Michael Antony, copyright May 15, 2007.

Please note that table of contents and footnotes are at the end of this entire webpage. 



A Heretical History of Our Time

(copyright, Michael Antony 2001-2007)




Every age appears to be one thing to itself and something else to each of the ages that follow. When we look back on most periods of the past we can only see them as a mistake, a wrong turning, an age so misguided, ignorant or deluded that it seems to have been in the grip of collective madness. But when we read the writings of that time, what often strikes us is their sense of normality, as if for people then no other reality was conceivable. Every age lives in a closed world, and according to a truth of its own, which will one day be discredited.

Societies under totalitarian rule suppress dissent. More open societies merely smother it. The weight of similar views is so overwhelming that any alternative is buried under tons of  rubble. But usually the prevailing sense of the sane, fashionable and “modern” way of looking at the world is so all-pervasive that no other thoughts can easily be formed. Even when an age is split by intellectual conflicts, the opposing creeds often rest on the  same unquestioned premises. The worldview of the age thus remains in place almost unnoticed. It is like the air that is breathed. Superficial changes, decade by decade, in fashions, morals, politics, economic circumstances, even scientific theories do not destroy the overall perspective, which is confidently believed to be eternal. And yet a time inevitably comes when this orthodoxy falls apart, and is derided by all as an enormous delusion. From the new perspective, the old worldview suddenly belongs to a previous age.

At what point do we move from being inside an age to being outside of it? How does an age lose its hold over our sense of reality? The great cataclysms of history, when an entire social order was swept away by some catastrophic event, are easy to point to -- the French Revolution, the First World War, or, for Eastern Europeans, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet every so often in history a moment comes when, even without some catastrophic punctuation mark, we have a sudden sense that we are at the end of an era. The worldview of the age begins to slip from our eyes as a mask slips from a face. The ground seems to shift under our feet and we feel within us the malaise and vertigo of a new sense of vision.

For us in the West too the end of the Cold War broke up the old perspective on the world. For the last decade and a half Westerners have floundered about trying to find a new way of organizing the future: the building of Europe, the fight against globalization, the war on terror, the struggle against global warming. Each sect campaigns hysterically to impose on sceptics its own particular vision of the great struggle of the age, the defining  crusade of our time, since in our Marxist-militarist culture we can no longer conceive of history except as struggle. But there is something else that has added to the sense of an end. For the accidental divisions of our calendar have suddenly led us to view our own age, the modern age, as a previous century, a century apart from us, which we begin to look at with the vague sense of superiority with which we always view “the past”. The fashion-ridden eagerness of every generation and decade to see itself as different from what went before is pushing us now to see the new century as different, to invent distinctions between us and the twentieth century, as though arbitrary numbers had some occult influence on reality. But this shallow impulse is leading to a more profound change of perspective on the modern age.

The twentieth century, which acquired its own sense of a definitive break with the past through the mystique of the calendar, and which bristled with manifestos of Modernism even before the Great War fell like a judgement on the old order, maintained the illusion of being a single age right up to the shores of the present through the force of numerological superstition. Now that it has retreated across the moat of a millennium we can at last look at it with the eyes of strangers, or rather with the eyes of those departing from a house where they have lived all their lives. This, then, was the age we lived in! What was familiar for so long suddenly becomes strange, questionable, alien, monstrous. We begin to grasp that a set of ideological and philosophical assumptions, of emotional attitudes derived from the traumatic experiences that forged it, underlay the whole world-view of the age, and all its beliefs, values, ideals and creative works. We begin to understand the psychology of our times with the same shocked insight with which we first comprehend the psychology of our parents: we see what childhood traumas made them what they are. To uncover the premises of our thinking, of our sensibility, of our approach to life itself, and to realize that there was and is nothing inevitable about them, that they are historical accidents, arbitrary, timebound, and condemned to disappear, is one of the most disorienting but also liberating experiences. We see at last that what we are is not the product of a rational process but of chaos, confusion and nightmare.

Once we free ourselves from the tyranny that calls itself (and has always called itself) “modern thinking”, we begin to understand that the century we have just emerged from was no more definitively modern than the eighteenth century or the nineteenth. This perception is dimly reflected in the shallow, muddled academic debate about “post-modernism” or even “post-modernity” – two radically different notions which those given to this kind of chatter often  confuse. While the 20th century artistic movement known as Modernism will certainly have an end (though so-called “post-modernism” is merely a pretentious, academic extension of it), modernity itself is inescapable, unending and forever changing. But though modernity cannot end (at least until the scientific civilization collapses back into ignorance and superstition), particular ages of modernity can end and have ended. Every age has called itself modern since the late 17th century. This was when it first occurred to men that the change they saw as characterizing the sub-lunar world might not always be for the worse, that there was a possibility that knowledge might be accumulated, making progress possible. Every age since then has brandished its modernity like a banner, and has sought in some way to reject, ridicule or discredit the past. And yet every age has finally become part of that past, as quaintly old-fashioned in the eyes of those who came after as the past it so contemptuously rejected. The modernity of the 20th century is coming very slowly to resemble the modernity of the late 17th or mid-19th centuries. It has acquired a period quality, an air of the style of other days. And the more foreign and alien it appears to us, the more it cries out for analysis and understanding, to determine how and where and why it was an arbitrary, abnormal and even mad period of history. Now that we have crossed the divide of a century and a millennium, the calendar itself is urging us to analyze our particular “modern age” or the 20th century as we would any other age that we seek to understand across an ocean of time.





The masculine century! Can anyone doubt who has paused for a moment over the century that produced the two world wars, the atomic bomb, the Nazi extermination camps, the Soviet and Chinese gulags in which tens of millions were done to death, universal military training in peacetime all over the West for the first time in two thousand years, the cinema cult of the muscle-bound, mass-murdering action hero, and an unprecedented movement among women to lay claim not merely to male rights but to the masculine character, to a masculine sensibility, to the right to fight in the front line – can anyone doubt that the century that has just ended was the most masculine period in all of human history?

The cult of the masculine pervaded the century to a degree unimaginable to Shakespeare or Chaucer, to Boccaccio or Petrarch, to Racine or Stendhal, to Goethe or Novalis, to Christine de Pisan or Jane Austen. In all its most characteristic works, from the erection of gigantic towers by mammoth machines to the obscene destruction of helpless cities by a thousand planes or by a single bomb, the projection of immense aggressive power was the obsession that dominated the age. Never before have so many millions of human beings been massacred, so many millions uprooted and driven across entire continents, in the pursuit of grandiose schemes of destruction and reshaping of the world. And in the shadow of this all-conquering masculine cult, femininity has been reduced to a contemptible caricature – rejected and despised even by the movement that calls itself feminism. A civilization which lived for a thousand years with the cult of the Mother of God, and for thousands of years before that with the Mother Goddess, has shrunk its female deity to a dangerously schizophrenic dualism: on one side that disreputable figure of fun, the Whore of Babylon, the porn star with big knockers, object both of desire and derision, and in the other corner her new masculinized challenger – the sterile, power-hungry, feminist male clone, with her adolescent virtual variant, the computer-generated female kick-boxer, on an obscure and violent quest in a childless castle of horrors. Need one point to the plunging Western birth-rate as a direct consequence of the dethronement of the mother-figure? The self-appointed leaders of women themselves have eagerly accepted the premise that only male virtues count, that women too must cultivate the male mind and the masculine character in order to achieve that masculine nirvana: liberty, equality, independence, power, being constrained by nothing and bound to nobody. And our destiny is to sink into demographic decline, cultural chaos and gradually be replaced by other peoples, in the stubborn belief that our obliteration of the feminine pole of human nature was the last blow struck in a long, historic campaign of liberation.

But there are signs of hope. Over the last thirty or forty years (starting in the cultural civil war of the 1960’s) we have seen a series of movements of revolt, often confused, often at cross purposes, often unaware of their own drift, which added together seem to point to a retreat from the masculine century. While women have rushed to imitate male behaviour under the banner of liberation, we have seen men making tentative and fitful moves in the opposite direction – reclaiming the right to wear long hair, colourful clothes, to express their feelings, to weep for joy or sorrow like their ancestors of two hundred years ago – after a long period during which men were shorn like prisoners, dressed in dark suits and their emotions stifled as contemptible marks of effeminate weakness. Are these stirrings of change signs of a tide turning, or merely passing trends? Will they be sabotaged and counteracted by the noisier movement of women to adopt all the most aggressive aspects of masculinity, thus forcing men to return to it? Are we in the midst of a shift of civilization, more gradual perhaps but comparable in its effects to the one brought about by the French Revolution or the First World War? Is the long testosterone rampage of Western man finally at an end? Or is this merely a new and paradoxical twist in our headlong career of aggressive self-destruction?  

Such are the themes of this book. The orthodox view of every age is to see itself as a norm by which other ages are to be judged. It is my conviction that the century we have just emerged from will come to be seen as a psychopathic age, a period of collective mental derangement, reflected not only in our apocalyptic wars but in our systems of thought, our political ideologies, our economic system, our literature, our art, even our sexual relationships – and from this mad period we are struggling in confusion to get back to some semblance of human normality. And the root of our psychosis has been the over-development of the masculine pole of human nature. How we became a high-testosterone civilization, glorifying violence, aggression and competition, seeing struggle and conflict as the motor forces not merely of social progress and economic prosperity but of the evolution of life itself, how the character of Western humanity was transformed over the past century and a quarter, first by an extreme militarization of men, and then by a catch-up masculinization of women, how we intoxicated our species with a cult of aggression until it killed more of its own kind in the last hundred years than in the previous two thousand – these are the themes we shall explore. And we shall look finally at our chances of emerging from this nightmare, whether the perversions that human nature has undergone in the modern age (in particular its enslavement to a cult of work as irrational and self-destructive as that of the Easter Islanders) can be reversed, or whether the conditions we have now created have made any return to human normality impossible – except perhaps through the disappearance of the Western race itself.  






Writers are led to subjects by a whole web of personal experiences and it is rare to be able to identify a single incident that seems to have set the whole train of thought in motion. It is even rarer to discover that this incident perhaps influenced the direction of one’s entire life. But I remember such an incident from my early childhood.

I must have been five or six years old, lying on the floor reading one of the ten volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which my parents had recently bought from a door to door salesman. In a house without many books I had thrown myself upon these heavy tomes as a drowning man seizes a piece of floating wreckage, and I scarcely let my older brother and sisters get a look at them. We lived in a tiny New Zealand town called Waikanae, where my father was postmaster, and this encyclopaedia was my only window onto the outside world. In one section there was a series of pictures of mankind down through the ages. I remember the figures only vaguely: they were of course all men, since this was still the fifties. I cannot say exactly now what periods they represented. I suppose there was an ancient Greek, then a Roman, then a medieval knight, a cavalier, an eighteenth-century aristocrat – the usual potted history of humanity, seen through Western eyes. What I remember vividly is that I liked all the figures except the last one: twentieth-century man.

He had a short-back-and-sides haircut, and one of those faces that looks solid, square but at the same time boring, unimaginative, tame, domesticated, bourgeois. Perhaps he was a scientist or a bureaucrat. Perhaps he wore glasses. He was probably dressed in a grey suit and tie. And I remember thinking: “No, I’m not going to become like that, I’m never going to look like that. Never. That’s not my idea of a man. The cavalier, the medieval knight, the eighteenth-century aristocrat, those are the men I’m going to become.” And when I think back now I am sure it was because of their hair. They all had long flowing hair and grand colourful clothes.

I had never seen a man with long hair in real life. All my heroes were short-haired rugby players, whose games I re-enacted with cotton-reels on my mother’s sewing table, with an excited commentary in the histrionic voice of the leading rugby broadcaster of the day. Yet the long hair of the knights and cavaliers is something I recognized at once as a fine thing to have. I had only ever seen women with long hair but I had no wish whatsoever to be a woman or to look like one. I wanted to be a long-haired man. I thought of them as looking not like women but like adventurers – wild, dashing, swashbuckling figures who lived life to the full. I hasten to emphasize (in this age of intimate confessions) that this curious predilection was not accompanied by any tendency to adopt girlish clothes, hair or behaviour at any stage of my childhood. My schoolboy sartorial tastes remained rigorously conventional – as did my obsession with girls, which followed the usual awkward, baffled, guilt-ridden course that was par for the times. But when in my student years long hair for men suddenly came in, I adopted it instinctively, with a sense almost of recognition, and of relief that at last things were getting back to normal. And in later years when I was a long-haired vagabond wandering about Europe and I talked to young German and French “freaks”, they often told me similar stories to mine. When they were children they had seen pictures in history-books of long-haired medieval kings and knights and they had at once known that that was what they wanted to look like — that was what men ought to look like, not like their short-haired fathers. And the fact that their fathers were the war hero generation and hated long hair as sissy made them all the more determined to have it. Long hair seemed to our generation the expression of all the most intense and passionate possibilities of life. I was determined from an early age not to live a short-haired existence. 

   Where did this determination come from? Why did so many of our generation pick on the image of long hair as what we wanted to look like? I suspect because it was the opposite of what our fathers looked like. Personally I had nothing against my father, who was not only a champion athlete but also a man of immense charm and charisma – affectionate, sentimental and emotional (he sang like an opera-star, and cried in the cinema and watching TV soaps, which made me cringe and resolve never to do the same.) But the generation of male movie actors of that time, represented at their most typical by John Wayne (whom my father admired), exhibited a kind of caricature of masculinity, an ox-like taciturn brutishness, a muscle-bound, narrow-minded, unimaginative dumbness, for which our generation felt a growing contempt as something oddly sexless. Was it because the war hero generation were somehow more masculine than we could ever hope to be that we rejected all notion of competing with them in those terms? Or was it one of those spontaneous revolts of youth against a tendency in history that has gone too far, as if youth somehow still has an ear for the dead, is in touch with previous generations, and instinctively returns to the norms of human behaviour from which their parents have deviated? Does youth have an inherited memory of what past ages knew but what the world they have been born into has momentarily forgotten? Does mankind have an in-built correcting mechanism?

At any rate as I plunged at sixteen into the turbulent years of university (anti-Vietnam war protests, the counter-culture), I became convinced that we were living a cultural revolution of historic proportions. The revolt was not just against the Second World War generation but against the entire direction of Western civilization since the industrial revolution. I saw the start of the short-haired age as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the introduction of trousers, the disappearance of men’s bodies into dark shapeless suits instead of the skin-tight breeches and colourful flowing cloaks that they had worn for the previous five centuries. I saw the early decades of the nineteenth century as the beginning of a dark age of Puritanism, a systematic beating down of the spirit, a suppression of men’s feelings, a mechanization of the mind, through industrialization, militarization and institutionalization, which had turned men into dark-suited zombies, slaves, oxen, cannon-fodder – a dark night of the soul from which we were only now, in the bright explosive sixties, awakening. I saw the last full human beings as the early nineteenth-century romantic poets, protesting desperately against the dark night they saw closing in on them, and I saw our generation as emerging finally at the other end of the industrial tunnel, free to be as they were. My heroes were Byron, Shelley, Blake, Keats, and later on, as a vagabond in France, Rimbaud, but I saw our generation as freer than theirs, free from the illusions of class, the need for material goods, the repression of sex. Thanks to the pill, girls of our generation had at last understood that we could make love without going through the time-serving slavery to earn money, to buy a house and other material goods, which the system had imposed on previous generations as a prior condition for having sex. Embracing poverty, we were free to enjoy a life of love-making, music, poetry, contemplation and endless travel, and the world was our oyster. These convictions took a while to reach boiling point, but after dropping out of a Ph.D. programme in Canada I went on the road and spent seven happy years, during which I visited every continent and worked for a total of less than eighteen months at whatever casual work came my way. And I saw the end of the long-haired counter-culture in the depression of the early eighties as the failure of a collective dream as tragic and devastating as the defeat of the English Revolution, which drove Milton to write Paradise Lost. 

Ah, sweet youth and its illusions! How much of this entire romantic reading of the past stands up to analysis, from the perspective of middle age, now that it is fading into the fond memories of a greying generation? Like all unifying visions of history it is wildly subjective, an arbitrary selection of events and aspects of former ages to support a pre-ordained conclusion, a reconstruction of the past to justify a certain direction in the present. And now as I look back on it (from the serene, complacent comfort of a staid central European city), I am embarrassed by the over-simplifications, the absurd inflation of superficial, passing fashions into grand historic upheavals. But I also find myself correcting it, modifying it, tacking on vast tracts of ideological reasoning, in the light of experience and of subsequent developments such as feminism and the other neo-Marxist ideologies that sprang from that period. I see that my embellishments and modifications are unconsciously trying to validate a core of beliefs which I still hold to. In short, with the best will in the world I cannot free myself entirely from this intoxicating vision. It is as though my mental perspective on the world had been defined forever by the fresh and magical perceptions of youth, and however much I modify the direction of my thought, I cannot change its point of departure.

What remains unaltered is my conviction that a change occurred in nineteenth century Western man, a new culture, a new sensibility (or rather insensibility) arose, and this cultural regime lasted till the late 1960’s, after which we began to emerge from it. A good deal of the debate about feminism and about the alleged crisis of masculinity in this age would become more coherent if we understood that the men of the first half of the twentieth century were not normal men by the standards of history. What we saw in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a process of extreme masculinization and militarization of Western man which reached its apogee in the two greatest wars in history. Fighting these apocalyptic, hellish wars transformed men into harder, tougher, more self-controlled and less emotionally expressive beings than any generation of men before them. The militarization of man had never been carried out on such a massive scale in the West since the Roman Republic or the ancient Germanic tribes. Never since those times had the entire male population been trained seriously for war by compulsory military service – which in most European countries lasted between one and three years throughout the entire twentieth century. In the Middle Ages only an aristocratic warrior caste (or mercenary professionals) trained regularly for war, and mass participation in wars was rare, short-term, and undertaken without serious training. There were isolated experiments in conscription, briefly by Sweden in the 16th century, and more durably by Prussia in the mid-18th century. But only with the Napoleonic wars did several European countries, starting with France, begin to conscript their entire male populations. At first it was only for the duration of the wars, and in 1815 it came to an end. But as militarism gathered pace in the latter half of the nineteenth century, conscription in peacetime was introduced over much of the European continent. Military training for all men, for periods of up to three years, was seen as vital if a country was to be ready for war at any time. The readiness to take part in battle became an essential part of the male character – even its most important part. No other quality of a man could ever compensate for his inadequacy as a soldier. This growing militarization of society reached its culmination in the two world wars, in which poets, artists and philosophers all joined enthusiastically in the greatest mass slaughter in human history. In the twentieth century total war became the central human experience for an entire world-wide civilization. The preparation for this monstrous immolation of human beings became part and parcel of the male character and the male identity to a degree not seen for over a thousand years.

To get an idea of what this means, if you made a list of the thirty greatest European and Western writers of every century for the past millennium, you would find that the twentieth century list had by far the biggest number who had seen war at first hand and been in the line of fire. You can take names almost at random: Hemingway, Faulkner, Malraux, Céline, Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Mailer, Solzhenitsyn, Böll, Grass – all of them war veterans. Which great creative writer of the 19th century actually fought in a war? I can only think of Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Maupassant. Nietzsche observed one at close quarters, Crane described one at second hand and Byron set off on one, dying of disease before seeing action – but none of these men actually stood in a front line and got shot at. In no century before ours can you find such a high proportion of the major writers of the age whose character and sense of manhood was forged on the field of battle. The age we have emerged from was, beyond comparison with all ages of the past, an age of war, in which war conditioned men’s sense of identity and personal worth. The fact seems an obvious one as soon as you state it, but because it is obvious it has been ignored. We have taken for granted a fact which lies at the root of the fundamental distortion of human nature in the age we have just lived through.

It is this unique culture of war and the type of man it produced that both the pacifist counter-culture of the late sixties and the feminists of the seventies rebelled against. The two rebellions were linked but also at cross purposes. The young men revolted because they did not want to be like their fathers, and rejected the whole cultural baggage of the warrior role and their gender destiny of brave cannon-fodder. By extension, they rejected the whole cult of work, competition, material achievement, self-sacrifice for the goal of wealth – a fusion of aggressive drive and conformist slavery like the warrior cult itself. The rebellion of the young women was more complex. In true Oedipal fashion they wanted to be like their war-hero fathers but felt rejected by them and prevented from imitating them by the barrier of gender roles – which they wanted removed. The young men were like Tamburlaine’s sissy pacifist son who rejected war and preferred wine, women and song. The young women were like Agamemnon’s daughter, Electra, despising their mother, worshipping their warrior father, and demanding the right to be like him. Seventies feminism was both revolt and the ultimate conformity: revolt against the exclusion of women, the gender apartheid that kept them from participating in the culture of masculine values, but at the same time a profound capitulation to that culture – a mass conversion of women to the cult of aggressiveness, competition, achievement, dominance, power. And ironically this adoption of the masculine character by women occurred (like many imitations of the dominant class by the lower orders) a generation late, when the men were already trying to retreat from it. This time-lag produced one of the great mismatches of history: pacifist, hippie, drop-out male meets aggressive, competitive, over-achieving female. The feminist drive to move women in a masculine direction put a rapid end to the counter-culture’s attempt to move men in a feminine direction. By the 1980’s the hippie drop-out men were cutting their hair and re-entering the system, afraid that their jobs and positions had been usurped by the new generation of ambitious, ladder-climbing women. The new orientation of women towards material success – Madonna’s Material Girl – pushed the men back into the competitive mode with a vengeance. And so the stock-trading, yacht-racing golden boy in his BMW replaced the hippie drop-out. From then on the only males who remained committed to a change in the masculine character were the vocal homosexual minority.

When one sex tries to change its traditional image, it is limited in how far it can go by its need to remain attractive to the other one. The young men of the late sixties and seventies became long-haired, pacifist drop-outs with the approval and encouragement of the girls, who rewarded the new fashion with their sexual favours. But as women, under the influence of feminism, became more ambitious, aggressive and competitive, they forced men to return to the  stereotype of masculinity in order to remain attractive to them – except for those men indifferent to women. The gay minority thus filled the vacuum after the collapse of the counter-culture and became the new noisy vanguard of change. But for the tiny homosexual minority to try to lead a re-alignment of the male character as a whole was a doomed cause. It only confused the issue and stigmatized all non-conventional male behaviour as “gay”. An opposite current of violent, aggressive subcultures emerged among young men in the 1980’s: skinheads, hooligans, “yobs”, drunken “lads”, soon to be followed by gangster rappers. They had new role-models: the grotesquely muscled action-film heroes and the tag-wrestling human gorillas. Against this aggressive tide, the pallid figure of the “New Man” came to be seen as a weak, masochistic wimp – submitting to a strain of aggressive feminism which wanted men to assume the domestic role that women now rejected. He became another awful warning to conservative pundits of the perversions of political correctness and the decline of Western manhood.

But the world wars were not the only factor in the masculinization of men in the last hundred or so years. The great wars were merely the climax of a movement already begun with the Western colonization of other parts of the world and the cult of the intrepid pioneer. Pioneering culture was essentially masculine culture, in much the same way as the army. Many gold-mining towns in America and Australia had almost no women, except for bar-room dancers and prostitutes. The feminine values developed in eight hundred years of aristocratic European civilization were forgotten in the brutal struggle to survive on the frontier or in the outback. The civilization of high art, of sonnets and sonatas, was erased from the memory of the men on the wagon trains pushing through the territory of fierce Indian tribes. The sonnet and the sonata belong to a world where the feminine values of grace, wit, elegance, charm, compassion, gentleness have their honoured place. In the world of the wagon train only the masculine values of courage, strength, endurance, hardness and aggressiveness have any usefulness. Femininity is the luxury of a prosperous, peaceful and secure society. When the Anglo-Saxons undertook the forceful settlement of other continents, they left all that behind them. Women became marginalized figures – and often confused ones, torn between the need to wield hoe and rifle and the unreal lure of the Paris fashion catalogues. Then when the New World imposed its imprint on the Old after its decisive intervention in the First World War, the ultra-masculine, pioneering culture came home to Europe and especially to Britain.

The suddenness of the transformation of human types brought about by the Great War is not yet part of our mental picture of the century. A dandy like Oscar Wilde, feeding on the old aristocratic tradition of drawing-room wit and elegance, would never be possible again. Wilde’s effete obsession with what it is to be a gentleman (“A gentleman never looks out the window” he replied when complimented on the view from his townhouse) was replaced by Hemingway’s cruder obsession with what it takes to be a man – a compound of the American pioneer culture and the war culture. This shift in the primary focus of men’s sense of worth from their class to their sex excluded women at the very moment when they were finally acceding to political rights. It should be obvious that it is easier for a woman to be a “gentleman” than to be a “man”. Women are more at home and respected in the world of Wilde than the world of Hemingway. If the measure of human worth is style, class and wit, women can display style, class and wit as well as any man. If the yardstick of human excellence is testosterone-charged physical courage, women will generally be seen as inferior specimens. This is the key to the unenviable position of American women throughout their history and of all Western women in the Americanized twentieth century. Condemned to inferiority by a one-sidedly masculine culture, they faced a dilemma. Should they seek to emulate the dominant masculine values and prove that they too can be hard, tough and aggressive? Or should they accept a social ghettoization and continue to display the feminine qualities which society as a whole looks down on as secondary? The women’s liberation movement of the seventies took the first course: masculinization. And in so doing it sabotaged any attempt to move the general values of society back in a more feminine direction.

But the path seventies feminism took in its masculinization of women had already been laid down by earlier generations. The First World War, by pushing women into the factories to replace the mobilized men, gave them new skills, new confidence, a new independence. They were then expected to abandon all that when the war ended and return to a domestic role. The dislocation of sexual mores caused by both wars, as women began to see their traditional holding off till marriage as absurd and wasteful when their boyfriend might be killed the next week, had far-reaching consequences. After the First World War the massive shortage of marriageable men (since so many young men had been killed or maimed and hence taken off the “market” in each of the belligerent countries) led women to compete harder for men. Women compete by putting out sooner, and the relative sexual liberation of the 1920’s was the result. The same thing was replayed after the Second World War, but with a time lag. The actual loss of life among Western Allied servicemen was lower in the Second World War than the First, but the time they spent absent from home was longer (especially for the Americans.) This caused a baby shortage during the war and a baby boom after the war, as husbands rejoined wives or men got married. The effect of this came twenty years later as the baby boom women suddenly found a shortage of men in their normal target age-group. This has generally been two to three years older than themselves because of the earlier puberty of girls. A baby-boom woman, born in 1947 or 1948, was looking for a man born in 1944 or 1945, and she had a hard job finding one in an age-group a quarter smaller than her own. Of course she could look for a mate among the men of her own age, but they were already well provided for by their normal matches two or three years younger (who were even more numerous.) The surplus baby boom women thus had to compete vigorously for a limited market of men. The extreme sexual liberation of the late 60’s was the result. For the first time in history middle-class girls put out on a first date, afraid that if they didn’t there wouldn’t be a second one. The pill removed the fear of pregnancy even as a new cult of liberty removed the social stigma. The unprecedented wealth of sexual opportunity for men (no longer obliged to pay for sexual variety) meant in turn a new instability of marriage. And if women could no longer trust marriage to last, because the girl at the bus-stop was always likely to steal their husband, then the traditional division of marriage roles broke down. The contract whereby the man earned the money while the woman raised the kids no longer worked if the man was likely to be spirited away by another girl tomorrow. So the woman had to earn too. And if she wanted financial independence, she had to earn not just a supplementary income but a real one, which meant demanding access to the top jobs. And so the path of feminist demands was laid down not just by ideology but by demography, and by the change in sexual mores it imposed. The dislocations of our society are striking proof that the mobilization of all the young men to fight total war is a disaster for civilization itself, with consequences that affect all future generations. 

Such are the themes of this book. It explores the thesis of the masculine century: that a fundamental change occurred in the character of Western man over a period of the recent past which we can, if we wish, neatly bracket between the American Civil War (the first modern war) and the Vietnam war –  that second civil war which tore America apart, and which marked the end of old-style Western imperialism. Or to measure it by a broader standard, a period which began with Darwin and Marx in the 1860’s and ended – after a century of wars based on the two ideologies of violent struggle which these men developed – with the final defeat of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will examine this change in Western man’s character, its causes, its reflection in thought and literature and art, its evolution, its consequences, and the confusions and conflicts of the period of normalization that we are now entered upon. And we will see how much light this can throw upon some of the most confused and tangled ideological and social debates of our time.





Some researchers claim that for the past thirty or forty years the male sperm count in the West has been steadily falling. One study indicated a decline of one third in sperm counts since 1940. The same trend applies, allegedly, to penis size, testosterone levels and various other physical yard-sticks of virility. While the methods of data collection and measurement have been questioned, there is a surprising consensus even among serious scientists that something like this may be happening.1 Of course this could be the result of dioxin or other forms of chemical pollution, the use of female hormone-like substances in fattening cattle or poultry, or various other environmental influences which affect the human endocrine system, inhibit the action of male hormone and interfere with the transformation of foetuses into fully-fledged males – thereby leading among other things to an increase in homosexuality. But it may also be a simple swing of the pendulum. The Western male may be moving back to normality after a period of excessive masculinity, due to the militarization of the entire male population in the world wars. We are unfortunately unable to measure the sperm counts and testosterone levels of men of previous centuries to determine whether early twentieth century man was an average male, or was an excessively virile type which is now fading. 

This of course raises the question: is virility a constant or a variable, over time, place, race and culture? And if it is variable, does it have a norm? And who is to say what this norm is? More specifically, what allows us to say that the highest sperm count is the most normal? Or even the best for the survival of the species? Why should we lament its fall? High sperm counts and testosterone levels may appear to maximize survival chances for our race in the short term, but if these overly masculine, aggressive males make another catastrophic war with one another, it may well lessen survival chances in the long term. And if the excesses of the cult of masculinity have led to such a devaluation of women’s character and role that Western women have rushed to adopt the reigning masculine values, pursue careers and reject motherhood, provoking a crisis in marriage and a fall in birth-rates, then this again may threaten rather than enhance our chances of survival as a race. Perhaps a move back to a less masculine norm may be a way of improving relations between the sexes, stabilizing marriages, and revalorizing the feminine personality and the essential female task of child-bearing. All of that may well be more important to our survival than retaining high male sperm counts, given the enormous overkill in the amount of sperm we produce anyhow. A single ejaculation, after all, produces enough sperm (in the colourful phrase of one geneticist) to impregnate the entire female population of Europe.2

While sperm counts of past ages cannot be measured, there is a certain amount of evidence about penis size. This can be found in the sculptures of the past. Both classical and Renaissance sculptures depict rather small penises by modern standards (and somewhat larger testicles in proportion.) The copy of Michelangelo’s David in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas has been given a much larger penis than the original to satisfy the erotic expectations of modern American women.3  Now it has been suggested that the penis on statues in the past was deliberately reduced in size to make the owners appear more virtuous.4 A large penis might indicate a culpable degree of concupiscence. This is one of the most peculiar ideas academia has ever come up with. There would seem little reason for the Greeks to make a god like Dionysos, patron of orgies, appear chaste. Or a Satyr, the very incarnation of coarse sensuality. Yet the statues of these figures, notably those of Praxiteles, have very small penises. Of course one could argue that these figures are depicted as slim, girlish-looking adolescents, and slim, girlish-looking adolescents generally have small penises even today. But why would the incredibly rugged, muscular Farnese Hercules, attributed to Lysippus, be deliberately given a small penis by the standards of his age? (By our standards it is very small.) Why would the Greeks and Romans, who did not consider sex a sin or nakedness shameful, sculpt pricks just as small as those of guilt-ridden Renaissance Christians? Giant phallic symbols were carried in religious processions in classical times. Fertility gods like Priapus were shown with enormous erect members, which did not seem to shock classical sensibilities. Why would they have hesitated to depict other penises life-size? Even in the Renaissance, does anyone imagine that the statue of David, which stood in the main square of Florence, would have been viewed (as it was by the local populace) as a heroic symbol of the city’s manhood if it had had an unusually small penis by the standards of the age? This notion of the deliberate artistic downsizing of the penis in the name of virtue sounds like an example of academics conjuring up theories out of the air to explain away inconvenient facts. You might as well argue that the naked breasts of Renaissance women were painted smaller than life-size to make them seem virtuous. But surely if an artist had wanted to make a woman seem virtuous he would have covered her breasts up. The only safe conclusion is that penises were probably sculpted true to the size the artists actually saw on their models. There would seem, then, to be some physical evidence that penises (like breasts) in both ancient times and the Renaissance were smaller than they are today. Which means that if penis size is now shrinking, we are probably only getting back to the historic norm. 

In short, if there appears to be a decline in masculinity or virility by various measurements over the last two or three decades, we should be asking ourselves whether this represents a decline from an historic norm or a return to one. Was the period of militarism of the two world wars a norm by which all later ages are to be measured, or a period of unusual and excessive masculinity from which we are only now returning to normal? 





While there is still expert disagreement over the measurement of sperm counts, and even penis size, there is a certain amount of anecdotal evidence of a recent decline in virility, based on everyday observation. The Western male of today quite simply looks less masculine than his father or his grandfather. The male film stars idolized by women in recent years, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Leonardo Di Caprio, are several degrees less masculine-looking than Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, or Sean Connery, even without invoking that old macho icon, John Wayne. This trend cannot be dismissed as mere fashion. Fashion reflects the norms and ideals of an age. But again, the question is: which appearance represents the more average human male over the past five hundred years? John Wayne or Leonardo Di Caprio? Clark Gable or Brad Pitt? Which face, with hair and clothes suitably adjusted, would fit in more inconspicuously into a Botticelli painting? Or one by Raphael? Or Van Dyck? Or Watteau? The answer should be obvious. The young men at the turn of the 21st century look far more like those of previous centuries than do the men of the world war generations. We are returning only now to the age-old norm.

If you go into any great art museum and look at the paintings of the men of the Renaissance or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is clear that their faces are quite different from the men of the mid-twentieth century. This is not merely the effect of hair styles. There is a sensitivity, a sensuality, a childishness, even an effeminacy in the faces of Renaissance men that is totally absent from the battle-hardened faces of modern war veterans. The square-jawed American or Australian type of face, which became curiously the archetypal face of European men as well for most of the twentieth century (you find it in French actors like Lino Ventura or Scotsmen like Sean Connery), is poles away from Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I or the Stuart princes. Put Van Dyck’s Stuart princes alongside John Wayne (who was Scots and Irish and therefore of similar genetic stock) and they look like two different sexes. From Donatello’s girlish-looking David to the Cupid of Canova, or the soft young men’s faces of  Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens, or Watteau, we have a depiction of the male sex that is utterly alien to what we conceive of as masculine today. The evolution towards the modern type of face is gradual but it can be traced. The square-jawed type is scarcely found in British portraits before the mid-nineteenth century. You begin to find it among prominent Victorians. Thomas Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Peel have strong faces already evocative of the twentieth century. The trend becomes accentuated in later Victorians like Gladstone, whose coarse, blunt features are in marked contrast to the slim, sensitive faces of his 18th century predecessors, the Earls of Chatham, or Lord Melbourne, thirty years his senior. Among portraits of American presidents the square-jawed type comes a little earlier, perhaps reflecting the popular social origins and hard early lives of some of them. Ulysses Grant has a strong, modern, plebeian face (suggestive both of his military career and his heavy drinking); so does Zachary Taylor, a backwoods farm boy who spent forty years as a career soldier mostly fighting Indians. One finds certain modern, angular traits in Jefferson at the beginning of the century – in marked contrast with Adams, his predecessor, who has a softer, rounder, more babyish, typically 18th century face. By the time we get to Herbert Hoover in the late 1920’s the square-jawed modern type predominates. In the 1930’s we see the emergence of American cartoon characters like Dick Tracy and Superman with their enormous prominent jaws, a physical feature scarcely seen in any painting or sculpture before that period. The masculine lantern-jawed face stands at the opposite extreme from the child’s or the woman’s face. It advertises men’s rejection of any of the characteristics associated with these other categories of human being: sensitivity, gentleness, spontaneity, emotional expressiveness. Manhood in the age of war (the period from 1914 to 1945 was called by the historian Eric Hobsbawm a 31-year war with truces) is manifested entirely in the jutting, square jaw, indicative of strength, courage, determination, combattiveness, stoicism, the ability to endure pain and  danger without flinching. These qualities had become indispensable in order to survive the hellish experience of the trenches, which was now the fate marked out for men as a sex.  

It is clear that more recent generations of men have gone back some way towards the softer, more boyish, even more feminine face of earlier times. You see it in today’s politicians’ faces, which are far less rugged than the faces of the war generation. Who knows how changes of this kind can be explained? Perhaps it is the types of physical and emotional experience people undergo which partly determine physical appearance. Those European countries which till recently had long years of compulsory military service expected the boys they sent away to come back physically changed, more masculine-looking than they would have if they had spent those years at university instead. It is not merely in the arm muscles or the size of the shoulders that the change occurs; it is in the shape of the face and the lines etched by its habitual expression.   

This sort of analysis of the evolution of men’s appearance and character is not new. It is something that preoccupied various writers early in the 20th century. There was a widespread conviction that a great change had taken place in men, though people couldn’t agree on what it was or when it had happened. Some writers, such as Wyndham Lewis, became obsessed with the relative degree of masculinity or effeminacy of various contemporaries. Lewis at first hailed Hitler as a masculine type, and when he turned against him proclaimed him a sissy. The transformation of men by the Great War into shorthaired, sun-tanned, hard-faced Hemingway tough guys was the most obvious sign of some definitive change in the species – and everyone in the 1920’s and 30’s had to resemble the war veteran by also cultivating suntans and short hair, even the women. But there had been an almost mystical presentiment about some impending change in human beings even before the war. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” announced Virginia Woolf.5  Jean Arp, a Swiss Dadaist, put it four years later: “Suddenly, in about 1914, in accordance with the laws of chance, the spirit was transmuted.”6 Much of this concerned the new artistic movements which claimed to perceive reality in new and unprecedented ways. Gertrude Stein saw 20th century perceptions of the world as utterly different from any before. “The earth is not the same as in the 19th century,” she proclaimed, and used this to explain Picasso.7 While some saw this change as simply the sudden leap into “the modern world” of motor-cars and telephones, others tried to trace its origins to some change in the human soul further back in the past. T.S.Eliot had his theory of the dissociation of sensibility, which he situated in the mid-seventeenth century. He claimed that before that age men like Donne were able to “feel a thought,” and that since then thought and feeling had become separated; modern man had become desensualized and thinking had become abstract. W.B.Yeats is closer to our preoccupations when he contrasts a portrait of Woodrow Wilson with one of a Renaissance man. He dwells on Wilson’s wooden posture, dead expression, the lifelessness of his hands, as opposed to the sensuality and sensitivity of those of the Renaissance man, who seems to quiver with life. Yeats is not talking about the superior technique of the Renaissance painter but about something that has happened to men in between. He ascribes this apparent deadening, this desensualizing of man, to the whole process of industrialization, democratization and modernization that he detested so much. This anti-democratic bias was shared by the fascist movement – though, the latter, by contrast, celebrated the new masculine toughness of the First World War veterans and made the cult of war-like virility the centre of their ideology. For the fascists (and their Futurist allies) the suntanned, shaven-headed ex-soldier was the new type of man who had left behind every form of weakness, effeminacy and sickly sentimentality and had become a rugged instrument of national power and national regeneration through the bracing force of war. In 1914 the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti proclaimed: “the present war is the most beautiful Futurist poem which has so far been seen”, and hoped that it would sweep away such “pastist” rubbish as philosophers, libraries, museums and history.8 The first Modernist movement in art thus announced its revolutionary intention of violently abolishing the past. The Italian fascists, like the Soviets, saw themselves as creating a New Man, and Oswald Mosley thought that the fascist New Man would be as different from all others as “men from another planet.”9 Ernest Junger, a leading German writer of the twenties, asked: “Why is it that our age in particular is so overflowing with destructive and productive energies?” and answered: “It is war which has made human beings and their age what they are .…War, father of all things, is also ours. He has hammered us, chiselled and tempered us into what we are.”10 The generation that had fought the war saw itself as different, marked out by history from all those who had gone before, like a generation of Cains. Mussolini spoke of a “trenchocracy” – the natural right to rule of the “aristocracy of the trenches”, the men who had fought at Armageddon.11 War veterans were used by the British government to crush rebellion in Ireland and break general strikes, while in Germany and Italy they brawled their way to power. It is arguable that fascism merely expressed in extreme form a change in behaviour, styles and sensibility that had taken place across the board in Europe and America. Mid-twentieth century man was, in degrees which varied from country to country, essentially fascist man: man formed by war and for war.

