the island, an English translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, his collection of lubricious tales of love and sensuality set in medieval Florence, found its way to the island; George once saw a tattered copy of it in Maurice’s house. Using Irish names and place names, Micheal O Guiheen would translate several of Boccaccio’s stories into Irish, leaving scholars to debate just how much, or how little, he’d cleaned them up. Delving into the story, folklorist Bo Almqvist concluded that O Guiheen, very simply, was no prude, that the appeal of Boccaccio’s stories for him and other islanders lay in their similarity to Irish folktales that could be “every bit as earthy and bawdy as any Boccaccian tale.”
“On our way back to the village,” wrote Synge of what he observed following an evening’s dancing,
The young girls ran wild in the twilight, flying and shrieking over the grass, or rushing up behind the young men and throwing them over, if they were able, by a sudden jerk or trip. The men in turn caught them by one hand, and spun them around and round four or five times, and then let them go, hen the whirled down the grassy slopes for many yards.
Marstander, likewise, recounted the flirtatious horseplay that sometimes accompanied these evening dances.
The girls are shouting at the men. Earg ,earg, stand up, and dance, but they are standing seriously and carelessly, as if they didn’t hear anything. Then the girls shower them with jokes and sarcasms, threats and rude stories. They shall be teased to dance, just as the heroes of old are geared for battle with abuse from a friend. No method is forbidden. No secret is taboo. ‘Get up Sean, or I will tell them who put her white arms around your neck yesterday, get up Sean.’ Sean got up very fast, blushing…
It was a small island, but it wasn’t as if you couldn’t slip away – you could. The village itself might seem claustrophobic, a few minutes’ walk from one end to the other. But its few houses were really just a speck of urban adornment to an otherwise wild countryside of pasturage, mountain, bog and cliff; it could be two hours over the back of the island to Ceann Dub or Black Head, at the island’s far southwestern tip. To any red-blooded island boy or girl, there were plenty of less traveled areas to get away to. Close by was the White Strand, with rock-sheltered corners lying behind the cliffs, invisible to the prying eyes of the village. Or else a couple “might hop in over a fence or up the hill a bit,” remembered Sean O Criomhthain of his youth. “They’d go someplace where people didn’t usually go.” The island was too small, making it hard to find such a spot? “Not at all. It was easy to find a place there if you wanted to.” Young men he termed “the real experts…brought the girls up the hill.”
Among the reminiscences delivered in George Thomson’s memory at the time of his death was one from Padraig O Fiannachta, a Roman Catholic priest reared in West Kerry who’d befriended him. “ I am certain that dear George is dancing steps in Paradise with the people of the Island now,” he wrote “and that he has the sets better than he had them long ago.” He probably was not a gifted dancer, though “he couldn’t have been as unmusical as he seemed,” suggested daughter Margaret years later, perhaps influenced by standards set by her mother, a musician. But on the island, raw energy trumped any natural want of ability. Sometimes George, Maurice, and one or two other men could be seen dancing on the beach, pipes hanging from their mouths all the v while. One old islander, Sean O Guithin, remembered George with his jacket off, stripped to his shirt. Oh, he said “he could step it out with the best.”
Sometimes, on moonlit nights, the young people would drift from the village en masse, cut across the northeast face of the island, beside the fields about the White Strand, to Speir Cuas na Ron, Seal Cove, the brink of which fell precipitously to the surf crashing up against the rocky cove below. As he remembers those nights of dancing there now, George sits propped upon one elbow, his other hand idly fingering a workman’s cap by his side, an errant wisp of hair slipping across his forehead…and then, from the wizened old face, a secret smile breaks free.
“I suppose he had a few girls on the island?” one of his old friends asked.
“Oh, he did indeed!” says he. “There was one girl in particular…”
From the moment he stepped on to the island, George had been a hit, falling in easily with his age-mates. If at age twenty he showed even a dash of the sincerity and intelligence his friends unfailingly remarked on, he could hardly have failed to excite interest. He was handsome and, in his way, exotic, certainly in those years before the island saw so many visitors from beyond Ireland. It’s not surprising that Mary Kearney would have been drawn to him.
What happened between her and George in whispered conversations on the White Strand, or on the paths along the back of the island, or while dancing at Peig’s or above the Gravel Strand, or in chance looks or tender moments amid the crowded company of others, is lost to us. “I remember the times on the Blasket Islands very well” was all Mary would say years later, on a tape she knew he’s hear. “We had a great time, George.”
Certainly they spent plenty of time together. He met her family, her sisters and brothers, sometimes played chess with them. He must have learned early on that Mary’s father, in his early forties at the time, was something of a celebrity. Back in 1909, he’d jumped into the water and help saved Tomas O Criomhthian’s daughter Cait at the time of the Eveleen Nichols drowning. He had a bronze metal to show for it, from the Royal Home Society, patronized by the King of England himself, “for having saved a life from drowning.” He wasn’t shy about wearing it. Mary’s father must have seemed to George no idle, clever talker, like some of the effete boys and men he knew at King’s College, but an authentic Irish hero.
