Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category
[resuscitated by Lynn C. Rees]
John F. Kennedy said that in 1940 Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it to battle. But that was the problem. Churchill saw war in rhetorical terms, as pageantry and drama, as though eloquence alone were enough.
At the beginning of the war Evelyn Waugh joined a new unit of the Royal Marines, for which Churchill, when he was first lord of the Admiralty, was responsible. As Waugh dryly put it in a letter, he was “now in a very fine force which Winston is raising in order to provide himself with material for his broadcasts.” Rhetorical was what these forces and their derring-do often were.
What Churchill quite failed to grasp was the importance of sheer mass in modern war, as opposed to “The British Way in Warfare.” That was the title of a book published in November 1942 by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, the self-appointed, and sometimes self-important, military oracle, in which he returned to his pet theme: England’s greatness had formerly rested on indirect attack and limited aims, a policy tragically forgotten in 1914.
In a fascinating review that Hastings might have quoted, George Orwell summarized this “traditional strategy” favored by Hart, not to say by Churchill: “You attack your enemy chiefly by means of blockade, privateering and seaborne ‘commando’ raids. You avoid raising a mass army and leave the land fighting as far as possible to continental allies.” What few people seemed to have noticed, Orwell went on, was that for the past three years we had “waged the kind of war that Captain Liddell Hart advocated,” and yet neither he “nor anyone else would argue that this war has gone well for us.”
I once leafed through Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn at a local bookstore. I put it down in disgust: Atkinson’s introduction fawned over the World War II-era British Army. Even by our low national standards, glorification of the World War II-era British Army is a silly exercise in American self-loathing. The British Army started the war badly, fought the war badly, and ended the war badly. Its leaders occasionally rose to adequacy but were almost uniformly terrible. Two British generals, Harold Alexander and
His Serene Highness Prince Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas “Chainsaw” von Battenberg Mountbatten were selected for theater command more for their agreeable temperament than their military talent. The one World War II-era British general of any stature among the Great Captains of History was frowned upon by Churchill and exiled to a military backwater.
While American military leaders insisted on a cross-channel invasion in 1942 and 1943 (which would have failed) and incompetent Soviet military leadership killed uncounted millions of Russian soldiers and civilians, they were right on the big picture: the war in Europe would not end until enough military force was brought to bear on the North European Plain to break the Wehrmacht and destroy the Nazi regime.
Churchill’s indirect approach fantasy was built on the proposition that penny packets of
American Allied forces landed in small isolated pockets in Italy or the Balkans would somehow drain away significant amounts of German strength. This drainage would occur despite how indirectly approaching Germany from its “soft” Mediterranean underbelly involved directly and repeatedly banging the American’s Allies’ head against the southern face of the Alps. When Italy tried this same indirection during World War I, it worked so well that they went on to make ten sequels.
In contrast, Churchill vehemently opposed an Allied landing in Provence, the Mediterranean gateway to the only significant gap in the mountain ranges guarding southern Europe. He must have instinctively found its strategic rationality offensive. The Allied landing there in 1944, two months after the Normandy landings, was an outstanding victory (as Churchill, to his credit, gracefully admitted).
Churchill was a brilliant scribbler and weaver of narrative but a mediocre to utterly pathetic strategist. While he rightly recognized the core need for an energizing plot line in underscoring any successful war effort, this was not a unique insight or skill among Allied leaders: FDR and Stalin were also masters of story telling. Consider the opening to Stalin’s famous (in Russia) July 3rd, 1941 speech:
Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Men of our army and navy! I am addressing you, my friends!
This is not “never surrender” “finest hour” “owed by so many to so few” “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” inspirational to Western ears, but it was the first and last time Stalin’s rhetoric was personal. Starved for love from their Little Father for so long, Soviet
subjects citizens responded to Stalin’s genocidal terror wooden brand of charisma with alacrity. The difference between Churchill and the other Big Two was that FDR and Stalin remembered that, while a strong strategic story is crucial in war, it is not sufficient unto itself. The Carl observes:
Essentially war is fighting, for fighting is the only effective principle in the manifold activities generally designated as war. Fighting, in turn, is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter. Naturally moral strength must not be excluded, for psychological forces exert a decisive influence on the elements involved in war.
Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst. The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect. If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.
The rationale behind Churchill, Brooke, Fuller, Liddell Hart, and Bernard Law Montgomery’s desire to limit British casualties is understandable: there wasn’t enough
white Britons to fight the way the Russians and Americans fought. But the message of war is nothing without its medium: bloodshed. Liddell Hart and fellow advocates of “the British way of warfare” willfully ignored this. Both Fuller and Liddell Hart conjured up an undead and unholy Clausewitz roaming the Somme and Passchendaele battlefields, killing off the best British military talent of the next generation while whispering sweet nothings in Field Marshal Haig’s ear. On Flanders field, the “Mahdi of Mass” sucked the lifeblood out of the British Empire. From where they stood, Clausewitz, a lidless Prussian eye wreathed in flames, could even be the original model for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron (Tolkien fought at the Somme).