The instincts of the counter-culture generation of the late sixties, rejecting not merely the politics of war but the character of man it was based upon, and expressing their revolt in long hair, beads, effeminate clothes, gentle manners, a cult of peace and love, reflected a profound insight into the psychological foundations of the cult of militarism. What they rejected was the whole image, identity and style of mid-20th century man – the fascist New Man forged by war. They saw war as a culture, based on a certain concept of manhood. That ideal of manhood – a cult of aggressiveness, courage, toughness, callousness, brutality and violence – was, they believed, at the root of men’s willingness to make war. They believed that if they could change the concept of masculinity, in some sense make men less “masculine”, they could eliminate the taste for war, and thereby change the direction of civilization and save it from self-destruction.

But what did they mean by “masculinity” – and what did they mean by changing it? Can it be changed? Or is it an immutable fact of human nature? Was it not as pointless to try to change the instincts and character of men as the character of lions or bulls? To what extent are masculinity and femininity biological constants, and to what extent are they socially conditioned? Are they universal characteristics of the human species, or are they the variable products of particular cultures and periods? Before we go any further in the exploration of how men’s (and women’s) character, behaviour and image evolved over the past two centuries, we have to examine these questions and define more precisely what we are talking about, and what we mean by masculine and feminine characteristics. 




Freud commented that masculinity and femininity were “among the most confused concepts in the sciences”.(12) He also believed that all psychological behaviour would one day be shown to have a chemical basis. (13) This intuition has proved correct. We have already discovered the chemical basis of masculinity and femininity, and we can now give these concepts a much clearer definition than was available to Freud.

Scientific research into these aspects of the human personality has not, however, been conducted in a social vacuum. It has taken place on an academic battlefield, and its reception has been determined by the positions critics have adopted in the great ideological debate between Nature and Nurture, or between biology and social influences on behaviour. This debate has been made even more passionate and bitter by the frequent alignment of the two sides with right-wing and left-wing political views. The most extreme position on the social and environmental side was taken by the feminist movement. Every since the late 1960’s the feminist movement has developed an elaborate system of beliefs, which is now preached in six hundred Gender Studies departments and programmes in American universities, whose basic dogma is that all so-called “masculine” and “feminine” psychological and mental characteristics are merely social constructs, the result of social conditioning in gender roles. Feminists make a dogmatic distinction between “sex”, the purely physical differences in genitalia and bone structure between men and women, and “gender”, the behavioural and personality differences, which they define a priori as “socially constructed”, the products of upbringing, ideology and culture. They believe there is no biological basis for any “gender” differences. Gender roles and gender characteristics are merely a set of conditioned behaviour patterns which have been imposed on human beings for thousands of years by a male power structure called “the patriarchy”, to perpetuate the power of men over women by training women to be submissive and men to be dominant. It is above all the tyrannical imposition upon women of the child-caring role which is responsible for differences of character and behaviour. (14) Without the conditioning by this power structure there would be no psychological differences between men and women.

Now the scientific research that has been undertaken in the field of gender differences over the past twenty years has very largely refuted this elaborate feminist belief system. Researchers have come down quite heavily in favour of a biological basis for the observed differences in mental characteristics, behaviour and personality between men and women. The social conditioning in gender roles which undoubtedly takes place is merely reinforcing mental and psychological characteristics which are innate in the immense majority of each sex. It is because these gender characteristics are observed as naturally occurring in each sex that children are encouraged to conform to type, in order to ensure later success in attracting the other sex and mating – which parents desire for reasons of their own genetic survival. The basis of these gender-typical characteristics is the influence of male and female hormones on the fœtus, notably in producing different brain structures in men and women.

Now as might be expected most feminists have reacted to this research by ignoring or dismissing the evidence. Typically they will insist that there is “no proof” and then refuse to look at the proof. This refusal to accept scientific research only shows the degree to which the radical feminist ideology, like the Marxism it sprang from, is an irrational faith more akin to religious belief than intellectual inquiry. Disciples of such faiths simply shrug off any evidence which discredits their basic thesis, because its collapse would lead to the disintegration of the emotional world-view on which their whole lives have been based. More mundanely it would lead to the collapse of a whole section of academic studies in American universities dedicated to an unscientific dogmatism, the collapse of an entire industry of feminist writing and lobbying, and the fatal weakening of a political movement which, in the name of justice and equality, has gained enormous influence not only over the universities and schools, but over politics, social policy, the courts and the law throughout the Western world.  

But the establishment of the biological basis of gender differences in behaviour and personality – the firm linking of gender and sex – does not mean that gender behaviour is immutable or immune to social influence. While character traits may legitimately be called “masculine” and “feminine” because they are a product of hormonal influences,  these characteristics may still be enhanced or decreased by a person's upbringing, cultural conditioning, and life experiences. Research has cast a good deal of light on how sex hormones interact with activities and experiences. Some activities can increase male hormone levels (levels in top tennis players double before a big match) while other experiences can decrease them (losing the match, stroking a kitten or singing a baby to sleep.) Activities that repeatedly raise testosterone levels will masculinize the character. Military service and competitive sports masculinize by repeatedly raising testosterone levels in order to make it easier to furnish the efforts required. Moreover, the constant raising of testosterone levels will increase the desire to engage in these activities. The discrediting, therefore, of the extreme feminist position, while it allows us to talk meaningfully of masculine and feminine psychological traits (which radical feminism essentially denied), does not prove the immutability of these traits, or their imperviousness to social influence. These traits can still increase or decrease in ages, cultures and generations, in function of the experiences people are subjected to. A society engaged in total war for a long period will end up with more masculine (hard, tough, aggressive, unemotional, insensitive) men than one that has been at peace, cultivating the arts, for centuries. Women subjected to a competitive work market, or encouraged to play aggressive sports, will become more masculine than they would if conditioned differently. Men deprived of competitive or aggressive activities will become less masculine. This is what allows us to study the evolution of masculinity as a reality, not merely a cultural concept. It is a set of real, hormone-related characteristics, not merely a set of social prejudices or stereotypes. But it is a set of characteristics that can vary with changing conditions or between different societies. That is the necessary theoretical premise for our thesis of the masculine century: that there was an increase in masculine traits in Western men over a hundred year period from the late 19th century to the last third of the 20th century, and there has been an increase in masculine traits in Western women over the past forty years.    


The scientific research that has established the biological basis of certain mental and behavioural differences between men and women has in recent years been given a good deal of publicity. Every few months the British Sunday supplements have told us about one more skill, characteristic, or behaviour pattern that research has now linked to male or female hormones. Map-reading ability, talkativeness, promiscuity, even autism have been found to have a definite gender bias or hormonal basis. But the fact that such research has filtered out into the general public and become “popular”, through the informed curiosity of journalists, does not make it less serious. Scientific popularizers play an essential role in informing the general educated public of what is going on in each field of research, in an age when nobody can possibly master all disciplines or have access to all the specialized literature. Many highly-qualified scientific writers have published works which present scientific findings in a readable, accessible manner, while remaining rigorous in their citation of scholarly journals. Works of this kind are the immediate source of the following brief summary of the latest research in this field. Anyone interested in the scientific studies on which these books draw should consult the works themselves, where the references are given in detail. Our interest here is merely to keep before our minds the latest generally accepted scientific findings in this area (always subject to further developments), so that the reader will have an idea of what set of characteristics is meant when we use the terms “masculine” or “feminine” and what degree of biological as opposed to social basis these terms have.    

The scientific notions of masculinity and femininity that have emerged in recent years are based on studies of the foetus and its development, the process by which the fœtus is “sexed” by  male and female hormones, as well as on studies of male and female brain structure, partly through examining the different effects of various kinds of brain damage on men and women. The most lucid and accessible account of this for the non-scientist is provided in the book Brainsex by Anne Moir and David Jessel, and the follow-up book by Anne and Brian Moir, Why Men Don’t Iron. Good accounts can also be found in the work of Matt Ridley, Steve Jones, Anthony Clare or scientific researchers such as Doreen Kimura, one of the pioneers in this field.(15) These authors, incidentally, do not always share one another’s world view or ideological leanings. What interests us here is not their social conclusions, but the research they cite.    

From this mass of research there has emerged over the past few years a coherent picture of the process by which the human brain is “sexed” or given a distinct male or female character. The important discovery of recent years is that the “sexing” of a foetus is progressive, and it does not depend directly on genes or chromosomes, but on hormones.





A baby when conceived is either a boy or girl genetically. In addition to the X chromosome provided by the mother, it has either received a Y chromosome or another X chromosome from its father, and it is the presence of a Y chromosome which makes a genetic male. But for the first few weeks of its development it is physically identical in the two cases. Then at six weeks the presence of a Y chromosome prompts the embryo to develop testes instead of ovaries. The testes produce male hormones or androgens, the main one being testosterone. These hormones “instruct” the embryo to develop according to a male blueprint and not a female blueprint. 

It has been shown that if the male hormones are in some way counteracted or neutralized so that they have no effect on the embryo (and later the foetus), the latter continues to develop along female lines and becomes a baby girl, even if it has a Y chromosome and is genetically male. Similarly, a female fœtus subjected to high enough levels of male hormone will develop into a male. What determines the physical sex of the baby (which sex organs it has) is not the chromosomes it receives at conception but the hormones it produces and is conditioned by during its time in the womb.  

The fact that the physical sex of a foetus is determined progressively and in stages by the operation of hormones is what allows a certain number of things to go wrong. Clearly in such a long transformation process the possibility opens up of a foetus which is incompletely “sexed”, or has been made male or female to a greater or lesser degree. The action of male hormone on the foetus may occasionally be interfered with, and the consequences can be very marked. Male hormone may be partially neutralized by the pregnant mother taking a drug that mimics female hormone (certain anti-diabetic drugs used in recent decades had this effect.) This may mean that certain aspects of the male fœtus will not be masculinized, but will retain the female default form. The result may be sons of a more feminine appearance or character. They may also be homosexual, if the neutralization of male hormone occurred at the precise phase (three months into gestation) when mating behaviour is fixed in the hypothalamus of the foetus’s brain. If the mating centre in his brain remains female, a male will be homosexual, irrespective of whatever other aspects of his body or brain have been masculinized, or how masculine he looks. Similarly, female foetuses whose mothers have taken substances which mimic male hormone (such as certain synthetic steroids used in the 1970’s) or who suffer from a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) which makes them produce large quantities of adrenal androgens, will begin a partial transformation into males. Again whether this transformation affects their physical appearance, their genitals, their brain structure, their character, their sexual orientation, or a combination of these, will depend on the phase of foetal development when the high dose of male hormone occurred and how long it lasted. What often happens is that little girls who suffered from that condition in the womb grow up like boys. They are rough at school, get into fights, take no interest in dolls, prefer to play with boys rather than girls, grow up to do typically male jobs such as engineering, and either become lesbian or make down-to-earth marriages for companionship rather than love. In short, the action of male hormone upon them at the foetal stage gives them a typical (even a stereotypical) masculine character.

It has therefore been shown fairly conclusively by this research that many psychological characteristics that we normally think of as masculine and feminine are in fact directly caused by the action of male and female hormones on the foetus. Some people have ended up with “wrong-sex” psychological characteristics because they have been conditioned in the womb by “wrong-sex” hormones. It appears that most cases of feminine boys and masculine girls are not the product of their upbringing or conditioning. Parents do not create these gender-atypical personalities by the way they treat the children (on the contrary, they are often worried by their offspring’s “wrong-sex” behaviour.) Nor are these children brave rebels against gender conformity, who have somehow decided to be different out of strong political conviction or irrepressible independence of mind. These children are simply the products of hormonal influences on their brains in the foetal stage. In short, the fact of children conforming or not conforming to gender type is generally neither the product of social conditioning nor a conscious revolt against conditioning: it is the product of biological drives in the child. The feminist belief that a minority of masculine women, who revolted against their gender conditioning and lived successful, high-achieving, male-clone lives, are a vanguard of brave pioneers showing the way for all women to follow is a gross delusion. The majority of women are not going to follow, unless they too were subject to anomalous hormonal influences in the fœtal stage. Feminism in its radical form is a forlorn dream of making universal a small number of biological accidents. 

The complicated, accident-prone nature of the process by which the fœtus is sexed by the influence of hormones explains the variety of anomalous cases that can occur. These may involve physical traits, psychological and mental traits, genital abnormalities, wrong-sex mating instincts or confusion over gender identity. Any of these can occur alone or in combination. According to the German researcher Dr Gunther Dörner, one of the pioneers in the field, there are three distinct phases in the sexing of the brain of a fœtus. The hormones first operate on the sex centre of the brain, which determines male and female physical characteristics (how masculine or feminine people look); then they operate on the mating centre, which determines which sex they are attracted to; and finally on the gender role centre, which determines degrees of masculine and feminine behaviour and character. Dr Milton Diamond, an American specialist in gender identity problems, broadly agrees but adds another phase, where the brain acquires a sense of which sex it is. This “gender centre” has been located, like the mating centre, in the hypothalamus of the brain.(16)  This picture of the sexing of the fœtus goes some way towards explaining why homosexuality comes in various shapes and guises – and why not all homosexuals are effeminate-looking men or masculine-looking women. It depends what other aspects of their character or appearance (if any) got the wrong dose of hormones, apart from the mating centre of their brain. Anatomical differences have been found between the brains of homosexuals, heterosexuals and transsexuals.(17) Transsexuals, who have a brain gender centre with a different sex from their body, are rare – estimates range from one in 30,000 males and one in 100,000 females to about three times that, judging by numbers who consult doctors for sex reassignment surgery.(18) It manifests itself early, most commonly when a little boy is convinced he is really a girl, and suffers agonies from being in what he feels is the wrong body. Because of anomalies in the effects of male hormone, the gender centre of his brain remained female while everything else became male. There is no cure for transsexuals except getting used to it, or a sex change in adulthood.(19) Even more dramatic, the anomalous hormone levels in the foetal stage may occasionally affect the genitals, leading to a hermaphrodite with in-between sexual organs. This imposes terrible choices on doctors whether to surgically remodel genitals – and which way to do so (since they can’t ask the baby which sex it thinks it is.) This has led to some tragic cases where the individual was physically remodelled into a sex different from the one in his brain – the surgeons unwittingly created a transsexual. (20) These cases tend to prove that “gender”, or the mental sense of which sex one is, is not a product of upbringing but of biology. 

What are the factors that can affect the action of hormones in the development of the  foetus, and lead to these various anomalies – apart from medical conditions and certain prescription drugs taken by the mother? Researchers are working on a number of hypotheses. One factor that has been suggested is stress during pregnancy. Dörner claims that more male homosexuals than usual were born in Germany at the end of the war, because of the stress felt by their pregnant mothers due to the intensive bombing and fear of the approaching enemy. Stress is apparently a male hormone inhibitor (as its role in impotence would suggest.) (21) Dioxin pollution is another prime suspect (and dioxin is produced by combustion of certain common materials such as plastics at very high temperatures, which often occurs when cities are fire-bombed.) It has been shown that injecting minute quantities of dioxin into a pregnant rat will result in the male offspring being undersized and homosexual, because dioxin inhibits male hormone in its work of transforming foetuses into males.(22) Greenpeace on its American website lists the following effects of dioxin pollution on the human male reproductive system: reduced sperm count, testicular atrophy, abnormal testes structure, reduced size of genital organs, feminized hormonal responses, and feminized behavioural responses. There is some anecdotal evidence of an increase in recent decades of both homosexuals and hermaphrodites among various species of animals, both wild and domestic. Farmers seem to be finding more male homosexual sheep than before, though it is hard to make historical comparisons because of a lack of precise records. Norwegian scientists have observed that polar bears are being born hermaphrodite in increasing numbers, and have concluded that it is because the mothers eat seals, which concentrate in their blubber the PCB’s spewed out by industrial pollution. PCB’s (a sort of dioxin) appear to mimic oestrogen and to feminize male foetuses. (23) All this would seem to suggest the direct effect of industrial pollution on both human and animal reproductive systems. The female hormone-like substances used in industrialized meat production and the countless other new chemicals that have entered our organisms in recent decades (through industrial chemicals, fertilizers and so on) may also have an effect on the human endocrine system, and may result in a certain feminization, lower sperm counts and a growing number of homosexuals. At the moment the evidence is lacking to quantity any such effect, because we have no standards of comparison for these things over long historical periods. 



Parallel to the studies of how foetuses are sexed, there have been remarkable new discoveries concerning the differences between male and female brain structures. Various skills such as language are acquired in different parts of the brains of males and females, so that injuries in the same part of the brain will lead to quite different kinds of loss of skill for men and women. This different brain structure gives men and women, in their majority, different natural abilities, strengths and weaknesses. It also seems to explain the tendency of boys and girls to choose different professions, even after strong educational campaigns to break down stereotypes. In the main, they choose professions which call on qualities that their own sex displays to a greater degree.

A variety of studies, both clinical studies of brain differences, hormone levels and psychological tests on large samples of men and women, have enabled scientists to draw a fairly coherent picture of the character and behavioural differences between males and females that appear to have a biological basis. What does this picture suggest are the typically masculine characteristics – characteristics that can be related in some way to male hormone, or to a male brain structure? 




The first is greater aggressiveness, with its related manifestations of assertiveness, competitiveness, the urge to dominate, and physical courage in the face of danger. This is directly related to the male hormone testosterone, produced in the testes. A chimpanzee given extra doses of testosterone will bully its inferiors mercilessly, and may attack others of superior rank and even rise in the hierarchy, at the expense of bigger rivals. Its willingness to take greater risks of injury will make it more dominant. A castrated rat will tend to welcome an intruder rather than fighting it. Castrating a bull vastly reduces its aggressiveness. This effect of testosterone on levels of aggressiveness scarcely requires scientific demonstration; it is a matter of everyday observation of castrated and non-castrated male animals, even down to the domestic cat. Men in their prime have, on average, somewhere between ten and twenty-five times more testosterone in their bodies than women, and will experience a far greater surge of testosterone when confronted with anything that provokes an aggressive reaction: a challenge, conflict, danger or competition.24 Because competition stimulates the production of testosterone, men generally enjoy competing more than women, because their brains are wired to enjoy a testosterone high. They therefore invent activities that will provoke this high. This applies not only to their professional lives (where their competitive instinct may give them an edge over women in their race up the corporate ladder), but to their leisure and sporting activities, which are very largely competitive. 

The Duchess of Marlborough noted in her diary: “His Grace returned from the wars today and pleasured me twice in his top boots.”25 The Duke of Marlborough effect has been observed in male crickets, which mate vigorously after winning a fight. Levels of testosterone in top male tennis players have been found to rise between 40 and 100 per cent before a big match. Victory in the match raises the level even higher. Losing the match lowers it. With women tennis players the rise in testosterone levels is much less marked, and they start from a level ten times lower. Winning does not seem to make as much difference to their testosterone levels as whether they played well. The much greater testosterone high of the male winner means that he will go on to the next round of the contest with an advantage, because the testosterone high of winning is something he wants again. (It also makes him attractive to women, who seem programmed to go for sports champions.) This testosterone high is experienced by males watching sports as well as playing them. The triumph of one’s team boosts testosterone levels, which explains the huge importance sports have for men as spectators, and the frequency of fighting after football matches. Sports events caused pitched battles among spectators even under the Roman empire. Women are far less inclined to watch sport because they don’t usually get the same hormonal high from it.

It has been pointed out that the difference in intensity of male and female testosterone highs has a particular biological cause. Women’s bodies, having no testes, produce testosterone from the adrenal cortex, which is where they also produce cortisol. Now cortisol is an anxiety reaction which provokes flight rather than fight. It is produced in a man’s body when things are going badly, and it counteracts the testosterone and decides him on a tactical retreat. In men the two chemicals are produced from different sources – testosterone from the testes and cortisol from the adrenal cortex, and there is no link between them. In women both testosterone and cortisol are manufactured in the adrenal cortex, and their production is linked. This means that women’s testosterone high is always counteracted by an antidote of the caution-inducing cortisol. A woman never experiences anything like the blind testosterone burst of the man, which makes him utterly oblivious to danger and convinced he is indestructible. The adrenaline rush produced by stress and danger is also far greater in men than in women, and it helps men perform better, whereas it doesn’t help women.26 Men are therefore greater risk-takers because of their chemistry, which explains war-time charges in the face of machine guns, the extreme risk-taking of bull-fighters or racing-car drivers, and a higher male level of dangerous driving on the roads.




The second group of characteristics associated with male hormone and found to a higher degree in the average male are spatial and navigational skills. Boys can generally rotate three dimensional objects more easily in their heads than girls can, are better at map-reading, and better at games that involve aiming objects at a target. Navigational skills are also greater in males of other species such as rats and chimpanzees, which can find their way through mazes far better than females.27 This may be related to the greater roaming patterns of many male animals. Men were also traditionally the sex which hunted, which often required very long expeditions. Navigational skills, like aggressiveness, are directly linked to testosterone : a male rat’s performance in maze-running will be improved by an injection of testosterone, and a rat castrated very young will perform as badly as a female (rats’ brains are not yet fully organized or “hard-wired” when born and are thus ideal subjects for the study of the effect of hormones upon them, as experiments on them are similar to modifying a fœtus’s brain.) Women, on average, are poorer map readers than men, have less sense of direction in strange cities and have more difficulty rotating objects in their minds.  

If we put together these two male characteristics of greater competitiveness (or combattiveness) and better spatial skills, we arrive at an explanation as to why men spend so much of their leisure time in sports – which are mostly competitive aiming activities, usually to get a ball or other object to a certain target. These activities test male-brained spatial skills in a competitive, testosterone-enhancing context. If we move for a moment from the realm of scientific research to that of everyday observation, the average person’s leisure activities provide a good illustration of this. On a quiet Sunday afternoon after a barbecue among friends, the men will start playing darts, table tennis or pétanque (or lacking any sporting equipment will throw stones at a bucket) while the women chat and exchange gossip (that is, commentary on others’ behaviour in order to reinforce their social bonds, sometimes at the expense of the absent person, and also to reaffirm the social rules.) If the women join in the men’s game it will be for a short time only (just to get their attention) and it will probably end in a playful but noisy quarrel, so that the women can switch the contest to their superior verbal skills. They are not so much interested in the game as in relating to the men through it. What interests the men is the game itself, and the women’s excitable presence is a distraction from it. These different patterns of behaviour can be observed in every school playground all over the world. The boys play noisy, competitive, physical games, often involving aiming skills or some degree of aggression, while the girls cluster in groups sharing secrets, establishing relationships, making special friends or quarrelling with them – and probably going home to write about these emotional episodes in their diaries. The boys’ games will later be extended into a huge range of sports in which men compete in spatial ability (aiming, navigating and co-ordinating eye and hand, often at speed.) These include all ball games from football and tennis to golf, as well as bowls, bowling, archery, shooting, darts, billiards, boxing, or the high-speed driving and navigation of vehicles on land or water. In all these sports men are better on average than women, even though in many of them strength is not decisive. The most exciting sports involve aiming skills (passing a ball) while running at top speed under the threat of a violent collision of bodies – football, rugby, American football. Men have enormous respect for sporting ability and give sports champions very high status, perhaps because most sports, in testing spatial and aiming ability rather than brawn, are in effect testing the “maleness” of the brain. The most “male-brained” man seems to be looked up to by other men as a natural leader. The role sporting ability plays in the careers of corporate executives and politicians in America may be a reflection of this instinctive male respect for signs of a very masculine brain. 




Associated with the greater spatial ability of men is their greater skill in mathematics. Among gifted American children, the number of boys in the very highest category of natural mathematical ability is thirteen times greater than that of girls.28 In the top one per cent of American children who shine in sciences, boys outnumber girls seven to one.29 By contrast, men on average have poorer verbal skills than women. Girls generally learn to talk earlier than boys, develop a larger vocabulary younger, and make complex sentences sooner. There are four times more boys than girls in remedial reading classes. Women usually score higher than men on the verbal parts of IQ tests, and lower on the spatial-mathematical parts. These differences have been related to different areas of the brain found to be active when doing various tasks. Males seem to employ only one part of their brain to do mathematical tasks, while females use various parts of their brain. Similarly, women concentrate their verbal skills in one part of their brain only, while men employ different parts. Brain specialization seems to be what gives each sex an edge in the field it is good at. Though of course we are dealing with averages and there are a minority of exceptions in both sexes, it has now been established beyond reasonable doubt that these are inherent, biological differences, not due to any social, educational or cultural factors. Of course the fact that each sex finds certain subjects more difficult often causes them to shun those subjects, leading to an even greater gender gap in achievement in them. Natural gender abilities will influence the fields each sex chooses to study and the professions the majority of them will enter. Since reading is fundamental to all subjects, the lower average reading ability of boys will lead more of them to general academic failure and a lack of qualifications. (This rate of failure has been increased by the fact that the teaching of reading skills, due to trendy academic fads, is now worse than at any time in the past.)   




A fourth quality related to higher levels of testosterone is greater male insensitivity to both pain and noise, and a less sharp sense of smell and hearing. Women’s touch sensibility is so much greater than men’s that in many sample groups tested there is no overlap of scores between the least sensitive female and the most sensitive male.30 Men will have radios up higher than women because they quite simply do not hear as well, especially if there is competing noise. Noise insensitivity becomes a quality of great importance in war, especially in conditions like the trenches of the First World War, where the level of noise from prolonged artillery bombardments drove some men mad. At firework displays it is considered girlish and shameful for men to jump or cry out at a nearby explosion, but acceptable (and even attractive) in women. Popular prejudice (which is often nothing but codified experience) quite rightly associates insensitivity to loud noises with masculinity, and sensitivity to loud noises with femininity.  

In addition to these differences, which can be related either to hormones or to differences in brain organization, there is emerging a whole lore of behavioural differences between the sexes based on large numbers of controlled experiments, as well as on widespread observations and surveys. While the link to hormones or brain differences has not always been proved, it is strongly suspected, as these behavioural differences appear to be fairly constant across cultures. A brief summary of these will complete the picture of characteristics that we can legitimately refer to as masculine or feminine.




Women not only have greater sensitivity to touch and sharper hearing; they also have better peripheral vision and greater powers of visual observation. Women can remember more random visual details in a room than men can, and can memorize random items better.31 This ability of women to “notice” things may well be related (either as cause or effect) to their role as food-gatherers in ancestral hunter-gatherer societies. Women had to notice the berries, roots, mushrooms and edible plants, differentiate among them and remember where each one was. Women’s spatial sense is one of static visual detail, not the broad sense of orientation of the hunter. Women navigate by landmarks rather than a general sense of direction. This acute female sense of visual placement makes certain decorative arts (like flower arrangement or interior decoration) distinctly feminine (if practised by men, the men tend to be effeminate.) To the average man’s mind, this sense of visual detail makes women obsessively conscious of things not being in their place in a room, compulsively tidy, and fussy about such things as the books piled carelessly on a chair or a few clothes lying harmlessly on the floor. This difference may also lie behind women’s justly reputed ability to tidy and organize rooms faster and more efficiently than men – which makes them natural housekeepers. They may simply carry a clearer picture in their minds of what the room should look like, and what things have to be moved to get it into that state. 

Men, on average, not only have poorer verbal skills than women but they also have less tendency to talk or communicate. Girls start off by talking earlier and continue to talk more throughout their lives. It is rare to hear a man complain of his wife: “She never talks to me.” It is one of the commonest complaints wives make of husbands. Most women need to verbalize their experiences; men have less need to. Men have difficulty expressing feelings of love in words and prefer ritual actions like giving flowers. Women believe not only in expressing feelings verbally but seem to need constant verbal reassurance about the feelings of the other. (This difference gives rise to standard comic routines of the sort: “But I told you I loved you three years ago, Mabel. I’ve never signalled any change: why do you need me to repeat it now?”) Women like to discuss things in order to get the feel of what the other thinks; men discuss in order to reach a decision or find a solution. Women complain of a problem in order to elicit emotional sympathy; men respond by offering little sympathy but a practical solution. Men seldom ask for help in dealing with a problem, as they think of it as an admission of weakness or incompetence. Women often ask for help quite unnecessarily in order to have social interaction and build up a network of mutual support for when they really need it. 

Men are not only less interested in communicating, they are also less interested in other people’s feelings. They are less socially observant than women, and less sensitive to others’ states of mind and of the undercurrents of social situations. Women hear tones of voice better and intuit the feelings underlying them. A man will fail to notice that a certain subject of conversation is embarrassing to a dinner guest; only his wife’s kick under the table will alert him to the fact. At the extreme end of this insensitivity to others’ feelings lies autism, which is an overwhelmingly male condition, five times as frequent in boys.32 The autistic person often fails to recognize or respond to others’ emotions at all. Boy babies respond less to people and hold less eye contact than girl babies, but are more fascinated by moving objects. Men seem to value social relationships less, whether those of family or friends, and seem self-centred to many women. Women are more physically affectionate towards babies and small animals, wanting to cuddle them. Men prefer a relationship of playfulness: they like to test an animal’s reactions or make a baby laugh. Men’s emotional bluntness and insensitivity to feelings is something women often find distressing. Of course insensitivity may be a vital characteristic for survival if you have to cut a sheep’s throat or bayonet an enemy, stay in a trench under deafening shell-fire, order other men to go to certain death, or keep charging the enemy while your best friend is decapitated at your side. The harsh and violent conditions in which mankind has often lived until now have made both sides of human nature necessary: insensitivity and sensitivity, aggressiveness and nurturing. A psychological specialization along sex lines has probably developed as the simplest way of combining opposite qualities in the species. 




This greater degree of insensitivity makes most men more able to control their emotions (except for those linked to testosterone, such as anger) or at least to hide their emotions. Their range of facial expressions is more limited. Men in battle seldom stop to cry over dead friends, or over the killing they have to do, and even afterwards they often have difficulty grieving. The fate of many war veterans in the past was a quiet sinking into depression or alcoholism, unable to talk about what they had been through. Men have more difficulty than women in expressing sorrow, especially through tears. Some men cannot cry at all, and most only do so on rare occasions of great distress, whereas most women will weep on much slighter pretexts.

Now the feminists argue that this difference in weeping is purely the result of social conditioning. They point out that even today many mothers discourage boys from crying by trying to shame them with the old adage: “Boys don’t cry.” But despite the fashion today of a feminist ideology of unisex treatment of boys and girls, it is difficult to get out of the habit of expecting more physical courage and less tendency to cry from boys than girls. Perhaps because boys are usually more boisterous and rougher in their play than girls from the earliest age, they project an expectation of more toughness, which adults then respond to by joining their game. Crying is a sudden abandoning of the boy’s habitual persona of toughness, and we encourage him to get it back. Adults are perhaps responding to the boy’s pattern of behaviour as much as they are imposing one. We often make the same gender distinctions in the way we respond to crying by adults. It is not uncommon to meet women of thirty or forty who, despite great composure and strength of mind at other times, burst into tears at any emotional or stressful confrontation with anyone else. While this may seem a sign of fragility, most people wouldn’t find it abnormal or a cause for concern. If a man of that age burst into tears in a similar situation, most of us would find it a cause for great concern – and feel that he was suffering from depression or needed help. At the very least he would be considered a person of very feminine temperament. The very exceptions confirm the rule that crying is more common among women than men, and therefore appears a more “normal” habit among them. 

Feminists of the gender-bending persuasion have in recent times made a great fuss about tears, urging men to weep more, and claiming that their reluctance to cry is merely the reflection of the repression of men’s emotions by modern Western culture. This is something one can agree with up to a point. The stiff upper lip is one of the characteristics of that ultra-masculine-militarist culture which began in the Anglo-Saxon world in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted for over a hundred years. It is undeniable that this culture pushed certain male traits to an extreme. But the argument should not be taken too far. They are after all “male traits” that have been pushed to this extreme. In other ages and cultures too the control of the emotions of pity and sadness has always been thought of as a masculine trait, and giving way to tears as feminine. Men in Shakespeare’s time wept much more readily than we do – Othello, Coriolanus, MacDuff are among his weeping military heroes – but he still called tears “woman’s weapons”. Tacitus noted that among the ancient German tribes the women wept freely at funerals but not the men. “A woman may decently express her grief; a man should nurse his in his heart.” 33 In most cultures it is women who do the ritual weeping for the dead. However much the tendency to cry varies from one culture to another, in all of them women tend to cry more than men – which would suggest a biological basis to this tendency. There appears also to be a universal gender difference in human reactions to tears. A woman’s tears, however slight their motive, generally inspire protectiveness in a man, and may even, in a woman he finds attractive, be a sexual turn-on for him. Women have long known that the way to win an argument with a man is to cry. Women, on the other hand, do not find men’s tears a sexual turn-on, unless the tears are rare and exceptional and justified by a major tragedy. This is because women do not enjoy the opportunity to protect helpless men, as men enjoy protecting helpless women. Tears express helplessness, and for some reason men are turned on by signs of helplessness in women. Men’s sexual urges are bound up with protectiveness, and may be triggered by signs of female vulnerability, perhaps associated with sexual surrender, or at least sexual opportunity. By contrast, a woman faced with a weeping man is usually acutely embarrassed and at a loss to know what to do, partly because he is no use to her sexually in that state and it does not therefore attract her. Men avoid crying in front of others because they know their helplessness does not endear them to others, or inspire protectiveness. It will usually inspire some pity, but pity mixed with contempt; mostly it will inspire worry that they are not able to look after themselves. Even a woman comforting a man in pain feels contempt if he cries or moans too much. It is a commonplace jibe by women that men make a great fuss when they are ill or in pain. This jibe reflects the instinctive female contempt for men who show any signs of self-pity – women in reality despise men’s tears. The mother who tells her wailing son “Boys don’t cry” is not only enlisting his male pride in order to put an end to a particularly trying noise. She is also expressing her own expectation of male stoicism in the face of pain, and trying to make sure he grows up to meet the exacting standards of fortitude which his future female mating prospects will judge him by.

Tears are in fact a giving way to emotion, a surrender of the self and of self-control, a giving way to a feeling of childish helplessness – impulses which are part of the psycho-sexual responses of women far more than of men. Men are expected to stay in control of themselves even during the sexual act. If a man gives way to a rush of emotion during sex, it often triggers a premature ejaculation. Surrender to their feelings is what men have to avoid in order to keep the act going long enough so that the woman can surrender to hers – which is essential to her sexual satisfaction. During sex women strive to let go; men strive to avoid letting go. Some men think of car accidents or horror movies in order to dull the pleasure and postpone the moment of release. The very demand by women today for expert sexual servicing by their partners is likely to keep men firmly stuck in the self-control mode. Since weeping is like an emotional orgasm, men have good reason to demonstrate their power of holding it back. The reluctance to cry will therefore remain a permanent characteristic of men, even if they are now once again doing it more often than in the militarist century (and even publicly now on such occasions as sporting triumphs or defeats when they are physically drained.) A difference in the tendency to cry seems to be a permanent and universal difference between the sexes, which is reinforced by upbringing precisely because it has been observed to occur naturally.




Men not only give way less easily to the emotions of self-pity that induce weeping, but are generally more capable of separating emotions from rational considerations and making decisions more coldly. This may be partly because men’s emotions are concentrated in the right half of their  brain, and the two halves of male brains do not have as many nerve fibres between them as female brains do. Men are thus more capable of compartmentalizing than women, and show more detachment from personal feelings.34 Men have condemned their own sons to death on many famous occasions, because they considered the law had to be applied impartially. Women instinctively recoil from this as unnatural. There is a marvellously evocative scene in the last act of  Shakespeare’s Richard II where the Duke of York denounces his son for treason against the new king and demands his execution, while his wife goes down on her knees to beg for her son’s life. This might seem an endearing characteristic in women, and a harsh one in men. But the reverse side of the coin has been women’s reputation for scheming nepotism (favouring their children and relatives) in the exercise of power, which has made men traditionally suspicious of women participating in politics. The belief that women cannot put personal feelings aside in making decisions slowed their access to political rights, especially in newly developed democratic systems which tried to combat all forms of nepotism, intrigue and favouritism.




This same male capacity for emotional detachment is often evoked in discussing men’s sexual behaviour. Most research seems to show that men are generally more capable than women of enjoying sexual relations without any emotional involvement. The market for paid sex has always been extremely one-sided: few women find the idea of sex with a male prostitute enticing enough to pay for it. Women, notably feminists, have often denounced men’s relative heartlessness and coldness in the domain of sexual relations. Books like Shere Hite’s Reports on Sexuality (whatever their dubious value as representative surveys) are long litanies of women’s complaints about men’s insensitivity, lack of tenderness, lack of awareness of women’s feelings, and inability to express their own. While some currents in the feminist movement have tried to advocate women adopting the same cold detachment in the pursuit of sexual pleasure, most women find it against their nature. Research tends to back them up. One notorious study at an American university by researchers Clark and Hatfield, in which attractive men and women asked strangers of the opposite sex either to go on a date with them, or to sleep with them, found a huge gender difference in responses to the sexual proposition. While half of both the women and the men agreed to go on a date, seventy-two per cent of the men agreed straight off to have sex with the attractive female stranger, and not one woman with the attractive male stranger. 35 The results were the same when the 1978 study was repeated in 1982 and 1989 (despite the AIDS crisis.) Now while some feminists have poured scorn on this research for its naive assumption that people will actually admit in advance what they are willing to do, it does happen to correspond to most men’s experience. The majority of women are simply not as interested in casual sex as men are. An attractive woman in a bar or club who wants to go home with an average-looking man has only to say yes to one of the dozen approaches that will be made to her in the course of an evening; she literally cannot miss. An attractive man generally does miss more often than not. Question the first twenty men walking out of any club and you will find not only that their score rate is low but that it is far lower than they would like. An average-looking woman who is not too fussy can score as often as she wants, because there is a huge surplus of men trying desperately to pick up. You do not find at the end of the night a bar full of young women forlornly looking into their drinks and getting drunk because all the men have gone home. But despite their perennial disappointment, men’s persistence in hunting does apparently pay off. All studies done have shown that men claim to have had far more sexual partners than women have (in most Western countries, around twice as many.) Moreover, men in such studies generally report that they would like to have even more partners, while women claim to be content with what they have. The need for variety seems to be built into the male sexual appetite. Most male animals (stud bulls, roosters) will copulate many times in a row if presented with a different female each time, but generally baulk at copulating again with the same one. Novelty itself arouses the male. This greater natural promiscuity of men is clearly a reproductive strategy: it pays men genetic dividends to spread their seed far and wide. Having multiple partners increases a man’s procreative chances; it doesn’t increase a woman’s, since her offspring can only come from her own body. Promiscuity may in fact diminish a woman’s genetic survival chances, if it lessens her ability to persuade a man to support her offspring for life (he will usually do so only if he believes her children are also his, a belief which will be undermined if she has a number of partners.) The pattern observed in most cultures of expected female fidelity and a certain tolerance of male infidelity corresponds to the genetic survival strategies logical for each sex.