George was not by nature carefree. His idea of a good time at age twelves was setting up a lending library and in later years he took nothing so seriously as, by his lights, setting the world aright. In family photos he always looks about the same – placid, earnest, his even features rarely corrupted by a smile, his great thatch of straight hair flopping down over his forehead. On one photo about three years before he went to the Blaskets, younger brother Hugh has a winsome look to him, whereas George is all sharp, straight lines; as well as you can tell from an old studio portrait, he seemed closed. He certainly was good-looking, but in a way more befitting an older man than the seventeen-year-old school boy he was at the time.
It is unlikely, then, that, before reaching the Great Blasket ( on an academic project to learn Irish), George was ever much the life of the party; or that the mischievousness, the sheer antic frivolity, of young Maurice O Sullivan could have seemed to him anything but a welcome counterpoint to the stresses of school; or that the convulsive, spirited laugh of Mary Kearney – his “black-haired Deirdre laughing in the breeze”? – could have seemed to him anything but captivating.
“I’d say he was in love with her,” said one of the old islanders. “He was very fond of her. He’d’ve married her if she would have him.
Would he? Would he really?
Through some mysterious alchemy of love, a summer flirtation ha bubbled up into a full-blown crisis – for George, certainly, and perhaps for Mary as well.
At one point, Mary’s brother Sean reported, George approached their father, who did nothing to scuttle the match. “Well,” Sean has his father saying, “its not me that will marry you…If you like her, and if she likes you, you can’t be kept apart, and I suppose it’s a mortal sin to keep two people who are in love apart.”
But even if George was smitten, and her father willing, Mary herself may have never given herself over to the idea. The island was the only world she’s ever known. He was from a faraway place she could scarcely imagine – perhaps not someone, ironically, to take seriously. Her faith, meanwhile, she took very seriously, and George’s religion, or lack of it, erected a formidable bar. At some point, or perhaps several –the chronology is muddled - George told her just how he felt. Either she rebuffed him altogether, or simply explained to him she could never marry a non-Catholic. Probably on one of his visits to the island -1926 is as good a guess as any – George, lost and lovestruck, and looked into converting.
“I remember him coming to our house in An Cill. He wanted advice from my Uncle Padraig, as to whether he should convert to Catholicism. The girl wouldn’t marry him unless he became a Catholic.”
The speaker was Maire Mhac an tSaoi - Mary McEntee – one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets and writers. An Cill was the house her uncle had built in Dun Chaoin – on the mainland, within sight of the Blaskets – in 1925. Her uncle was one of the leading intellectual lights of Ireland, Monsignor Padraig de Brun, otherwise known as Paddy Browne. He had built An Cill, his niece explained, as refuge, balm for the grief he’d experienced in Dublin with the 1916 Rising and the execution of a friend, Sean MacDermott, one of its leaders.
In Dun Chaoin, with its few score houses scattered across the landscape, everyone knew everyone; George would have certainly known of Father de Brun. With his dark hair, deep hooded eyes, and rich baritone voice, the irrepressible de Brun would come to be seen as a “maverick…altogether uninhibited and mischievous, caring not a fig for theological caution, impish and mischievous in his humor,”: fond even of off-color limericks,. But that was later. More recently, he had been reproved for his open support of the republican cause by his superiors at the seminary.
He was no average country priest, yet he was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Just what did young George expect of him? How did he frame his request? With what hesitancy or conviction did he, at twenty-two or twenty-three, assert his love for the island girl and seek an opinion, a ruling, a morel of advice, that might leave her his>
This is how Maire Mhac an tSaoi told it in her old age:
My uncle Padraig advised him not to convert simply in order to marry her. He was an atheist. If he couldn’t say with honesty that he was no longer an atheist it would only be a cause of sorrow for both of them. The marriage would be based on a lie and nothing good would come of it.
George did not convert.
At some point, Mary left the island, to take a position as servant to a doctor outside Dublin.
At first, George’s time on the island with Mary, Maurice, and the others must have been just so much raw undigested experience; he, barely in his twenties, was still raw, awash in the alien sounds of a new language, trying to make sense of so much else that seemed exciting, novel, and strange. In the end, though, his Blasket summers changed his mental make-up. They influenced his scholarship. They tinted his writing; they gave him a stock of raw material that would find its way into his stories, poems, and translations. They would shape his values and help make him the man he was to become.