But Britain, as Orwell points out, was saturated in Liddell Hart thought. And how did this mindset work in practice?
Churchill’s obsession with striking on the periphery following Liddell Hart’s indirect prescription and “the British Way of Warfare” condemned British soldiers to slaughter in small, inconsequential driblets like Greece, Dieppe, or the Dodecanese. While this may be more emotionally tolerable to the large consequential massacres of World War I, it doesn’t bring you any closer to the Ruhr and so it doesn’t bring you any closer to victory.
The British Army didn’t display much flair for the indirect approach either. The most successful British-only operation of the European theater, El Alamein, was a methodical set-piece battle focused more on boring attrition than splendid maneuver. Eighth Army’s pursuit of the remnants of Panzerarmee Afrika afterward was more dogged than dashing. Slim’s 1945 campaign in Burma was an exception to this general mediocrity but then Slim was exceptional among British commanders in not being a mediocre general. When the British Army really tried something like the indirect approach, the result was usually more Arnhem than Mandalay. A British general could be adequate when you drew a line on a map and ordered them to hold it. Scenarios that relied on maneuver and initiative were doomed.
Material trumps spirit. Material wedded to spirit trumps spirit doubly. The Huns and Japanese emphasized fighting spirit to make up for deficiencies in material. They portrayed Americans as soft paper tigers who relied on fighting the Materialschlacht (battle of material). Yet this propaganda was simplistic, as befitting a Fascist regime. America effectively wed narrative to mass in World War II. FDR, for all his flaws, was a great showman. He peddled an American story that sold well at home, at the front, and overseas.
If FDR had relied on rhetoric or clever indirect approaches alone, as Churchill advocated, the Russians would have ended up in Paris. War is more than shock and awe and the sowing of confusion and disorder in enemy ranks. It is more than a gentle wooing of enemy populations with compelling stories. Confusion wears off and love is fickle but death (from a strictly military perspective) is forever. A critical part of war is making the other fellow die for his country, tribe, or non-state actors guild or, at least, persuasively convincing him that there’s a strong possibility thereof.
If you ignore the physical forces in war, you get the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. If you ignore the moral forces in war, you get Vietnam. In Vietnam, the U.S. Army killed Vietnamese a plenty but lost the contest of moral forces (the North Vietnamese had the good sense to liquidate their media lackeys and hippies when they got uppity). In the opening phase of OIF, there was a lot of emphasis on psychological effect but not enough emphasis put on physically locking down Iraqi forces. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a master of shock, speed, and maneuver, had two parts to his strategy. A Churchillian war of eloquence may deliver the first part, put the scare into ’em, but it may fail to deliver the second: and keep it on. Iraqi forces certainly fled and eventually disappeared but no control was exercised over these wandering soldiers. They were allowed to wander off. Large parts of the country were left un-Americaned for too long. The scare was put into them but it wasn’t kept on. Eventually shock and awe, however much there really was, wore off and it was open season on American soldiers. Contrast this with Germany and Japan after World War II. The scare was put on and if it wore off, there were still American troops with guns patrolling the streets to put it back on. And, if the Americans annoyed you, they could always go home and leave you to the tender mercies of the Russians.
The implicit threat of Muscovite hordes may have done more to keep the fear on the Germans and Japanese than anything the Americans did. After all, the Russians had the most effective mix of narrative and mass of the second World War. Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism had the strategic advantage of integrating Clausewitz at its inception. This helped Stalin demonstrate a masterful grasp of mixing politicking and warfare under the direction of politics. If people thought Americans could be bled into disengagement, they were under no illusions that they could do the same to the Russians. If the Russians came, they would break you. They had the narrative of communism to inspire fellow travelers and useful idiots (the first to go into the GULAG when Soviet troops actually arrived) and they had a well-earned reputation for brutality to inspire everyone else. This narrative was backed by masses of tanks, artillery, planes, trains, automobiles, millions of Russian soldiers, and generals who weren’t afraid to use them to the last man.
If today’s Americans need a Churchill to seek strategic inspiration from, especially in wedding story with mass, they’ll have more luck with John Churchill than his loquacious great-great-great-great grandson.
[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]
Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):
So — church collapses?
As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.
And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.
And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism…
The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:
At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.
And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:
“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”
A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…
So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:
The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.
Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.
We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.
Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…
You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.
I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…
Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.
I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…
And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:
In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.
You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…
Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.
[ by Charles Cameron — Zero Dark Thirty & Manhunt, fact and fiction, that old saw about who it is that gets to write history, thence onwards to theology & the arts, von Balthasar & Tolkien, winding up watching UK & US versions of House of Cards with son David ]
How’s this for stereoscopy?
You may know I’m preoccupied with the notion of extending the stereo concept — using twin sources to add a depth dimension to one’s perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally.
Nada Bakos‘ image above shows a cinema in which documentary and fictional versions of the story of the hunt for bin Laden are playing simultaneously. The fiction, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, I saw a couple of days ago, and neither I nor son Emlyn, 17, were terribly enthused: the Camp Chapman scene was the one that touched me most deeply.
I’ll no doubt want to see both films, but it’s Greg Barker’s documentary, Manhunter, that will interest me the most, the more factual of the two. And yet that’s curious in and of itself, because as a poet I’m usually interested in the mythic and imaginative as much as or more than the “merely” factual, and I tend to think of the movies as providing a mythology for our times.
Okay, let me give you the two quotes that get to the heart of my sensibilities about fact and fiction at the movies.
What, after all, happens in a movie theater after the lights dim and the curtain rises? F Scott Fitzgerald tells us what happens in the mogul’s screening room, but it’s the same with us peons, isn’t it?
Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds or else discarded.
And I’m also with the poet Kathleen Raine, who said:
Myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around…
So where does that leave me?
Right now, it leaves me feeling that in the case of these two filmic treatments of the same “true story” — and no doubt many others — history will likely be “written” by the entertainment makers, not the documentarists. Paradoxically, a sad thought.
But let’s go beyond that.
I said I’m preoccupied with the notion of using twin sources to add a depth dimension to perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally. Another way to say that is that I’m interested in figuring out how to think contrapuntally, and how to score contrapuntal thought — thought which holds two or more potentially conflicting concepts in mind simultaneously, so as to arrive at a deeper understanding than one perspective alone can provide…
I’ve talked about these modes of stereoscopic / contrapuntal cognition before, in posts such as Form is insight: a musical experiment and Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses, and I’m always delighted when I run across a new very bright thinker (Glenn Gould, Edward Said [Power, Politics, and Culture p. 447}, Wm Blake) playing with these ideas — today it’s the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, who speaks of “the entire polyphony of revelation”, suggests that:
In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it
and states that “Even eternal Truth itself is symphonic.” The only stronger statement I know of concerning the contrapuntal nature of the world from within the Catholic tradition is JRR Tolkien‘s extraordinary short masterpiece of a creation myth, The Music of the Ainur [scroll down at link], with which he begins the Silmarillion.
So the contrapuntal idea is present in theology, as well as the arts…
I’ve been watching the TV series, House of Cards, with my fourteen-year old, David — we’ve now seen the whole first series of the UK version together, and the beginning of the US version, and it’s fascinating to notice the differences.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):
Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson):
See both shows, form your own conclusions…
And their source?
Now I shall have to watch Richard III with David, too.
[ by Charles Cameron — on, as usual, binocular vision, but this time 2020 as well as 20/20 ]
I’m about half way through Freedom(TM), the second of the books in the trilogy by Daniel Suarez which began with Daemon and (I believe) ends with Kill Decision — I’d have finished all three pretty much as fast as I could lay my hands on them if I wasn’t trying to write quite so much myself. As those who have read or are reading the books know, there’s a lot in there about the difference in perspective between those who have and don’t have “augmented reality” glasses.
Since I tend to like to have at least two lenses through which to view things — and am interested in general in what William Blake called “fourfold vision” — the topic itself is of interest me, quite aside from its potential to illuminate some pretty obscure corners of near future possibilities.
Likewise, I’d like to have some roughly parallel universe with which to compare the one Suarez is providing me with — and this video introducing a game called Ingress looks like a suitable “second lens” to set up a stereoscopic inquiry and arrive at a measure of depth:
I’m not looking to make a qualitative comparison between the books and the game here, just to ask if anyone with access to both would like to discuss what we can learn from juxtaposing them?
Because juxtaposition is key. Because, as Iain McGilchrist says in his speech The Divided Brain and the Courage to Think Differently:
There’s an oddity about the brain, which is that it makes all its everything that happens — the multifarious beauty of the world — come out of connections. It exists only to make connections.
Because, as he also says:
Relations matter more than things.
So that a marvelous counterpoint to Suarez’ fast-paced action-oriented techno-thriller imagination is McGilchrist’s slow-paced psycho-stiller contemplative approach:
I hope you’ll find time to appreciate them both.