Even though most women today indignantly reject the notion that men have somehow a greater “right” to infidelity than women do, because it is somehow “more natural” for men, studies of patterns of jealousy tend to suggest that women are in fact more tolerant of sexual infidelity by partners than men are. Studies across a range of societies have shown that while most men are more upset by the sexual infidelity of their partner and care less about emotional infidelity, most women are more upset by emotional infidelity.36 This difference fits in with the woman’s overriding biological need to ensure the continued commitment of her husband to her and her children. It makes little practical difference to her genetic survival if he spreads his seed around, so long as his nurturing instinct is confined to her offspring and he has no intention of abandoning his family and starting another one with someone else. It is this possibility which she sees as a serious threat – when his bit on the side becomes an emotional affair, tempting him to change the object of his long-term emotional (and financial) investment. He, on the other hand, needs to be sure that his offspring are in fact his, so that his lifelong providing efforts will go into his own genetic survival, not another man’s. This is the biological basis of the widespread “double standard” whereby a husband’s infidelity is regarded as a venial slip-up, and a wife’s infidelity is a serious matter that threatens the marriage. In terms of the real, biological interests of each sex the double standard is both reasonable and justifiable. 

It is one of the odd paradoxes of the feminist regime we now live under that men’s concern about whether their offspring are really their own has been downgraded to an almost contemptible obsession – as if there is something reprehensible about a man caring more for his own genetic offspring than another man’s. It is also associated with “controlling” attitudes to his wife. The politically correct view is : what right has a man even to know whether his children are really his own? This prurient interest by men is seen by the feminists as the motive behind the “patriarchal” oppression of women and the limitation of their freedom – the cloistering and chaperoning that still takes place in Muslim countries to ensure against wifely infidelity, which might cast doubt on the paternity of offspring. Men, according to the feminists, have a duty to support both wife and children without having any right to know that the children are in fact their own. Yet in contrast with the contempt in the feminist West for men’s interest in their biological links with their children, the children’s interest in discovering their biological fathers has been erected into a sacrosanct right. Adoptive parents or adoption authorities are in many countries now bound to reveal the identity of the biological parents to children who want to know. The knowledge of their biological father – even a sperm donor – is now thought to be an inalienable right of children, part of their right to “construct their identity”. Why the biological link of paternity should be acknowledged to be of vital importance to children but not to fathers is one of the mysteries of the politically correct ideology.






The systematic gap in reported numbers of sexual partners between men and women (surveys from Sweden give a male lifetime average of 15 partners and a female average of 7; American surveys have ranged from a 47% to a 74 % gender gap) has led to suspicions that men over-report and women under-report numbers of partners.37 It has been suggested that both might lie because of cultural attitudes whereby men are admired for sexual success and women scorned for sexual availability (reflecting the fact that men have to make an active effort to score, while women just have to say yes to some barfly pestering them.) After all, among heterosexuals, there must be one man and one woman in each encounter, so the total scores must be equal for both sexes. But an explanation of the gender gap in scores has been put forward. Surveys of numbers of sexual partners never take in prostitutes, who are regarded as an atypical group whose behaviour would distort the statistics. It is probably a small number of prostitutes, each with several thousand partners in a life-time, who make up the shortfall in women’s average score.38 But the handful of high-scoring women is not necessarily confined to prostitutes. There is some evidence that a small number of women who are not prostitutes also enjoy casual sex in much the way men do, and log up large numbers of partners. Now a survey would have to take in an enormous random sample to include the right proportion of this tiny class of promiscuous women – hence the difference in average scores. The traditional male division of women into sluts and nice girls may not be entirely devoid of basis, if a very small number of women exhibit masculine sexual behaviour (perhaps through having a brain sex centre like a man’s) while the vast majority of women find this behaviour unappealing. If an attractive woman enjoys casual sex like a man, she will clearly find no shortage of male partners, and will soon rack up a far higher score than most heterosexual men (as do many gay men, among whom the masculine appetite for novelty also operates in both partners.) There is some evidence that bisexual women are the most promiscuous category of females in their relations with men, having more partners, starting sex at an earlier age, and becoming prostitutes in higher numbers than heterosexual women.39 This might indicate a partly masculinized brain, which has a male sex centre, giving them a masculine, promiscuous sex drive, but a mating centre that is still partly heterosexual. The high proportion of prostitutes who are bisexual suggests that these women are simply exploiting a masculine trait in themselves which enables them to have sex with the detachment typical of men. If five per cent of women enjoy casual sex with strangers, but seventy per cent of men do, then the five per cent of women will be in considerable demand – and might be tempted to profit from it financially. This may be the origin of the universal phenomenon of prostitution: a small number of (slightly masculine) women in almost every society find casual sex with strangers the easiest way to make a living, while the vast majority of women find it repulsive (thus keeping the price of sex relatively high.) When in the late sixties many young women suddenly engaged in casual sex, the prostitutes were furious for the harm it did to trade. They saw giving it away for free as a form of sexual dumping.




To summarize what researchers have found: the characteristics associated with male hormone and a male brain structure, and therefore rightly thought of as masculine, and generally found to a greater degree in men (or in women subjected to unusual levels of male hormone in the  foetal stage) are aggressiveness, competitiveness, spatial and navigat-ional skills, mathematical ability, a certain sensory and emotional insensitivity, and a capacity for emotional detachment, even in sexual relations, with an accompanying greater drive to sexual promiscuity. Most researchers now believe these qualities are innate, related to male hormone, and are not caused by education or upbringing, though they may be reinforced by it. The corresponding feminine qualities, found far more often in women than men, and linked with female hormone and a female brain structure, include better verbal skills, and a greater tendency to talk, communicate and express feelings. Women typically display less aggression, more empathy and compassion; less competition, more co-operation; less hostility, more welcoming of strangers into groups. They have, on average, greater sensitivity to pain, greater fear of violence, more sensitive hearing and sense of smell, and better social observation. Women generally show more spontaneous nurturing instincts towards babies and young animals, a freer expression of emotion by word, gesture or facial expression, and a greater ability to cry. Most women need to feel a greater emotional closeness to someone before sex becomes enjoyable. This gives them a greater couple-forming instinct and, according to all social research done, on average a greater degree of fidelity and less enjoyment of casual, impersonal sex.

These innate differences in psychological characteristics between the average man and woman are reflected in persistent differences in choice of profession, in spite of the recent removal of much of the discrimination of the past. Far more boys than girls will choose to be mechanical engineers or airline pilots, because these jobs require spatial or mathematical skills that men typically possess to a higher degree. Women’s greater verbal skills, social interaction skills, and compassionate, nurturing instincts will lead more girls than boys to choose social and caring professions, such as nursing or teaching (especially for smaller children.) Both men and women will choose medicine and law because these professions have aspects that call on the typical strengths of both sexes: the empathetic, social and verbal skills of the female, and the problem-solving, analytical and technical skills of the male. 40

Of course, because of nature’s very inefficiency in sexing foetuses, there will always be a number of individuals who have brains that function more like those of the opposite sex. Quite simply, they have wrong-sex brains, just as one may have wrong-sex sexual predilections, or the physical appearance associated with the other sex. This “wrong-sex” ability may be in only one particular mental area – as when male poets have exceptional verbal skills or female mathematicians have exceptional mathematical skills, without necessarily manifesting any other “wrong-sex” characteristics. But these individuals will remain a minority: no amount of social or educational reform is going to ensure an equal distribution of all talents, skills, mental characteristics, interests and aspirations between the sexes, because in their majority they are too different. The atypical minority, the result of biological anomalies, are not going to form a vanguard that the rest of their sex will follow. The radical feminist goal of obliterating all behavioural and character differences between the sexes could only be brought about by dosing all female foetuses with male hormone and all male foetuses with female hormone (which would lead to a homosexual majority and extinction within a short time.) Without that extreme expedient, it is very unlikely that we will ever have a society where there are equal numbers of male and female car mechanics and kindergarten teachers. While it is right and natural to make room in society for all individuals, whether typical or atypical of their sex, and to give them every opportunity to fulfil their particular talents and emotional needs, it is absurd to imagine that exceptions caused by biological accidents will ever become the rule.

Now if this catalogue of gender characteristics which have now been linked with male and female hormones sounds familiar and obvious, it is because it corresponds pretty much to the traditional stereotypes of each sex which Western society (as well as most others) has always held. This has been particularly galling for the feminists, who are furious to discover scientific research confirming age-old sexist prejudice. They try to ignore, discredit, or reject these findings as mere  “patriarchal” propaganda, even though it is, paradoxically, female researchers who have been most active in this field, and responsible for many of these findings. It is, of course, quite typical that women scientists should be particularly interested in a very social and human aspect of biology – it reflects the typical female attraction towards the human and social rather than the technical side of any subject. Most women researchers would probably admit this without the slightest embarrassment, because they do not find gender-typical behaviour anything to be ashamed of, but simply an amusing fact of life, which they enjoy observing in themselves or their colleagues. Why should a woman (or a man) be ashamed of recognizing that certain of her (or his) personality traits, interests or mental inclinations are gender-influenced or gender-typical? It is one of the reflexes of women, when disagreeing with male colleagues, to say “As a woman, I see this differently” or “You’re putting a man’s point of view there.” Nobody sees this as sexist (though if a man said it, they might.) It is one of the factors enhancing understanding of situations to be able to take into account how things may be viewed differently according to sex, cultural origin, or life experience – so long as such differences of viewpoint are not regarded as a disqualification. Most people who have not been brainwashed in an ideology hostile to the opposite sex are quite interested to hear how the emotional reactions, sensibilities or attitudes of the other half of humanity (the half they fall in love with) may differ from their own. Popular books which discuss gender differences, such as the best-selling Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, have been read with shared amusement by thousands of couples, delighted to discover the exact description of their mate’s most exasperating foible. This study of typical psychological differences has probably increased understanding and tolerance between men and women. The attempt in recent decades by a neo-Marxist feminist movement to arouse hostility between the sexes, to convince women that they are eternal victims of male oppression, and that even to mention gender differences is to reinforce this oppression, has certainly poisoned the atmosphere in many intellectual and professional milieus in Anglo-Saxon countries. But this poisonous ideology has not diminished the fascination of normal human beings with gender differences, especially on the continent of Europe, where feminism has not yet destroyed the spontaneous liking that most men and women feel for each other, and their instinctive sense of their different but complementary characters.






We have made this long digression into the mental and psychological differences between men and women in order to justify the use of the terms “masculine” and “feminine” as meaningful, precise terms, referring to characteristics now known to have a basis in biology, and not merely vague, subjective, prescriptive, ideological or culture-based words that have no meaning beyond the prejudices of a given age. When we talk of a “masculine” characteristic we are not therefore talking of a characteristic arbitrarily associated with men by a particular culture with particular gender roles. We are talking of a characteristic linked to male hormone, which for this reason will be found on average to a greater degree in men than in women across all cultures. The evolution of masculinity and femininity can therefore be analysed as a real evolution of behaviour and psychological characteristics over ages or generations, not merely an evolution in cultural concepts or social attitudes. 

But it is equally important to grasp that the scientific evidence for the biological basis of gender characteristics does not mean that they are immutable, or that they are exactly the same across all ages and cultures. Characteristics which have a biological base may still be modified, increased or decreased in the course of life by the activities people engage in. Some activities, as we saw, can increase male hormone levels (levels in top tennis players double before a big match) while other experiences can decrease them (losing the match, stroking a kitten or singing a baby to sleep.) Activities that repeatedly raise testosterone levels will masculinize the character. That is the whole point of military training – men are toughened by repeated challenging experiences that call on more testosterone. A society engaged in total war for a long period will end up with more masculine (hard, tough, aggressive, unemotional, insensitive) men than one that has been at peace, cultivating the arts, for centuries. If the women of that society serve in the army as well, or do the same jobs as men, they too will become more masculine – though in proportion to their lower levels of testosterone. Men who engage in hard physical labour, and spend their leisure time playing aggressive sports or taking part in barroom brawls, will have far tougher, more masculine characters than men who work as kindergarten teachers and spend their free time at art exhibitions. Moreover, if gender roles are quite similar in a society, the characters of the two sexes will be closer than in a society where their roles are very different. American pioneer women, often doing heavy manual work or living in dangerous or rough conditions, sometimes learning to ride, shoot and rope cattle alongside the men, were undoubtedly tougher and more masculine than the aristocratic or middle class women of Europe at that period. Modern women, doing stressful, competitive jobs and practising hard, competitive sports are probably more masculine than the ladies of fashion of the 18th century, whose soft, simpering, childish characters so infuriated the early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. The roles played in society thus modify the characteristics of each sex – but they do so within certain limits which biology imposes. A society could not simply decide to reverse the set of characteristics displayed by each sex, through a different form of social conditioning, because it cannot alter the brains hard-wired by hormones in the fœtal stage. But it can, within limits, modify, increase or decrease these characteristics, by changing behaviour patterns which in turn change the chemicals involved in the behaviour. Military service and competitive sports masculinize the personality by repeatedly raising testosterone levels in order to make it easier to furnish the efforts required. Moreover, the constant raising of testosterone levels will increase the desire to engage in these activities. This means that entire societies and ages can develop very different average levels of aggressiveness, hardness, competitiveness, taciturnity, sexual promis-cuity, or other masculine traits, simply through the experiences people are subjected to. This is what allows us to study the evolution of masculinity as a reality, not merely a cultural concept. It is a set of real, hormone-related characteristics, not merely a set of social prejudices. But it is a set of characteristics that can vary with changing conditions, as people engage in different levels of the activities and behaviour that interact with and reinforce the hormones at the base of it. 

Once it has been established that masculine and feminine characteristics and behaviour patterns are partly fixed and partly modifiable by the activities engaged in, the question may be asked whether there is any social benefit from increasing or decreasing masculine or feminine characteristics. Is there any advantage in making men less masculine and women more so? Or making both sexes more masculine? Or both sexes more feminine? Is there an advantage in reducing dimorphism (difference between the sexes) or increasing it? And what happens to a society when changes of these various kinds occur?

We may summarize our main argument very briefly by suggesting that between the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries Western society saw an unprecedented masculinization of men through warfare and militarization. Sixty-five million men took part in the First World War, perhaps as many as had taken part in all previous wars in Europe put together. Most continental European nations had compulsory military service for at least a year throughout the whole of the 20th century – an intensity and a duration of militarization unprecedented for well over a thousand years, and only now coming to an end. The militarization and masculinization of men reached a high-point with the Second World War, and over the past thirty to forty years many young men have tried to reject it and move back to a more “normal” degree of masculinity in historical terms. But over these same decades there has been a rush of Western women into the work market and a vast increase in the level of competitive and aggressive behaviour among females, leading to a certain masculinization of their personality. The men, struggling to get back to a more normal character after the testosterone excesses of a half-century of war, have had their task complicated by the tendency of women to adopt masculine competitive and aggressive behaviour in the job market where they are now rivals. This has left men over the past thirty years rather confused and uncertain about their own path away from the characters of their ultra-masculine war-hero fathers and grandfathers. Will their abandonment of extreme masculinity cause them to be outflanked by more aggressive women? This uncertainty has led to various contradictory styles of behaviour among young males, with wild cultural swings from flower-power pacifism to shaven-headed cults of violence and back again. Along with the poetic-looking Brad Pitts and Leonardo DiCaprios, we have, in stark contrast, the hero of the action movie – a grotesquely over-muscled caveman, for whom violence and mass-murder are the only sure demonstration of manhood. The contradictory extremes of recent male movie icons illustrate the uncertainty of men over the degree of aggressiveness and masculinity they are supposed to exhibit in an age of general retreat from the warrior ideal combined with increased female aggressiveness. 

Now the feminist movement applauds the whole process in contemporary society by which women are being masculinized. They want to push it even further. They want a unisex upbringing, where girls are made to play with trucks instead of dolls, and boys with dolls instead of trucks, as a way of making the sexes more similar in character and removing men’s supposed competitive edge in the job market. Their whole obsession is identity of job roles and identity of earnings between the sexes. They want a world where there are equal numbers of male and female kindergarten teachers, car mechanics, “fire-fighters”, policemen and secretaries. To this end they want women to become more masculine and men more feminine so that their characters will become identical and interchangeable. Men are to take on an equal child-raising role and women an equal financial provider role in every couple. This is the official goal of state-financed feminist movements the world over. It is the goal of the obligatory female Minister of Gender Equality in every government, and of the European Union campaigns of positive discrimination, to stamp out every last vestige of perception that some jobs or roles are more suitable for one sex than the other. All of this is being done in a quite mad obsession with an absolute of “justice” and “equality”, to make up for the alleged “oppression” of the past – that is, the specialization of gender roles that previous ages thought more practical for the survival of society.

We will argue later that this entire social goal is a fatal mistake. In so far as it can be achieved, it will result in confusion, emotional frustration, a loss of attraction between the sexes, an increase in homosexuality, less stable marriages, less time for children, and a continued fall in birth-rates. As women become more masculine they will want more high-stress career jobs and fewer children. As men become less dominant and are discouraged from seeing themselves as providers and protectors of the family, they will simply adopt a playboy role rather than a father-of-the-family role.  If men are deprived of the satisfactions of the “paterfamilias”, they will become footloose pleasure-seekers, not docile house-husbands. Commitment to marriage and children will diminish in both sexes, and stable marriages will cease to exist. (This is the avowed goal of radical feminism, a “matriarchy” where men are no longer part of the family, but function as sperm-donors and casual lovers, financing with their taxes and punitive child support payments the female-headed households.) The worsening crisis of falling birthrates and an ageing population will lead to an even faster rise in Third World immigration into Western countries. In the long term this will threaten the cohesiveness and unity of Western societies, the survival of democracy and of everything that used to be called Western civilization. 

The only way to avoid the fatal consequences of a collapse in the European birth-rate is to foster the nurturing, feminine side of human nature, and to try to reverse the over-development of the aggressive, competitive, productive, masculine side. Both sexes need therefore to move away from the masculine ideal, and this will only be possible if women re-embrace and rehabilitate the feminine ideal. Both sexes must move in the same direction, and it must be away from the worker-slave, competitive, masculine role, towards the nurturing, children-loving, family-oriented feminine role (which women must take the lead in adopting, because men are not going to perform women’s role for them.) That is, quite simply, the only way the West will breed enough to survive as a civilization, and avoid a demographic collapse into chaos and civil war. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, it is not short-term economic success but demography and national cohesiveness that will determine the balance of world power, and which civilizations will dominate the future of the human race.

But, you might say, this is all very well as a theory. What grounds are there for taking it seriously? Our first task, therefore, is to substantiate our basic argument: that a process of masculinization of men took place in the course of the nineteenth century, culminated in the mid-twentieth century, and that since the 1960’s we have been trying, sporadically and with varying degrees of success, to get back to normal. What evidence can be found for this? How can we possibly measure the degree of masculinity of another age? We cannot measure the sperm counts or testosterone levels of the sixteenth century or the eighteenth. The only record available to us is in the works left behind by the artists and writers of the past. Works of art and literature at least give us an image of men and women in various ages and how they behaved. By comparing these images with one another and with the men and women of today we can gain some idea of whether male and female characters have changed over time, and in what direction. The next chapters will therefore enter the realm of art and literary criticism. We will see what we can find out about our ancestors from the images of themselves they have left behind.




We have already remarked on how effeminate the men in Renaissance paintings look, compared to John Wayne or Clark Gable. When iconographers and literary critics approach the works of art of the past, that is in fact one of their frequent themes: the effeminacy of the male icons. But it tends to be assumed, especially by more recent critics, that this effeminate image is intentional on the part of the artist – that a certain androgyny, or sexual crossing over, is a conscious theme of his work. Hence a whole motif of androgyny, hermaphroditism, bisexuality, the deliberate blurring of genders, is read into the works of various artists of the past.  Here are some examples of the type of comment made, taken from one of the leading contemporary iconographers of sexual types and symbols, Camilla Paglia, in her brilliant and provocative book Sexual Personae. 


Donatello’s youths are always sexually ambiguous. His marble clothed David (1409) has a graceful, feminine hand and girlishly delicate face with a small pretty mouth. 41

Bernini’s androgynous angel….

I see Donatello’s androgynous David in every face in Botticelli.

Like the Graces’ impenetrable circle, androgynous Mercury is narcissistic and self complete. 42


Let us pause for a moment over this comment, about Botticelli’s Primavera. Anyone who looks at this painting is struck not by the androgyny of the figure of Mercury (his embodiment of both masculine and feminine traits) but by the extreme femininity of the female figures. By comparison with the women in the painting, Mercury is a cave man. It is the whole species represented which is more feminine than anything we have ever seen in our age, and the males and females have a normal degree of differentiation within this feminized species. Why focus only on the male figure as feminine, and ignore the extreme femininity of the women? 

Cellini’s Perseus, one of the most masculine figures in Renaissance sculpture, is according to Paglia “a homoerotic glamourization of the beautiful boy”. 43  She goes on:


Giulano de Medici belongs to a category of Renaissance androgyne separate from that of the beautiful boy. I call it Epicoene, or the man of Beauty. The man of beauty has an active, athletic adult maleness. But in insolent narcissism, he retains an ephebic transsexual quality, expressed in a feminine alabaster skin, here arising from the dazzling white  marble. 44


She adds that Lord Byron and Elvis Presley are other examples of this androgyne type. Paglia goes on to find Androgynes (sexually ambiguous figures, mostly men with feminine characteristics) throughout Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Stendhal, Balzac, Burne Jones, etc.

Is it not legitimate to wonder, finally: if all the typical male figures of works of art and literature for over four centuries were androgynous, then where were the normal men? What were these figures androgynous in relation to? Since androgyny is a state between male and female, where were the “real men” that constituted the male pole they were deviating from? And the answer seems to be, there weren’t any. Apart from a few of Michelangelo’s older male subjects, like Moses (or the power-figures of his Last Judgement), and a handful of muscular Laocoons imitated from the classical model, we have no pictorial or sculptural depictions of “real men” in this period. If one is logical, one must conclude that for those ages these so-called androgynous figures were the real men. There was nothing more virile than that around. There were no John Waynes or Arnold Schwarzeneggers. The most masculine they got was Michelangelo’s David or Cellini’s Perseus. That was butch for the time. To call it androgynous is absurd. From whose point of view are we judging?

If an iconographer were transported from the 1950’s to comment on our cinema stars, he would no doubt consider figures like Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves to be androgynous. He would think that film-makers were exploring a theme of androgyny by choosing these actors. But do we see them that way? Surely they strike us as fairly average specimens of young men of our age. And perhaps that is how the Renaissance viewed Botticelli’s Mercury; Cellini’s Perseus, and even Donatello’s David: not as androgynous figures, but average young men. The bias is in our minds, because we are emerging from an age of extreme masculinity. When we see androgyny or effeminacy in the vast majority of male figures in art and literature from the 14th century to the 19th, we should start looking at our own notion of masculinity as the odd one out.

I grew up in a country where the male icons were rugby prop and lock forwards, most of them built like gorillas. By comparison with them, most European men of today look effeminate. It was a frequent comment by American girl students travelling in Europe in the 1970’s: “Don’t you think European guys all look like faggots?” They were comparing them with American football players. If you have invented a more masculine extreme, then anything short of it seems effeminate. But a male type can hardly be called effeminate if nothing more masculine exists in that culture. It is curious that nobody looks at the extremely feminine women of Botticelli’s Primavera and concludes that the tennis-playing, mountain-climbing, hard-muscled women of today are androgynous or man-like. But by comparison they are. The whole species represented in Botticelli is several degrees more feminine than Westerners today. And the males and females of Botticelli are in perfect relation to each other, the women far more feminine than the men. Surely each age has its own norms of masculinity and femininity. And surely one can only call a figure androgynous who is so by the standards of his own age. And though it is often difficult to tell what those standards were, the only evidence we have to go on – other works of art – indicates that these allegedly effeminate figures were the normal males of the time. Certainly the notion that our standards are universal, that Botticelli or Donatello would have considered John Wayne or Clark Gable or Arnold Schwartzenegger to be normal-looking males, is an assumption we have no right to make.

When we survey the whole range of extant painting in Western Europe, from the 13th century to the 19th, the spectacle is one of an almost uniform effeminacy of feature, by the standards of our age. This is true whatever the fashion in the portrayal of physical types. From the painfully thin figures of Thierry Bouts or Roger Van der Weiden to the fleshy types of Rubens two centuries later, the faces all have a delicacy, a fineness or a softness that is alien to those of the mid-twentieth century. Here and there we come upon exceptions – in the massiveness of some of Michelangelo’s male figures in the Last Judgement (the most masculine work in the whole Renaissance, and reflecting a new, harsh counter-Reformation vision of authoritarian power) or the military sternness of the faces in David’s Oath of the Horatios (reflecting the new militaristic ethos of Napoleonic France.) But these exceptions only make the norm all the more evident. Whether you take an extreme example like Van Dyck’s portrait of the Stuart princes, with their delicate, girlish faces, long blond curls, languorous expressions, silk and velvet clothes, teetering high-heeled boots, and gloves lazily dangling from a limp-wristed hand, or whether you take a more average portrait, like Titian’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be Ariosto, with its fine long nose, soft eyes, sensitive lips, delicate bone structure – the dominant impression given by most of the paintings of the past is of a European race less hard, less coarse-featured, less square-jawed and heavy-boned than the men of the twentieth century. John Wayne, Clark Gable or Lino Ventura would look decidedly out of place in any painting in Europe before 1850 and any painting in America before 1800. We must conclude on the only available evidence that Western men have changed in appearance. They became in the early twentieth century far more masculine-looking than they have ever been before, and they are now beginning to change back again. What can explain this? The obvious answer is: experience of war, of hard physical labour, and the brutal pioneering conditions of the New World. It is notable that in all the works of art of the past the faces which are most reminiscent of those of the mid-twentieth century are to be found on the statues of certain Roman emperors of plebeian origin – Trajan, Hadrian, Probus – all of whom were career soldiers who had spent their entire lives making war.







When we look at how men were described in the literature of the past, it is again striking how effeminate these descriptions appear to us. But to conclude that the author was consciously portraying an effeminate or androgynous figure, by the standards of that age, is just as illegitimate as to assume Van Dyck was deliberately portraying effeminate figures in his portraits of Charles I or the Stuart princes. The prejudices are all ours. The actor Richard Burton claimed that he hated playing Shakespeare’s young lovers, such as Ferdinand in The Tempest, or Florizel in A Winter’s Tale, because he considered these young men to be “ladies.” They offended his 1950’s post-war generation’s sense of masculinity. It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare would have seen these heroes as in any way effeminate, any more than Hamlet or Romeo. What were to him normal young men were “ladies” to the mid-20th century war generation. The characters in drama, however, are only portrayed through their poetic, flowery speech, and we have to imagine what they looked like. It is only in the novel as it emerges in the 18th century that we finally get detailed physical descriptions of men, and those descriptions make a fascinating study.

   Few of us who saw the film Tom Jones in our youth will have had any sense of the hero as someone effeminate. Because, after numerous adventures and amorous entanglements, he gets the pretty girl, we think of him as a bit of a young dog. In reading the book too we get this feeling: an impulsive young hot-head, with a lot of good red blood in his veins. It is revealing therefore to look closely at how Fielding actually described the red-blooded young dog of his day.  

   But let us start with a fascinating general comment Fielding makes about male attractiveness early in the novel. He is talking (à propos of a minor character) of the difference between a mature woman’s love for a man and a girl’s love for a boy, “which is often fixed on the outside only and on things of little value and no duration, as on cherry cheeks, small lily-white hands, sloe-black eyes, flowing locks, downy chins, dapper shapes….”  He concludes that these are “the outward ornaments of the person, to which men are beholden to the taylor, the laceman, the perriwig-maker, the hatter and the milliner, and not to nature.” 45

   Any reader who doubts our general thesis ought to look carefully over this list of qualities considered sexually attractive in a young man: “cherry cheeks, small lily-white hands, sloe-black eyes, flowing locks”. You have to read the passage twice to make sure he is not talking about women here. For these are qualities we would consider attractive today only in women – particularly the “small lily-white hands”. How many women today would find “small lily-white hands” attractive in a man (or small anything for that matter?) Compare it with the sort of list that a twentieth century author might make of male attractions: height, breadth of shoulder, square-cut rugged features, prominent jaw, etc. Let us take a popular novel even from the late Victorian period, Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (which, published in 1885, falls at the start of the period when extreme masculine values were beginning to take over) and see how he describes his hero: 


One, a man of about thirty, was one of the biggest-chested and longest-armed men I ever saw. He had yellow hair, a big yellow beard, clear cut features, and large grey eyes set deep into his head. I never saw a finer-looking man and somehow he reminded me of an ancient Dane. 46


I will suggest later on that the late-nineteenth century colonial and American ideal of a man is an atavistic throwback, leaping over a thousand years of aristocratic, courtly civilization to the pre-civilized Viking. No contrast could be greater between this emphasis on a big chest and long arms (essentially gorilla characteristics) and Fielding’s emphasis on cherry cheeks and small lily-white hands. What a difference a century makes!              

These characteristics of Rider Haggard’s hero persist throughout the popular literature of the 20th century. Here is Zane Grey:


The rustler’s broad brow, his large black eyes, his sweeping beard, as dark as the wing of a raven, his enormous width of shoulder and depth of chest, his whole splendid presence so wonderfully charged with vitality and force and strength, seemed to afford Ventners an unutterable fiendish joy because for that magnificent manhood and life he meant cold and sudden death. 47  


Here we have again the enormous broad shoulders and the deep chest – gorilla man. But let’s continue with Fielding. On the next page he actually describes the late nineteenth and twentieth century ideal of a man while discussing a minor character. But the description is full of disdain, as though this male type was the opposite of attractive: 


His shape and limbs were indeed exactly proportioned, but so large, that they denoted the strength rather of a ploughman than any other. His shoulders were broad, beyond all size, and the calves of his legs larger than those of a common chairman. In short, his whole person wanted all that elegance and beauty, which is the very reverse of clumsy strength, and which so agreeably sets off most of our fine gentlemen; being partly owing to the high blood of their ancestors, viz. blood made of rich sauces and generous wines, and partly to an early town education. 48  


Fielding does not explain directly why physical size and strength should be so despised, but he implies it in the references to a ploughman and a “chairman” : strength denoted a member of the labouring classes. A delicate, effeminate-looking man was a gentleman, a man who had never wrestled a plough or carried a sedan chair. We can see that the eighteenth-century ideal of male appearance is essentially bound up with social class, with not being a manual worker. By contrast, the twentieth century ideal comes from the American democratic culture of the working man, particularly in his idealized frontiersman or cowboy incarnation. The equation is clear: aristocratic man is effeminate man, democratic man is masculine man. The paradox of all this is that as democracy advances throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading finally to women’s right to vote as the culmination of democratic principle, Western man’s masculinity also increases as the male ideal embodies more and more of the physical toughness of the working man, the colonial pioneer or the common soldier. And as the ideal of man shifts in this masculine direction, the sexes grow apart, and the man’s incomprehension of women, his sense of women as an alien species also increases (sometimes wrapped up in high-sounding moral principles about feminine delicacy, etc.) Rider Haggard’s colonial adventurer hero cares a lot less for the company of women, and understands them far less, than Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Eighteenth-century aristocratic man, by today’s standards an effeminate fop, understood women perfectly and adored them. He shared the same sensibility, the same tastes, the same emotional range. He had a far greater psychological territory in common with women than does twentieth-century man, moulded by a pioneering ideal which is a throwback to the pre-civilized Viking. 

The hero Tom Jones is described with approval by his beloved Sophia’s maid as “a very fine gentleman, and he hath one of the whitest hands in the world….. and one of the sweetest temperdest, best naturedest men in the world he is.” She goes on that he is “so pretty a creature” and that “his breath is sweet as a nosegay.” Again a modern reader, unaware of eighteenth century notions of male attractiveness, would be puzzled by this list of feminine traits.49




But Tom’s behaviour in love is even more feminine, by twentieth century standards, than his appearance. His first meeting with Sophia after he has fallen in love with her shows him in all the confusion and hysterical nervousness of a young girl:


“Oh! I know too well that heavenly temper,” cries Jones, “that divine goodness which is beyond every other charm.”  “Nay, now, ” answered she, “I understand you not. – I can stay no longer, – I,”– “I would not be understood,” cries he, “nay, I can’t be understood, I know not what I say. Meeting you here so unexpectedly – I have been unguarded – for heaven’s sake pardon me, if I have said anything to offend you – I did not mean it – indeed, I would rather have died – nay, the very thought would kill me!” “You surprize me,” answered she, – “how can you possibly think you have offended me?” “Fear, madam,” says he, “easily runs into madness; and there is no degree of fear like that which I feel of offending you. How can I speak then? Nay, don’t look angrily at me, one frown will destroy me. – I mean nothing — blame my eyes, or blame those beauties — What am I saying? Pardon me if I have said too much. My heart overflowed. I have struggled with my love to the utmost, and have endeavoured to conceal a fever which preys on my vitals, and will, I hope, soon make it impossible for me ever to offend you more.”

Mr Jones now fell a trembling as if he had been shaken with the fit of an ague. Sophia, who was in a situation not very different from his, answered in these words: “Mr Jones, I will not affect to misunderstand you; indeed I understand you too well; but for heaven’s sake, if you have any affection for me, let me make the best of my way into the house. I wish I may be able to support myself thither.”

Jones, who was hardly able to support himself, offered her his arm …. and thus this young pair tottered and trembled along, the lover not once daring to squeeze the hand of his mistress, tho’ it was locked in his. 50


There are several things to be noted here: the extravagant loquacity of Jones, giving full verbal rein, however incoherently, to his feelings; his extreme emotional confusion; and his nervous trembling, almost to the point of fainting. There is even the hint that he will die of his love. All of these are characteristically feminine reactions, and we see this sort of scene as quaintly old-fashioned because we are unable to imagine men acting in this way any longer. I remember as a student seeing a very old Russian film version of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, in which the actors threw themselves on the floor with emotion and rolled about hysterically in exactly the way Dostoyevksy described. The New Zealand cinema audience howled with laughter. Modern Anglo-Saxons cannot conceive of this degree of emotional demonstrativeness in a man any longer except as comedy. Tom Jones behaves in this scene like an hysterical girl: he can’t shut up, he is totally incoherent and he is trembling all over. No twentieth-century hero could be depicted in this state except as broad comedy or to render him ridiculous, or make him remember the incident afterwards with burning shame. It would be either comedy or it would be a scene of utterly humiliating failure – the young woman would certainly reject him for not being sufficiently cool, masculine and controlled in his behaviour. Yet Fielding, while smiling a little at the extravagance of young love, means us to identify with his lovers here, to share their emotions, to see this as a decisive and successful declaration, which, far from making the heroine despise the hero as an hysterical, immature, faint-hearted, girlish adolescent, makes her fall in love with him completely.

   Do we need to reiterate that what we see happening here is a love-scene that takes place on feminine psychological territory: endless high-flown words, emotional confusion, hysteria, trembling and faintness in both partners? The twentieth century male is silent, taciturn, refuses to indulge in poetic hyperbole, expresses his feelings through verbal understatement, and would long since have passed, if he were serious, from the verbal to the physical act. To the extent that we find Jones’ behaviour comical or old-fashioned here, we acknowledge the gap in sensibility between our age and Fielding’s and the gap is almost entirely one of masculine as opposed to feminine sensibility. It might even be suggested that what sets our age most apart from the last five centuries is the way we use words, or rather fail to. People in previous ages were loquacious, garrulous, verbally incontinent to a degree that stuns us today. Conversations in novels by writers like Fielding or Jane Austen are an exchange of long speeches. This is not a question of crude novelistic technique; every document of the times confirms that this was the way people actually talked. Is not verbal diarrhoea one of the characteristics of femininity? Is not the complaint “he never talks to me” the most constant complaint of the modern woman about her man? Is not the shift from a loquacious civilization, where people declaimed for long minutes their innermost feelings in elaborate sentences, to a society of one-line wisecracks and terse, pithy understatements, one more demonstration that we have shifted from a feminine to a masculine culture? 

   Let us compare Fielding’s scene for a moment to a love scene in an early twentieth century novel, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the first scene between the lovers, a soldier and a nurse, he tries to kiss her and she slaps his face.


She was looking at me in the dark. I was angry and yet certain, seeing it all ahead like the moves in a  chess game.

He agrees that she was quite right to slap him, and after a moment she relents:


  “You are a dear. I’d be glad to kiss you if you don’t mind.”

I looked in her eyes and put my arm around her as I had before when I kissed her. I kissed her hard and held her tight and tried to open her lips; they were closed tight. 51

In their second meeting she is more forthcoming: after they kiss, she suddenly says:


“And you do love me?” 


“You did say you loved me, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I lied, “I love you.”
A minute later as he kisses her he reflects:


I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into.  This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers. I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me. 52


This sort of cool calculation is of course what characterizes sexual relations in our time. It doesn’t mean love does not exist, or is not intense; it means that it generally comes after sex, not before. Love develops as the sexual relationship becomes a drug, both physical and emotional; it is not a precondition for it. And in order to get to the sexual act, every stratagem and cool calculation is acceptable. Now this detached, cynical attitude to sex had existed before in literature but it had always been considered immoral. It was the behaviour of the villainous seducer, the “cad”. Here is a typical cad in Madame Bovary, as the heroine subjects him to a standard female interrogation on his love for her:


“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you.”

“A great deal?”

“Yes, a great deal.”

“And you’ve never loved anyone else?”

“Did you think I was a virgin?” he exclaimed with a laugh.

       At that Emma started to cry and he forced himself to console her, salting his protestations with little jokes.

       “It’s only because I love you so,” she said. “Do you realize that I can’t live without you?.… There’s no one you like better than me, is there? I know there are heaps of women prettier than me, but none of them know how to love you better than I do, do they? I am your slave and your concubine. You are my king, my idol…..”