One day many years later, while visiting China, rereading Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few pages at a time each evening, he felt an acute and sudden tug of awareness. He’s been reading chapter 25, in which Angel Clare reflects on his time at Talbothay’s Dairy in Wessex, where he’d met and fallen in love with Tess. Angel came to the diary, Hardy wrote, sure his brief stay would be ‘the merest episode in his life, soon passed through and early forgotten,” an interlude during which to reflect on the great world and its work. But, quite the contrary, it was the great world on which he soured, “dissolved into an uninteresting outer dumb-show; while here, in this apparently dim and un-impassioned place, novelty had volcanically started up, as it had never, for him, started up elsewhere…It was amazing, indeed, to find how great a matter the life of the obscure diary had become to him.”
There in China, George was just two pages into the chapter when “it struck me suddenly,” as he wrote in a letter home, “that Angel Clatre, who came to Talbothay to study farming and found something unexpected, was not unlike me, who went to Blasket Island to study the Irish language and found there something unexpected.
“But there, I am slipping into daydreams again, and it’s bedtime.”
On An Irish Island by Robert Kanigel; Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y. 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012
From the Gilded Age, when Emma Goldman and Mark Twain ridiculed the light punishment for kleptomaniacs in comparison with the severe penalties for starving single mothers, there has been in America the idea that treating rich shoplifters as sick, not criminal, reveals an ugly class bias. But in the 2000s, the contrast between how the rich and poor shoplifters were sentenced was amplified: Now rich shoplifters became fashion icons, and poor ones were given life sentences. At Christmastime of 2001, the case of Winona Ryder, or SA0445291, as it was later known in the Los Angeles Superior Court, redefined celebrity shoplifting. This trial, examining the relationship between fame and shoplifting, trivialized the crime. Another case – a Supreme Court case involving shoplifters serving life sentences under California’s three-strikes law – magnified the sense of a double standard.
On December 12, 2001,when the Beverly Hills police arrested Ryder for allegedly shoplifting just under $6,000 worth of designer clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard near Rodeo Drive, she was a thirty –year-old icon…
Ryder was not prosecuted for shoplifting, which is a misdemeanor charge. She was prosecuted on felony charges of grand theft and vandalism but, ultimately, it was a trial about a celebrity shoplifting designer clothing and journalists quickly shifted from analyzing witnesses’ testimony to deconstructing Ryder’s sartorial tastes and demeanor in the courtroom. “This is not a film performance that is going to garner Winona Ryder any Oscar nominations,” one article began. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick called Ryder “Felony Barbie.” According to some fashion writers, Ryder looked “splendid” in the courtroom, but because she chose to wear Marc Jacobs in court – Jacobs, among the designers whose clothing she had allegedly shoplifted – others thought she was sneering at the proceedings. They also criticized her “demure” attire, including one dress with a faux collar and matching black Mary Jane shoes, a ladylike yellow dress, a black cardigan and preppy hair band. She was trying too hard to play an innocent person, the logic went.
[At any rate], after a day and a half of consideration, the jury declared Ryder guilty of grand theft and vandalism, but not second-degree commercial burglary in which a person enters a store with the intent to steal. Judge Fox gave Ryder 480 hours of community service, five years probation, and drug counseling. Once Ryder completed her sentence, he would reduce her charge to a misdemeanor.
In the fashion world, the crime raised Ryder’s status. Marc Jacobs hired her to represent his spring collection. A few years later, the Festival Market Mall in Pampano Beach Florida, used the final minutes of the Saks surveillance video, when Ryder exists the store, along with the song “The Best Things in Life Are Free” in its ad. “Winona Knows. Why pay retail?" the caption reads.
Haute couture continues to use shoplifting as a sales tool. At Christmas of 2009, Karl Lagerfeld’s short video Vol de Jour appeared on Chanel News. Dutch supermodel Lara Stone and French boy muse Baptiste Giabiconi zoom over cobblestone Paris streets on a motorbike, the carefree beautiful people alighting at several Chanel boutiques to shoplift…in a world where haute couture is endangered, Lagerfeld treats supermodel shoplifting as an eccentricity, a taste to be indulged and a billboard for his own reinvention of brand. Ordinary mortals need not apply.
At Ryder’s sentencing the prosecution and defense bickered over whether to burn or auction the allegedly shoplifted designer clothes. Ryder’s attorney pointed out they might fetch a good price on eBay and the profits could go to charity. A representative from Saks said, “Shoplifting is a serious crime” and told the judge that the company lost $7 million the previous year because of shoplifting [ and probably spent at least an equal amount trying to guard against it].
Geragos decried Sak’s use of a “victim impact statement” to bemoan the store’s woes. Profits were up, so for Saks to cast itself as a victim was to make a mockery of real victims, he said, adding that Ryder had already been punished. “She will carry the scarlet letter S for shoplifting wherever she goes.” [It may be worth noting that today not a single photo of Ryder on Google Images depicts her involvement in the case].
In his sentencing statement Judge Fox asked the question judges have asked wealthy shoplifters since the nineteenth century: ‘Why would Winona Ryder steal…when she has enough money to buy?”