     He had heard all these things so often, that by now they had lost all spice of originality. She was just like all the other mistresses he had had. …..This practised seducer could see no difference in the sentiments concealed beneath a similarity of surface. Because wanton, mercenary lips had murmured similar protestations in his ear, he had no great belief in the sincerity of this, his latest conquest. 53 


The note of the cynic in love was therefore familiar in the literature of the nineteenth century. It was the voice of the cad, who treats a sincere, passionate woman as if she were a whore. What is relatively new in Hemingway is that this same note is now the voice of the average, decent hero, and this same cynical seducer later falls deeply in love with the woman he has coolly seduced. In other words a detached, calculating, exploitative attitude to a woman, seeing seduction as a chess game, is no longer incompatible with being a decent man with a capacity for true love. Cynical sexual exploitation is merely one phase on a trajectory which can also include the deepest passion.

Now this would have been incomprehensible to Fielding, for whom the two types of sexual love were reserved for two quite different sorts of women: the lower-class whore or easy lay and the virginal beloved. In Tom Jones, these roles are played by Molly and Sophia. Molly, the peasant girl Tom gets pregnant, is described as a handsome girl with the forward,  bold character of a boy, and it is her masculine forwardness, her ability to have sex like a man, which somehow justifies Tom’s taking advantage of the sexual opportunity offered. Sophia, on the other hand, must be a virgin till marriage as the very demonstration of the femininity of her character – which gives her an urge to have sex only when love is profound and permanent. In the twentieth century all women are potentially both whore and virginal beloved. It is of course the war that has broken down this distinction, and Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley is the first to admit it when she confesses to her new lover her regret that she did not sleep with the fiancé killed in France. “He could have had anything he wanted if I had known.”54 The shadow of death has made sex urgent and has reduced to absurdity and meanness the pattern of holding off till marriage that had characterized decent, respectable women’s behaviour until then. What the war has done of course is to make women’s sexual behaviour resemble men’s. The woman’s traditional, instinctive holding out for permanent, legally sanctioned love (the only guarantee she would not be left literally holding the baby) has been overtaken by events – the complete disruption of traditional courtship patterns by world war. With this of course goes a peculiar taciturn, inarticulate manner of communication between the lovers. Despite the occasional bit of weeping (just to prove they really are female) Hemingway’s women, like his men, are strong silent types who do not go in for great floods of verbal self-revelation. What we might call emotional minimalism becomes the style that seems most appropriate to those who have lived on intimate terms with death. It is as if the clipped, stiff-upper-lip understatement of military bureaucracy had oozed out to become a generalized social phenomenon. The romance between nurse and soldier is wonderfully emblematic: both are institutionally trained to repress any tendency to emotional attachment. They cannot afford too much attachment because they live on close terms with death. If the other is going to die soon, you want to feel as little as possible. We can of course understand this in the context of war itself. What is appalling to reflect on is how this emotional anaesthesia spread through an entire culture and influenced the pattern of its relationships from then on.  

But let us return to our theme of the nature of the hero in eighteenth century fiction. We have seen the effeminacy, by modern standards, of Tom Jones – and Fielding’s curiously effeminate conception of what makes a man attractive to women. Here is a later version of it: Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, hero of The Scarlet and Black. This is how Stendhal introduces him to us:


He was a short lad, about eighteen or nineteen years of age, with irregular but delicately cut features and an aquiline nose. His large black eyes, which in calmer moments revealed a thoughtful fiery spirit, were at that moment alive with the most savage hate. ……. His trim and slender figure gave more promise of agility than of strength. The thoughtful expression and the extreme pallor of his face had from his early childhood made his father think he had not long to live, or would live only to be a burden to his family. An object of scorn to everyone at home, he hated both his brothers and his father. In Sunday sports on the public square, he was always beaten.

It was only a short time back, in fact rather less than a year, that his handsome face had begun to make some of the young women speak of him in friendly terms. 55


By modern standards, particularly the standards of twentieth-century American fiction or cinema, this is a very unlikely hero. Weak, effeminate-looking, always beaten in sports – and yet turning the women’s heads. This is not a combination that would seem very credible in the modern Anglo-Saxon world, where success in sport is for a young man the necessary precondition for success in love. (Try to imagine Tom Cruise playing a hero who is always beaten by other men at every sport and still gets the girl.) But Stendhal is not alone in pre-modern times in making a sharp contrast between the traditional masculine, athletic, martial virtues and the softer, more sensitive qualities that attract women. In the sixteenth century Marlowe has the conqueror Tamburlaine discussing his sons:


But yet methinks their looks are amorous,

Not Martial as the sons of Tamburlaine;

Their hair as white as milk and soft as down,

Which should be like the quills of porcupines,

As black as jet, as hard as iron or steel,

Bewrays they are too dainty for the wars;

Their fingers made to quaver on a lute,

Their arms to hang about a lady’s neck,

Their legs to dance and caper in the air. 56 


This is the same contrast between the martial and the amorous character which Shakespeare’s Richard III makes in his opening speech (with some strikingly similar imagery).


Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,

And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.  57


We have already seen it in the earlier part of Marlowe’s play, when Agydas is astonished that his beautiful lady, Zenocrate, could possibly love the warlike Tamburlaine:  


How can you fancy one that looks so fierce,

Only disposed to martial stratagems?

Who when he shall embrace you in his arms,

Will tell how many thousand men he slew;

And when you look for amorous discourse,

Will rattle forth his facts of war and blood,

Too harsh a subject for your dainty ears. 58


This suggestion that warriors have too little in common with women to make good lovers is a commonplace of sixteenth century literature. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal jokes about the famous soldier Harry Hotspur in the same terms, satirizing the sort of taciturn, tough-guy conversation he would have with his wife.


“Oh my sweet Harry,” says she, “how many hast thou killed today?”  “Give my roan horse a drench,” says he, and answers “Some fourteen,” an hour after; “a trifle, a trifle.” 59


Othello’s attractiveness to Desdemona is also called in question because of his war-like character, his lack of courtly manners. He himself blames her suspected infidelity on the fact that he “has not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.” The belief that successful lovers must have soft, tender characters with a talent for poetic, amorous talk – the very opposite of tough, manly soldiers – was widespread until two hundred years ago. It is one of the attitudes the nineteenth century cult of militarism and masculinity was to change. In Stendhal’s time, writers could still assume that women preferred more feminine, less warlike traits in men, though things were evolving even then and he felt the need at times to defend his view. By the late nineteenth century, the proliferation of heroes of military background (from Tolstoy to Thackeray) had gradually instilled the notion that every lass loves a soldier, and the masculine traits that go along with him. This of course corresponds to the huge expansion of armies throughout the nineteenth century, and in many countries the adoption of compulsory military service on the Prussian model. It culminates with generalized conscription in the First World War, and an entire generation of men with brutal combat experience, which becomes almost a prerequisite for the “real man” the women of the 20th century go for.  

Julien Sorel, then, is meant to typify the slightly girlish young man that women were often thought in previous ages to find most attractive. This does not at all mean that he is a milksop, despite being a relative physical weakling who is beaten and bullied by his loutish brothers and father. His spirit is still masculine: he burns with a secret romantic adulation of Napoleon, and relives in his mind all Napoleon’s battles, through the stories of his mentor, an old soldier. He is therefore a red-blooded male, with a typical boy’s ambitions. Girlish though he might be in looks, he has a male mind. It is this combination, Stendhal suggests, which slays the ladies. This is the impression he makes on Madame de Rênal, the mayor’s wife, whose children he is going to tutor. 


Madame de Rênal… just by the front door …noticed a young peasant, still almost a child, whose face was extremely pale and bore the mark of recent tears. ….

      This young peasant had such a fair complexion and his eyes were so gentle that Madame de Rênal’s somewhat romantic nature made her at first imagine it might be some young woman in disguise who had come to ask a favour of the Mayor. She pitied the poor young thing, standing unable to move in front of the door, and evidently not daring to lift a hand to pull the bell. Madame de Rênal went up to him …….He started when a gentle voice said close to his ear: “What brings you here, my boy?”

     Julien turned round sharply and, struck by the very gracious look on Madame de Rênal’s face, partly forgot his shyness. Very soon, astonished by her beauty, he forgot everything, even why he had come. Madame de Rênal had to repeat her question.  

  “I’ve come here as tutor, madam,” he said to her at last, utterly

ashamed of the tears he was doing his best to wipe away.

Madame de Rênal was left speechless. They stood very close together, looking at each other. Julien  had  never  met  anyone so  well-dressed,  especially a woman with such a dazzlingly beautiful complexion, who had spoken to him so gently. Madame de Rênal gazed at the large, round teardrops, halted in their passage down this young peasant’s cheeks, which had been at first so pale and were now so pink. Very soon she began to laugh, with all a girl’s irresponsible gaiety. ……What! was that the tutor she had pictured to herself as a shabby slovenly priest, who would come to scold and beat her children!………

As for Madame de Rênal she was completely taken in by the beauty of Julien’s complexion, his big dark eyes and his fine head of hair, which was more than usually curly from his having just plunged it into the basin of the public fountain to freshen himself up. To her great joy she discovered something of a young girl’s timidity about this tutor fate had forced upon her…….. 


Stendhal comments a few paragraphs further:


His bashful manner and the almost feminine contour of his features did not appear in any way ridiculous to a woman who was herself extremely shy. The virile strength that is commonly considered essential to manly beauty would only have made her feel frightened. 60


“Virile strength” would see its shares rise in the course of the century, but for Stendhal’s heroine it is still largely a negative. Stendhal has already told us that “Feminine sensibility was developed to an excessive degree in Madame de Rênal.” His perspective on this relationship is clear: the extremely feminine woman needs a slightly feminine man in order to feel reassured and no longer frightened, either of him or of her own sexual urges. The girlish appearance of Julien captivates her, awakens perhaps a maternal feeling, certainly a tenderness that allays her fear and timidity. What we see in this story is a relationship between two rather feminine beings, each of them extraordinarily sensitive, timid, emotional, and obsessive, but one of them also animated by the competitive, conquering, possessive urges of the male. Julien sets himself the goal of holding her hand one evening; then of kissing her. His seduction of her is a series of challenges to his male pride and courage, almost a series of acts of aggression against her, motivated by a determination to dominate his fear, which is compounded both by the adulterous situation and the class and age difference between them. This deliberately planned campaign has a masculine, conquering character, but the careful detailing of every step forward or backward, every tiny vicissitude in the long march towards the consummation of their affair strikes us as curiously feminine, in its preoccupation with trivial events, closely observed gestures, meaningful glances, nuances of feeling, imagined slights and fleeting sensations of triumph. The novel of seduction as we see it in Stendhal is essentially a study of the feminine soul, and what is extraordinary to a modern reader is the degree to which the male, while retaining his conqueror’s motivation, entered into and shared the feminine soul in that era.

I would argue that love relationships up until the end of the nineteenth century took place on female psychological territory. The man entered the woman’s world in order to seduce her – a world of sighs, blushes, flirtatious glances, subtle hints, animated conversations and passionate declarations. But after the First World War, with Hemingway, we see the woman entering the man’s world, and the relationship between them taking place on male psychological territory: silence, understatement, the wry tough humour developed in the trenches, suppression of feelings, the escape from communication into drunkenness, and a physicality with hardly any verbal preamble. What we regard instinctively as modern behaviour in love is in fact masculine behaviour. Brett in Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises is typical of these hard-drinking, tough-girl masculine women of between the wars, who act as one of the boys. Despite her aristocratic origins, she is as hard as nails, manipulating a bevy of male admirers and keeping them all at her feet as she indulges in a series of adulteries, which she discusses frankly with them as though it were a regrettable emotional vice that she cannot control. Near the beginning of the book, the narrator Jake confesses to her that he is under some emotional stress because he loves her. Her reaction is to treat him as an invalid, suffering from a temporary emotional illness.


“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”

“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.”

“Couldn’t we go off in the country for a while?”

“It wouldn’t be any good. I’ll go if you like. But I couldn’t live quietly in the country. Not with my own true love.”

“I know.”

“Isn’t it rotten? There isn’t any use my telling you I love you.”

“You know I love you.”

“Let’s not talk. Talking’s all bilge. I’m going away from you, and then Michael’s coming back.”  61 


Here we see the post-First World War woman adopting a totally male pattern of behaviour. This is not merely in her admission of compulsive infidelity of the Don Juan type. It is also in her remark “Talking’s all bilge”, a fairly startling remark for a woman to make, since talking is usually the one thing women traditionally insist on, and are indeed biologically programmed to do to an excessive degree. Of course she does use Jake as a confidant, and talks to him to cheer herself up after her affair with a Spanish bullfighter thirteen years younger then her. She feels virtuous about her decision to break off with this boy: she doesn’t want to “be a bitch” and ruin a mere child. They joke together about the young bullfighter’s desire for her to grow her hair long and become more “womanly”. That is certainly one thing Brett is never going to become. There is a strong hint in the book that the impediment between her and Jake is not merely her compulsive infidelity but also his war wound, which has apparently affected his potency. As a psychological symbol, this is brilliant, since her entire behaviour castrates Jake. But even more, the wound left by the war has castrated them both emotionally, by turning them both into taciturn, hard-boiled, wise-cracking, hard-drinking, emotionally impotent males unable to give themselves completely to a relationship. The war has eliminated the feminine half of human nature: it has made masculine toughness and self-control the only model of human behaviour. We see in Brett and Jake the barrenness of love relationships conducted without the presence of a feminine personality in either lover. The elimination of femininity from the scene, leaving male minds inhabiting both men’s and women’s bodies, leads to a landscape of utter desolation: suppressed emotions, inability to give, inability to reveal vulnerability, to express what one is feeling, to stick with one relationship – in short, inability to communicate and inability to commit oneself. This is the new sexual atmosphere of the peculiar ultra-masculine culture that takes over after the First World War. Men-women relationships become as superficial, hard-edged and promiscuous as male homosexual relationships, which is psychologically what they now are.

What is interesting in the novel is the utter lack of bitterness and moral judgement about Brett. If this were a man having serial affairs while keeping several women who love him on a string, it would certainly come over as vicious and exploitative behaviour. But Hemingway makes the character of Brett sympathetic, because the narrator remains in love with her to the bitter end. It is not entirely clear whether the narrator or even the author understands either her or the nature of their problem. The problem is in fact that Brett does not relate to Jake like a woman:  she is like a male friend to him, one of the boys, a good sort, a drinking mate, and therefore cannot break down the barriers between them and enter the intimate emotional world of his traumatic war experience, because male friendship thrives on keeping those barriers in place. The inability to communicate because she has lost the knack of emotional giving which women traditionally possess leads to the failure of the relationship. The last lines of the book echo the scene cited above, as once again Jake feels depressed by his unfulfilled love for her and her decision to leave. To stop himself getting drunk, he proposes a taxi ride through Madrid.


We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” 

…..The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. 

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” 62


The ending is bitter, but it seems to be bitter against life, not against the peculiar selfishness of Brett’s character. We are apparently meant to see this as genuine tragedy, not a portrait of an emotionally frigid, shallow, self-indulgent woman, whose only glimmers of feeling are the moments of self-pity when she understands what her shallowness is causing her to miss out on. Yet there remains a doubt. Is Hemingway deliberately creating, by the subtlest means, a portrait of a shallow, selfish, “liberated” woman? Or are we meant to take seriously this discreetly evoked war-wound as a legitimate impediment, condemning their love forever to frustration and justifying her behaviour? What we certainly have is a portrait of emotional impotence in both characters, and it is the emotional impotence of a world from which the feminine personality and capacity to love have disappeared. Whereas in the past love was a process in which the man won over the woman by adopting to some degree a feminine personality and behaviour pattern (sighing, pining, becoming bashful, expressing his emotions in extravagant poetic outpourings) in the twentieth century we have the woman adopting the male personality and behaviour pattern. And the male behaviour pattern of taciturnity, understatement, irony, detachment, drunkenness, promiscuity and lack of commitment simply does not work in love and ends up satisfying neither of them.

The contrast could not be greater with the love scenes we saw in the novels of Fielding and Stendhal. What is striking is the effect on Tom Jones and Julien Sorel of seeing the emotional distress of the woman they love. The sight, or even the intuition, of her state of emotion immediately melts their male inhibitions and makes them declare their love for her in the most passionate, eloquent terms. The love scenes of those books are orgies of feminine emotion on both sides. The woman’s revelation of her emotional vulnerability seems to unlock the man’s emotions, and he expresses them in a way that closely mimics hers. One could even say that traditional male courtship, ever since the 12th century courtly love cult, was a ritual mimicking of feminine emotions and behaviour by the male (he learns to sigh, flirt, pine, poeticize, and express his feelings.) The two sexes communicated through these feminine emotions, that is, on female psychological territory. Once we move into a masculine age, and the woman imitates the man, she no longer reveals these emotions, and so the man has no access to them. The lack of any emotional display by the woman, above all the lack of any signs of emotional weakness or vulnerability, appears to freeze the man and makes him quite incapable of expressing any emotions of his own. We see in Hemingway that as twentieth-century woman (under the influence of war) begins to resemble a man and loses her emotional spontaneity in her effort to be brave, cool, self-controlled, hard and tough, the sexes lose all capacity to communicate emotionally. They can only communicate with quips, jokes, wise-cracks and tight-lipped understatements. The masculinisation of both sexes kills their capacity for love. A cool, rather shallow friendship, with sex thrown in as a gymnastic exercise, replaces love. There is no longer any emotional release or transcendence of the self, because there is no surrender to the other. When femininity disappears, the whole psychological process called love, which is a product of femininity and the feminine capacity to surrender the self, disappears as well. And it is no accident that the radical feminists have declared war on love as such. They too see it as linked with the feminine impulse to surrender, which they are so determined to destroy and root out from the character of women, as responsible for their alleged enslavement. And in rooting out both love and femininity from women’s nature, they reinforce the unfeeling, cynical, selfish, calculating, exploitative, brutal tendencies of men, and ensure that these are increasingly shared by women, and dominate the world. 



10) LOVE IN HARD TIMES                         


The decades following Hemingway’s masterpiece produced a whole wave of literary and cinematic man-woman relationships of a hard-boiled, understated, never-express-your-feelings kind. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall became a star couple on the basis of this kind of screen relationship. The emotional power was supposed to lie in the subtle indirectness of the communication of love. Phrases like Bogart’s “here’s looking at you, kid” and other tough-guy wise-talk become coded expressions of the deepest passion. It is as if the words “I love you” had taken on an obscene connotation, and the whole love-thing had to be disguised as tough-guy buddies or pseudo-aggression in order to be acceptable in the new hard-boiled world. Fielding and Stendhal would have found this language utterly incomprehensible. They would have wondered why lovers should communicate in the catch-phrases of Chicago mobsters, and why this should seem a touching proof of deep sentiments. They would have wondered why in films the dialogue between lovers is reduced to clipped one-liners. How could love, the most verbose and extravagant of emotions, ever be conveyed in these terse utterances?  The answer, of course, is that love no longer exists, because the female has disappeared from the scene, and all that remains is two versions of the male, one of them in a dress. Western humanity in the masculine century became taciturn, tight-lipped, incapable of any emotional display, incapable of love itself, because the feminine half of human nature had vanished from the radar screen. Women instead became slavish imitators of the stoic male war hero, the only model of humanity that the war left standing.      

It is interesting to see how closely Humphrey Bogart’s career mirrored the evolution of the image of the male in America. Bogart started out playing gangsters and bad guys, and his tough, hard-boiled way of talking was expressive of the hard gangster personality. It was in sharp contrast to the far more articulate, educated speech of the leading men. Screen heroes of the thirties like Leslie Howard, Robert Taylor, Cary Grant and Stewart Granger were gentlemen, with clipped, slightly British accents and polished, educated manners. They expressed lofty sentiments towards women, and would never have done a caddish thing. Then suddenly in 1941 Bogart played the sleazy detective hero Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The film was so successful that Bogart became a star and could no longer be used for villain roles. The tough-guy gangster suddenly became the hero, but it would not have done to change the hard-boiled speech and streetwise character which had made him popular. So how could this low-life figure suddenly be an American hero without glorifying crime? The solution was to make him a war hero, as with perfect timing Pearl Harbour propelled America into the war. Bogart starred in a series of war films, Across the Pacific, Casablanca and Passage to Marseilles, in which the macho qualities of the working-class American male of the mean streets and the billiard parlours were enlisted to boost American popular support for the war. The war was no longer the cause of wishy-washy, intellectual Jewish liberals fighting for international socialism but an affair of red-blooded, street-fighting American boys, speaking gangster lingo, settling the hash of big Nazi bullies. The enlistment of the gangster in the war effort, the transformation of the sleazy street-thug into war hero (with the gangster of course standing in for the American working class), became a standard scenario repeated in later classics like The Dirty Dozen. These are films of social redemption, channelling the mindless aggression of the working-class hoodlum into the legitimate violence of the patriotic war-hero. Bogart’s shift from gangster villain to semi-gangster all-American hero reflects the larger shift in American popular culture from the polite, well-spoken gentleman as hero (Stewart Granger, Leslie Howard, Errol Flynn) to the street thug as hero. Hollywood’s war effort proletarianized the screen hero as part of the process of making the war a popular crusade. But it did so by permanently boosting the only type of proletarian who had screen glamour – the criminal from the mean streets, who then became the standard hero of the fifties film noir. This transformation of the gangster into a hero probably did more to glorify brutal thuggery as the essence of all-American manhood than anything else. And one aspect of this transformation was to make acceptable the rough, tough and decidedly unchivalrous way this new hero behaved towards women. We have already seen how in Hemingway the cynical sexual attitudes towards women previously confined to the caddish seducer suddenly became those of the ordinary decent young man trying to score. In the same way the no-nonsense street-thug treatment of women (“Shut up, sister, or I’ll give you a belt in the kisser”) became an acceptable trait of the new tough-guy screen hero. And the woman who was to match this new tough-guy hero had to be as rough, tough, hard-boiled and monosyllabic as he was. The new screen street-wise tough-girl (dancer, stripper, gangster’s moll, gold-digger, female buccaneer) became a standard figure of the film noir alongside the new gangster hero. The new screen tough-girl pushed even further the masculinization of women represented by Hemingway’s Brett after the First World War.   

This new image of men and women in the twentieth century is fundamentally different from any image of human beings that any past age or culture presents us with. We have lived with this image for so long now that we generally fail to grasp how unique it is. Mid-twentieth-century man left behind every single element in his character that might be called feminine – above all any capacity to express any emotion except anger, contempt, cynicism or aggression. And women followed him down the same path, as under the pressure of the enormous glorification of male toughness in war they began to imitate his character and try to match him in toughness. The age of war transformed human beings into the only kind of person that can survive war. And this became simply the nature of modern people, and the essential character of modernity itself. 

Now there is a tendency in literary criticism to see everything in terms of modes, schools and literary fashions. To explain the extraordinary feminine sensibility of the heroes of eighteenth century novels the academics have come up with the term “the cult of sensibility”, as if this were a sort of artificial literary mode divorced from real life. In the same way they see the tough, low-life characters of mid-twentieth century American crime fiction and cinema as merely reflecting a new literary fashion for gritty realism. But literary modes reflect realities; they show how ages saw themselves. And there is every evidence that the underlying reality of the male character of each period was accurately reflected in these popular works of art. The eighteenth century cult of sensibility, whatever its exaggerations, was not a major new departure. It presented an image of men and male behaviour that was not essentially different from what it had been over the previous six centuries. There is an extraordinary continuity in the image of man from the beginnings of European (post-classical) literature right up until the late 19th century. The lady-like male lovers in the poems of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, in Boccaccio, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Racine, Congreve and Fielding represent a continuity of character type from the 12th century cult of courtly love to the 18th century cult of sensibility, which goes on with little change into the 19th century romantic movement. It abruptly disappears in the 20th century. Stendhal, Lord Byron, De Musset or Tennyson would have felt at home in The Decameron – at ease with  Boccaccio’s conceptions of love, of male behaviour, of relations between the sexes – in a way that Hemingway, Miller, Raymond Chandler, Norman Mailer or Irving Welch would not have. Despite the minor variations introduced by each age’s literary movements, there is only one sharp break in character and sensibility: between twentieth century man and everything that went before.




As the nineteenth century draws to a close we encounter fascinating works which not only document but consciously mirror the changeover to the new masculine ethos. There had already been a hint in Wuthering Heights of a contrast between a new kind of masculine, violent, darkly tortured hero, Heathcliff, and the pale, delicate gentleman, Linton. But this dark hero emerged from the mists of Gothic horror fantasy, rather than representing a new social reality. The real macho man comes from the pioneering colonial experience, the struggle of man against nature, either in the wilderness of North America with Fenimore Cooper’s Indian fighters, or at sea with Melville’s whalers. He is no longer the product of an aristocratic society, an educated gentleman, with a code of civilized values, of honour and chivalry. The North American literary tradition created a new type of man not seen in European literature: man outside society, man alone with the elements, man faced with nature not as a scenic backdrop to sublime thoughts but as a brutal force to be wrestled with and overcome. At the end of the century we see this new type of savage hero brought into contact with the world of civilization in a key work, Jack London’s Martin Eden.

Jack London is an avatar of the pioneering, masculine spirit of the American North West, where man alone is pitted against cruel nature in a ruthless struggle for survival. As Leslie Fiedler demonstrated in his classic study, Love and Death in the American Novel, woman is almost absent from this American frontier world. Whenever by chance the male hero encounters her, he flees her. Fiedler argues that this is because American frontier man is already married to a mystical dark goddess, Nature or the Wilderness – what Cooper’s eternal bachelor Natty Bumpo calls “the spirit of the forest”. Marriage to a real woman would take him away from the mystical Wilderness to a conventional, humdrum domestic life of family responsibilities. He flees this as a trap. In a sense woman represents civilization, and natural man wants to remain in his Wilderness. This impulse is almost perceived as a kind of spiritual vocation, an ascetic path towards mystical knowledge. The closest he can get to other human beings is a relationship with another man, often a man from a more “primitive” race that has kept in psychic touch with the Wilderness, who becomes a spiritual mentor.63 Even the young boys Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer escape into their Wilderness as a male refuge from the domestic tyranny of stern aunts. Camilla Paglia points out that this American Wilderness is so totally a male world that it is sometimes even seen as a god rather than a goddess – as in Melville’s representation of the dark force of nature as a gigantic male whale.64 Jack London takes this whole theme to a more complex, sophisticated level. He brings his natural hero into the city, and contrasts the masculine world of the American Wilderness with a new kind of feminine world – not merely the trap of marriage and humdrum domestic life, but a world adorned with all the richness of art, beauty and literature of a high civilization. In Martin Eden we see the lone male hero of the savage natural world, a young sailor who has been in the South Seas on whaling ships, a typical Melville hero, brought into contact with the feminine world of civilization, poetry and art. That world is represented by the upper class young lady, Ruth, who becomes the object of all the young man’s aspirations: social, sexual and intellectual. Unlike the lone male heroes of Cooper and Melville, who reject and flee the tempting female, London’s Martin Eden falls under her spell.

The relationship between them is a fascinating intersection of class and gender opposites. She intimidates him to the point of confusion. She represents an inaccessible, superior world, not only by her class and her literary knowledge but above all by her ethereal femininity and refined sensibility. The young man is big, muscular, clumsy, scarred by fights, inarticulate and ill at ease socially. He is able to talk only of his brawls, and is ashamed of his ignorance and lack of social graces. On her side, there is both shock at his bad grammar and a secret, almost shameful attraction to his coarse animal strength, which becomes a means of release of her own repressed, over-refined sexuality. 


Her gaze rested for a moment on the muscular neck, heavy corded, almost bull-like, bronzed by the sun, spilling over with health and strength. And though he sat there, blushing and humble again, she felt drawn to him. She was surprised by a wanton thought that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay her two hands upon that neck that all its strength and vigour would flow out to her. It seemed to reveal to her an undreamed depravity in her nature. Besides, strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her ideal of masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness. Yet the thought persisted …. In truth she was far from robust and the need of her body and mind was for strength. 65


We might almost see this as a key moment of changeover from the old aristocratic culture of Fielding and Stendhal, where crude strength repels women and grace attracts them, to the new modern masculine culture where strength is what women admire in men. This novel dates from 1909. In a few years the First World War would confirm this change. Never again in the century do we hear of women despising strength in men as “gross and brutish” and preferring “slender gracefulness”. The ultra-masculine character of the 20th century hero was to be fixed once and for all by world war. We see this new sensibility emerging here in Jack London’s brilliant insight into the shift of civilization he was living through. 

This scene of the uneducated, lower-class man, who embodies all the strong male virtues, intimidated by an inaccessible woman of higher class and refined femininity, becomes almost a cliché in 20th century American popular fiction and cinema. We find it in the American Western: the big, tough cowboy hero reduced to speechless awkwardness by the presence of an elegant, refined, feminine woman of superior class and delicate sensibility (usually a recent arrival from back East, that gateway to the European world and its aristocratic feminine traditions.) The masculine and feminine souls are poles apart in this American world, to a degree that Stendhal, Fielding, Congreve, Shakespeare or Boccaccio (in all of whose works women and men converse with ease and familiarity) would have found astonishing. The 12th century poets of courtly love, though faced with mistresses of higher social rank, were not themselves boors of a coarser sensibility. They shared the same manners, style of speech, education, culture and taste as their lady loves. To the 19th century American frontier male, condemned to a rough life of hard labour in a savage wilderness, far from any respectable female company, the feminine woman (from back East, that outpost of Europe) is like a visitor from another planet, whom he can at first only stammer and wonder at. In the classic Western the two worlds remain irreconcilable, and after a brief moment of temptation, the cowboy rejects the feminine world of civilization (which promises domesticity and tameness) and rides off back into his masculine wilderness, leaving the jilted girl gazing wistfully after him. In later Westerns, the cowboy sometimes gets the girl, but only after bringing her to understand (through some suitably violent plot) that his tough manly virtues are worth more than her feminine refinements. For he represents the real world, the Darwinian jungle, and she represents an illusory and fragile superstructure of civilization and poetry, which can only survive if protected by him and his brute force. The reconciliation of the two worlds at the end of the Western genre – when indeed it does occur – entails the triumph of the male world. He is not feminized, she is slightly masculinized – at least to the point of no longer fainting at the sight of blood and becoming capable of reloading his Winchester for him. His brute virtues are crowned by the blessing of her poetic and refined appreciation, but we do not generally see him learning to write poetry or play the piano. We see her rather learning to ride and shoot. This victory of masculinity of course also represents the victory of the democratic rural working man over the snobbish, European-influenced upper class – part of the mythology of American democracy. The victory of democracy over aristocracy is the victory of honest, masculine, working-class, rural virtues over artificial, high-class, feminine, citified ones. The twentieth century American Western, when it involves a love-plot, is a fable of the conquest of the feminine by the masculine world.

London’s Martin Eden, while going over the same ground that will later be thoroughly trampled by the Western film, treats the theme with much greater complexity. London’s tough, ignorant, ultra-masculine hero strives to enter the poetic, refined world of the feminine ideal and he succeeds in doing so. He conquers the world of Ruth by educating himself and becoming a successful writer. But in so doing he learns the artificiality and falseness of her world. He is disillusioned to discover to what extent men and women of the upper classes change towards him after his literary success. He was exactly the same person, with the same talents and virtues before and after his sudden fame; but those who rebuffed him before now fawn upon him, including Ruth. In a mood of confusion and bitterness, he rejects her advances when she comes to him and offers to live with him. He decides to ship out to his beloved South Seas again, the world of nature and the lone male. On the way, the sense of futility overcomes him and he commits suicide by drowning. London’s conclusion is more pessimistic than that of the modern Western. Instead of the masculine world conquering the feminine by forcing it to recognize the superiority of masculine virtues, in London the masculine hero “conquers” the feminine world only by adopting (in fact capitulating to) its values –  which he then discovers are corrupt and false. Unable to go back to what he was, he has no way out except suicide. Moral: the feminine, civilized world is a fatally corrupting influence on primitive, masculine man, who is better off in his wilderness. This of course ties in with London’s homespun brand of socialism, his instinctive contempt for the bourgeoisie and the rich. And given the Darwinian biological myths of struggle and conquest onto which his socialism is grafted, it is not surprising that it eventually begins to resemble fascism.

The opposition of the worlds of masculine clumsiness, ignorance and naivety, and feminine sophistication, social graces and higher class, is not merely American. It becomes a major theme of 19th century English literature, in a period of increasing class mobility. It underlies the torment of the relationship between Pip and Stella in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Here the provincial, boorish boy is made to suffer by the pretty, sophisticated girl, whose world he longs to enter – even though its values, he discovers, are as false as the basis of his own mysteriously acquired wealth. It is an important motif in Hartley’s The Go-Between, where the young lower-class boy is again fascinated and tormented by the older, more mature aristocratic girl, who uses him as messenger to her lover. In fact the real-life situation of lower-middle class writers, ambitious to rise by their talents into a higher class, is often reflected in these portraits of clumsy, socially inept boys sighing after upper-class girls and the world they belong to. It recurs in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, where the student narrator, of modest social background, feels a dual fascination for an upper class fop and his sister. It appears as late as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, the generation of 1950’s non-U writers fighting for recognition by a snobbish establishment. And in all of them there is that curious mix of envy, resentment at exclusion, and desire to shag their way into a higher class, with subsequent disillusionment, bitterness, hatred of the upper class and a sense of betrayal of their own origins when they succeed.      

The novels of D.H.Lawrence add another dimension to this opposition of the masculine and feminine worlds, and their alignment with class values. Lawrence’s attitudes evolved radically during his life-time. He began his writing career with an autobiographical portrait of a sensitive, artistic miner’s son who, encouraged by his doting, educated mother, strives to escape the brutal, masculine, philistine working-class world of the mining-town, and move into the refined, artistic world of upper-class culture. But Lawrence’s long battles with the establishment and literary censorship caused a shift in his sympathies. By the end of his life he identified with his working-class roots and took the side of his rough coal-miner father against his socially-ambitious, literate mother. For Lawrence the working class becomes the bastion of a rough, raw, masculine sexuality, as opposed to the prissy puritanism of the feminine upper class. In his last book he transforms his hero from miner into gamekeeper –  shifting him from the industrial world to the natural world, where he can tap into mysterious dark forces (almost like those of the American Wilderness.) In Lady Chatterley’s Lover we see in the affair between an aristocratic lady and her gamekeeper a variant of Jack London’s classy rich girl and clumsy sailor. This time, however, the gamekeeper Mellors has no aspiration to enter the lady’s aristocratic, intellectual world. Married to a cripple, she is seen as part of a frigid, sterile, frustrated and neurotic civilization. It is the working-class male who holds the key to her redemption through the crude, earthy sexual energy he represents. Mellors is the repository of the mystical forces of nature, which he transmits to her through the slightly unorthodox medium of anal intercourse. The upper class lady must be sodomized in the mud by the gamekeeper in order to be liberated from her frigidity and sexual repression. This is a rather more vigorous variation on the Western film’s victory of male over female, and democrat over aristocrat. Sex as a mystical annihilation of the shallow, bourgeois, artificial feminine self through a sort of masochistic union with natural, phallic man in his rough, unvarnished state: this is Lawrence’s peculiar twist on the familiar theme of lower-class male subjugating upper-class female.

As the twentieth century advances, the power of a new democratic capitalism with its emphasis on work and material success begins to threaten the existence of what both London and Lawrence saw as the feminine world of upper-class higher culture. But instead of this feminine civilized world being seen (as London and Lawrence saw it) as something to be challenged and overthrown by the raw masculine energy of natural man, some authors come to see it as a fragile repository of vanishing values to be protected against a new brutality and coarseness. This is the world we see in Tennessee Williams’ plays: a world of beleaguered femininity. In his work we see old-fashioned, European-style femininity struggling to survive in a world grown hostile to it. We have the figure of the ageing Southern belle, relic of a more gracious age when a European-style aristocratic society flourished on the plantations of the South, trying to maintain her airs and graces in a threadbare urban world of uncouth, coarse-minded men. Amanda in The Glass Menagerie still lives mentally in the vanished plantation world she knew in her youth – a world of chivalrous male suitors, gallantly dancing attention upon graceful, charming ladies. She dreams of finding a well-off husband for her daughter as a way out of their humiliating poverty. But the daughter, Laura, is an even more extreme case of female helplessness – she is crippled not only in one leg but by her shyness, her delicacy, her sexual timidity, all the exaggerated feminine characteristics which make her unfit for the rough modern world. She is not only too shy to ensnare a suitor; she is too shy even to follow a typing course to enable her to earn a living. Instead, she retreats into an imaginary world of her own, her collection of little glass animals. As often in Williams, this is a tragedy of the woman as déclassé. The descent from (or the disappearance of) that upper class milieu where the delicate, refined female could depend on the protection of male chivalry leaves her at the mercy of a crude, brutal, cash-nexus world which can only bruise or destroy her sensitive soul. Even the boy Laura fancied at school, whom her brother brings home to dinner, turns out to be crass, clumsy, crude, tactless. Williams’ entire oeuvre is an exploration of human sensitivity wounded or crushed by a brutal world. This often means a sensitive woman who aspires to some kind of social refinement being destroyed by a coarse, violent lower-class man. This scenario receives its greatest dramatic treatment in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The title is marvellously evocative of how sexual desire falls on a person like a brutal road accident. But in this play Williams is not merely using Blanche and her secret sex-life as a metaphor for his own secret homosexuality, made burdensome by an intolerant society. He also sees the whole sexual relationship between man and woman as a brutalization of the sensitive, romantic, idealistic female by the gross and bestial appetites of the male. Sex as degradation of the woman is the essence of Williams’ curiously feminine, even feminist vision in this play. Stanley’s rape of Blanche, leading her to lose her mind, and his wife Stella’s refusal to believe what has happened in order to be able to go on living with him, is a horrific image of heterosexual relations in mid-20th century America. Williams has a vision of heterosexuality which many a militant lesbian could identify with. Stella is made a slave to a brutal, ignorant, unfeeling man by her own sexual appetites, which are shown as a sort of masochistic vice she surrenders to. Here is how Blanche describes the husband, Stanley:


He acts like an animal, he has an animal’s habits. There’s even something subhuman …. something ape-like about him….. Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you – you here – waiting for him. Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! …. But Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art –  as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! ….. Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes! 66  


In this dichotomy between a coarse, brutal, lower-class male world and a feminine world of refined aspirations towards art and beauty, Williams is clearly on the side of the female. The male bias of London and Lawrence has been reversed, by identifying the male not with some mythic frontier wilderness, or nature’s mysterious energies, but with drunken poker games in smoke-filled rooms, coarse sexist jokes, violence and rape. The play is a devastating indictment of the modern urban male world. William’s vision of heterosexuality is not a typical male homosexual’s view but a female homosexual’s view, with all the disgust directed at male sexuality. By contrast, female sexuality is always treated positively in Williams’ work. He repeatedly evokes an idealized archetype of a heterosexual relationship – that of a protective mothering woman tenderly in love with a delicate poetic boy of shaky sexual orientation, who often dies tragically. Blanche had such a relationship with her young poet husband, but she caused him to commit suicide when she discovered his bisexuality and expressed her disgust for it. Blanche later tries to recapture the same kind of poetic relationship by seducing teenage boys, and is dismissed from her school for an affair with a young pupil. But even the predatory, paedophile aspect of her sexuality is not condemned by the author, because it retains a tenderly protective nature. The same pattern occurs in other plays of Williams: a sensual, protective female actively woos a passive neurotic male. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  Maggie the Cat is the active wooer of the passive, sexually confused Biff (also accused of homosexuality.) In Night of the Iguana the sexually voracious Maxine takes in the defrocked priest Shannon and saves him from the general disaster of his life. Female sexuality is generally benevolent in Williams: despite a certain hunger and voracity, it finds its fulfilment only with those weaker, more sensitive males who can relate to the feminine character. That is why Blanche is driven to seduce young boys: they are the only males who correspond to her need for a poetic, sensitive relationship. Men of her age strike her as coarse, over-masculine brutes, lacking in that chivalric respect and delicate feeling for women that she longs for. This makes Blanche, if not an incipient paedophile, at least a hebephile. Repelled by the crudeness of men, she turns to adolescents, where she is the gentle initiator of innocence, moved by the sight of the shyness she once felt. Williams seems to be saying that woman’s normal sensual desires have been perverted in the modern age because of the lack of any feminine, sensitive element in adult men which she can relate to. Unfulfilled in her relations with men because of their coarse, crude, over-masculine character, she becomes a seducer of young boys. We have said that Williams’ perspective on men is close to a lesbian viewpoint. Would it be too much to suggest that Williams was a kind of “closet heterosexual” – acting out in homosexuality his problematic relations with women? His failure to find the woman who could provide the understanding, sympathetic love for the timid, sensitive boy he was, leads him to seek in his turn to give that love to a clone of his younger self. And to create endless variants of that idealized woman in his work.