Under the three-strikes laws the California legislature passed after the murder of Polly Klaas, shoplifters could be sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2002, there were about four thousand ‘three-strikers’ in prison in California for nonviolent offenses. Of these, 368 involved shoplifting. Two of these cases had just reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Leandro Andrade, a nine-year army veteran, father of three, and heroin addict, had been arrested in 1995 for shoplifting five children’s videotapes including Batman Forever and Snow White, worth a total of $84.7. He was arrested a second time for shoplifting four tapes worthy $68.84. He had been arrested for burglaries in 1983. The other defendant, Gary Ewing, a drug addict, shoplifted three golf clubs, a total of $1,200. He had many prior theft convictions, including one for robbery with a knife. Andrade had received two twenty-five year sentences, much larger than, for instance, second-degree murder, manslaughter or rape.
In two 5-4 rulings, the Supreme court ruled against the pleadings of both Andrade and Ewing. In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the three strikes sentence was proportionate for both men even though Andrade, then thirty-seven, would not be eligible for parole for fifty years. So whereas in Beverly Hills, a jury found a movie star shoplifter guilty of grand larceny and gave her community service, the conservative Supreme Court found that two poor shoplifters deserved the twenty-five-to-life sentence.
Marc Klaas was in the courtroom at the Ryder trial to show his support for the star who years earlier had donated $200,000 to help him find his daughter. “She my be a double felon, but she has a big heart,” he wrote in a letter to the judge.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
I met Peter Reich for lunch at his home in Massachusetts, two hours outside of Boston. He worked as assistant to the dean of the Harvard Medical School – an unlikely job for someone whose father devoted the last two decades of his life to battling the “pharmaceutical interest.” Peter said, “I’ve spent sixteen years working for the enemy.”
“What my kids don’t understand,” Peter told me as we sat in desk chairs in his garden, “was that people in Reich and my mother’s generation really believed in a better world. It was probably going to look like a Socialist world. It wasn’t going to be Communist, it wasn’t going to be fascist. It was fair and honorable, and sexuality would be a part of that better world. There was a vibrancy and a hope. But that better world didn’t make it and people today don’t know about that.”
When I asked him to describe his father’s obvious charisma, Peter Reich invoked movies. “When Star Wars came out and I saw the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker about the Force, I really felt kind of ripped off. And that is the best description. He had that presence that Obi-Wan Kenobi projected and that same belief in that same force.” To Understand Reich, Peter told me, you have to understand how he modeled his life on the films he saw.
“He thought the movies were about him, and maybe they were. You see. It’s hard to know where the circle starts. For example, High Noon, he was really into High Noon, and Bad Day at Black Rock. And this is why he wore a cowboy hat: he was Gary Cooper. And when the FDA came up to see him at Organon, he was just like Spencer Tracy. He’d say, ‘Listen, mister’ –he used that language. That was really part of his American persona, the movie person. He didn’t make a distinction between that and real life.
“He could put his hands on you, and he was a healer, he really was. And I think he felt he could heal the world, because his cloud-busters really seemed to work. So he really felt he was in control of everything. And he didn’t understand who other people didn’t see that. He shared the moral certainty that Gary Cooper had in High Noon and Spencer Tracy had in Bad Day at Black Rock, and that Sir Thomas More had in A Man for All Seasons.
I imagine Reich as the Burt Lancaster character in The Rainmaker, a naive showman and energetic charlatan who charms a sexless old maid and then actually drums up a storm. The very idea of orgone energy might be seen as cinematic: in The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht , a feral Leni Riefenstahl is the guardian of a high altitude cavern that glows an ethereal blue during full moons and lures men to their death in the mountains.
I put it to Peter Reich that in every biography of Reich there seems to be a cut-off point, an eye-rolling threshold after which the biographer considers Reich mad. For the psychoanalysts it was Lucerne; for others it was of his odd inventions, be it the orgone box, the cloudbuster, or the space gun. Even among his devotees, only a very few managed to follow him to the end. A.S. Neil, Reich’s faithful friend since the 1930s, was exasperated when he received a copy of Reich’s new journal, CORE (Cosmic Orgone Engineering), which described the “cloudbusting” experiments. “If I had never heard of Reich and had read CORE for the first time,” he wrote to Reich in January 1955, “I would have concluded the author was either meschugge [mad] or the greatest discoverer in centuries. I can’t follow you…is there anyone that can?”
Peter Reich replied: “Okay, I was on the operation when the blueberry growers paid Reich to make rain in ’54, and it started to rain. I just couldn’t believe it. Another time, this hurricane was heading right towards us and all of a sudden it veered off. You know, I participated in a lot of things that I think really happened. And I don’t know what to make of them. I remember in Arizona, he’s bought this telescope and he was seeing these flying saucers, and I remember looking through the telescope and I didn’t see the thin cigar shape with the little windows [this was how Reich described a UFO to him]. I remember thinking to myself, Well, I don’t know.
That’s where I drew the line, I think, and that was as a ten-year-old boy. But I made it rain, I made the wind come up, I don’t know, I just really don’t know.
“He was a nineteenth-century scientist, he wasn’t a twentieth-century scientist. He didn’t practice science the way scientists do today. He was a nineteenth-century mind who came crashing into twentieth-century America. And boom! The FDA was hot to get a prosecution and he walked right into it. He was sending telegrams to the president of the United States, saying he was stopping hurricanes and claiming that the FDA were Communists. He walked right into it, with his eyes wide open.”
When A Book of Dreams came out in 1973, Peter Reich was criticized for not being able to state clearly whether he now believed in orgone energy or not, though it is precisely this irresolution that makes the book such a compelling read. In 1998, in a preface to a new edition of the book, Peter Reich wrote; “The forty-four-year-old husband and father is a private person to whom this all happened a long time ago. He waits, he watches. A critic once said that Wilhelm Reich had grabbed truth by more than its tail. How much more? Does anybody know? Does Orgone Energy exist? So, yea, the son is still hedging.” Almost twenty years later he is still equivocating; his is an ambivalent, complicated relationship to his father’s ideas and inventions. “Perhaps it is the easy way out,” Peter speculated in his book.” Keeping one foot in the dream – but it is deeper than that. My childhood is the dream.”
“You know, he was like Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he repeated. “He was all there, all the time. He would get drunk –he did have a bad drinking problem. And he beat my mother up. But it’s funny, that doesn’t detract in my mind. He would get drunk because he was so lonely. One by one [his friends] got to the eye-rolling point. They kept peeling off. At a certain point I just think he started spiraling and he knew that it couldn’t go on anymore. [The Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan] Makavejev said that everybody has a blind spot when it comes to Reich, and I think that’s true. But where does the blind spot begin?”
In the posthumously published Contact with Space, Reich wrote:
"On March 25, 1956 at 10PM, a thought of a very remote possibility entered my mind which I fear will never leave me again: Am I a spaceman? Do I belong to a new race on earth, bred by men from outer space in embraces with earth women? Are my children off-spring of the first interplanetary race? Has the melting pot of interplanetary society already been created on our planet, as the melting pot of all earth nations was established in the U.S.A. 190 years ago? Or, is this thought related to things to come in the future? I request my right and privilege to have such thoughts and to ask such questions without being threatened to be jailed by any administrative agency.”
“Hey, man, see that mother with the red nose?
“Yeah, what about him?”
“He’s the Sex Box man!”
“What the hell is the Sex Box man?”
“Whatta you mean – you don’t know? Everyone knows about the Sex Box man. It was in all the papers. He kinda made a big wooden sex coffin, and a guy and a chick would crawl; into it. They’d have to make love for an hour before he’d let them out. It was a big porno raid. Everybody read about it.”
Sunday, March 18, 2012
On January 30, 1927, in the small Austrian town of Schattendorf, near the Hungarian border, members of the home Heimwehr (home guard), a right-wing paramilitary group associated with the Christian Social Party, randomly shot into a Social Democratic Party rally. A war veteran and an eight-year-old boy were killed, and another six-year old child was critically wounded. Six months later in Vienna, the three accused gunman were acquitted of “all wrong-doing” by a right-wing judge.
Ignaz Seipal, the Christian Social Chancellor, supported this controversial decision. However, the next day an editorial in the Social Democratic newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, declared the acquittal “an outrage such as has seldom if ever been experienced in the annals of justice.” In Vienna, a huge number of workers went on strike and assembled to stage a spontaneous protest rally on the Ringstrasse, the main artery around the city. They marched together to the square in front of the palace of justice. The Christian Social-dominated police force was unprepared for the angry mob. The spontaneous demonstration turned into a riot as the crowd threw stones at the law courts before storming the building, overpowering the police cordon, and breaking down the large iron doors. The unarmed police officers had their uniforms stripped from them and paraded on flagpoles like trophies. Four officers were killed, court records and books were thrown out the windows like confetti, and the building was set ablaze.
When a patient arrived at Wilhelm Reich’s apartment for therapy and informed him that several protestors had already been killed by the police, Reich cancelled their session and went to join the demonstrators, joining the ranks of unarmed workers marching in silence towards the university. When Reich saw that the Palace of Justice was ablaze he ran home to collect his wife. He and Annie stood by the Arcaden Café with about four hundred others, watching the fire, sharing in the sense of collective retribution. Reich heard someone shout, “That shack had it coming.” The offices of the conservative Reichspost, which had declared the court ruling “a just judgment,” were also burned down that day.
[On that morning, the future Nobel Laureate Elias Cannetti, a student at the Chemical Institute, was at home reading the Reichspost. Fifty-five years later, Canetti wrote that he could still feel the indignation he felt reading the giant headline “A Just Verdict.” He quickly biked into the center of town and joined the demonstrations. “It was the closest thing to a revolution that I had physically experienced. Since then, I have known quite precisely that I would not have to read a single word about the storming of the Bastille. I became part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it, I did not feel the slightest resistance to what the crowd was doing.”]