In Williams’ portraits of women we see above all the helplessness of femininity in a world that no longer has any place for it. Blanche’s delicate sensuality, her passion for adolescent boys (which was current among 18th century European aristocratic women, themselves initiated at a tender age by older husbands not usually chosen for love) has been criminalized as paedophilia by a coarse, Puritanical, ignorant culture which degrades the sexual impulse. In Stanley’s eyes she is a whore, who can be raped with a good conscience. There is quite simply no place left for her – except the madhouse. Another extreme case of femininity, the sensitive woman artist in Night of the Iguana, selflessly looking after her dying poet father, is also a doomed being with nowhere to go. Her sexual frigidity blocks the one avenue left open for the lonely, destitute woman – latching on to a sympathetic man. While London’s Martin Eden showed us the impasse of the honest natural man in a feminine, civilized world of deceit, lies and hypocrisy, Williams’ work shows us the impasse of the sensitive feminine woman in a masculine world of crudeness, mercenary sordidness and brutality. Williams’ sympathy is entirely with the feminine sensibility, which aspires towards the higher realm of poetry and art. This was also the perspective that Lawrence and London’s Martin Eden started out with, but we have seen how they changed their minds. Both of them decided the feminine world of poetry, art, civilization – essentially an upper class world – was false and artificial, and returned to the natural, masculine world of their roots. They saw the energy of natural man’s relationship with the wilderness as the primitive force making for the renewal of a sick, over-refined, neurotic, bourgeois civilization. Their view in fact echoes fascist thinking in its primitivism, its violence, its masculine revolt against civilized values as effeminate and weak. Tennessee Williams updates and reverses their whole perspective by seeing the American capitalist world emerging from the Second World War as essentially masculine in its crude, aggressive energy – crushing under its industrial, commercial wheels the feminine values of sensitivity, art, and poetry. In a sense we can see the earlier authors as reflecting some of the impulses that led to fascism, while Williams reflects the horror at the world fascism created – and not only fascism but a brutalizing industrial system. From our perspective Williams’ vision of things perhaps seems closer to the reality of the century than Lawrence’s or London’s view. The citation for Hemingway’s Nobel prize praised him for depicting “the hard face of the age”. Williams’ work represents, in contrast, a passionate protest against the hard, masculine face of the age, and its destruction of the sensitive, feminine side of human nature. This destruction is forever symbolised to him by the disappearance of the graceful world of the Southern belle, whose idealized image, filtered through the mist of childhood memories, haunted him all his life. 




The masculinization of the relations between men and women which we saw in Hemingway develops in a variety of ways throughout the twentieth century. With the addition of sexual explicitness in literature, we arrive at a cold, detached objectification of sexual relations never before seen outside pornography. This is most striking in Henry Miller. Miller is admittedly a complex figure, full of contradictions, and his work has a bewildering variety of moods, from earthy realism to the wildest poetic surrealism. But when we think of sex in Miller’s books, perhaps the mood that we think of most often, and which amuses us most, is one where he chronicles what might be called the trivialization, or banalisation, of sex – its reduction, in a Russian feminist’s phrase, to “no more than drinking a glass of water”. Here is a typical passage (sharply abbreviated for effect) from The Tropic of Capricorn:


It’s a trying day and on the way home I bump into the sister of one of my friends and she insists on taking me to dinner. After dinner we go to a movie and in the dark we begin to play with each other and….. go back to the office where I lay her out on the zinc-covered table ….. When I get home there’s a telephone call from Valeska…. It’s very urgent…. When I get there I meet her cousin, a rather attractive young woman who …. had just had an affair with a strange man because she was tired of being a virgin…. Maybe now she was pregnant… Valeska takes me aside and she asks me if I wouldn’t care to sleep with her cousin, to break her in, as it were…. The two of them began to paw me … I undressed them both and put them to bed … When I got home my wife was awake and sore as hell …I lost my temper and I clouted her … the kid woke up and …. began to scream.  The girl upstairs came running down to see what was the matter. She was in her kimono.... In the excitement she got close to me…. We put the wife to bed…. While the girl upstairs was bending over her I stood behind her and lifted her kimono. I got it into her and she stood there a long time talking a lot of foolish soothing nonsense. Finally I climbed into bed with the wife and to my utter amazement she began to cuddle up to me….  67 


What is hilarious in this passage is the sheer profusion of sexual activity going on and how busy the narrator is. Any woman who knocks on the door appears to be ripe for it. Sex is as mundane and impersonal and frequent as having coffee. It is a world of surreal sexual availability, and sex appears to happen wordlessly by a sort of tacit complicity, as if the entire world is in on the lark and keeping an eye out for any passing opportunity to indulge. This is what gives much of Miller’s work a comic, happy, optimistic atmosphere. It is like watching calves gambolling in clover. So much sex around strikes us as healthy, fun, and satisfying to all concerned. Unfortunately there are two problems that periodically arise. Some women want money for it, especially in Paris, so the whole thing becomes a contest to get the sex without paying the money (usually this means cheating or stealing from the woman.) The other problem is some women want some feelings to be attached to it. This leads to rather more brutal measures to convince them of the inappropriateness of this association of ideas.   

Let us first look at an incident from Quiet Days in Clichy, which we may entitle “Tricking the Half-Witted Whore”. Carl and the narrator pick up a slightly cracked poetry-writing French girl, who makes herself at home in their flat and offers them sex for two hundred francs, which she claims to desperately need. She then sets about writing a poem naked.


I was sitting on the divan and she was standing in front of me stark naked, her ass staring me in the face. I thought I would see if she’d continue writing should I put a finger up her crack. I did it very gently as if exploring the delicate petals of a rose. She kept on scribbling without the least murmur of approval or disapproval, merely opening her legs a little more for my convenience. In an instant I had a tremendous erection. I got up and shoved my prick inside her. She sprawled forward over the desk, the pencil still in her hand. “Bring her over here,” said Carl, who was in bed and squirming about like an eel now. I turned her round, got it in frontwise and, lifting her off her feet, I dragged her over to the bed. Carl pounced on her immediately, grunting like a wild boar. I let him have his fill and then I let her have it again, from the rear. When it was over she asked for some wine, and while I was filling the glass she began to laugh. It was a weird laugh, like nothing I had ever heard before. 68  


It is clear this girl is mentally unbalanced. This does not worry them from a moral point of view, but they are a bit afraid of her, especially when she asks for the revolver in her bag and calmly announces that she feels like shooting someone.


“You have had a good time for your two hundred francs – now it is my turn.” With this she made a leap for the bag. We pounced on her and threw her to the floor. She bit and scratched and kicked with all her strength. 69 


They throw some water on her and hustle her out. They have already stolen back the two hundred francs from her purse and it is hidden under a paper on the desk. She sees it as she reclaims her unfinished poem. They deny indignantly this is her money and she believes them and meekly apologizes. They put her in a taxi without a cent, with instructions to take her to a hotel. 

The Miller persona Joey remarks to Carl: “You’re not worried about her are you? If she’s crazy she won’t need money, nor a hotel either.”  (In other words, in case you missed the point, a crazy bitch can fuck for her taxi-ride and her bed.) Even Carl balks at this: “Listen Joey, you’re a hard-hearted son of a bitch. And the money! Jesus, we fucked her good and proper.” 70 Apart from sorting out a few details of what and how things had happened, the revolver, the money and so on, this is where the incident is left.

It is a little less happy than the atmosphere of calves in clover that we saw above. There is an odd detachment in the description of sex with this crazy girl, a sort of experimental curiosity, reinforced by her own utter passivity. This is the virtual rape of a zombie, whom they pass back and forth like a rubber doll. Now you might say: why not, if she doesn’t object? She is after all a whore. But the point of this narrative seems to be the passive acquiescence of the girl in an act which the narrator himself clearly thinks of as a sordid act of domination and aggression. He doesn’t conclude: “she was a good sort and we had a good time together.” There is no complicity between them and the girl. What they are doing is playing a dirty trick on her – “fucking her good and proper”. This is not a joyful sensual encounter with a sexually liberated woman, or even a simple transaction with a prostitute. It is the sly and brutal using of an unbalanced human being for what they themselves consider a squalid act of spoliation.

The woman’s passive acquiescence as they use her as a rubber doll suggests she is utterly indifferent to what is happening, but her subsequent rage and attempt to take violent revenge with the revolver suggests otherwise. Her sense of humiliation may be gauged by the desperate struggle on the floor afterwards. That she meekly accepts their word that the money she finds is not hers only seals her humiliation. She has been screwed, swindled and subjugated. The sequence we have here is the using of the woman as an object, followed by her rage and revolt against this treatment, followed by a physical subjugation and humiliation that makes clear who has the power. Now we may partly excuse this behaviour because the woman was after all a prostitute (even if only an occasional and half-witted one) – but this pattern recurs often in Miller, whether the woman is a prostitute or not. There is a determination that she shall be made to submit to rubber doll status, and her rebellious feelings in the matter will be subdued by some forceful means. Even more disturbing, the act of sex with a stranger has become, through sheer repetition, so trivialized and meaningless that any woman who tries to attach some feelings to it, to return the act to the realm of human relationships, excites a male reaction of anger and contempt and a desire to put her in her place. There is even moral indignation – as if she is breaking the rules. Just as prostitutes indignantly reject a client’s affectionate kisses as if these are breaking the rules by trying to introduce sentiment into a commercial act, so Miller indignantly rejects a woman trying to sentimentalize a casual screw. There is another passage later in the same book, where the narrator has just met a beautiful Danish woman, who has told him she is a widow.


I knew she wanted me to talk love. Say anything you like, do anything you like, but use the language of love – the glamorous, sentimental words which conceal the ugly, naked reality of the sexual assault. 

      I placed my hand squarely over her cunt, which was steaming like manure under her dress, and said: “Christine, what a wonderful name! Only a woman like you could own such a romantic name. It makes me think of icy fjords, of fir trees dripping with wet snow. If you were a tree I would pull you up by the roots. I’d carve my initials in your trunk…..” I rattled off more silly nonsense, all the while clutching her firmly, pushing my fingers into her gluey crack. I don’t know how far it would have gone, there in the kitchen, if our hostess had not interrupted us. She was a lascivious bitch, too. I had to mush it up with both of them at the same time.  71


This is of course on one level merely comedy, a parody of human sexuality, of its inherent hypocrisy, of the gaping contrast between the palaver about icy fjords and the reality of the “cunt steaming like manure”. But the grossness of the images is striking. Who ever thought of a cunt as “steaming like manure”? The image is one of repugnance, disgust. The second thing that strikes one here is the contempt, the curiously puritanical indignation against women’s sexual availability: “She was a lascivious bitch too.” Why this contempt for a woman for her sexual appetite? Why not thank your stars for it, if all you want to do is screw? But above all there is a contempt for the mental stratagems by which women justify to themselves their own sexual desires: a contempt for “the language of love, the glamorous sentimental words which conceal the ugly naked reality of the sexual assault.” Now this need for emotional euphemism, the need to beautify the act, to call it love-making rather than fucking, to place it within the context of an affective relationship (however fleeting) rather than a purely gymnastic exercise, is what has traditionally been seen as the natural feminine perspective on sex. This is how most women have always approached sex, apart from prostitutes. Perhaps because being shafted is a rather more intimate experience than doing the shafting, women have usually wanted some assurance of the benevolence of the mind on the other end of the prick inside them. Precisely because love-making and rape look superficially similar, women want some assurance that what is happening in the man’s mind is the former and not the latter. Now it is this feminine approach to sex that Miller contemptuously rejects: he insists on the woman having sex like a man, as a purely gymnastic exercise, as much animated by aggression as by affection. The phrase “ugly, naked reality of the sexual assault” makes clear how aggressively he views the act. The word “ugly” even suggests a degree of repulsion and disgust. Is this the disgust of wounded adolescent idealism, of surfeit, or of being obliged by need to screw women you don’t really find attractive? And yet this Danish girl was allegedly a great beauty. Where is the appreciation of this beauty? Why does he cynically parody the man’s traditional seductive strategy of soothing and charming, reassuring with words of praise and affection, in order to get inside what he wants? Is it not worth the effort? Does the woman not have the right even to this small concession? Normally a man’s seductive urges are inspired, and become sincerely affectionate and tender, in direct proportion to the physical desirability of the prize. But Miller has lost all patience with normal male strategy. He wants to force this girl to face brutal reality and accept a fuck on his crude terms. Here is how it continues: he and his friend Carl invite Christine home to a small party, a foursome.


Carl moved his acrobat over to the divan. I lay down on the rug with Christine, in the next room.  It was a bit of a struggle at first, but once I had gotten her legs open and the juice flowing, she went at it with gusto.  After a few spasms she began to weep. She was weeping over her dead husband, so she confessed. I couldn’t make it out. I felt like saying. “Why bring that up now?” I endeavoured to find out what it was, precisely, that she was thinking of with respect to her departed husband. To my amazement she said: “What would he think of me if he could see me lying here on the floor with you?”  That struck me as so ridiculous that I felt like spanking her. An unholy desire possessed me to make her do something that would warrant a true display of shame and remorse. 72


That something is to get her into a partouze or group sex act. They all four lie on a divan in the dark and stimulate whatever bits of one another they can get a hand to. Christine is excited to fever pitch by both men.


Carl now threw herself on Christine who was beside herself. I was lying so that I was now able to tickle her arse while Carl dug away at her. I thought she would go mad, from the way she was wriggling about and moaning and gibbering.

Suddenly it was over. Christine bounded out of bed and made for the bathroom. 73


The other three “burst into peals of laughter” as if they had played some sordid trick on her. She came out screaming that they were disgusting, and left, slamming the door. One can only agree with her.    

The question which arises here is that of authorial attitude. The behaviour of the Miller persona and Carl is genuinely repulsive. Theirs is the attitude of the men’s dirty joke session, or the graffiti on toilet walls. Women’s feelings are shit, all they want is a good rogering, and the sooner they are brought to this realization and given one the better. An author of genuine breadth of human sympathies, a Tolstoy or a Flaubert or a Maupassant (all of them great womanizers), would (if they had lived in a more sexually explicit age) have placed this coarse male attitude in sharp counter-point to the distraught feelings of the woman afterwards, as her mental and emotional world (the fond memory of her husband) is broken in pieces. But Miller is utterly indifferent to what the woman might be feeling. He records the men’s attitude as perfectly normal and appears to share it. Christine is the oddity, the stiff bourgeois bitch with hang-ups about sex and love, who in her widowhood is obviously gagging for it, but wants it to be wrapped up in some sentimental tosh so it won’t violate her romantic memories. Miller, the militant guru of some radical version of sex without the crap, intends to dish it up for her raw –  “the ugly naked reality of the sexual assault.” And make her grovel for it, too, the slut.

Now in other books Miller is quite capable of lyrical, idealistic flights of purple prose about love and women. But on the level of the practical sex life his characters lead among the whores and losers of Paris, he sees woman as merely a fucking machine. Any time she tries to emerge from this role he brutally shoves her back into it. Any woman who pretends to find sex more than just a pleasurable gymnastic exercise, who insists on linking it with some bullshit emotion, is slapped down as a neurotic screwed-up bitch who needs a good gang-bang to set her right. In short, Miller in his macho mode insists on woman going to the logical conclusion of liberation-masculinization and adopting a totally male attitude to sex – detached and purely physical – or else he despises her as a phoney or a deluded fool. Some of Miller’s female admirers and imitators like Erica Jong are only too happy with this, because it corresponds to their own masculinized attitude to sex. But Jong is under the illusion that this represents some sensual revolt against traditional American Puritanism. In reality it represents the opposite of sensuality – the beginnings of crude sexual consumerism, which has undertones of aggression, contempt and disgust that are thoroughly puritanical. 

Now this is not, as we said, the only mood or attitude to sexual love in Miller’s work. He also has poetic moods, in which he goes off on riffs about love which are pure romanticism – especially because they are nearly always directed at an unattainable woman, or one that has been lost. There is a section in Nexus where he talks of love in terms that are reminiscent of Petrarch or Dante (an effect reinforced by the archaic subjunctives): 


Which of us has not said to himself, in his blind adoration of one beyond his reach – “What matter if she be never mine? All that matters is that she be, that I may worship and adore her forever!” .….And even though it be untenable, such an exalted view, the lover who reasons thus is on firm ground. He has known a moment of pure love. No other love, no matter how serene, how enduring, can compare with it. 74


He goes on for a couple of pages with this kind of thing:


If  there is anything that deserves to be called  miraculous,  is it not love? What other power, what other mysterious force is there which can invest life with such undeniable splendour? 75


But this occurs in a novel where he is losing his wife to a lesbian relationship, a situation he finds unendurable (though it does not seem to trigger any questioning of his own treatment of her.) None of this lyricism comes out in any actual physical relationship he has. What we see in Miller is an absolute division of personality between poetic idealism about love when reflecting on his own feelings in lonely solitude, and a brutal contempt for the feelings that a woman may associate with sex when he just wants to screw. His feelings are purely selfish. His own self-pity leads him, when he is suffering from unrequited love, to identify with the romantic or courtly love or Petrarchan literary traditions, but these poetic texts give him no insight into what women may be feeling when he feels nothing. In fact the idealistic conception of love comes to Miller only when he doesn’t think about sex at all. It is always linked to unrequited love or unattainable women. He never describes a sex act in poetic or romantic terms. When he describes sex he becomes fixated with the crude physical mechanics of it as if he finds them morbidly fascinating – perhaps even vaguely disgusting. The effect is never sensual. He never describes a naked woman’s body as beautiful. He appears in fact to find naked women ugly. Every sex act is mined for its grossly comic potential, not its poetry. Miller can be poetic about woman only until she gets her gear off. When he gets down to the sex act he sees only the grotesque.

Now comic, crude and ribald descriptions of sex had appeared before in literature, and not only in pornography. They were part of the medieval fabliau tradition, of which Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale (by an odd coincidence of names) is a good example. But the joke in these fabliau tales is just as often on men as on women. Illicit sex is treated as a grotesque farce in which both sexes can end up being made fools of. In Miller the joke is always on women, and it usually involves taking advantage of them sexually, in violation of their own emotional needs. In Sexus he is so determined to deny his wife Maude any affectionate content to their sexual acts that he prefers to screw her while she is asleep: “sneak up on her, slip it to her while she’s dreaming.” This is an almost schoolboy obsession with turning sex into a dirty trick played upon the woman. Why this extraordinary aversion to normal feelings? We are driven to the conclusion that this perpetual joke against woman’s romantic illusions, this reflex to degrade woman, to rub her nose in the sordidness of the sex act which she romanticizes, hides not only a hostility to women, but a bitterness, a deep disillusionment with sex, a determination to destroy a romantic illusion which he must once have held. There is in Miller a real hatred and contempt for the process of romanticization and idealization of sex which women are prone to. Why? Does it reflect self-hatred? His own disillusionment with love? His own hurt? A lack of belief that he can inspire such love? Some deep shock of his adolescent sensibilities in the face of crude or hurtful sexual experiences? Whatever it is, his reduction of sex to the “ugly naked reality of the sexual assault” looks like revenge but may well be (as he later claimed) therapy. What interests us is that this aggressive attack on the romantic, rosewater attitude to sex is a violent rejection of the typical feminine view of it. And this is what makes Miller so important to 20th century attitudes to sex. 

His approach is central to the entire treatment of sex in Modernism as a movement, both in art and literature: a rejection of sensuality, of idealism, of the beauty of human bodies, of the emotion that transforms an animal act into a form of spiritual communion – all the elements characteristic of the traditional feminine attitude to sex.  Instead, most nudes by 20th century artists are ugly – ugliness is the most basic modernist ideological dogma. What the 20th century artist depicts is meat : ugly, stark, even repulsive. Female beauty is despised in the 20th century as Victorian pretty-pretty sentimentality, naiveté, hypocrisy – or even cheap pornography. Cabanel, Leighton and other painters of superbly beautiful female nudes are now downgraded as Victorian soft-porn merchants. The 20th century artist’s view of sex is crude and unappetizing, featuring ugly bodies in degrading and repugnant poses. The main achievement of modernism in painting is to make female nakedness repulsive. It has a forerunner in Manet’s coarse, in-your-face, grubby little whore Olympia, and reaches a climax with the cult of sexual repulsion seen in the likes of Eric Fischl or David Salle in the 1980’s – where a frozen chicken’s arse becomes a caricature of female genitals. Miller is the literary avatar of this modernist tradition. It represents the triumph of the ultra-masculine viewpoint – an ascetic, puritanical contempt for sex, while at the same time brutally enjoying the female bodies despised for their sluttish availability. Above all it jeers at the deluded romanticism with which women conceal from themselves that they are being used like rubber dolls to jerk off into.  Miller’s entire  treatment of sex is a humiliation and a demolition of the feminine sensibility, the feminine viewpoint, and a glorification of a male attitude to sex which is that of the locker-room and the toilet wall.

The whole point of romance or romanticism (in the popular sense of the word, applied to sexual relationships) is to make sex enjoyable for women, by placing it within the emotional context that suits the feminine sensibility. Women still use the word “romantic” for any male attitude or behaviour that puts them in the mood for sex. The essence of this is euphemism, of never stating the physical facts too baldly. Female romance literature of the bodice-ripper type is full of rosy euphemisms for body parts in order to conceal from the mind the crude reality of what is happening – to keep it all, so to speak, in the dark. But this attitude underlies not merely cheap romance but the highest love poetry. In fact one could almost suggest that love poetry developed in answer to this specific feminine need. The female demand for an emotional, sentimental accompaniment to sex is what gave rise to the cult of courtly love in the 12th century, the source of the love cult that has persisted as one of the striking features of European culture for the past eight hundred years. At the start of the twelfth century European men got the idea from somewhere that if you make an effort to emotionally excite women before love-making, they do it more enthusiastically and this increases the man’s pleasure too. This new cult of love represented a softening, one might say a feminization, of men’s approach to sex – working upon a woman’s emotions, her response to affection, flattering her with praise of her beauty, claiming to be desperately in love with her so as to appeal to her sympathy, begging her for pity’s sake to grant the boon desired, a kiss, an embrace. Through a gradual stimulation of her erogenous zones, starting with the lips, she then could be induced by sexual excitement to willingly allow access to the prize. Romantic courtship, in short, is elaborate foreplay (which replaces the estrus of other primates in getting the lubricating vaginal juices flowing, thereby increasing the pleasure for both partners.) This would have contrasted starkly with the brutal approach generally taken in previous ages, where a woman was held down, possibly tied down, on her wedding night and raped – an approach still found in certain more traditional areas of the world today. In the medieval German epic the Nibelungenlied, based on much earlier Frankish sources, the plot turns on the revelation that Siegfried, using his magic invisibility, helped his friend Gunther to hold down his athletic bride Brunhild on her wedding night. This suggests that force was normally used on these occasions. In fact the woman expected force to be used: Brunhild is furious to discover that Gunther was not man enough to master her by himself. The point of the 12th century cult of courtly love was to replace rape by seduction, to excite the woman’s senses until she wants the act as much as the man does. What we take for granted now in sexual relations was something that had to be learned. One of the key signs of European culture’s emergence in the 12th century from the age of barbarism it had been plunged into by the fall of Rome was the development of this new, more refined approach to sex.

In short, the Western cult of love, which seduces women into willingly indulging in sex, rather than imposing it upon them as their duty to their lord and keeper, was a transformation of sexual relations which began in the 12th century. It has given us not only our greatest works of literature, but the whole ideal of happiness that has ruled our culture ever since. Despite the centuries long efforts of the Christian church (and the more recent efforts of feminism) to denigrate it, the ideal of happiness for Western humanity for the past eight hundred years has been sexual love. The state of emotional intoxication and sexual excitement in which a girl will willingly allow herself to be penetrated for the first time becomes the state of shared exhilaration which the lovers seek to recapture as often as possible. The emotional experience of love-making creates the deep bond which then colours the whole way they relate to each other in their life together. This cult of love is found in every traditional European folk-tale and popular story with a happy ending (which means nothing else but a marriage for love.) The cult continues without much variation from the love-poems of the troubadours of the 12th century until those of 19th century romantic poets like Shelley or Browning or Yeats. And of course the tradition goes on in the popular music of the present, which is overwhelmingly about love. But from the perspective of most “serious” literature and art, this whole tradition came to an abrupt end with twentieth century modernism, and a period of virulent anti-romanticism set in.

Everything associated with the naive and innocent illusions of the nineteenth century, and above all romantic love, was condemned and ridiculed by the cynical worldly-wise twentieth century, which was determined to reduce everything to the crudest physical squalor. At first modernists like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce used the counterpoint of sordid modern experiences with allusions to the grand passions of the literature of the past as a way of expressing their contempt for the modern age. But this modernism was rapidly interpreted by its critics and successors as a send-up of the past for its unreal romanticism and a gleeful wallowing in the ugly squalor of the present as the true, gritty reality. It is in the context of this new modernist cult of cynicism and crude realism that we have come to see Henry Miller as depicting a typical twentieth century attitude to sex – one without the romantic crap. One that simply deals with the meat as meat, the brutal facts of sex without the hypocritical emotions and false embellishments of rosewater romanticism. The important thing to grasp from the point of view of our subject is that this whole modernist development is a change toward a totally masculine view of sex, that the doing away with romance is a doing away with the feminine viewpoint and the whole emotional ritual of romantic foreplay devised to excite the female imagination. In so far as men typically like hard porn and women like rosewater romances, the shift in serious literature from nineteenth century romanticism to twentieth century pornographic crudeness is a shift from a feminine to a wholly masculine perspective.




But in Henry Miller there is more than just a “cut the crap and let’s fuck” attitude. There is a consistent representation of the sexual act as aggression, as a degradation of woman. And there is contempt for the female because she accepts being fucked and even likes it. Once you have removed the ritual of romantic courtship – the emotive-affective approach devised to make sex agreeable to a woman – then her acceptance of it becomes either a capitulation to male aggression, through masochism or naive stupidity, or else unabashed, masculine-style sexual enjoyment. But woman’s unabashed male-style sexual enjoyment tends to repel Miller: as we saw, she becomes “a lascivious bitch” if she likes it, while she is a stuck-up, frigid bitch if she doesn’t. In his contempt for women we can detect an adolescent puritanical inability to accept women’s sexual appetites – to accept that they actually like being fucked. Most men at some time or other find it nothing short of miraculous that women actually like this being done to them. A man cannot help thinking that what he does to a woman is, on one level, an act of aggression and domination of an almost sadistic kind. You cannot shove a stiff thrusting organ into a supine, spread-eagled body without feeling power over it. The fact that the woman, as you shove into her with aggressive force, actually groans with pleasure, whispers endearments, and embraces you tenderly, either inspires feelings of affection and reciprocal tenderness towards her, or else inspires contempt for her masochism. Now in Miller’s case it is generally contempt. Even when the woman is beautiful and desirable he seems unable to empathize with her feelings, unable to feel that she is allowing this potentially humiliating thing to be done to her out of a touching trust in him and his feelings for her. All he sees is a lascivious slut squirming round his cock, and he despises her. This is the ultra-male mind at work, the semi-autistic mind, the mind incapable of empathy, of being affected by the feelings of the woman underneath him. He sees it all with scientific detachment, which makes the whole thing humorous, ridiculous, grotesque. Without tenderness and love, the act becomes a brutal expression of power over another body. That women should like this at all is astonishing, even comical. That some of them still pretend to themselves that this animal act expresses love is to Miller a mind-boggling paradox, an enormous, never-ending cosmic joke. 

This is what gives Miller an obsession with sex – his appalled disgust that anyone should actually like opening their legs and being penetrated by a stiff prick, and above all that they should read some bullshit emotion into this grotesque animal act. Miller cannot get over the contempt inspired by the submission of a woman to him; and because he desires women tremendously, this makes sex for him a sort of emotional conundrum. He will describe the sexual act hundreds of times, because every time there is an unresolved conflict that he cannot get to the bottom of: the conflict between his desire to do this, and his contempt for the woman who allows it to be done to her. He explores the depths of this contempt and disgust through a relentlessly comic and grotesque representation of sexual acts. He never describes a woman having sex as physically desirable or beautiful. What obsesses him is not her beauty or desirability, but the extraordinary oddity that she should want this. Not only that she wants his cock, but that she slavers over it, she squirms with it inside her, she whimpers for more, she begs on her knees to be fucked. It is in short the masochism of women’s desire that forever astonishes and fascinates Miller. It is the mind of a man who is so far from understanding or empathizing with the female personality that he can only see her behaviour as he would see it if it were a man doing the same thing – like one of Genet’s prison punks, a grovelling masochist, submitting to an arrogant, brutal, contemptuous thug. In Miller heterosexual relations have all the atmosphere of the most violent prison-house homosexual relations. It has been observed that male homosexuality is often brutal and sado-masochistic in the Jean Genet manner because of the absence of a woman, the partner who traditionally demands tenderness and a simulation of love. Because Miller’s relations are mostly with cheap prostitutes or local losers, this simulation of love and tenderness is not required. This makes the relationships in their essence sado-masochistic – a contemptuous triumph of arrogant rapist over abject masochist. There are no feminine emotions present in the sexual acts he describes: no tenderness, no love, no affection, no delight in being desired, no trust in the protection of the lover, no ecstasy of surrender. Nor are there any answering male emotions: tenderness, protectiveness, gratitude, elation at possession, pride and joy in giving pleasure. There is merely a detached, hilarious observation of grotesque masochistic submission, a hedonistic, amused enjoyment not merely of a physical but of a mental shafting of woman after woman.  It is a vision of sex in which the feminine sensibility, so well understood by Stendhal, has become an alien world. The ultra-masculine mind of Miller, like that of most lesbian feminists, simply can’t understand how women can bring themselves to do it.

Kate Millet, in her ground-breaking 1969 study, Sexual Politics, sums up Miller’s attitude to women in this way: “since sex defiles the female, females who consent to sexuality deserve to be defiled as completely as possible. What he really wants to do is shit on her.” 78 This is harsh, but close to the truth. Unfortunately Kate Millet then ruins her own critical insights by trying to fit them into the neo-Marxist feminist theory of “the patriarchy” and its age-old hatred of women. She claims that Miller’s “most original contribution to sexual attitudes is confined to giving the first full expression to an ancient sentiment of contempt.” 79 The whole argument of her book rests on a belief that this contempt for women has been universal and constant in history, underneath the pretences and hypocrisy which “the patriarchy” has at various times resorted to in order to disguise its oppression. She sees Miller as a traditional, not a revolutionary figure: “what we observe in his work is a compulsive heterosexual activity in sharp distinction (but not opposed to) the kind of cultural homosexuality which has ruled that love, friendship, affection – all forms of companionship, emotional or intellectual – are restricted exclusively to males.” 80 Once again this is an apt comment about Miller – the only problem with it is Kate Millet’s evident conviction that this “men’s house” mentality is typical of Western civilization over the past thousand years. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are the attitudes of ancient Greece and Rome, not the attitudes of Europe since the 12th century. The idea that “love, friendship, affection” should be “restricted exclusively to males” would have struck every European writer on love from Chrétien de Troyes or Chaucer through to Chekhov or Yeats as incomprehensible nonsense. It would have seemed normal, however, to Plato or Cicero. It is precisely the influence of the “men’s house” culture (with its roots in the militaristic societies of Greece, Rome and Germany) which came to an end in Europe with the courtly love cult of the 12th century – where women suddenly assumed centre stage in the European imagination, not merely as sex objects but as love objects. If we deny the significance of that historic shift, we make nonsense of eight hundred years of literature devoted overwhelmingly to the theme of love between the sexes. What we see in Henry Miller and the new 20th century masculine militarist culture is a sudden abandonment of this long European tradition of courtly and romantic love – which sees love between man and woman as the most important thing in life – and a return to the “men’s house” culture of ancient Rome – where men are for serious friendships and women are merely for sex. Miller represents at its baldest the atavism of the masculine century, product of the merger of American frontier barbarism and the new militarism of the age of the world wars  – the leaping back over a thousand years of civilization to the sexual attitudes of a Viking camp or the barracks of a Roman legion.

Miller often seems unaware of the extent to which he is rejecting the entire tradition of love of eight hundred years of European civilization. In passages like the one cited above on the “miracle of love” he pays lip-service to the idea of love celebrated in the literature of the Renaissance – but it remains for him a purely abstract idea. There is an unbridgeable gap between his adolescent literary idealism about love and the crude, even repulsive physicality of his own experiences. The moment he strips a real woman naked, his romantic idealism goes out the window and he begins talking of cunts steaming like manure. He can’t bring the two together –  the abstract idea of love and the gross physicality of sex. And this again is typical of the male mind and of extreme masculine attitudes. The masculine mind compartmentalizes. Idealism about love is in one box, fucking is in another. But whereas men in the past compartmentalized women themselves – the angels and the whores, the Sophias and the Mollies, the women you fell in love with and married and those you just screwed – Miller compartmentalizes the world into a literary intellectual realm of idealism and a physical reality of stinking cunt. All real women are just cunts squirming for it. All real sex is gross. The ideal is unearthly, ineffable, non-physical – if it is love it must be unrequited. We can see that the over-masculine world of universal sexual grossness has within it a puritan streak which leads ultimately to its opposite – the world of medieval asceticism, rejection of the flesh as repulsive. The extreme masculine mind is a Saint Augustine, oscillating between a cynical, gross, exploitative sexuality and a disgusted renunciation of the flesh for an entirely spiritual life (from which women are excluded.) The two things – sexual grossness and asceticism –  are different sides of the same masculine coin. In contrast, it is the feminine mind (whether in a man or a woman) which idealizes the physical, which transforms sex into love, which beautifies bodies and blurs the distinction between physical and spiritual, between human and angel. We can see this in Bernini’s sublime sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Theresa, where the saint experiences the divine as a sort of orgasm with the invisible. Cynics think they are being clever when they snigger that Bernini’s statue, modelled on his mistress, looks as if she is having an orgasm. That is precisely what he is trying to convey. It is the essence of the feminine sensibility to fuse together the sensual and the spiritual, to live such moments as an emotional intoxication that envelops both body and mind. Woman at her most feminine has a capacity beyond that of any man to believe that in her sensual ecstasies she attains a spiritual realm. She cultivates her own beauty in the belief that it symbolizes her spirit, that a man who desires her body loves her soul. The cult of beauty, which is a feminine cult (related to woman’s greater narcissism), is essentially a belief in the spirituality of a physical ideal, the belief that physical beauty can reach such a level of perfection that it transcends the earthly and becomes almost divine. All feminine art (that is to say, all European art between 1400 and 1900, created by relatively feminine men) is an art of beauty, an art that seeks to raise the physical to a peak of perfection where it becomes a symbol of the divine and takes on spiritual attributes. And the cult of ugliness in art which characterizes our time is the greatest testimony to the over-masculinity of the age, the neurosis of the over-masculine mind which sees ugliness and repulsiveness everywhere, even in the female body  – which sees even the supreme object of male desire, the golden bowl of the symbolist poets, as merely “a cunt steaming like manure”. 

Miller does not represent, then, the culmination of some age-old wicked “patriarchal” contempt for women. He represents a revolution against the previous eight hundred years of Western civilization, something radically new and specific to the twentieth century. He represents a rejection of the whole literary and cultural idealization of love between the sexes that began in the 12th century with the cult of courtly love, continued through the growing European convention that marriage should be based on love, celebrated by Shakespeare, and reached a climax in the romantic movement where love prevailed over all other values including life itself. This cult of love implicitly recognized the equality of worth of women and men, for the obvious reason that it would be an absurdity to value above life a union with an inferior being. And the key to this cult was the imaginative entry of men into the feminine world, where sensual experiences reach an intensity beyond the physical, where bodies take on angelic attributes, where orgasm becomes an emotional surrender to the divine. In short, where love becomes a path to mystic experience. This feminine capacity to spiritualize sexual relations, because the extreme of physical and emotional pleasure becomes an experience of spiritual transcendence, is precisely what Miller denies and rejects in his new cult of sex without the crap. Miller brutally rejects women’s specific sexual sensibility and insists on her accepting sex on male terms – an aggressive shafting to which the slut must submit, thereby proving she is a slut. “The ugly reality of the sexual assault” must be rammed down her throat or up her asshole to squelch the last drivelling delusions that there is any spirituality or idealism or poetry in this animal act. And she must be made to like it, and accept the fact that when she likes it she is a whore and when she doesn’t she is a stuck-up neurotic bitch. This is the new atmosphere Miller brings into sexual relations in the twentieth century. It is the atmosphere not merely of pornography (which has long existed in various shapes and forms) but of aggressive slut-pornography – the pornography of gang-bang and brutal degradation.