The demonstrators refused to let fire engines through to put out the fire, and Johann Schober, the Christian Social police chief responsible for crushing the 1919 Communist uprising, issue rifles to his forces so that they could clear a path. Members of the fifty-thousand –strong Republican Defense League, the Social Democratic militia formed in 1923 for precisely the purpose of defending the workers in such a situation, had been ordered by Otto Bauer to return to barracks: the Social Democrats wanted to avoid a full-scale confrontation, and had sent the militia home under threat of expulsion or disciplinary action.
Reich recalled that two hundred yards from where he was standing a phalanx of policemen started to advance, inching forward slowly with their gun barrels lowered. When they were fifty yards away their captain ordered them to shoot at the crowd. A few disobeyed and fired over the onlookers’ heads, but dozens in the crowd fell dead or wounded. Without the Schutzbund to defend them, the crowd was completely helpless. Reich dragged Annie behind a tree, where they his to a void the bullets; others fled down alleys. Ernest Fisher, a journalist for the Arbeiter-Zeitung whose editorial had helped spark the events wrote that he’s seen one worker tear open his shirt and shout, “Shoot, if you have the guts.” He was shot in the chest. Others screamed, “Worker killers! You are workers yourselves!” and begged them to stop.
[“I saw the throng being shot at and people falling.” wrote Cannetti, “The shots were like whips. I saw people run into the side streets and I saw them reemerge and form into crowds again. I saw people fall and I saw corpses on the ground. I was dreadfully frightened.. I ran with the others. A very big, strong man running next to me banged his fist on his chest and bellowed as he ran: ‘Let them shoot me! Me! Me! Me!’ Suddenly he was gone.
“This was perhaps the eeriest thing of all: you saw and heard people in a powerful gesture that ousted everything else, and then those people vanished from the face of the earth. Everything yielded and invisible holes opened up everywhere. However, the overall structure did not disappear; even if you suddenly found yourself alone somewhere, you could feel things tugging and tearing a you. You heard something everywhere: there was something rhythmic in the air, an evil music. You could call it music; you felt elevated by it. I did not feel as if I were moving my own legs. I felt as if I were in a resonant wind.
‘The crowd persisted. Driven away, it instantly erupted again from the side streets. The fire held the situation together. No matter where you happened to be under the impact of the gunfire, no matter where you seemingly fled, your connection with the others remained in effect. And you were drawn back into the province of the fire – circuitously, since there was no other possible way. If anything loomed out, sparking the formation of the crowd it was the sight of the burning Palace of Justice. The salvos of the police did not whip the crowd apart: they whipped it together. The sight of people escaping through the street was a mirage: for even when running they fully understood that certain people were falling and would not get up again. These victims unleashed the wrath of the crowd no less than the fire did."]
The killing went on for three hours. Eighty-nine people were killed, and about a thousand wounded. The historian David S. Luft has called the violence “the most revolutionary day in Austrian history,” and refers to “the generation of 27…a generation whose adult political consciousness was defined by the events of 15th July 1927.” Wilhelm Reich was very much part of that generation. In his book People in Trouble (written in 1937 but not published until 1953) Wilhelm Reich wrote of the events he witnessed as the defining moment in his political awakening; he called the brutal police oppression a “practical course on Marxian sociology.” He was deeply disturbed by the violence, and described the police as mindless automatons, part of “a senseless machine,” just as he himself had been in the war, firing “blindly on command without thinking.”
Like many others, Reich was disappointed by the Social Democratic reaction to the day’s violence, especially the fact that they failed to take a decisive stand, despite their constant rhetoric of revolution, and protect the workers by mobilizing the Schutzbund when civil war looked imminent. By returning his troops to barracks, Otto Bauer had exhibited, Reich thought, a “dangerously irresolute politics” and thereby failed to prevent the massacre.
In the April elections earlier that year the Social Democrats had received their largest electoral vote to date. Otto Bauer was confident that his party could increase their vote nationally from 42 percent (up from 39 percent in 1923) to a controlling 51 percent in the future, and he didn’t want top jeopardize this ascent by risking civil war. However, the events of July 15 ended Bauer’s illusory optimism, revealing the impotence of the Social Democrats on the national stage. Even in the capital they supposedly controlled (in Vienna they had won 60 percent of the vote), the government was prepared to use violence to suppress what it saw as an irksome “red tide”.
Order was swiftly restored, followed by a reactionary crackdown that, Reich wrote in hindsight, led directly to Hitler’s rise in power. The resulting crisis in Social Democratic leadership would ultimately lead to the collapse of the party and the triumph of fascism,. Heimito von Doderer, who witnessed the events and later centered his novel The Demons (1956) on them wrote that the violence “turned the Austrian middle-class towards fascism” and signaled the end of freedom in Austria. Doderer would have known: he was a member of the Austrian Nazis Party from 1933 to 1938.
[in The Torch in My Ear, Cannetti wrote that “in the following days and weeks of utter dejection, when you could not think of anything else, when the events you had witnessed kept recurring over and over again in your mind, haunting you night after night even in your sleep, there was still one legitimate connection to literature. And this connection was Karl Kraus. My idolization of him was at its highest level then. This time it was gratitude for a specific public deed; I don’t know whom I could ever be more thankful to for such an action. Under the impact of the massacre on that day, he put up posters everywhere in Vienna, demanding the voluntary resignation of Police Commissioner Johann Schober, who was responsible for the order to shoot and for the ninety deaths. Kraus was alone in this demand; he was the only public figure who acted in this way. And while the other celebrities, of whom Vienna has never had a lack, did not wish to lay themselves open to criticism or perhaps ridicule, Kraus alone had the courage of his indignation. His poster were the only thing that kept us going in those days. I went from one poster to another, paused in front of each one, and I felt as if all the justice on earth had entered the letters of Kraus’s name."]
Reich met Freud at the end of the month in the villa Freud liked to rent on the Semmering Pass. Freud was troubled with stomach problems in addition to the painful complications of his cancer. Reich , none-the-less, talked to Freud about the recent political events and concluded that Freud had completely failed to understand the true significance of the uprising. Martin Freud revealed the family’s collective stance when he wrote of the “civil war” in his memoir: “When the Socialists, inspired by Communist influence, were at the throats of the Conservatives, who at this time appeared to have a strong leaning towards the new Nazi theories,. The Freud’s remained neutral. Unable to decide which was the lesser evil, we kept out of the struggle and were not hurt.”
Freud thought of July 15 in terms of a natural disaster rather than a political turning point; he viewed it “as a catastrophe similar to a tidal wave.” Freud had little confidence in the readiness of the masses for freedom. For him, the crowd was a “primal horde”,” a surging unconscious throng that was searching, herd-like, for an authority figure to guide it. On the street Reich felt he had witnesses something different: a crowd nobly seeking justice and viciously suppressed.
Later that year, in response to the riots, Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion, in which he stated that the masses were “lazy and unintelligent: they have no love for instinctual renunciation.” Freud believed that as a result the masses had to be educated and coerced by an elite into accepting repression as a requirement of civilization (the crowd psychologist Gustav Le Bon, whom Freud cites in his essay, wrote of the masses as “extraordinarily credulous and open to influence”). This belief was exported to the United States by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who sought to use Freud’s insights to manipulate public opinion. In 1928, Bernays wrote his book Propaganda, which explored the ways in which a small band of “invisible wire pullers” might “regiment the public mind.” In a letter to his nephew, Freud praised Propaganda as “clear, clever, and comprehensive…I read it with pleasure [and]…wish you all possible success.” To its author’s horror, Joseph Goebbels was an enthusiast of he book; Bernays wrote that he later used his ideas ass “the basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews.”
Canetti read Freud’s Group Psychology (1921) when he returned home from the riot and was repulsed by it. Freud and other writers such as Le Bon, he wrote thirty-three years later, “had closed themselves off against the masses; they found them alien or seemed to fear them; and when they set about investigating them, they gestured: Keep ten feet away from me! A crowd seemed something leprous to them, it was like a disease…It was crucial for them, when confronted with a crowd, to keep their heads, not be seduced by the crowd, not to melt into it.” Wilhelm Reich also felt the crowd’s contagious energy within him.
Shortly after his meeting with Freud that summer Reich read Marx’s Das Kapital for the first time. Marx led him to Engel’s Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, and to other critics of the patriarchy such as Johann Jakob Bachofen. He joined the Communist Party and was soon speaking about society’s sexual problems at their meetings, promising that if the cornerstone of sexual repression was removed, the whole edifice of class submission would crumble. This line alienated Reich from the Psychoanalytic Movement ( at least as Freud conceived it) and the Communist Party in almost equal measure.
By 1930 the psychoanalytic profession was completely polarized. That year Freud published Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he maintained that civilization demanded the sacrifice of our freedom. “The intention that men should be ‘happy’ is not the plan of creation,” Freud put it with he called his “cheerful pessimism”. But the younger, more radical analysts believed that these repressions of our natural instincts might be jettisoned. Reich, who was become the leader of the dissident group, thought that Freud’s essay was a direct response to his own ideas, specifically his lecture “The Prophylaxis of the Neurosis,” a summary of The Function of the Orgasm. “I was the one,” he immodestly told Kurt Eissler in the 1950s, “who was ‘unbehaglich in der Kultur’ [discontented by civilization].