Now whores have existed in all ages, and may partly correspond (as Fielding suggests in his description of the tomboyish Molly) to the reality of a small percentage of girls who have masculine sex drives and are capable of enjoying casual sex with large numbers of men. But never until Miller were all women reduced to the status of whores by a major writer. There is of course in this age no longer a division of women into the virginal ladies you fall in love with and marry, and the crude whores you shag –  Fielding’s Sophia and Molly. In the 20th century, with the sexual liberation brought about by the wars, the two categories become one. But in Miller, instead of this leading to a recognition of the multi-faceted nature of women’s sexual feelings – their need for sex, but their need also for the emotional superstructure of love and sentiment – it leads merely to a treatment of all women as whores. Love and sentiment become a form of contemptible sham or humbug with which these bitches disguise from themselves their desire to be shafted into a coma. Sophia becomes merely a hypocritical, sanctimonious little prick-teaser: underneath she’s a Molly, and the sooner she is given a good seeing-to to convince her of this fact the better. This is the real revolution in sexual attitudes that Miller represents in its starkest form. It is a masculinization of sexual attitudes until the feminine half of sexual feelings has disappeared without trace. Miller represents the total triumph of the masculine approach to sex, the abandonment and eclipse of the long Western tradition of sex in the feminine (known as love) which was the main theme of Western literature between the twelfth century and the early twentieth. It remains to be seen how total or permanent this eclipse is.




Henry Miller’s attitudes have now become so standard in the West that it is hard to grasp  how recent and revolutionary they are. The entire culture of pornography that has developed across the Western world in the last thirty years – becoming the biggest entertainment industry on earth – has reinforced trillion-fold the same image of woman as disposable fucking machine that Miller first brought into serious literature. His crude cynicism towards sex and his contempt for women as sluts have now become the default male attitudes of the locker room and the stag party. This does not mean men are no longer capable of love or the tenderest feelings towards women: merely that they have to keep these feelings a secret from other men, because the locker room “men’s house” mentality, of crude aggressive exploitation of the female, is now the only one they acknowledge among themselves. But the same thing has now occurred more recently in the attitudes of women to men. A similar female locker room mentality has also developed, seen in the male strip shows for women-only audiences, where hordes of women grovel on their knees to suck a male stripper’s cock. What Miller’s work reflected in the mid-20th century was the mismatch or time-lag between a generation of sexually cynical, exploitative, hardboiled men (product of war, Depression, and social dislocation) and their female contemporaries, still mostly under the spell of love and romance, or passively accepting sexual exploitation. It is from this mismatch that much of his humour comes, as men simply fuck while women imagine they are making love. But the mismatch could not last. The sexual revolution meant that this male capacity for detached cynicism was imitated by women. With the arrival of women’s liberation in the late sixties female writers such as Erica Jong jumped on the Miller bandwagon by masculinizing sexual relations for women too and reducing them to a matter of impersonal meat. Sexually “liberated” women ceased to see the sexual act as a surrender to the male appetite (for reasons of affection) and began to see it as a demand for a male performance (for reasons of pleasure.) Jong’s quest for “the zipless fuck” and her view of the male as simply a walking prick are clearly imitations of her idol Miller’s quest for an impersonal “cold fuck” and his conception of woman as merely a walking cunt. As a new generation of Western and above all American women followed men down the masculine path and adopted a masculine aggressiveness, the sexual relationship between men and women became one of competition, challenge and pressure to perform of a ruthless and often hostile kind. This is the world depicted by Norman Mailer. But Mailer goes all the way to the logical end of this path. As the man-woman relationship becomes dominated (for both sexes) by masculine competitiveness and aggressiveness rather than feminine affection and tenderness, the ultimate expression of this relationship is hatred, violence, and even murder.

Norman Mailer’s attitudes to sex and women cannot be separated from his attitudes to violence and manhood, the chief obsessions of all his work. It is useful to look for a moment at what created these obsessions. Mailer was a clever Jewish boy who went to Harvard at sixteen, and soon after graduating went into the army in a Texas regiment and took part in the war in the Pacific, which he finished as a sergeant. He came out of it, paradoxically, not confidently assured that he had passed the definitive test of his manhood, but obsessed with proving it again and again for the rest of his life. When Mailer is not writing of competitive sexual marathons, he is writing of tests of courage – in war, in boyhood cliff-climbing, in the boxing-ring, in street-fighting, in barroom encounters with thugs, in living in dangerous neighbourhoods, in screwing dangerously connected women, in cat and mouse interviews between a murder suspect and menacing, violent policemen. The whole of his oeuvre concerns tests of nerve or of manhood of one sort or another. He freely admits this obsession. Looking back on his earlier years, he confides : “By the time The Deer Park was published, I had come to recognize that I was concerned with living in Hemingway’s discipline”, that he shared with Hemingway the realization that “even if one dulled one’s talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than to be a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve, and what is more difficult, learned how to find more of it.” 81 One is tempted to wonder why a war veteran of thirty-two (as he was at the time referred to) should still be so belatedly bent on “becoming a man”. Most men would feel this process was over by the age of thirty-two, whatever the results, and would turn their attention to other things than keeping their nerve and finding more of it. Perhaps he tries to answer this question when he tells us elsewhere that his mentor Hemingway was a man who “struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life.” He adds: “There are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature and those who are brave by an act of will” and concludes that Hemingway was the second kind. 82 No doubt he intended these remarks to refer also to himself. It suggests that the war experience by which the brainy Jewish boy from Harvard became a tough sergeant in a Texas regiment was so harrowing that it marked him for life. He had to keep doing this one thing, finding his nerve, over and over again. Mailer is the epitome of the twentieth century obsession with masculinity – an obsession imposed by an ultra-masculine, militarist culture even on men not naturally endowed with any great bravery or virility of character, but an obsession from which they seem unable to escape.  

In Mailer, men’s relations with women are therefore seen almost entirely through the prism of challenge to manhood and competitive response to the challenge. Women in his world appear as tests to be passed, or opponents to be defeated, not as pleasures to be enjoyed. This accounts for the peculiar tensions of fear and aggression that run through these relationships. There are in his books no feminine women who fall in love with a man and simply want to be loved (the one or two that come closest are treated as problems, because they don’t represent trophies to parade before other men, and are neurotically dependent and troublesome to get rid of.) Women that are worth having are seen as defiant, teasing, challenging the man’s virility, his implicit claims to sexual prowess, with a hard cold character which mirrors his own aggressive instincts. One finds in relationships in Mailer all the complex resentment which the raising of the 20th century male to war-hero status has inspired in Anglo-Saxon women: “OK, so you’re the hero, let’s see you prove it.” Mailer’s typical woman character demands to be shown proofs of the man’s courage and virility at every turn. She often puts him in situations where he may be threatened with a beating or knifing by a stronger man, just so she can see if he has what it takes. On the level of sex, the virility test is at its most obvious: how long can he keep it up? Sex is depicted as a physical and psychological contest between the man striving to make the woman come through marathons of fucking, and the woman’s resistance to coming, which is always equated with a stubborn refusal to surrender to him. (The idea that it might be a problem of vaginal insensitivity or a need for more clitoral stimulation does not seem to occur to him: the latter would perhaps be seen as cheating.) The heroine of An American Dream, a girl named Cherry (slang for virginity, just to ram home the point) is a night-club singer who has never come with a man inside her until the hero, Rojack (nicknamed Raw-jock), manages the feat. He becomes her conqueror, earning his right to possession through penile prowess, almost like a knight in the lists. Mailer’s obsession with the notion of a woman’s surrender to the man’s virile power by having a vaginal orgasm is the key to the transformation of sex into a contest, a struggle for dominance. (Because of the importance of this concept in Mailer, we will use the term “vaginal orgasm” for convenience to mean an orgasm purely from fucking, without manual stimulation of the clitoris – even if this is not what many people mean by it.) In Mailer’s view, a woman who doesn’t come in this fashion hasn’t been tamed and mastered by the man. Such a man is a failure in her eyes and in his own: he is not man enough to deserve her. In this way the complexities of human emotional relationships are all reduced to the one simple test: is your cock up to it? Love itself becomes a mere matter of testosterone and erectile function.     

But Mailer has not invented this world. It is the world he sees around him, or the one he chooses to move in. It is a world where the slightest gesture of tenderness, affection or humanity is almost unknown. It is the world of New York’s mean streets, dominated by ruthless gangs, and of Greenwich Village bars where the pick-up scene is driven by competitive sexual exploitation. It is a world of brutality, violence and perpetual menace. The epitome of Mailer may be found in his short story, “The Time of her Time”. In it the narrator, a regular Mailer character called Sergius O’Shaunessy, a tall blond Irishman (just so as to create the illusion of fictional distance from the short Jewish author), has a relationship with a Jewish student. Sergius lives in a Village loft where he improbably gives bull-fighting lessons (shades of you know who) and spends his evenings picking up girls. The area he lives in is a dangerous borderland between gangs of blacks and gangs of Puerto Ricans. When he talks with a friend in a bar about his bull-fighting school and the latter admires his ability to take care of himself in a fight, he has to be careful not to boast, so as not to arouse the antagonism of three big black gangsters sitting nearby, who are sullenly eyeing him. Danger is everywhere. He tells of a knife-fighter, an ex-army instructor, who bragged in every local bar of his knife-fighting skill, till he was finally challenged one night on the way home by a Puerto Rican knife-fighter who had heard about him. Hopelessly drunk but unable to refuse the fight, the army man loses badly. But this is not a question of physical wounds, which can be healed. There is a permanent wound to his pride, his reputation, and he goes downhill rapidly into chronic drunkenness. He has lost the bout of his life, the one challenge that counted. Sergius recalls similarly a boxing match he lost in the Air Force – the one fight he can never forget. This is a world where men’s honour and sense of worth depend on rising to the challenge and winning. It is against this background that we are introduced to the sexual challenge presented to Sergius by the Jewish girl. We are implicitly warned that it too will have existential importance.

The Jewish girl, like many others before her, has heard from girl friends about Sergius’ sexual prowess and has decided to try him out. He for his part is provoked by her sexually not because she attracts him but because she irritates him profoundly with her pretentious literary chatter, and sex is a way of putting her down. Now this is a peculiar notion to start with, one reinforced by Sergius’ nickname for his tool, the Avenger. Why he should see fucking a girl as a punishment for her snobbery and intellectual pretentiousness rather than a reward for it is not made clear. It has echoes of Miller’s notion of sex as a means of degrading a woman rather than giving her pleasure. But whereas Miller degrades a woman by fucking her with total disregard for her own pleasure, Mailer-Sergius can only degrade her adequately if he makes her come and thereby conquers her with a masterful demonstration of his phallic might. We have moved on from the Miller stage where sex itself humiliates a woman; now only making her come (with no hands) humiliates her. Fucking thus becomes a kind of caning, with orgasm as a substitute for tears. If she survives a marathon rogering without coming, she has won, like a boy enduring a caning without crying. If she comes, her sexual satisfaction is inseparable from an emotional sense of defeat and subjugation.

        Needless to say, the Jewish girl is a hard nut to crack. After valiant efforts for an hour, Sergius fails by a minute or two to bring her to orgasm and goes off into his own. He feels a “murderous” resentment because she “had fled the domination that was liberty for her” in refusing to come. She angrily curses him as selfish and incompetent for coming too soon. But her insults, instead of provoking him to throw her out, only stoke his competitive urge. She finally confesses that she has never come from fucking; her boyfriend brings her off orally – obviously a wimpish cop-out. This news makes Sergius determined to become the first to give her an orgasm by fucking, because this experience will remain in her memory forever. It seems oddly important for him to be remembered by this girl forever, considering how much he dislikes her. Again it suggests that the memory is related to defeating her soundly, giving her a thrashing she will never forget, rather than giving her pleasure. He is convinced over their next two encounters that she is almost ready, she is about to enter “the time of her time” of the title – the moment of her first vaginal orgasm from fucking alone. It is a sort of biological urge to be the first inside her at that crucial moment which outweighs his dislike for her as a person. He views giving her her first vaginal orgasm as a bit like putting his permanent brand on her; it is too sadistically satisfying to forego. He thinks of it as being “her psychic bridegroom”, leading her “down the walk of her real wedding night”. And adds: “Since she did not like me, what a feat to pull it off.” 83

When she shows up at their last rendez-vous, she reveals that she has just been with her boyfriend in the sack, and the thought of his juices inside her excites Sergius. “The worst of it was, this quickened me more.” To such an extent that he ejaculates after half a minute. She is unexpectedly nice about this catastrophic failure, which takes him back mentally to his disastrous defeat in a key boxing match in his Air Force days. She performs fellatio to get him back on his feet, so to speak, and he goes into her again, this time with cold calculation, like a metronome. He “threw her a fuck the equivalent of a fifteen round fight.” She comes close, but not close enough. He then withdraws for a moment, turns her over on her belly, and enters her anus. “Holding her prone against the mattress with the strength of my weight, I drove into the seat of all stubbornness, tight as a vise, and I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound, but fierce not to allow me this last of the liberties, and yet caught, forced to give up millimeter by millimeter the bridal ground of her symbolic and therefore real vagina.” 84 The result is a sort of mini-orgasm, which gives him the clue she is now ready for the big one, which he duly delivers into her vagina, whispering at the crucial moment: “You dirty little Jew”, which “whipped her over” the top. She has her orgasm, “she was loose in the water for the first time in her life” and she ends up sobbing: “Oh Jesus, I made it.” After gratefully whispering “was it good for you too?” she falls into the sleep of the soundly thrashed. Only when she awakens is there hatred in her glare. She gets dressed, shooting at him: “That was a lousy thing you did last night.” Presumably it was the anal rape she disapproved of, even though it seems to have done the trick. Her hatred is unleashed by her parting shot, a remark made by her analyst about Sergius (whom she has apparently described to him):  “He told me your whole life is a lie and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual that is you.” Sergius concludes:


And like a real killer she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise to tell her that she was a hero fit for me. 85


This story encapsulates the loveless struggle between aggressive egos that sexual relations have become in the new ultra-masculine world of Mailer’s America. Sex has become for both partners a challenging, competitive sport, a bit like playing tennis: you don’t have to like your partners, you just have to be determined to thrash them – to “make a notch in them” as the girl says at the end. For Sergius to actually find this disagreeable girl a “hero fit for me” is the final irony. He admires her for her killer instinct, for using every means she can to destroy him after he has symbolically broken her by making her come. He admires her fighting spirit, the way a matador might admire a spirited bull. Sex has become identical to war, where only one’s most aggressive opponents earn a grudging respect.   

Now relations between men and women in previous centuries were also sometimes characterized by a spirit of antagonism, with varying degrees of playfulness. Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict are the classic couple who court each other through contests of hostile wit and sarcasm – because they are too proud to admit their attraction to each other. Sometimes too there was a convention in which the woman defied and challenged the man, who had to engage in some sort of symbolic conquest of her (perhaps by heroic feats, or by beating her in an athletic contest, as in the Nibelungenlied.) If one looks at a Spanish flamenco dance, the ritual of courtship displayed is one of female defiance and male conquest through a display of fancy footwork – a more spirited version of the Russian ballet, where the pattern is one of female flight and male pursuit. But it was generally understood, over the last few centuries at any rate, that once the couple came together and agreed to their union – whether marriage or a clandestine affair – sex itself would be conducted in a fairly amicable spirit, accompanied by caresses, endearments and a desire to bring pleasure to the other. As we have seen, the whole tradition of love over the past eight  hundred years, from the twelfth century cult of courtly love through to the romantic movement, has sought to surround sexual intercourse with an atmosphere of tenderness and mutual affection, designed to render the act pleasurable for women as well as men. (This was at any rate the cultural ideal, whatever the individual failures to live up to it.) It is only in the last third of the 20th century that we have seen the emergence of a conception of sexual intercourse (other than prostitution) as a kind of wrestling match between opponents, devoid of tenderness or affection, but characterized by a spirit of cool competition in the achievement of an athletic result. This is the image we see in most porn movies, and it became a major paradigm of late-20th century sex. What this represents of course is sex on extreme masculine terms, but with both sexes, not just the male, now participating in the aggressive masculine ethos. It is as though women, brought up now on a diet of pornography, have caught up with Henry Miller’s heroes and readily accept the masculine idea of sex as an unemotional gymnastic exercise. They no longer feel demeaned by this conception of sex, as Miller’s female characters sometimes did, but take it as something normal. But this means that the sexual act, with its aspect of a wrestling match, more closely resembles a combat than an act of love. And if sex expresses aggression rather than  tenderness, then aggression also becomes the ritual that defines the relationship in which it takes place. Sex no longer brings a quarrelling couple together in a renewal of their love, but becomes the focus and outlet of their hostility to each other.

The ultimate expression of this hostility between the sexes is rape and murder. Mailer has a soft spot for rape, especially the anal rape of a half-frigid woman. His determination to force anal sex on a reluctant woman is repeated in the extraordinary sex-scene between Rojack and the German maid after he has just murdered his wife in An American Dream. Again, the final trigger of orgasm is an insult, this time not “You dirty little Jew” but (in an apparent display of political eclecticism) “You’re a Nazi.” 86 Some grounds for degrading the woman must be found, but it is interesting to note that it is the woman’s orgasm that is triggered by this insult, not the man’s. It appears that the acceptance of an insult, the submission to degradation and humiliation, is essential to the woman’s surrender to the “domination that is liberty for her” – the release of vaginal orgasm. Degradation is, in this view, an inherent part of woman’s sexual functioning. But this makes her naturally resent an act which, even if it satisfies her sexually, involves her emotional subjugation. In “The Time of her Time” the Jewish girl’s achievement of orgasm, because it was brought about by a brutal, loveless act, provokes not affection but resentment and hatred towards her partner the next morning. This entire relationship is conceived of in aggressive terms. Sergius’ attraction to the girl is simply an urge to dominate, made clear in expressions like: “grind it into her”, “lay waste to her little independence.” But the aggression goes deeper. Because the whole relationship between the sexes is one of domination, aggression, and violent resentment, Mailer ultimately fears woman as a killer. She fights back against the sado-masochistic humiliation of the sex act by undermining his virility whenever she can, questioning his courage, pushing him into danger to test him, and above all by using the jealousy and possessiveness he may feel for her as a weapon to humiliate him in his turn. Thus Deborah, the powerfully built, domineering wife in An American Dream, provokes her estranged husband by telling him about the three lovers she has had since he left, who were all better than him. We are asked to believe that this petty act of verbal cruelty was what drove him to kill her – starting with a slap, which provoked a wild wrestling match in which he finally strangled her. This insult is apparently the reflection of a far deeper blow to his pride as a man, to his very identity as a heterosexual male. This is at any rate what Rojack tells the police afterwards: “What does a wife ever accuse a husband of? She tells him one way or another that he’s not man enough for her.” 88

Not man enough for her. This is the idea that haunts Mailer. It forms the central theme of his entire oeuvre. He suffers acutely from the appalling situation of the artist in an over-masculine age. The male artist frequently has a feminine aspect (which in the case of a writer gives him his mastery of words and his sensitivity to mood, atmosphere, others’ feelings), but this aspect the masculinized mid-20th century American woman no longer respects or relates to. Unlike Stendhal’s heroines who are attracted to poetic, relatively feminine young men, Mailer’s mannish heroines (Deborah in An American Dream is as strong as an ox) expect a man to be a walking ball of testosterone and are ready at any moment to jeer at him if he isn’t. He must therefore be constantly at war with himself, striving to preserve his sensitivity for the sake of his art, while he is forced to crush it for the sake of getting laid. The result is the odd persona of nearly all his heroes: tough-guy types with a sensitive streak inside which they have to conceal. They are all the time playing at being macho hard men and scared of being found out. And what seems to be behind Mailer’s rage is that woman, who ought to be the one creature he can open up to and show his vulnerability to, is by far the most relentless inquisitor into his weakness, watching for some advantage over him, ready to tear him to pieces if she sees a chink in his male armour. Every woman in Mailer’s fiction delights in putting her man in danger of death so she can see whether he squirms. Even the dream-girl Cherry pushes Rojack into dangerous confrontations with a boxer thug and a knife-wielding ex-lover. If he fails to measure up, the woman stands ready to accuse the hero not just of being a coward but of being a faggot. And the harder he tries to be the opposite of faggish, the more she seems to suspect him and to watch him for some sign of it. Sex in this situation is not just an endless performance under hostile scrutiny: every sex-act is a life and death defence of his identity as a man. Mailer writes of Hemingway as being engaged in a constant day-to-day struggle to prove his courage: “he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life…. Each time his physical vanity suffered a defeat, he would be forced to embark on a new existential gamble with his  life.”89 Mailer later justifies a boxer who beats to death an opponent who had called him a faggot, because it was the only way of proving he was not one: it was either that or actually become a homosexual.90 This bizarre logic suggests a mind unnaturally obsessed with the struggle to be masculine, not merely in the sense of physical courage but also in the sense of sexual potency and even heterosexual identity. In this curious sexual-existential struggle, a failure of the glands becomes a failure of the soul, an affair of suicidal gravity. Rather than accept this destruction of one’s maleness, one must ultimately kill. Mailer’s world is like a violent American prison, where there are only two choices: become a castrated sexual slave to other men, or become a killer. But the adversary Mailer’s hero is faced with, whom he must kill to survive, is in the most revealing of his novels a woman. And because he kills her to survive psychically, to destroy a mortal threat to his virility, he feels absolutely no remorse for her murder. After killing the wife he claimed still to love, Rojack goes into the next room and shags the maid.  

But not only does murder awaken no remorse: it even has an erotic glamour. Cherry, the new girl-friend, recognizes that Rojack is a killer because he has the same look of radiance as a gangster she once saw who had just killed another: “like he’d been painted with a touch of magic.” 91 That Mailer appears seriously to believe this –  the wonderful liberating and transforming effect of murder – is not the least disturbing aspect of his work. These sentiments might be shared by an SS camp guard: killing is satisfying, it liberates you from shallow and inhibiting moral taboos and gives you a magical glow that makes you irresistible to women. Cherry seems overjoyed that her lover is a murderer; it confirms the rightness of her choice of a real man. The idea that a human life has some absolute value and that taking life is breaking a moral taboo does not seem to cross Mailer’s mind. Even Deborah’s own rich Mafioso father at the end of An American Dream appears rather pleased that his daughter was murdered and comes close to congratulating his son-in-law for doing it. What is disturbing is that these attitudes to the murder of a woman are not subject to any commentary, judgement or critical distance on the part of the author: he appears to share the amorality of his characters. Compare the flood of remorse that follows the jealous murder of an unfaithful woman by her husband in Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Despite his passionate, fanatical denunciation of women, Tolstoy’s neurotic hero is overwhelmed, like Othello, by the realization of the horror of what he has done. Of course the lack of remorse may be a subject in itself – but only if the author appears to be aware of it as an aberration, or at least something worth looking at. Camus in L’Etranger focuses on the peculiar detached attitude of the murderer towards his crime as a sort of modern disease of the spirit, a psychological crisis of a man in his relation to his own acts. But Mailer appears simply not to notice that there might be something wrong with the act of murder in the first place.  

But Mailer goes further than merely justifying murder as a necessary act of psychic self-defence against a ball-breaking woman. He even endows it with a spiritual significance as a means of self-development, rather like yoga. In his definition of the new philosophy of Hip, he is explicit on this:  “Hip is the affirmation of the barbarian…. it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis that prepares growth.” 94  It is this that seems to lie behind the totally amoral representation of murder in his novels – whether that of Deborah in An American Dream or the Japanese prisoner in The Naked and the Dead. For Mailer the violation of the moral taboo against murder becomes simply one more proof of virility, of a mastery of the self – and of a hard, clear-sighted affirmation of the Darwinian laws of survival: kill or be killed. So closely does Mailer associate the instinct of violence with simple good health, that he even believes that to repress violent impulses may cause cancer. In one of his poems, a man who represses the impulse to strike his mother (after murdering his wife) feels the fatal cancer starting in his cells at that moment. All that seems to matter to Mailer is whether the act of violence fulfils the individual’s needs. All notions of morality, law, social responsibility or the rights of others are so many contemptible bourgeois constraints on the total self-expression of the individual. Mailer’s attitudes are close to those of a psychopathic criminal. It is his own psychopathic streak that gives him his insight into the mind of the killer Gary Gilmore in his greatest book, The Executioner’s Song. Gilmore has become a prisoner of his own myth: the American rebel, the violent convict whom all respect, but who can only keep that respect by dealing out violence when it is expected, who must kill to avenge a slight to his honour. Survival in the prison world depends on the willingness to kill when insulted or challenged; that morality outside the prison walls is what makes a homicidal maniac. After a gratuitous, wilful rampage of killings, Gilmore is condemned to death and fights a legal battle to get the death sentence carried out. His obsession with death, a death-wish filled with vague supernatural expectations of the afterlife, is another theme that touches a chord with Mailer. The daring of death is a compulsion to him. He no sooner thinks of some way of risking death than he feels a compulsion to do it, in order to appease the god who rewards the valorous and punishes wimps. In An American Dream this includes a compulsion by the hero to walk around a balcony parapet of a high building. If he fails to complete the tour of the parapet, he feels something terrible will happen to his girlfriend. This voodoo belief is borne out by the novel; she is in fact found dead because he ducked this challenge to his courage. This sort of belief would be comical if it were not so disturbing in a talented and influential writer. 

Mailer represents the high-water mark of the aggressive, over-masculinized concept of sexual relations as a form of competition, combat and conquest – leading ultimately to a linking of sex with violence and murder. Since his generation there has been a movement away from these attitudes by most younger writers of literary pretensions, who treat love and sex in a more normal way. The younger generation of British novelists in particular treat relationships in a sensitive, complex fashion, with an ability to understand both male and female viewpoints, and a fairly normal conception of happiness in the couple, and of what was traditionally called love. Their work reflects the difficulties of negotiating both the sexual and the feminist revolutions and the emotional traumas of infidelity, jealousy, divorce, separation from one’s children, and all the problems and sorrows as well as the comedy and absurdity of life in couples (or out of them) as we know it. These novelists, both male and female, show a movement away from the ultra-masculine ethos of the war generation, and reflect the more feminine conceptions both of sex and the human personality which formed part of the “love and peace” current of the counter-culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In America the situation is more complex. The culture of hard, tough, masculine attitudes is more deeply ingrained, and finds an expression in an opposite current of the counter-culture : the masculinization of sexual relations into something purely casual and impersonal, the reduction of sex to meat, represented by Erica Jong, whose quest for the “zipless fuck” is taken straight from Henry Miller. It is in fact more often American women writers than men writers who are now stuck in the ultra-masculine mode, the obsession with virility, and the crude objectification of sex. Among males there has been no school of serious writers following in Mailer’s wake. But the Mailer strain of sado-masochism, of sex as violence and relationships as war, has not gone away. It has merely moved to other media such as the cinema, or down-market popular fiction. In cinema and television we see an endless rehashing of the Mailer conception of sex as an aggressive, competitive, sado-masochistic power game, often with the woman in the dominant role. The film Basic Instinct became famous for breaking new ground in showing a woman practising sex as a cold, detached, sado-masochistic power trip. The whole thrill of the movie is to know whether her sado-masochistic urges go as far as murdering her lovers with an ice pick after orgasm – and we are still left guessing at the end. Hollywood has interpreted feminism as a glorification of woman’s capacity for violence  and for associating sex with sadomasochism, just like a man. Women on killing sprees are seen as liberated figures. The television series Sex in the City reduces sex not so much to physical sadomasochism but to various mental power-games and ways of exploiting the partner. A series aimed largely at female viewers, it cannot be called feminist in any serious sense, since the women characters are all airheads obsessed with men and fashion. But it reflects what might be called “gutter feminism”, the kind that is now prevalent in the women’s magazines, where men are regarded as objects of consumption of various kinds. The male objects may be trophy husbands, success objects, sperm providers, providers of therapeutic support, housekeepers, or sex objects (to be exploited like prize bulls and then thrown away, in a vindictive parody of male sexual consumerism.) But what every episode has in common is the using of people by other people, and generally (since it is about women friends) the using of men by women. No relationship is spontaneous or the result of a genuine emotion: they are all merely the carrying out of plans, the attainment of objectives, and human beings are mere instruments in the selfish calculations of others. What we see in American films today is a constant raising of the stakes as men and women compete in the sexual exploitation of each other in more and more ruthless ways –  including performance sex not merely as an athletic contest but as a means of power over another human being. There is less and less evidence of any sensual enjoyment of sex, and more and more a shift to sado-masochistic exploitation of sex for mental and psychological domination of another. This in itself shows how completely all relationships now take place on masculine psychological terrain, where sex is a mind-game and a power-trip, an affair of competition, conquest and ego, not an affair of the senses, the soul or the emotions. In this world of female clones of men, the feminine half of human nature has simply disappeared from the radar screen of popular American culture.

The pornography industry addressed largely to men has moved similarly onto the terrain of violence and domination, with the sexual act being more and more associated with aggression, punishment, humiliation, and revenge upon the woman, for no other reason than that she is attractive. This reflects the element of resentment and anger contained in male sexual frustration. The consumer of pornography is almost by definition a sexually frustrated man or adolescent, whose inability to find sexual partners leads to rage against women, and fantasies of revenge for the endless frustration and teasing arousal he has suffered. Since the pornography-addict’s frustration is a kind of hunger amid plenty – there are lots of pretty, sexy girls around but none of them want sex with him – these fantasies often take the form of a conviction that the seeming innocence and lack of sexual interest of a young girl hides a secret lustfulness on her part. Hence the male porn actor must “sock it to her” in order to demonstrate that her innocence is sham, she is really a slut, and after a vigorous enough shafting will soon be moaning and begging for more. The helplessness of the sexually frustrated male must be exorcised by a fantasy of conquest of the teasing unattainable female, in which he transforms her into a sexual slave. The sequence of sexual tease by a woman, who feigns lack of interest or scorn for the male even while flaunting her body before him, followed by an act of aggressive sex in which the man takes his revenge, is standard fare. The strip tease as entertainment plays with this same range of sexual feelings : the exciting of male lust by a tantalizing display of the woman’s physical charms while taunting him that she is unattainable and not for him. This creates an atmosphere of simmering male resentment, so that desire fuses with a smouldering, violent lust for revenge. Every sexy woman is assimilated to the image of the teasing stripper and becomes the object of a poisonous mixture of desire and aggressive hatred. Because of the massive commercial exploitation of male sexual frustration, the vast pornography industry has unleashed upon the world a flood of images associating sex with a violent urge for revenge on women. This is having a serious impact on sexual attitudes in our age and how men and women relate to each other.

Civil libertarians grotesquely defend the selling of gang-bang porn to teenagers, and pretend that this has “no proven connection” with the epidemic of adolescent gang rape in many Western cities. To deny that this is having an effect on the young, or that there is any correlation between the rise of gang rape as an adolescent pastime in the immigrant housing projects of France and the universal availability to children of gang-bang porn videos, is simply to deny common sense. It would be like pretending that the flooding of the market with graphic incitements to racial violence had no connection with acts of racial violence. Imagine if someone argued there is no proof that a constant diet of racist videos – showing blacks being lynched by whites or whites by blacks – makes anyone a racist. Yet that is exactly what they claim of violent, gang-bang sex videos. Of course watching racist videos does not make the average white person rush out and kill a black, or vice versa. But it will contribute to the state of mind which makes some people do it when the circumstances arise which allow them to. In the same way, watching gang-bang porn does not drive the average boy out onto the street to rape the first girl he meets. But it will have an effect on general attitudes to women, which will play a key role in the spontaneous decisions of the individuals who do rape when the opportunity arises.

   The huge influence of pornography on our society, its infiltration of everything from mainstream films to television to advertising to night club entertainment to dance styles, can only be having a negative effect on the way human beings conduct their sexual relationships. Increasingly sexual relations in the real world are seen as a pale shadow of the pornographic fantasy world, and couples begin to imitate pornography to spice up their relationship. But this is a form of poison that can only undermine it in the long term. The increase in the element of power, aggression, teasing, and domination in sexual relations, the reduction of sex to a gymnastic exercise of a competitive kind, and the absence of any emotion except a selfish demand for an efficient technical servicing by the other, is not likely to increase the harmony or stability of couples. It can only lead to short-term sexual consumerism. It is the feminine impulses of tenderness and fidelity that are the cement of human relationships. The sex act is the ritual that defines what the relationship is about. When sex becomes a playact of aggression, of a gymnastic combat, then this repeated combat becomes the paradigm of the relationship. When sex is an expression of the tenderness and love between two people, then this love becomes the pattern of their relationship. The masculinization of sexual relations today, as aggression prevails over tenderness, has probably contributed greatly to the  instability of marriage relationships, the collapse of the family and a disastrous fall in birth-rates, which may in the long term threaten the cohesiveness and even the survival of our civilization.

The attitudes to sex contained in Mailer’s work have therefore had a huge afterlife in the popular entertainment industry. The introduction of violence into sex (not of course Mailer's invention but given a certain legitimacy by his prestige as a serious writer) has become a permanent pollution of our cultural environment.  But equally important has been the introduction of sex into violence. Whatever the early efforts of the Marquis de Sade in this domain, never until the mid twentieth century had the casual gangster murder or the anonymous killing in war been assimilated to a sexual act. Here again Mailer played a pioneer role in making a new junction of sensuality and violence respectable. Look at this description in the 1964 An American Dream of the hero’s attack on a German machine-gun nest, for which he was decorated.    

And then the barrel of my carbine swung round … and pointed … where a great bloody sweet German face, a healthy spoiled overspoiled young beauty of a face, mother love all over its making, possessor of that overcurved mouth which only great fat sweet young faggots can have when their rectum is tuned and entertained from adolescence on, came crying, sliding, smiling up over the edge of the hole, “Hello death!” blood and mud like the herald of sodomy upon his chest, and I pulled the trigger as if I were squeezing the softest breast of the softest pigeon which ever flew, still a woman’s breast takes me now and then to the pigeon on that trigger, and the shot cracked like a birch twig across my palm, whop! and the round went in at the base of his nose and spread and I saw his face sucked in backward upon the gouge of the bullet, he looked suddenly like an old man, toothless, sly, reminsicent of lechery. Then he whispered “Mutter,” one yelp from the first memory of the womb, and down he went into his own blood…. 95

Now this is not grim realism representing the true horrors of war. It is a sensual revelling in a moment of power and destruction of life, filled with obscene, fantasied hatred for another human being. There is the soft, caressing of the trigger, the almost sensual pleasure in the killing not of a hatchet-faced hardened SS war criminal, but of a soft, good-looking boy with mother-love written all over him. It is not the enemy’s hardness that arouses the protagonist’s hatred, but his softness, his supposed effeminacy. This is of course gratuitous queer-bashing, as it is very unlikely that a man could see at night, even by a full moon, whether the enemy soldier he is shooting at is homosexual. It is simply a way of evoking a general hatred and sadistic glee in killing, by imagining that the man he is shooting embodies all the characteristics he most hates in men. The dwelling on the supposed homosexuality and soft good looks of the German soldier gives the killing perverse sexual overtones, suggesting the sadism of a psychopath or serial killer of homosexuals. This is a scene of sadistic fantasy of a thoroughly unpleasant kind. We may see it as a forerunner of scenes of sadistic violence, where killing is combined with a kind of drooling sensuality, in hundreds of films and popular novels in the forty years since it was published.

Mailer’s sadism here seems oddly like a fantasy world. His war experience perhaps led to obsessions he never got over. But for all the sensual dwelling on the pleasures of killing, we may surmise that Mailer’s experience in the war was not a satisfying one, because the proof of his courage that he came back with did not seem to him to be quite definitive enough. He had to keep proving it again and again for the rest of his life. Nevertheless he felt he was infinitely better off than those who have never faced the test of war at all. Here is his comment on the Gulf War:

The stiffening of their resolve to be ready to die had turned out in the end to be nothing but a gargantuan                 poker bluff. The Gulf soldiers were now going to live with obsession: What would I have been like in combat            if it had turned out to be as bad as the minefields, the burning ditches, the barbed wire and the fields of fire                 that I contemplated in my dreams?
            That was an obsession to live with for the rest of one’s life. 96

To believe that any soldier would worry obsessively for the rest of his life about the fact that he hadn’t been subjected to deadly danger in battle takes a peculiar mindset. Most men would thank their stars and think no more about it. If they really craved danger or wanted to be subjected to constant tests of courage they would take up mountaineering, skydiving or motorcycle-racing.  But for Mailer this is not a question of the constitution of an individual man needing greater or lesser doses of adrenaline. It is a question of proving one is a man: something universal, a sort of moral need inherent in all males, irrespective of their individual thrill-seeking proclivities. Anyone who does not get off on this particular adrenaline charge is not a man.  But this means that kamikaze personalities who thrive on adrenaline rushes are somehow more “men” than anyone else. Masculinity can be equated, according to this logic, with a death-wish: the willingness to risk death more readily than anybody else. Now it is true that high levels of testosterone push men towards risk-taking. But few people would claim that a suicidal highway speedster or a player of Russian roulette is more a man than anyone else. Few people would endow this frivolous, nihilistic, self-hating tendency to play with one’s own life with any moral overtones of admirable virility. Mailer does. And therein lies the central problem his writing poses, and his importance for our analysis of the peculiar pathology of the masculine century.

Let us look again at that key sentence in Mailer which sums up his peculiar obsession with courage and

By the time The Deer Park was published I had come to recognize that I was concerned with living in Hemingway’s discipline … that I shared with Papa the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one’s talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve, and what is more difficult, learned how to find more of it.  97

 Now when you look at it closely this is an amazing statement: “it is more important to be a man than a very good writer”. And what he means by “man” is not the French sense of “l’homme”, the human being in his full humanity, but the American popular sense of tough guy, man with balls, man who keeps his nerve in danger. We have perhaps lost the perspective that enables us to see how extraordinary this statement is coming from a leading writer of the age. Try to imagine Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Molière,  Fielding, Goethe, Coleridge, Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce making the same statement: it is more important to be a “man” (meaning tough-guy) than a good writer. Would any of these writers even have understood what Mailer meant by being a “man”? Surely, they would have said, you are a man by simple biological fact, you do not strive to be one: one of every two adult human beings is a man, there is no particular effort required to achieve this, compared with the huge effort required to be a good artist (“ars longa, vita brevis”, or “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”) But for Mailer, as for Hemingway, being a “man”—that  is, a tough guy—becomes the chief goal of life, more important than being a good writer. What is more it goes on being a goal long after maturity is reached, long after the adolescent has got over his fears of not measuring up either in sexual relations or in masculine competition—even after he has been to war, been married several times, fathered children, published books, faced audiences and interviews, and reached middle age, he goes on being obsessed with being a man, as though this boyhood hurdle had to be jumped again and again. This is such a morbid and perverse obsession that I doubt if there is a single period in the last thousand years before the twentieth century where any writer would have understood what on earth Mailer and Hemingway meant by it. Plenty of writers would have understood that one’s humanity, one’s decency as a human being, was more important than artistic talent. But nobody would have put physical courage, the ability to keep one’s nerve in danger, to face bullets or to fight barroom bullies, before all other qualities a human being might have, including creative talent. This new ideology is the product of the American frontier tradition reinforced by the militarism of the two world wars. It is an ideology where masculinity becomes a cult, a virtue more highly prized than any other. We are back in the Roman world where virtue is etymologically derived from the word for man, vir. You have to go back to the first century BC to find a culture of militarism comparable to the one we are emerging from—where a man like Cicero, for all his great talents, had to endure the reproach of lacking manly courage. At no time between those two ages has that quality ever been raised to such a pitch of obsession. 