In fact, Freud had been working on the book well before Reich gave his talk, but it is not unlikely that Reich’s subversive ideas about orgasms, formulated three years earlier, had an effect on Freud’s final; thesis. Freud argued that there is always a fundamental conflict between our primal instincts and the restraints of civilization, which makes us sacrifice the former. The orgasm might offer us a glimpse of former freedoms, Freud wrote, as if addressing Reich directly, and it is tempting to let the “overwhelming sensation of pleasure” we experience in sexual love serve as a paradigm in our search for happiness, but this quest is fundamentally flawed: “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love,” Freud warned
“It is a bad misunderstanding,” Freud stated, “explained only by ignorance, id people say that psychoanalysis expects the cure of neurotic illness from the “free living out” of sexuality. On the contrary, the making conscious of the repressed sexual desires makes possible their control.”
Later, in 1933, from Copenhagen’s relative oasis of tolerance, Reich looked back critically at his former home and experiences in Vienna and Berlin and began writing his classic study of dictatorship, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich damned the German Communist Party’s blinkered emphasis on economics, which he though failed to explain fascism. He criticized the party for ignoring the sexual question; his focus on it caused him to be increasingly marginalized and eventually thrown out of the Party. But Reich maintained his faith in the proletariat’s “open and untrammeled attitude towards sexuality", which he thought was an untapped resource of revolutionary energy. The book is a manifesto for his sex-pol views: if things had been done his way, if the Communists had worked top eliminate sexual repression, Reich implied, the masses would not have swept Hitler to power.
The picture Reich painted of the Nazis as sexual puritans became the dominant view for decades (especially in America). However, revisionist historians such as Dagmar Herzog have shown that as soon as the Nazis had crushed the “Jewish” sex reform movement , they appropriated many of their arguments, although the fascist embrace of sexual freedom was controversial among some Nazis. In 1938 a Nazi physician named Ferdinand Hoffman complained that 72 million condoms were used a year in Germany and that only 5% of the brides were till virgins. But some Nazis seemed to share distorted versions of Reich’s sexual beliefs.
In his party-endorsed advice manual Sex – Love- Marriage (1940), the Nazis psychologist Dr. Johannes Schultz described sex as a “sacred” act and endorsed child and adolescent masturbation and extramarital sex, calling for all young women to throw off the shackles of repression to enjoy the “vibrant humanness” to which they were entitled. Like Reich, Schultz differentiated between the hasty, superficial orgasm and the orgasm that led to a “very intensive resolution…extraordinary profound de-stabilizations and shakings of the entire organism.” Schultz, however, had a totalitarian solution for those who fell short of what Reich would have called an “orgastically potent” ideal: he called for the extermination of handicapped people and homosexuals, who he deemed “hereditarily ill”. Schultz forced homosexuals to have sex with prostitutes under his clinical gaze. Only those who achieved a satisfactory orgasm were saved a train ride to the camps.
Many on the left saw the Nazis sexual libertarianism as proof that Reich’s ideas were misguided. Reich’s former colleague, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who incorporated many of Reich’s ideas into his best-selling Escape from Freedom (1941), questioned the link between sexual repression and authoritarian tendencies, arguing that the Nazis proved instead that sexual freedom did not necessarily lead to political freedom. Contrary to Reich, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse also observed how the Nazis Party actually encouraged sexual pleasure within the confines of a racial elite, thereby “nationalizing” the realm of even the most private act in the service of the state.
Two years after it was disowned by the Communists, The Mass Psychology of Fascism was banned and then burned by the Nazis, along with Reich’s other works. This particular book, however, developed a secret afterlife. Contraband copies were smuggled into Germany by the antifascist underground, disguised to look like prayer books. It was to become Reich’s most influential political work and the book on which his later intellectual reputation would principally be bases; it became required reading for postwar intellectuals trying to understand the Holocaust and by the 1960s it would become the seminal text for anti-authoritarian groups in both Europe and the United States.
In Anti-Freud; Karl Kraus’s Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry,one way Thomas Szasz represents the views of Canetti’s idol of those years in the works of Egon Friedell , who objected to psychoanalysis as a non-falsifiable set of propogandistic propositions:
“ It is impossible to convict the psycho-analysts of a false diagnosis, as they are such adepts in refuting all criticism by means of catch-words with which they make play – terms like “ambivalent,” “inverted,” “symbolic,” “repressed,” “transferred,” and “sublimated. The convincingness of their argumentation here rests on the assumption that the pettifogging verbal quibble is the organizing principle of all spiritual life.”
“Many psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, social scientists, and intellectually (Szaz continues) generally still find it rather shocking to see psychoanalysis bracketed with Marxism, Communism, and even National Socialism. Yet the logic of this classification – namely- that psychoanalysis is the name of a militant sect, not of a medical science, of a cult, not a cure – is irrefutable.”
Adventures in the Orgasmatron; How The Sexual Revolution Came to America. By Christopher Turner; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2011.
The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, 1999.
Anti-Freud by Thomas Szasz; Syracuse University Press, 1976