            Think for a moment of the end of the nineteenth century. Think of a figure like Oscar Wilde. What was the most important thing for Wilde? To be a gentleman. There are endless Wilde aphorisms on the subject. “No gentleman ever takes exercise.” “No gentleman ever has any money.” “A gentleman may be an anarchist, never a socialist.”  This is what counted to him: to be a gentleman, to belong to the right class, and to have the behaviour that indicates this. It had been like this for a thousand years. The greatest reproach one could make to another man was that he was not a gentleman, that his behaviour was that of an inferior class. Now after the First World War all this changes. With Hemingway (and later Mailer) the important thing is no longer to be a gentleman but to be a man. It is not class but sex or gender which counts, and gender defined in a peculiar normative way. A man is contrasted now not with an inferior class but the inferior sex. To be called a girl is the worst of insults, far worse than being called a peasant. Mailer in fact calls President Eisenhower “a bit of a woman” on his first TV show with Mike Wallace, and denounces the effeminacy of America’s political leadership.98 The words “woman” and “man” now have a heavier burden of association than they have ever had before. It is no longer enough to be a man by simple biological fact. One must demonstrate constantly that one possesses the qualities specific to the male sex, those that contrast it with the female, and the chief of these qualities is  aggressiveness, with all that that implies: physical courage, risk-taking, and pride in this risk-taking, so that when challenged or dared to fight one has no choice but to take up the gauntlet. And the great collective ritual for demonstrating male courage is war. The willingness to go to war is the test of balls for both the individual and the nation. The eagerness with which General Curtis LeMay and other American military leaders envisaged war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis is not merely a sign of the eternal war-mongering spirit of generals. It is a pathology of the mid-twentieth century. They were contemplating not war on a limited scale where a few thousand men might be killed, but war on the scale of Armageddon where tens of millions would be killed in a matter of hours. And they were eager to do it to show their balls and to teach the enemy a lesson. This is a very different attitude from that of their predecessors in the American Civil War, who showed the utmost reluctance to commit fifty thousand men to battle. It is part of the twentieth century pathology that Hemingway and Mailer both expressed and contributed to.

        But violence, aggression, war, you will argue, have been with mankind since the dawn of history. And they have been treated in literature from the earliest days of writing. If we wish to maintain that the twentieth century represents something new, a pathology of war, a granting of a centrality to this phenomonen that it has scarcely ever had before, a cult of the masculine values of aggressiveness and courage of an extraordinary kind, then we must demonstrate it. We have to try to make our point by detailed evidence, by examining attitudes to war in the past, and how they evolved in the century of the world wars. We have already examined how descriptions of men, and above all men’s behaviour in sexual relationships, evolved in the literature of the past three hundred years. We have now to look at men’s attidudes to war and violence, and how they too evolved.

   The twentieth century was the age of the greatest wars and the greatest mass murders of all time. Some two hundred million human beings were done to death in wars, gulags, death camps and extermination programmes over a period of about sixty-five years, from 1914 to the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979. This figure includes the victims of famines deliberately engineered by Mao and Stalin as instruments of extermination, but they account for only about a quarter of the total number. No period of the past comes even close to the scale of the mass killing that occurred during this sixty-five year period. Was this merely the result of the technological advances in the means of killing in the twentieth century by comparison with previous ages? Or was it a reflection of changes in the mentality of man, and especially the development of ideologies which made human lives mere instruments of abstract goals, and glorified impulses which previous ages had restrained? What we will look at over the next chapter is how human attitudes to war and mass killing changed over recent centuries. For though the bulk of the last century's killing was carried out by totalitarian states, some of them in Asia, even the democratic Western nations that fought Nazism and Japanese imperialism practiced techniques of mass killing from the air which would have been condemned as immoral in any previous age in Western history. How did we, the most democratic and civilized nations that have ever existed, degenerate morally to the point where we could carry out, as a deliberate tactic,  the massacre by burning alive of the inhabitants of enemy cities, knowing they were mostly women, children and old men, incapable of doing us any harm? What was the path by which this callousness, this cruelty, this ruthless capacity for indiscriminate mass murder, developed in us? To try to understand this, we will see how Western attitudes to war evolved over the ages.

   For this we will examine how violence and war were treated in the literature of the past. How was war seen in previous ages? What emotions did it arouse? What visions did men have of it?  How did they react to it morally and in their souls? Did they see it as an appalling evil, a heroic enterprise or an inevitable condition of life itself? And how did any of this change over the years, and especially in the ages leading up to the century of war?

   We have seen that the masculinization of the depiction of sex in the twentieth century is shown in two ways: first in the shift from an association of sex with love and tenderness to an association of sex with aggressiveness and domination. And second in the shift from sex as a way of expressing emotions to a mere act of physical gymnastics, devoid of any feeling. We should keep in mind therefore that the over-masculine is both the aggressive and the unfeelingin its pathological forms, psychopathic violence and autism. In analysing war in the literature of the past we should keep our eye open for these markers and any signs of their increase. We should look both at how much emotion and what kind of emotion is involved in war. Are the emotions aroused by war compassionate or aggressive? Are they humane, pitying, tragic, horrified, or are they above all cruel, hate-filled, triumphant, vindictive, relishing the slaughter of enemies? Are the emotions of men who have taken part in war, especially such emotions as horror and pity, expressed openly, or are they suppressed under a carapace of indifference, hardness and non-feeling? And is there a shift from one set of attitudes to the other over the past century or so? In short, we will look for two indicators of extreme masculinity of attitudes: hate-filled aggression and unfeeling indifference. These will be uppermost in our minds as we briefly survey the literary treatment of war in past ages in the Western world. In the process we will focus more detailed attention on one or two authors where the emotions inspired by war seem to go through an historic change.















1) WHY WAR?  


War appears to be a universal human activity. The various explanations that have been put forward for this dismal fact lean, as always, either to the biological or the social. Some have evoked the aggressive instinct, the sheer pleasure of killing and domination, the lust for victory in the ultimate competition. Genghis Khan thought that “man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding and use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and support.” 1 Others, such as the Marxists, have stressed  economic factors as the root of war. The Roman historian Tacitus blamed both the laziness and love of fighting of the Germans for their propensity for war: “The Germans have no taste for peace; renown is more easily won among perils…. A German … thinks it tame and spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow what can be got quickly by the loss of a little blood.” 2 This reduces war merely to collective criminality, a lust for easy spoils. But it hardly explains the no lesser propensity for war of the Romans themselves, and what drove them to try to conquer the Germans, a people with little wealth to steal. The attacks of the Germans on Rome may be explained by greed for plunder;  that of Rome upon the Germans can only be explained by a desire for domination or perhaps for security (Aristotle had long since formulated the Orwellian paradox: “We make war in order to live in peace.”) The gradual expansion of the Roman empire by war was explained by Tacitus as an historic, divinely-ordained mission, a “manifest destiny” believed in by generations of Roman leaders.3 Alexander’s conquests, on the other hand, seem to have been merely an enormous adventure, springing from the vast ambition of one man.

The feminists have claimed that war is a product of “patriarchy” or male domination, but there is no evidence of this. As we shall see in a later chapter, war was pursued with equal vigour by matrilineal tribes among the Polynesians and the American Indians. The inheritance of all land by females may even increase the tendency of the males to devote themselves to plunder as their only source of wealth in the competition for rich brides. War is not therefore the product of any particular lineage system; nor, contrary to Marxist belief, is it the product of any particular economic system. Nomadic hunters such as the Plains Indians engaged in it fiercely, and appeared to be motivated as much by ancient tribal enmities as by competition for seasonal hunting grounds. Yet the most brutal early style of warfare, Greek phalanx warfare, arose first in an agricultural society, when Greek farmers felt that their crops were worth defending to the death in a standing battle with no retreat.4 The industrial system in Europe ushered in nearly a hundred years of peace (apart from a few minor wars in the mid century), which was then followed by the greatest wars in history. Trade seems to have been equally a motive for war and for peace. It drove the English and Dutch to fight in the 17th century, but seems to have promoted peace in the 19th and in the late 20th centuries. The taking of captives to be used as slaves seems to have motivated wars among Africans, Plains Indians, Aztecs, Polynesians and others. Pigs are the main booty in the tribal wars of New Guinea. The Trojan war is thought to have started from woman-raiding expeditions, which the myths relate as the abduction of Helen by Paris. Some wars may in fact start as individual crimes which are then collectively avenged. In this they resemble clan feuds on a larger scale, in which each new generation seeks an opportunity to renew hostilities to avenge dead ancestors. Many wars in medieval Europe seem to have followed this pattern. The actual casus belli may take an infinite variety of forms: a dispute over territory, the breaking of a truce, a border raid by undisciplined subjects, the refusal of homage by a feudal vassal, a dynastic dispute over the rightful succession to a throne, the desire for independence of a people of different language or creed, rivalry over trade routes, an insult shown to an ambassador or to a queen – there is scarcely a reason great or small that has not been cause for war. The First World War began as revenge for the terrorist assassination of the crown prince of an empire, and each country that joined in then persuaded itself it was merely responding to aggression. George W. Bush made one war to avenge a terrorist attack, and another to force a country to give up weapons it didn’t have. Israel launched a war because its neighbours had threatened to – and its stubborn occupation of neighbouring land has kept it in a state of chronic war ever since. Once tensions exist between two peoples, the smallest insult or threatening gesture may be enough to plunge them into war. Such a gesture may be used as a pretext for war by a master strategist like Bismarck, or it may bundle a leader into war against his will, like Kaiser Wilhelm I. The truth is that wars have an infinite variety of causes and cannot be reduced to any one cardinal sin of human nature, or any one aspect of human existence, economic or psychological. It is not so important what causes wars as the fact that men are prepared to fight them. And this depends very much on the warrior code, the military institutions, the cult of manhood, the sense of honour, loyalty or patriotism which prevail in a given country, as well as the power of state coercion or the effectiveness of propaganda in persuading people of the justice of their government’s cause. Some men in all ages appear to have enjoyed war, in much the same way as they enjoy sport. To teach men to derive some satisfaction from war is part of the purpose of all military training. Its success can be gauged by the number of armies that are made up of volunteers.





The universal nature of war – since every people that ever lived appears to have been acquainted with it in some form – probably led to its acceptance in most ages and cultures as an inevitable fact of life. This does not mean people did not condemn it or bewail it. There is a view that became popular after the First World War among pacifists that war was systematically glorified in the literature of the past and only in the 20th century did people discover its true horrors. That is nonsense. While early writings on war may celebrate heroic deeds, they also lament war as an evil. In around 800 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod in Works and Days speaks in sombre tones of the warrior race    the third race of men created by God, after a golden race who lived in peace and plenty and died in their sleep, and a silver race who “injured each other and forsook the gods”:


And Zeus the father made a race of bronze

Sprung from the ash tree, worse than the silver race,

But strange and full of power. And they loved

The groans and violence of war. They ate

No bread; their hearts were flinty-hard; they were

Terrible men, their strength was great, their arms

And shoulders and their limbs invincible.

Their weapons were of bronze, their houses bronze;

Their tools were bronze: black iron was not known.

They died by their own hands, and nameless went

To Hades’ chilly house. Although they were

Great soldiers, they were captured by black Death

And left the shining brightness of the sun. 5


There is awe at these powerful men, but they are not admired. “The groans and violence of war” is not a heroic image. Death overcame them, presumably in their prime, and their lives were wasted. But the pacifist strain in the poet’s attitude towards these monstrous warriors is partly belied by the celebration of the next race, the heroes who fought at Troy. Even though “foul wars and dreadful battles ruined some” the general judgement is a positive one on their martial valour. They now live a carefree life on the Isles of the Blessed. In Homer there is a similar balance between the sense of the tragedy and horror of war and the celebration of heroic deeds. The climax of the Iliad is not the victory of the Greeks but the tragic defeat of their greatest enemy – the death of Hector at Achilles’ hands and his father Priam’s moving pleas for his body to be returned for burial. Consider the words of Achilles to Priam as he relents and grants his request:


“We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives…. And you, my lord, I understand there was a time when fortune smiled upon you also…. But ever since the Heavenly Ones brought me here to be a thorn in your side, there has been nothing but battle and slaughter round your city. You must endure and not be broken-hearted.” 6


This compassion for the enemy king places the whole Trojan war in the context of universal tragedy, of men constrained by fate to inflict infinite sorrow on one another. The crux of the attitude to war in much of the past was that it was considered beyond any man’s control. If others are going to make war, what choice do you have but to defend yourself? War is thus seen as inflicted by the gods, another way of saying it is an evil inherent in man’s own nature. The Iliad ends on this note of sorrowful reflection with the funeral rites of Hector. Likewise the Odyssey, while it ends with Odysseus’s triumph, tells along the way so many tales of disaster that befell the heroes of Troy that its general atmosphere is also tragic. The feats of arms recounted are overshadowed by the sombre vision of Hades, that bleak land of the dead which awaits victor and vanquished alike. Even Achilles is not rewarded for his valour, as in Hesiod, by a carefree life in the Isles of the Blessed. Instead he is condemned to Hades, and remarks bitterly that he would rather be alive and a peasant’s slave than king over all the dead. The climax of the poem is a thrilling, action-packed account of Odysseus’s fight with his wife’s suitors, but he is prevented by the goddess Athene from finishing them off. She commands the Ithacans to “stop this disastrous fight and separate at once before more blood is shed.” 7 The poem thus ends with a truce, not a total victory – an anti-climax that no modern action film audience would accept. In Homer we feel above all the emotions of personal grief and loss caused by war. War is a disaster inflicted by divine malice. Martial glory is always evanescent, if not ultimately futile.

In his Roman imitator Virgil, it is the same story. The Aeneid, like Homer’s epics, is about the heroes of the Trojan war, but it is the catastrophe of the fall of Troy at the start which overshadows the whole mood of the poem. It is to redeem that catastrophe by founding a new city, Rome, that Aeneas sets out on his mission. In Virgil’s depiction of the fall of Troy we have the first powerful image of the end of the world, the collapse of civilization, in Western literature. The departure of Aeneas from burning Troy, after his wife goes missing in the chaos and is killed, has a tragic sense of absolute loss that is not found again with such intensity until certain passages of Dante, or the end of Shakespeare’s Lear or of Milton’s Paradise Lost. War is seen as the destruction of paradise – an entire civilization and its ordinary, innocent way of life wiped out, its buildings razed, its men killed, its women and children taken into slavery. The fall of Troy is thus the fall of man – it has the same mythic force in the classical worldview that the fall from Eden has in the Jewish and Christian worldview. In this sense man’s fall is his fall through war, the ultimate cataclysm – though paradoxically, he is redeemed through war as well, the military expedition to found a new Troy. This disastrous fall of a great city-state is for the classical world a far more powerful and haunting image of their remote past than the rather artificial myth of the golden age in Hesiod. And this legend of fallen Troy is even older than Hesiod: it is the very fount of Greek literature. And the fact that the fall of Troy is seen as tragic by the Greeks themselves – those who brought it about, the victors in the war – shows that for the Greeks war is a tragedy for all who take part in it. The essence of Greek tragedy is the sense of loss even in victory. War is inherently tragic, whether you win or lose. The Greek poets write mainly of the vanquished in war, not the victors, because it is defeat that reveals to man the true nature of life. Aeschylus took part in the decisive battles against the Persians at Salamis and Marathon. Yet in his play The Persians he depicts not the heroic victory of the Greeks but the tragic calamity that befell their enemies. The Greeks seem almost incapable of conceiving of victory in war except as the tragedy of the vanquished.

Of course the two great wars that tore apart the Greek world in the classical period, the Persian invasions and the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, gave rise to their share of heroic speeches praising the fallen. It could not be otherwise. People do not despise those who have died to defend them. The ringing words that Thucydides puts into the mouth of Pericles at the funeral oration at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war have inspired Westerners for centuries, but only because of their grim truth, not for any romantic glorification of war itself:


Some of them, no doubt, had their faults, but what we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defence of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good …. In the fighting, they thought it more honourable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle, and in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us….

Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in face of the perils of the war…. 8


These are words spoken in a time of crisis, when a nation’s freedom was at stake. They do not give a rosy image of war, or of the fallen soldiers, but they are a moving tribute to them. Of course, whenever men have fought heroically for their freedom or the very survival of their nation, their sacrifice may inspire men of a later age to fight in a futile or a foolish or an unjust war. But a savage war of aggression does not discredit a heroic war of survival. Patriotism is only a pernicious lie when it confuses the two. The problem of course is to distinguish between them, and classical writers produced their share of patriotic platitudes that could be used indifferently in both cases.  A First World War poet bitterly quoted Horace’s lines, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country – as having inspired the misguided youthful idealism of the volunteers dying in the hell of the trenches. Yet one could argue that the Roman poet did not intend any general glorification of war. At twenty-three Horace had fought for Brutus on the losing (Republican) side at Philippi. He was deeply alienated from the decadent Empire of Augustus, in which he lived as though in exile. In this disillusioned poem he was writing about reforming the gilded youth of his time and teaching them patriotic virtues. It was the remark of an embittered Republican, harking back to an age when serving one's country was not a joke, and perhaps remembering comrades who had died in the lost war to save the Republic. But the lines were there to be exploited by Edwardian schoolmasters in an age of aggressive jingoism, and no doubt they played their small part in the madness of the First World War. The Romans, whose empire was built upon endless military campaigns, undoubtedly showed a great deal of callousness on the subject of war. Tacitus in the Agricola rejoices cruelly at the spectacle of a Roman victory won by sacrificing only foreign auxiliaries, not Romans. The extraordinary level of cruelty of the Romans must be balanced against Virgil’s tragic description of the fall of Troy, or his war-sickened hero’s remark that his tears were “the tears of things.”    

When we come to the ancient Germans, we have a warrior culture as primitive as that of Homer’s world, where war is a way of life. We have seen already how Tacitus describes them:


For the Germans have no taste for peace; renown is more easily won among perils, and a large body of retainers cannot be kept together except by means of violence and war. They are always making demands on the generosity of their chief….The wherewithal for this openhandedness comes from war and plunder. 9


This is a culture organized for war as the principal means of wealth – where agriculture is left to women and old men – though the coveted prizes are symbols of glory -- enemy weapons -- rather than luxuries. Yet, curiously, the Germanic poets also see war in the gloomiest of lights. The myths of the Nordics speak of a final war between the gods and the forces of evil, which will bring about the destruction of the world, Ragnarok. At the appointed time Odin and the other gods will go out to do battle against the great wolf and the world serpent, knowing it will mean their doom, but obliged to fight anyway. War among the northern peoples is not a redemptive force – a battle between good and evil that will lead to the permanent triumph of good, as in the Christian Apocalypse. It is an utterly destructive one. The world ends not by some stellar catastrophe but by war.

Among the Germanic tribes that settled England, the prevailing tone of descriptions of war is a bleak, tragic recounting of endless episodes of slaughter. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles recount how ever since the 5th century, when the British king Vortigern, abandoned by Rome, then at grips with Attila, invited the Angles from northern Germany to come over and help fight against the Picts from Scotland, only to find them turn against him and invite in their kinsfolk to carve out their own kingdoms, the island had been a prey to successive invasions. Every Germanic tribe seized its piece of the country and fought both against the Britons (or Welsh, Germanic word for foreigner) and against each other. After a brief period of greater stability with Christianization, the country fell prey to Danish and Norwegian Viking raids in the late 8th century, and two hundred years of intermittent warfare followed. The Viking raiding armies landed each year in a different place, demanded tribute, and slaughtered those that refused to pay. The accounts of battles are filled with a dark, sombre cult of heroism forever overshadowed by the imminence of defeat and death for today’s victor. Here is the Battle of Brunanburh, in 937, as told in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:


Here King Athelstain, leader of warriors, 

Ring-giver of men, and also his brother,

The aetheling Edmund, struck life-long glory

In strife round Brunanburh …

                           There lay many a soldier

Of the men of the North, shot over shield,

Taken by spears; likewise Scottish also,

Sated, weary of war. All day long

The West Saxons with elite cavalry

Pressed in the tracks of the hateful nation,

With mill-sharp blades severely hacked from behind

Those who fled battle. The Mercians refused

Hard hand-play to none of the heroes

Who with Olaf over the mingling of waves,

Doomed in fight, sought out land

In the bosom of a ship. Five young

Kings lay on the battle-field,

Put to sleep by swords; likewise also seven

Of Olaf’s jarls, countless of the raiding army

Of Seamen and Scots …..

                           Never yet in this island

Was there a greater slaughter

Of people felled by the sword’s edges

Before this, as books tell us,

Old authorities, since Angles and Saxons

Came here from the east,

Sought out Britain over the broad ocean,

Warriors eager for fame, proud war-smiths,

Overcame the Welsh, seized the country. 10


In form this is a poem that exults in victory, but in tone there is little joy in this bleak triumph. The mood is harsh, dark, with a hint of grim irony in the understatement of “hard hand-play”. Emphasis is on the numbers of the slain, that they were young, that they included kings and earls, that their leader Olaf had set out on a doomed voyage. At the end it evokes the long history of slaughter on the island. This poem describes a major invasion by Norwegian Vikings based in Ireland and Northumbria, aided by the Scots, and a rare, famous victory by the Mercians or West Saxons. These were people living under a harsh regime of permanent warfare, who for half a century had faced constant invasions by the raiding armies that came year after year over the sea from the north, whence they themselves had come generations before to take this land from the Welsh. They speak of the invader Olaf without anger. They do not even see themselves as victims of unjust aggression, for their ancestors too were driven by the same lust for war, “warriors eager for fame”. But they seem prisoners of a grim fatality, a mechanism of warfare that never lets up. The victory today seems a short-lived one, for soon the Viking raiding-armies will be back with fresh men to do battle again. This is war as an ongoing catastrophe – not an episode, but a condition of life.





The West Saxons at the time of this battle were Christians, and the Danish and Norwegian Vikings were “heathen men” who burned churches and sacrificed captives to the gods. Christianity, for all its strictures against war, could do little to stop it. Even when the Vikings were Christianized, that part of their race settled in Normandy (land of the Northmen) retained its thirst for conquest. Sicily and England were both conquered by the Normans of northern France, and then these same Normans, now established in England, invaded all of France itself (on the pretext of dynastic claims, as they had done with England.) The Church had from the start been forced to compromise its pacifist ideology in dealing with the realities of a continent overrun by Germanic warrior tribes. Despite Christ’s message of “turn the other cheek”, and “love your enemies”, even the conversion of Constantine had taken place under martial auspices. The vision of the flaming cross in the sky on the eve of battle with the message “In this sign you will conquer” was hardly a promising start for the reign of a pacifist religion. The very legend suggests that conversion for this ambitious usurper was not an awakening to a religious vision but a superstitious bargain with a new god of war. The Christianized Romans, prey to civil wars and coup d’états, sacking their own great temples with the destructive zeal of converts, began slowly to sink to the same level of barbarism as the Germanic hordes pressing on their borders. Even for the most enlightened minds among them, faced with the task of defending what was left of civilization, pacifism was not a serious option. Before long Saint Augustine had enunciated the theory of the “just war”, laying the doctrinal basis for the long Christian compromise with the warrior culture.

Once the worst had happened and the Germanic barbarians had overrun and dismembered the empire, their conversion to Christianity did not affect in the slightest their devotion to war. Franks, Burgundians, Visigoths, Lombards, Saxons, Alemans, Danes made war among themselves with alacrity. Dynastic conflicts, family quarrels, or greed for more territory were reasons enough. The conversion to Catholicism of the Frankish king Clovis by his wife Saint Clothilde only increased his motivation to make war on the Arian Visigoths. Catholicism only triumphed and imposed some kind of unified order on Europe through the victory of the Frankish warlords over their rivals. The Frank Charlemagne completed the process of Christianization of the other Germanic tribes by war, subjecting many of the Saxons to baptism at sword-point. Catholic Christianity was therefore imposed on Europe by a combination of the moral persuasion of Irish saints and the brute force of Germanic warlords. It was not easy, given this history, for the Church then to return to a purely pacifist stance, and an ongoing compromise with the Germanic culture of warfare was inevitable.

This compromise took various forms. Some involved curious contradictions, as when the Norman bishops imposed a penance on their victorious troops after the battle of Hastings for killing their Saxon adversaries – a year’s prayer and fasting for everyone who had killed a man in battle (and this despite the fact that William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne had been supported by the Pope.) 11 But beyond this token disapproval, serious attempts were made by the Church to restrain the newly Christianized nations from warring against one another. A “Truce of God” was declared and paid lip service to during the latter half of the 11th century. But Pope Urban II saw that the martial energies of the Germanic military castes needed an outlet. He saw an opportunity to reunite all Christendom by raising an army to help Orthodox Byzantium against the assault of the Seldjuk Turks. Though the Byzantine emperor’s appeal for assistance meant little to Western princes, what did mean something was that the Seldjuk Turks had taken Jerusalem and were not only attacking Christian pilgrims but threatening Christian shrines in the city. In a famous speech at a conference which he called in Clermont in 1095, the Pope urged the princes to leave off “unjust wars,” waged for pride and covetousness, for which they deserved damnation, and to wage instead a war that would win “the glorious reward of martyrdom” – a war to save the Holy Places from defilement. The crowd, carried away by his rhetoric, roared “God wills it!” and princes and barons put on the cross there and then.12 A great religious enthusiasm for what came later to be called the Crusade swept large parts of Europe. There were of course more mundane factors at work as well. Certain ambitious barons no doubt saw it as an opportunity to carve out principalities for themselves in the East (since this is what they actually did.) In the same way, poorer knights (often younger sons, landless because of the new feudal custom of primogeniture) saw it as a chance not only to assure their salvation but to win fame and fortune through feats of arms. The Crusade, originally addressed to the ruling military caste and preached by the monks of Cluny, soon took possession of the popular imagination as a war to liberate the Holy Land. Masses of impoverished peasants began gathering to take part in it. These masses of the poor were on a salvationist mission. Their goal was not merely to save the Holy Places from the Turks, but to take possession of Jerusalem (in Muslim hands, but more tolerant ones than the Seldjuks, for four centuries) and stay there till they died. The Crusade was for them a militant pilgrimage. Such was the enthusiasm for striking a blow against the infidel that some Crusaders launched pogroms against local Jews as a warm-up before setting off. A hundred thousand poorly armed peasants, including women and children, finally left France on what was more like a migration than a military expedition, under the leadership of a mad saint, Peter the Hermit. This “People’s Crusade” had to cross more than two thousand miles of often hostile territory, plundering and killing their way and being plundered and killed in their turn, before they arrived at Constantinople. There the Byzantines were far from happy to see such a vast, hungry horde, expecting to be fed, and ready to loot and pillage like a swarm of locusts. They hurried them on their way again and into enemy territory, where they were promptly massacred by the Seldjuk Turks or captured and sold into slavery. Only a handful survived to join the army of knights that followed a few months later.

This Frankish “army of princes” (all the knights from what is now France were called Franks and this became a general word in the East for Europeans), ignorant of the terrain and the enemy, stifling in their armour in the unaccustomed heat, marched down the coast of what is now Lebanon and Israel. Despite blundering into ambushes, they captured city after city from the Turks (who were themselves not popular with the locals) and quarrelled endlessly over who was to become the ruler of each one. Finally, after two years of campaigning and bickering, they managed to reach Jerusalem. After a six-week siege in appalling conditions, they assaulted the city and took it in 1099. After the gruelling hardships of the campaign, where much of the besieging army died of thirst, hunger and disease, or were ambushed and killed trying to get to the nearest water, they were not in the mood to give quarter. They were also so reduced in numbers they still had a desperate fight on their hands even once they got inside. According to the anonymous Gesta Francorum, written by a participant in the attack, after they got over the walls with wooden siege towers, and then got the gates open, they pursued and killed the Saracens all the way to the temple of Solomon, where the enemy gathered in force and made a stand.


The battle raged throughout the day, so that the Temple was covered with their blood. When the pagans had been overcome, our men seized great numbers, both men and women, either killing them or keeping them captive as they wished. On the roof of the Temple a great number of pagans of both sexes had assembled, and these were taken under the protection of Tancred and Gaston of Beert. 13


It appears, however, that Tancred (a Norman knight from Sicily who later became Prince of Galilee) was unable to stop many of those under his protection being massacred by the mob. The disparate nature of the Crusader forces, including surviving peasants from the People’s Crusade, and the lack of any unified command, made the troops impossible to control. Another eye-witness, Fulk of Chartres, spoke of a complete bloodbath. “None of them were left alive, neither women nor children were spared.” In the temple of Solomon, he claimed, “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.” The image shocks, until one reflects that swords cause a lot more blood to flow than bullets. It appears in fact that there were survivors, including the emir, who with a number of other Saracen prisoners was taken away to nearby Ascalon. But thousands died. 14

This event, because of the very graphic descriptions by the Franks themselves, has achieved a curious iconic status in modern discussions of Islam and Europe. It has been pointed to by recent politically correct commentators (including President Clinton) as a shocking act of barbarism showing a terrible Christian intolerance towards other religions. It was nothing of the kind. It was a standard practice in warfare at that time, both in Europe and the East, to massacre the inhabitants of a city taken by assault which had refused a negotiated surrender. Limoges was treated the same way in the Hundred Years War by the Black Prince, every man, woman and child being killed in cold blood after the city was taken. The French observed the same principle. Froissart in his Chronicles mentions the siege of Breteuil by the French King Jean during the Hundred Years’ War: “The defenders of Breteuil negotiated a surrender to the King of France ….. They knew that, if they were taken by assault, they would all be slaughtered without mercy.” 15 Yet this King, Jean II, was known as “the Good”, and was fighting against fellow-Frenchmen – proof that this was not a measure motivated by racism or religious intolerance. The threat of total massacre was the one way of getting a walled city to capitulate without the dangers and casualties of a final assault – and threats had to be carried out if they were to work next time. Surrender had to be rewarded by clemency, and stubborn resistance punished by massacre. Nor was this harsh policy a European monopoly. The Ottoman Turks behaved with the same ruthlessness when they captured Constantinople from the Orthodox Christians in 1453: they threatened to massacre all the inhabitants if there was no surrender, and they did. But it is a fact that despite the standard nature of this practice, it was always condemned as an atrocity by the victims and their sympathizers. The sacking of Jerusalem gave the Crusaders a reputation for ferocity for which they were long afterwards reproached, notably by the later Muslim leader Saladin, who was a relatively humane general for his time. When he in turn besieged Jerusalem in 1187 (after swearing an oath to take it “by the sword”, that is, by a bloodbath), he reminded the Franks of their actions in 1099 and asked them: “Am I to act differently?” In the event he did act differently. But when comparisons are made with Saladin’s more humane treatment of the Christians when he retook Jerusalem it is often forgotten that the defenders this time negotiated a surrender, which according to the rules of war in that age meant a very different outcome. Those who surrendered a city before the final assault were entitled to mercy; those who fought to the end were not. Balian, Jerusalem’s Frankish leader in 1187, told Saladin that, unless he promised to spare the lives of the defenders, they would in desperation kill all their Muslim prisoners and destroy the Muslim holy places. This tough negotiation led Saladin to offer generous terms (and his army was disciplined enough for him to be able to enforce the terms.) There is therefore no basis for the ludicrous contrast made by self-flagellating Western commentators between the brutal Christian sacking of 1099 and the disciplined, restrained occupation by the Muslim army in 1187. It merely reflected the difference in outcome between resistance to the death and negotiated surrender. 16





The bloody massacre by the Franks in 1099 has entered so far into myth that it has even been cited by some Arab authors of recent years as having inflicted a sort of psychic wound on the Islamic world which explains the permanent hostility that set in between the two cultures and religions. This is pure fantasy. This massacre was soon dwarfed in the memory of Arab historians by the vastly greater massacres carried out by the Mongol invaders a century later, as they slaughtered their way through every Persian and Arab city, burning many of them to the ground, destroyed the Abbasid empire, devastated the region’s irrigation system (putting back their agriculture for hundreds of years), and threatened the very survival of Islam. By comparison with the catastrophe inflicted on the Arab world by the Mongols, the Crusaders were a minor nuisance. As for permanent hostility between cultures, this has been blown out of all proportion by 20th and 21st century politics. The presence of the Crusaders in their narrow coastal territories was so little troubling to local Muslims that Saladin had huge difficulty arousing them to engage in anything resembling a holy war to drive the Franks out. What kept the Frankish kingdoms alive for two hundred years was the indifference of their neighbours to their presence and the disunity among  Muslims. There was as much hostility between the Shia Muslims of Fatimid Egypt and the Sunni Turks, or between rival Turkish dynasties, Seldjuks, Danishmends, and Ortoqids, as there was between any of them and the Franks.17 Saladin had to defeat all his rivals by force before turning on the Crusaders – and his rivals did not hesitate to call on the Franks for help. But the Franks too fought among themselves, and soon regarded the Byzantine empire, their supposed Christian ally, as a rival power, to be attacked when it suited them. Turkish, Byzantine, Arab and Frankish rulers engaged in a complex dance of alliances, which often ignored religion to an astonishing degree. When the mighty Seldjuk Sultan Mohammed of Baghdad sent an army into Syria in 1115 to impose his authority over the local rulers with a view to a united push against the Crusaders, it was opposed by an alliance of local Muslim princes with the Frankish king, Roger of Antioch. Initially they even formed a joint army. But after various manœuvres it was the Frankish forces alone which ambushed the Sultan’s army at Tel-Danith and destroyed it. 18 That was the last time the Seldjuk Sultans bothered to intervene against the Crusaders. Seventy years later when Saladin tried to unite the region by crushing Muslim rivals in Aleppo and Mosul, they too called on the Franks for help against the leader of the jihad.

The Franks, for their part, were not only divided into bickering kingdoms, but could count on only desultory and irregular support from the European powers. Though events such as the loss of Jerusalem briefly mobilized European energies in a new crusade, the conflicts among European powers prevented any sustained flow of help. After the brief two-year campaign of Richard the Lionheart ended in 1192 (with Saladin dying the following year), the dream of taking back Jerusalem faded. It became a vague romantic ideal that fewer and fewer European kings were ready to pursue with serious purpose. The fact that Christian pilgrims were once again allowed by treaty into Jerusalem removed some of the urgency, and the Frankish kingdoms to the north of the city guaranteed their safety along the way. During their two hundred year stay in what they called Outremer, the Frankish princes in present-day Syria and Lebanon became to a large degree local warlords, depending for their survival on local alliances, and on preventing their neighbours from uniting against them. They acclimatized to the region and spent their time like any other warlords, making and breaking alliances, engaging in raids and counter-raids with their various Turkish, Arab and Armenian warlord neighbours, and when they were at peace went falconing with them. Many of the knights who settled in Outremer soon adopted Arab dress and customs (often to the horror of newcomers from Europe.) Most of them learned Arabic and appreciated the sophistication of Arab art, science and culture – becoming a conduit for the influence of the more advanced Arab civilization on Europe. “We who were Occidentals now have been made Orientals,” Fulk of Chartres remarked in his Chronicles, and went on:


He who was a Roman or a Frank is now a Galilean or an inhabitant of Palestine. One who was a citizen of Rheims or of Chartres now has been made a citizen of Tyre or of Antioch. We have already forgotten the places of our birth .… Some already possess here homes and servants which they have received through inheritance. Some have taken wives not merely of their own people but Syrians, or Armenians, or even Saracens who have received the grace of baptism…. Different languages, now made common, have become known to both races, and faith unites those whose forefathers were strangers…. Our parents and relatives from day to day come to join us…. For those who were poor there, here God makes rich. Those who had few coins, here possess countless besants; and those who had not had a villa, here, by the gift of God, already possess a city. Therefore why should one who has found the East so favourable return to the West? 19


Fulk was writing near the beginning of a process of integration which went on for another two hundred years (a longer period than the European settlement of New Zealand), during which the Franks felt increasingly part of the local culture. This culture had always been a bewildering mix of religions and had had a Christian element for much longer than a Muslim one. The Franks had no intention of leaving again, and saw this as their permanent home. Though they were occasionally reinforced by fresh crusading armies from Europe (usually incompetent and ineffective), they were mostly on their own, and their fate was ultimately played out in the shifting politics of the region.

Still, the politically correct self-flagellators will argue, surely the whole Frankish presence was an act of Christian aggression against the Muslim world? But there was in fact no hard and fast border between the two worlds. It was Seldjuk Turk aggression against the Christian Byzantine empire which had triggered the European response, and it was Islam which had invested an area once substantially Christian. Access to the Holy Land was a vital interest for European pilgrims, who were numerous in the 11th century, and it was worth fighting to preserve. Breaking with previous Muslim practice, the more intolerant Seldjuk Turks had blocked that access. Moreover, as far as incursions into the other culture’s “territorial sphere” were concerned, Muslim Arabs had conquered Spain (where they stayed for seven hundred years) and had occupied Sicily till the Normans captured it in 1061. The Ottoman Turks were soon to destroy the Christian Byzantine empire and embark on a five hundred year conquest and occupation of much of Eastern Europe. Until the late 18th century, with the British in Bengal and the Russians in the Central Asian Khanates, it was the Muslims who were the greater territorial aggressors, conquering far larger areas of Europe and ruling far larger Christian populations than Europeans did of the Muslim world. But this did not, contrary to recent myths, cause any deep political hostility between the “two civilizations” for any long periods. What is astonishing is how little effort Europe as a whole made to resist Muslim aggression. There was a brief concerted struggle by European maritime powers against Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean in the 16th century. But once a maritime balance had been achieved which guaranteed their freedom of movement on the seas, there was no united stand whatever to stop the Ottoman advance into Eastern Europe. European nations were totally disunited, preferring to fight one another, even in alliance with the Turks. Francis I of France allied himself with the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent against the Austrian Habsburgs, with little thought for the Christian Hungarians who were being reduced to servitude under Muslim occupation. When the Turks were threatening the gates of Vienna, no armies from the West rode to the rescue of the Austrians. Apart from princes belonging to the Habsburg family, only the Poles helped them. In the 18th century Britain and France strenuously opposed Czar Peter the Great’s crusade against the Turks, and a century later allied with the Turkish empire in a war against Russia without any thought for Christian solidarity. The Western nations deliberately prevented the liberation of the Christian Slavic peoples from Muslim Turkish rule and propped up the Ottoman empire because they feared Russian expansion more. The sloth and indifference of Europe in driving out the Turks was almost scandalous – it showed how little religious solidarity counted in the struggles for power and influence among nation-states.

Only in Spain was there a serious and sustained effort by the Christians of the small northern kingdoms to push out the Muslim occupiers – because there the oppressed Christians to the south were the same race and nation as themselves. The rulers of Aragon and Castile knew that they could annex the territories they liberated. Their own “crusade”, the Reconquista, therefore served the purpose of building a great nation-state. But to imagine Englishmen or Frenchmen felt any deep Christian solidarity for Serbs or Romanians or Hungarians under Muslim rule is a delusion. They felt very little, judging by their actions. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Europeans preferred to slaughter one another in the wars between Catholic and Protestant powers – while the Muslim advance over vast swathes of Christian territory in Eastern Europe was greeted with general indifference, except in the countries in its immediate path. The Western nations continued pragmatically to trade with the Ottomans, even at the height of their invasion of Europe – and trade was more important to them than religious solidarity. The Turks occupied a strategic position as intermediaries between Europe and the Orient – a role which made the Ottoman empire rich until it was bypassed by the maritime route to India and the Russian conquest of Siberia. It was only this geographic outflanking which eventually led to the decline of the Turkish empire – not any concerted military counter-attack by Europe. Britain and France, on the contrary, tried to prop up the Turkish empire for as long as possible (a treason against their own civilization which has left its traces in the Balkans until the present day.) What is astonishing from our perspective is that the war of civilizations did not in fact take place, because most of Christian Europe was so extraordinarily indifferent to the advance of Islam into its territory. The clash of civilizations, far from being a long historic struggle, is by and large a modern historical invention. Even in the 12th century, there was often so little religious zeal on both sides that when Richard the Lionheart, in 1192, made a truce with Saladin (leaving Jerusalem in Muslim hands but with the rights of Christian pilgrims guaranteed) and Richard’s envoys bluntly announced that Richard was only going back to Europe to consolidate his position and would soon return and capture Jerusalem, the Muslim leader replied courteously that if he had to lose Jerusalem again he could not think of a better and more upright ruler to entrust it to than Richard.20

The courteous relations which developed in particular between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (there was talk at one stage of marriage between Richard’s sister and Saladin’s brother) reflects another new element in the age: the rise of chivalry. Both the Germanic-Christian and Arabic-Muslim civilizations at the time of the Crusades embodied the same paradox : they were warrior cultures with a nominally pacifist religion. Just as the Gospel of love had been spread with the sword by Charlemagne in Germany, so Islam too exhibited the paradox of a religion of benevolent principles – preaching humane conduct, kindness and self-denial – which inspired vast campaigns of military conquest. Islamic power, even more than Christian power, was spread by war, and like Christendom it observed no geographic limits to its reach. In the scriptures of both religions verses could be found justifying war, and were eagerly seized on by the warrior elite. But the inherent contradiction between a religion of peace or good will and the warrior culture of the people who professed it eventually led to a curious compromise in the heart of both civilizations. The warrior castes were gradually impregnated with the gentle, humane message of their religion to the point of trying to civilize and soften the worst brutalities of their military vocation. Hence the cult of chivalry, which was given an explicit form in both cultures at around the same time.

At the end of the 12th century the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, Nasir al-Din, instituted an order of knighthood governed by the notion of futuwwa, a moral code of self-denial, selflessness, and humanity towards others, linked both to military training and Sufi mysticism. Among Christians the notion of knighthood had been given a new spiritual significance earlier in the century with the founding of the military religious orders, the Knights Hospitallers in 1113 and the Knights Templars in 1119, with the mission of taking care of poor pilgrims and protecting the pilgrim routes to Jerusalem from bandits. More generally, the notion of knighthood as a profession requiring the Christian virtues not only of courage, loyalty, honour, and the spirit of fair combat, but also of justice, defence of the weak, respect for women and children, generosity of spirit, mercy, self-control, etc, spread rapidly as a moral ideal in the period. Knighthood was romanticized in the course of the 12th century in the Arthurian romances, the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, and the myth of the quest for the Grail, which saw chivalry almost as a spiritual path towards enlightenment. Without any apparent sense of contradiction, it was also linked in the same period to courtly love, in the poems of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes. The knight was expected to be inspired to do brave deeds by his love for some lady – a convention observed in knightly jousts where the contestants wore the favours of their lady-loves. This was a practice followed even in war, which led to bitter personal rivalries in the Hundred Years’ War, where French knights on opposing sides sometimes wore the same lady’s tokens. Chaucer even anachronistically puts the custom into his Troilus and Criseyde, in Troilus’s bitter jealousy of Diomede, after he finds Criseyde’s broach on his captured cloak.

Behind the development of chivalry, which included the all-important notion of knightly honour, there may have been a certain number of practical causes at work. The business of war, for professionals, required such things as the respect of treaties, of terms of surrender or terms of ransom for it to be profitable. This required a code of honourable conduct common to all parties, which became the basis for the rules of war (the so-called “law of arms”) and international relations. Honourable surrender and the custom of ransom were only possible if promises of humane treatment could be trusted. Noble prisoners thus came to be treated as honoured guests by their captors, since promises given not to escape were generally respected with great scruple. A man was sometimes released on parole – a mere promise to pay a ransom – or even a promise to reconstitute himself prisoner at a later date. When the Black Prince captured King Jean II of France in the Hundred Years’ War he treated him with the utmost courtesy as his superior in rank, even waiting on him at table. When King Jean was released from captivity in England to try to raise his ransom money, his son was held in his place among other hostages. When the son escaped, breaking his father’s word of honour, Jean returned to England voluntarily – which won him the highest praise from the English.21 But beyond the practical reasons for developing a cult of honour among professional knights (who sometimes lived from ransom money), there was a genuine desire to restrain the worst instincts of bloodlust and make the warrior profession into something higher than mere butchers of men. Respect for women, a contempt for cruelty, and magnanimity to enemies (especially those who showed courage and honour) came to be seen as marks of nobility, deserving of universal admiration. The cult of chivalry therefore had a widespread moral and civilizing influence, because it attached a certain number of moral and humane virtues to the prestige of military prowess.

This cult of chivalry was particularly developed during the Crusades partly perhaps because of the influence of the personality of Saladin (Salah al-Din), the Kurd who seized the Sultanate of Egypt and became the Crusaders’ most effective enemy. Though he did not hesitate to crucify conspirators against him, and beheaded one Crusader prisoner of treacherous character on the spot, he was a general of unusual humanity for his time. He was seen as embodying the virtues of futuwwa promoted by the Caliph Nasir during Saladin’s last years. The following incidents were typical of his behaviour, which was greatly admired by the Crusaders. When Saladin was on the point of attacking Jerusalem, a local Frankish lord, Balian of Ibelin, asked him permission to go through his lines to the city in order to get his wife (a Byzantine princess and Queen of Jerusalem) and children and take them away to safety. Saladin granted permission, on condition Balian gave his word only to stay one night there. When he got to Jerusalem, Balian was begged on all sides by the terrified Christian townsfolk to stay and organize their defences against Saladin. Moved by their plight he wrote to Saladin explaining, with apologies, that he would have to break his word and take up arms against him. Saladin at once offered to send an escort for Balian’s wife and children to take them away to safety before he began the attack, an offer which the Frank gratefully accepted. Balian later negotiated the surrender of the city on relatively generous terms, and many of those who could not pay the agreed ransom to avoid slavery were set free anyway by Saladin and his brother (who marvelled that some of the richer Christian knights did not pay to free them.)22 Among the captives was a Frankish countess, Stephanie of Oultrejourdain, who obtained the release of her son by a promise to surrender her two castles to Saladin. When her castle garrisons refused her order to surrender, she sent her son back into captivity. Saladin rewarded her honourable action by setting her son free some months later.23

They had already crossed paths. Four years before, during the wedding of Stephanie’s son in her fief, the Templar castle of Kerak, Saladin had launched a surprise attack. As the battle raged, the Franks coolly continued their wedding feast and merry-making inside, and from time to time Lady Stephanie sent out choice dishes from the banquet to Saladin. In return Saladin asked where the bridal couple were lodged and ordered his siege engines not to attack that tower. (The siege was finally lifted by an army of knights riding to the rescue.)24 Incidents like this, in which Saladin seemed to epitomize Western notions of chivalry, so impressed the Crusaders that stories circulated that he had secretly been dubbed a Christian knight. His reputation in the West grew to astounding heights. Dante placed him among his honourable pagans. The Muslim military leader became, improbably, the hero of a host of European folktales, recounted by authors such as Boccaccio, which always centred on his humane and gentlemanly conduct, in contrast to most of the Christian characters of the story. Thus was launched the long tradition among European writers of denouncing the vices of their own society by praising the superior moral character of their enemies – which was to take us through Montaigne and his idealization of the Aztecs, Rousseau’s cult of the noble savage, Cooper’s romanticization of the American Indians, and on to the politically correct cultural self-flagellation of our own day – all of it, ironically, an expression of the European attitude of respect for enemies, which derives from medieval chivalry.




But the spread of the ideals of chivalry did not hide from anybody the generally brutal nature of war as a whole – though the ideals did perhaps lead people to condemn this brutality more and more. The massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem by the First Crusade was not an isolated incident; nor did it show any particular cruelty towards unbelievers which was not also shown at times towards fellow-Christians. The threat of general massacre was, as we have seen, one of the weapons by which besieging armies forced the inhabitants of a walled city to surrender, thus saving lives among the attackers. It was practised in the Hundred Years’ War by the English, notably at the taking of Limoges in 1370. This city, near the borders of the English territory of Aquitaine, had been in English hands, but had gone over to the French side through treachery. The Black Prince (heir to King Edward III, who claimed the French throne by descent) was determined to punish it. After he captured it through a mining operation under the walls, he deliberately massacred the inhabitants. The contemporary historian, Jean Froissart, though sympathetic to the English, tells the tale with some distress in his Chronicles :  


There were pitiful scenes. Men, women and children flung themselves on their knees before the Prince, crying: “Have mercy on us, gentle sir!” But he was so inflamed with anger that he would not listen. Neither man nor woman was heeded, but all who could be found were put to the sword, including many who were in no way to blame. I do not understand how they could have failed to take pity on people who were too unimportant to have committed treason. Yet they paid for it and paid more dearly than the leaders who had committed it. 

There is no man so hard-hearted that, if he had been in Limoges on that day, and had remembered God, he would not have wept bitterly at the fearful slaughter which took place. More than three thousand persons, men, women and children, were dragged out to have their throats cut. May God receive their souls, for they were true martyrs. 25


This is an emotive moral condemnation from a chronicler normally sparing in his judgements. There is pity and compassion as well as indignation in his account. But it is not so much the slaughter itself but its lack of justice which upset Froissart. These were the innocent being killed. By contrast, the “leaders who had committed the treason” were treated differently. The three chief knights who had held Limoges for the French put up a stout fight in a square with their backs against a wall. Their supporting soldiers having been dispatched by the English, the three knights were attacked by three of the English commanders, each in single combat.


There was a long hand-to-hand combat between the Duke of Lancaster and Sir Jean de Villemur, who was a fine knight, strong and of superb physique; also between the Earl of Cambridge and Sir Hugues de la Roche, and between the Earl of Pembroke and Roger de Beaufort. Those three against three gave a masterly display of skilful fighting.… Presently the Prince came .... and watched them with keen interest, until he grew calmer and his anger ebbed away at the sight of them.  At length the three Frenchmen stopped fighting with one accord and said, giving up their swords: “Sirs, we are yours, you have beaten us. Treat us according to the law of arms.” “By God, Sir Jean,” said the Duke of Lancaster, “we would never dream of doing anything else. We accept you as our prisoners.” That, as I was informed later, was how the three Frenchmen were captured.  

But there was no respite elsewhere. The city of Limoges was pillaged and sacked without mercy, then burnt and utterly destroyed. 26


Froissart does not hammer home the obvious paradox that these men, who were leaders in the resistance of the town and instrumental in its treacherous change of sides, were spared because they put up a spirited, entertaining fight, while innocent civilians were massacred as collective punishment. This shows a terrible picture of the class nature of chivalry: honourable surrender for the knights (who could be ransomed), death for the ordinary people. Froissart is here a severe critic of this injustice. This does not make him a social revolutionary, however. When describing the Jacqueries, or peasant revolts in France twelve years earlier, he is entirely on the side of the nobility against the brutal murders, rapes and atrocities carried out by the mob. He happily describes how a handful of knights led by the Count of Foix put up a fight against the “Jacks” or peasant anarchists, massacred seven thousand of them and threw their bodies into the Marne. Anarchy is for Froissart the supreme evil – especially when it risks overthrowing the established rule of the educated class he belongs to. But his obvious class perspective, which makes him see the lower orders as especially prone to brutal violence, does not blind him to the brutal acts of the upper class, and their ruthlessness in war.

He describes how at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, when the English archers decimated the ranks of the Genoese crossbowmen on the French side, and the latter began to break and run, the French king ordered his mounted knights to kill the crossbowmen to clear them out of the way. Froissart, without directly condemning it, shows how this ruthless and treacherous behaviour by the knights increased the confusion on the French side and led to their defeat. But then he goes on to describe the atrocities committed by the popular auxiliary forces. At the end of the battle, the irregulars move in on the wounded.


However among the English there were pillagers and irregulars, Welsh and Cornishmen armed with long knives, who went out after the French (their own men-at-arms and archers making way for them) and when they found any in difficulty, whether they were counts, barons, knights or squires, they killed them without mercy. Because of this, many were slaughtered that evening regardless of their rank. It was a great misfortune and the King of England was afterwards very angry that none had been taken for ransom.  28


It is clear that for Froissart there was something particularly nasty about lower class irregulars killing wounded barons and counts (their natural betters) with long knives. But of course the English knights made way for them to do so, and therefore tacitly approved it. Froissart would like to show this butchery as a reflection of the natural lack of chivalry of the lower orders, but he can’t avoid mentioning the fact that the class of knights connived in it. What we have in these two accounts, of the sack of Limoges and the massacre of the wounded after Crécy, is a composite moral attitude. There is a condemnation of cold-blooded butchery of defenceless people, but mixed in with it are a number of other moral considerations – that it was unjust to kill the innocent, or that killing the wounded was a nasty piece of lower class brutality and cowardice, or a terrible waste of a chance for obtaining ransoms, etc. But despite this somewhat mixed moral message, we get the feeling that Froissart is not all that far away from our own moral attitudes to cold-blooded butchery, whether of civilian prisoners or of the wounded. This becomes clear when he talks of the siege of Calais, another town threatened with punitive massacre, this time by the Black Prince’s father, Edward III.

After a long siege to starve the inhabitants into submission, and after successfully blocking a French army come to raise the siege, the King of England had Calais at his mercy. He let it be known to the defenders that he would accept nothing but unconditional surrender, in which they put their lives into his hands to do with as he pleased. This led the inhabitants to determine to hold out till they starved to death. The English barons who conducted the negotiations with the French pleaded with King Edward to change his tactics and show clemency, using the shrewdest arguments they could muster:


“Suppose one day you send us to defend one of your fortresses, we should go less cheerfully if you have these people put to death, for then they would do the same to us if they had the chance.” This  argument did much to soften the King’s heart, especially when most of his barons supported it. 29


This argument from self-interest is still used on battlefields today, as recently as the war in Iraq. Soldiers know that if they are captured they will probably be treated as they have treated enemy prisoners, so they have an interest in treating them well. This argument convinced King Edward.


“My lords, I do not want to be alone against you all. Walter, go back to Calais and tell the commander that this is the limit of my clemency: six of the principal citizens are to come out, with their heads and their feet bare, halters round their necks, and the keys of the town and castle in their hands. With these six I shall do as I please, and the rest I shall spare.”  30


This message dismayed the inhabitants of Calais, who had to choose sacrificial victims from among their ranks. But at last their richest citizen stood up as a volunteer, and soon five more leading men followed. These men (later immortalized by Rodin) walked out barefoot as requested and knelt before the King of England, saying: “We pray you by your generous heart to have mercy on us.” The King at once ordered them to be executed. His barons and knights protested that this would be dishonourable, that “the world will say it was a cruel deed, and that it was too harsh of you to put to death these honourable citizens who have voluntarily thrown themselves on your mercy to save the others.”  Edward was furious and insisted that his mind was made up. “The people of Calais have killed so many of my men that it is right that these should die in their turn.” But the burghers of Calais had an even more powerful advocate. As Froissart tells it:


Then the noble Queen of England, pregnant as she was, humbly threw herself on her knees before the King and said, weeping: “Ah, my dear lord, since I crossed the sea at great danger to myself, you know that I have never asked a single favour from you.  But now I ask you in all humility, in the name of the Son of the Blessed Mary, and by the love you bear me, to have mercy on these six men.”

The King remained silent for a time, looking at his gentle wife as she knelt in tears before him. His heart was softened, for he would not willingly have distressed her in the state she was in, and at last he said: “My lady, I could wish you were anywhere else but here. Your appeal has so touched me that I cannot refuse it. So although I do this against my will, here, take them.”  31  


The Queen at once took the burghers of Calais into her apartment, gave them new clothes and an ample dinner, and filled their pockets with money. They were then set free, and the town was spared. 

This account is interesting because it leads to the opposite conclusion from the later sacking of Limoges by the Black Prince. And Froissart is clearly much happier with the outcome and proud of the queen’s success in saving the hostages (since he came from the same county of Hainaut in the Low Countries as she did, and he was particularly devoted to her.) Here we see the notion of chivalry, of ideals of clemency and magnanimity (and even a king feeling obliged to grant his lady’s request) beginning to have an effect on how war was waged. Though medieval warfare, with massacres like that of Jerusalem or Limoges, might seem to us as horrific as anything in recent memory, a scene like this should make us pause, because of its utter impossibility at any time for the last hundred years. You have only to imagine a Nazi commander being prevailed on by his wife to spare the hostages about to be shot in reprisal for the killing of a German officer, or imagine Bomber Harris’s wife persuading him not to carpet-bomb Dresden and roast alive tens of thousands of women and children, or General Mladic’s wife getting him to spare the men of Srebrinica – and you can at once measure the distance between medieval attitudes to war and those of our own age. And the comparison is not in our favour. At least medieval commanders, though moved by human rages, could also be touched by human sentiments. And their wives were not, as they would be today, excluded from all such decisions. What is important is that the moral judgements of the chronicler, the journalist of the time, are not so far from ours. He too hates cold-blooded butchery, admires clemency, goes teary-eyed at the sight of a pregnant queen on her knees begging for the lives of enemy hostages, and rejoices at her success. Despite the slaughter of civilians that often characterized war in that age, the general European attitudes to that butchery were at least as humane as ours are. War may have been cruel, but its cruelty was already widely condemned. The words of Edward’s barons: “The world will say it was a cruel deed….” are already signs of an educated popular opinion that could act as a deterrent to harsh reprisals. We are a world away from Roman times when the Roman army crucified entire towns for resisting (a kind of mass atrocity still engaged in routinely by the Mongols, and often enough by the Ottoman Turks in the years that followed.) In the age of chivalry, pity and clemency had become respectable in Europe, and even an expected part of civilized behaviour in war. If they were not yet the norm, they were already widely admired, and their absence was indignantly condemned.

The cult of chivalry, for all the fashionable tendency today to deride it, is the beginning of the notion of the rules of war which would lead to the Red Cross – after the Swiss Henri Dunant saw wounded Frenchmen and Austrians left to die at the battle of Solferino – and later the Geneva Conventions. Chivalry, because it is an attempt to make war more civilized, has often been deplored by pacifists for making it more palatable. Dunant’s logic was more practical : by working to make war less horrible and cruel, you will gradually instil the notion that it shouldn’t be happening at all.

In the cult of chivalry, Christianity thus had a civilizing effect on war, though it had no power to prevent it. A two-thousand year old Germanic culture of warfare could not be erased by a few hundred years of preaching by unarmed monks and priests. Today’s partisans of political correctness, with a peculiar blindness to the origins of their own moral self-righteousness, tend to blame Christianity for the cruelties of European history. But religion was never more than one element in a composite culture, and feudal society was essentially a society organized for war. It was rule by a warrior class in a world given over to violence, where priests had a limited role. Of course there were situations, such as Spain with its notorious Inquisition, where Christianity showed itself in a harsh, intolerant light. But the Spaniards after the Reconquista were faced with a unique problem. Their race had been bastardized and hybridized by seven hundred years of Arab occupation, characterized by mass enslavement and the rape or forced marriage of hundreds of thousands of their women. After their victory in the long, bloody war of liberation, the Spaniards thus had to redefine who belonged to the liberated nation and who did not. As is generally the case after enemy occupations, a purge was launched against those seen as members of the occupying nation or collaborators with them. But how were they to identify their enemies? How could they distinguish them from true Spaniards? Race, skin-colour and language were no longer a useful guide in such a mixed-race, polyglot population. So they had to do it by religion – by the cultural allegiance people felt in their souls. A Spaniard was defined as a Christian; a non-Christian was a non-Spaniard. Religion thus became national identity. Conversion became the only proof of loyalty to the nation. And since people may lie about their religious allegiance, or convert just for show, a sharp watch had to be kept for hypocrites, secret infidels and backsliders – meaning secret traitors to the culture and the nation. Hence the Inquisition, and the expulsion of adherents of alien religions – no doubt regrettable, but also understandable. When one compares it with the now-forgotten purge at the end of the six-year Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe – the lynching in the street of tens of thousands of ethnic Germans who had lived there peaceably since the Middle Ages and the expulsion, by means of this terror, of over ten million Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia – the relatively small-scale Spanish expulsion of Muslims and Jews after a brutal seven-hundred year occupation is a curious choice of target for our own moral indignation.   

Elsewhere in Europe Christianity had a mixed effect on attitudes to war and violence. There were both popular messianic movements characterized by extreme violence and bloodletting (a succession of miscellaneous crusades against Jews, the corrupt clergy and the landowners swept France in the 13th century) and also movements which rejected all violence and war. Anabaptists and other sects were militantly pacifist, starting a dissenting tradition of pacifism that leads on to the Quakers. But up until the early 16th century, the Christian-inspired code of chivalry exerted an important moderating influence on war – reinforced by the fact that there was little hatred between European nations, who all shared the same religion, respected the same law of arms, and the same concept of honour – at least among the knightly class. Peasant revolts were a different matter, because the fear of mob rule led to special savagery in their repression. So were religious heresies, with their potential for social divisions and their challenge to authority – as the violent repression of the Cathars in the 13th century showed. But by the 15th century the code of chivalry was becoming something of an artifice, entertained in courts like that of Philip of Burgundy, where elaborate jousts were organized and the knightly Order of the Golden Fleece established, as a kind of theatrical re-enactment of what was already a dying tradition. For the nature of warfare was changing, and the knight was no longer at the centre of it. The charges by armoured cavalry which had been decisive in earlier battles and had made the knights the elite force of any army could now be countered by skilled infantrymen using the pike tactics developed by the Swiss. Crossbowmen, already regarded by some as treacherous fighters, because killing from a distance while not in danger themselves, were soon supplemented and then replaced by hand-gunners and musketeers. These men had a skill that could be taught in a matter of weeks, as opposed to the years of rigorous training of the knight, the pikeman or the archer – yet they could kill knights with ease, from a hundred yards away, and without running any risk. “What is the use, any more,” lamented one contemporary observer, “of the skill-at-arms of the knights, their strength, their hardihood, their discipline and their desire for honour when such weapons may be used in war?” Another lamented that with “this cursed engine… so many valiant men have been slain for the most part by the most pitiful fellows and the greatest cowards.” 32 If war was no longer dominated by an elite warrior class trained in the moral virtues of knighthood, then it became a purely pragmatic business of massacring the largest number by any means. And the means used were soon mechanical – cannon and musket – and more and more impersonal, and indifferent to the qualities of the enemy they were mowing down.  Chivalry had become irrelevant.

 Another change came in the early 16th century with the Reformation: the destruction of the religious unity of Europe, the notion of a single Christendom. Once religious wars broke out in Europe, then much of the mob hatred and indiscriminate slaughter that characterized peasant revolts and peasant armies began to pervade war in general. These religious wars were not carried on between professional soldiers alone. As international armies swept back and forth across Europe, civilian populations bore the brunt of the violence. The religious wars that tore Europe apart in the 16th and 17th centuries were the bloodiest ever fought on the continent between the fall of Rome and the 20th century. The Thirty Years’ War, involving most of the powers of Europe but fought largely over Germany, may well have surpassed even the later Napoleonic wars in numbers of dead. It killed (as far as historians can agree on the tally) around eight million people, or a third of the German population. One cannot help suspecting that the violence of religious hatred, which saw whole populations, not merely kings or armies, as the enemy, was partly responsible for this new savagery. With the exception of the mob element in the Crusades, and the bloody suppression of the Cathar heresy, Christianity had generally been a humanizing and restraining influence on war for the part it played in the cult of chivalry – and the sense that all sides in Christendom shared the same moral and spiritual values. But once the faith splintered, religious fanaticism undermined chivalry and became a force for extreme ruthlessness and cruelty in war. This new image of war is mirrored in the literature of the age. 

Three writers of the late 16th century, Cervantes, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare, reflect in different ways the changes in warfare in their time. Cervantes laments through his comic parody the disappearance of old-style knighthood, creating the ageing but immortal figure of Don Quixote who lives in a past of chivalric romance that is gone forever. As we have seen, the invention of the musket, whereby a brave, highly-skilled knight could be killed from a distance by “the most pitiful fellows and the greatest cowards”, sounded the death knell of the old chivalric ideal. With it went the entire knightly code of honour, magnanimity, fairness and moral restraint. Cervantes, while making fun of his ageing hero, was lamenting the passing of an age, the passing of a world-view, which seemed somehow finer than the pragmatic, cynical, mechanical age of war by machines and technicians that they were now entering upon. If war was no longer a matter of honour and reputation, then any means became acceptable for victory, including the most barbaric. Shakespeare stands at this crossroads, reflecting a variety of views of war, from the heroic and romantic vision of Othello or the patriotic campaigns of Henry V, to the earthy reality of armies of vagabonds, wastrels, corrupt recruiters and lying braggarts which we see in the Falstaff plays. It is Christopher Marlowe, however, who portrays most graphically the new cruelty of war as it increasingly involved mass civilian casualties. In the world of war he depicts, the slaughter of civilians is no longer exceptional: it is routine. It is also Marlowe who explores the new association between war and religious fanaticism.





In Marlowe’s first play we already see war depicted in a new light. His description of the fall of Troy in The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage is very different in mood and intent from that of his classical source, Virgil’s Aeneid. It is interesting to compare the two versions. In each case Aeneas, having fled Troy and been shipwrecked at Carthage, tries to win the sympathy of Queen Dido (whose help he needs for his mission to found a new city in Italy) by telling her, with maximum pathos, the story of the fall of Troy. But the nature of the pathos is very different in Marlowe and Virgil. As the city is captured, Virgil’s Aeneas is woken by a dream of his slain brother, Hector, whose ghost tells him that the grandeur of Troy is finished and that he must flee. Aeneas climbs on the roof, sees the fires of the invaders, and at once arms and leads a force of comrades into the thick of the fight. They have some success, disguising themselves with Greek shields to take the Greeks by surprise. They make for the King’s palace, climb on the roof and begin hurling tiles and stone turrets down at the Greeks besieging it. But the Greeks break in and Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, kills King Priam at the altar of the temple, after first killing his son in front of his eyes. Aeneas, sickened by this sight and abandoned by his demoralised comrades, descends into the street and there chances upon Helen, cause of the whole war, and is tempted to kill her. But his mother, the goddess Venus, appears to him, tells him it is not Helen (her protégée) but the gods who have brought down Troy, and urges him to flee the doomed city with his family. He makes his way home and leads his wife, child and father toward a hill outside Troy. On the way, his wife Creusa falls behind in the darkness and disappears. Frantic, Aeneas goes back into the city looking for her, calling out her name from street to street, at risk of discovery by the looting Greeks. Finally her ghost appears to him and tells him to flee with their child to another land. “There happiness and a kingdom are in store for you, with a queen for you to marry. Dispel your tears for the Creusa whom you loved.” Grief-stricken, he goes back to where the others are waiting and leads a little band of refugees up to the mountains. There after some time they build ships and take to the sea, on the mission to found a new Troy, Rome – which is of course the Roman Virgil’s main focus of interest.   

Here is Christopher Marlowe’s version of the same events:


By this the camp was come unto the walls

And through the breech did march into the streets,

Where, meeting with the rest, Kill, kill, they cried.

Frighted with this confused noise I rose

And looking from a turret might behold

Young infants swimming in their parents’ blood,

Headless carcasses piled up in heaps,

Virgins half dead dragged by their golden hair,

And with main force flung on a ring of pikes;

Old men with swords thrust through their aged sides

Kneeling for mercy to a Greekish lad,

Who with steel poleaxes dashed out their brains. 33


None of these gory details are in Virgil, whose hero from the rooftop sees only fires and hears the noise of battle. The dominant tone in Virgil, apart from the excitement and panic of battle, is grief at loss, not horror at atrocities. The menace to the Trojan women in Virgil is only briefly evoked – a grim future compounded of exile, slavery, humiliation as the servants of Greek ladies –  but being slaughtered by being “flung on a ring of pikes” is not part of it. 

Then we have the killing of the Trojan king Priam. Virgil’s Priam upbraids Pyrrhus for killing his son in front of his father’s eyes, and weakly flings his spear at him, which sticks in the Greek’s shield. Pyrrhus drags the old man to the altar and shoves his sword into his side and then decapitates him. By contrast, Marlowe’s Priam, instead of showing defiance, begs Pyrrhus for mercy on his knees, enumerating all his woes and all that he has lost:


“Yet who so wretched but desires to live?

Oh let me live, great Neoptolemus!”

Not moved at all, but smiling at his tears,

This butcher, whilst his hands were yet held up,

Treading upon his breast, strook off his hands.  34


Priam’s wife Hecuba throws herself on Pyrrhus and is then swung by her heels “howling through the air”, before Priam is ripped open from navel to throat – that is, disembowelled. Pyrrhus then dips his father’s flag in Priam’s blood and runs into the street with it. 

Now these horrific details are all added by Marlowe. Why? Anyone familiar with the history of the period will recognize them as allusions to the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in Paris in 1572, some fifteen years before Marlowe’s play. Marlowe wrote another play about this event, called The Massacre at Paris, which we have in apparently mangled form. The key event in this massacre (in which thousands of Protestants gathered in Paris to celebrate a royal wedding were treacherously killed) was the murder of Admiral Coligny, venerable leader of the Protestant party. Notoriously, his hands were cut off and sent to the Pope as a present. In some accounts he was disembowelled and the Duke of Guise, who ordered the crime, wiped his bloody face with a cloth in order to identify the body and then trampled on him. The cutting off of the hands and the trampling occur in Marlowe’s play The Massacre.35 Every gory detail that Marlowe has added to the murder of Priam occurred in the murder of Coligny, according to the Huguenot pamphleteers: the amputated hands, the trampling, the bloody cloth, the disembowelling. Now these details would have been familiar to every Protestant Englishman watching the play. The murder of Coligny, the foremost old soldier of France and a Protestant respected by both sides, had almost the same shock effect on the age as the assassination of Kennedy 400 years later. It was a spark to the powder-keg of religious hatred all over Europe. These allusions mean that the sack of Troy in Dido is being described in terms clearly designed to evoke the massacre at Paris. This explains the emphasis on the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, which Virgil does not mention. It also explains the mood of Marlowe’s text, which is not one of sombre cosmic doom as in Virgil, but of violent moral indignation. He is describing not the fall of a great nation, but a sectarian atrocity, over which he feels indignation out of religious sympathy with the victims. It is this that fuels a kind of anti-war spirit in Marlowe’s text – an emphasis on gratuitous cruelty against civilians that is absent in Virgil. The Huguenot pamphleteers after the massacre spoke of indiscriminate slaughter, without distinction of sex, age or condition. The event became notorious as marking a new degree of savagery – perhaps something contemporaries thought had been left behind in the past, but in reality the opening salvo in a war of a new kind. In a few decades this sort of civilian butchery would come to be seen as almost “normal” in the Thirty Years War, but at the time it shocked deeply – just as Guernica was a shocking first in what was to become the new 20th century “norm” of bombing defenceless cities from the air. 

In the rest of Marlowe’s account of Troy we find a note of true tragedy, a panic flight (curiously to the ships not to the hills) of a very different kind from the orderly retreat of Aeneas’s little band in Virgil.


O, there I lost my wife! And, had not we

Fought manfully, I had not told this tale.

Yet manhood would not serve; of force we fled. 36


He saw Cassandra captured, but failed to rescue her. As the boats left, he swam back to get Polyxena, standing on the shore, but she was taken by the Greeks before his eyes, and later sacrificed by Pyrrhus. Dido, who is listening to this story, begs him to stop. This is a tale of war as pure horror. There is no heroism because their fight was ineffective: “manhood would not serve”. The hero failed in every rescue attempt, and the three women he tried to save perished. He breaks off his narrative, saying wretchedly: “Sorrow hath tired me quite.”  

The general effect of the tale of Troy in Marlowe is one of “the pity of war”, to quote a later anti-war poet. The warrior hero is tired and sickened by war, a refugee from a genocidal bloodbath. The play fails as a play precisely because of this: Marlowe’s attitude to war is at variance with the requirements of the play. The theme is a conflict between love and patriotic duty. Aeneas has to choose between the love of Dido and his heroic mission – embarking for Italy, where the gods have told him he will found a new Troy, Rome. But the Queen of Carthage is portrayed by Marlowe as such a tender-hearted, generous woman, so deeply in love with the hero, and the Trojan war is shown as such a monstrous bloodbath, that we feel Aeneas is being a complete fool to abandon this woman for his warrior destiny. This is in contrast to Virgil, who makes Aeneas more heroic and Dido’s passion far more egotistical and violent. As Aeneas sails treacherously away, abandoning his doting mistress, Virgil’s Dido curses him, hopes that the rocks will sink his ship, and prays as she kills herself in despair that one of her race will later avenge her – a reference to Hannibal’s war on Rome. This revelation of her violent nature makes Aeneas’ choice seem somehow right. The savage, possessive fury of her love makes her appear a dangerous option, and he seems wise to have given her the slip. Marlowe’s Dido, on the other hand, is all sweetness and goodness. Watching her lover’s ship sail away, she prays that it will escape the dangerous rocks and only regrets she does not have Icarus’ wings to fly after him. Her generosity and gentleness of character make his abandonment of her seem foolish and cruel, and we are left unsatisfied as she kills herself. She is a mere victim of circumstances and has done nothing to deserve this fate. She is less tragic than pathetic. She does not have the stature of her terrible destiny, and is unconvincing as a suicide, because she lacks aggressive rage. Marlowe’s Dido is simply too nice, too sweet, too forgiving. But while we like and pity Marlowe’s heroine, it is Virgil’s that we identify with, as we identify with souls in hell. Virgil makes her death feel inevitable, the natural outcome of a violent passion, which turns to self-hatred for being such a fool when her lover betrays her. Marlowe’s gentle Dido belongs in a romance not a tragedy; we want to see her with her husband and children living happily ever after. In short, we want to see the war-weary and rather half-heartedly heroic Aeneas settle down and stay with her. Marlowe fails in the play because he portrays war as detestable butchery. He makes love seem a far more attractive option than the heroic mission of the warrior, and the plot demands the opposite.


It is almost as if in answer to this very criticism that Marlowe in his next play creates the warrior Tamburlaine (based loosely on the Turkish-Mongol conqueror Timur Lang.) Here he makes a soldier of such overpowering aggressiveness, pride and ambition, with such grandiose rhetoric and unquenchable faith in his destiny, that to doubt his heroic mission for a minute isn’t an option. The Scythian hero is introduced to us capturing a party of travellers, including a young lady, Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, whom he soon persuades he is more than a simple brigand: 


But lady, this fair face and heavenly hue

Must grace his bed that conquers Asia,

And means to be a terror to the world…. 37


Tamburlaine, unlike Aeneas, is not going to have to choose between love and his conqueror’s destiny: he’s going to have them both. He simply takes the woman he wants, by a demonstration of irresistible will and force of character. Of course he dazzles her with poetic rhetoric (an upmarket version of the “Passionate Shepherd to his Love”, promising her various exotic delights: “A hundred Tartars shall attend on thee”.) 38 But it is his absolute belief in his heroic destiny that sweeps her off her feet. The captain of a cavalry force sent to crush him is also won over by his eloquence. Thus begins Tamburlaine’s meteoric rise, winning battle after battle, by persuasion, treachery or force, taking kings and emperors prisoner, until he becomes in fact the master of central Asia. The grandiose rhetoric carries him forward irresistibly: he is portrayed as a demi-god. But at the same time he is clearly shown as a megalomaniac warrior with an almost pathological bloodlust. When he besieges a city, he starts by camping before the walls in a white tent, signifying his readiness to show mercy; then changes to red, and finally to black, which means he will put all defenders to the sword. When Zenocrate’s own city holds out against him until the colour black, he does not hesitate to slaughter the deputation of girls who come out to beg for mercy – making it a point of honour not to be swayed from his implacable resolve by his wife’s tears (unlike King Edward III at Calais, who listened to his wife’s pleas.) This sadistic act is then followed by a poetic speech about beauty, which appears in rather sickening contrast to it (perhaps it is meant to show the hypocrisy of chivalry.) This is followed in turn by the cruel baiting of a captive emperor, whom he keeps in a cage. The play ends with the coronation of the gentle Zenocrate as queen, a sort of parody of the coronation of the Virgin. She is addressed as divine and compared to Juno. By then the hero is saying things like:


The god of war resigns his room to me,

Meaning to make me general of the world.

Jove, viewing me in arms looks pale and wan,

Fearing my power should pull him from his throne.

Where’er I come, the Fatal sisters sweat….

Millions of souls sit on the banks of Styx

Hell and Elysium swarm with ghosts of men

That I have sent from sundry foughten fields 39


The hero is now not just the scourge of God, but the rival of God. The effect of these outrageous claims of divine stature is one of sheer God-defying blasphemy, which can still make us shudder even in a post-Christian age. It is a device of “atheists” in the Renaissance to aim their blasphemies at Mahomet or Jove, thus protecting themselves from prosecution, while evoking the same fearful reactions in a superstitious audience. Now war itself might appear to be glorified in this play, but the emphasis is not on the morality of war but on a sort of camp hero blaspheming his head off, and showing a close connection between a cult of war and a mad religious mission. Given the context in which Marlowe lived, where all the current wars were primarily motivated by religious fanaticism –  with the Papacy widely viewed as the instigator both of the war on the Protestants of France and of the Spanish attack on England expected in the year of the play –  this is a highly subversive association of ideas. Marlowe is basically saying religion is the cause of war, and at the same time undercutting religion by showing a hero blaspheming with impunity.  He is already walking the fine line that will lead to accusations of atheism and a premature violent death, probably at the hands of government agents. 

In his sequel to Tamburlaine (one of the earliest Hollywood-style sequels) Marlowe extends his dangerous themes. There is in the second play an even greater dwelling on gore and bloodshed. Here is Tamburlaine talking to his sons about their destiny as his heirs. One of them expresses a desire to stay with his mother rather than follow the wars, and his father curses him as a bastard and threatens to cast him off if he does not have “a mind courageous and invincible”:


                              For in a field, whose superficies

                              Is covered with a liquid purple veil,

                              And sprinkled with the brains of slaughtered men,

                              My royal chair of state shall be advanc’d;

                              And he that means to place himself therein,

                              Must armed wade up to the chin in blood.


      ZENOCRATE: My lord, such speeches to our princely sons

                              Dismays their minds before they come to prove

                              The wounding troubles angry war affords.


His two dutiful sons, however, are made of sterner stuff than their gentle mother.


      CELIBINUS:    No, madam, these are speeches fit for us;

                     For, if his chair were in a sea of blood,

                              I would prepare a ship and sail to it,

                              Ere I would lose the title of a king.


      AMYRUS:       And I would strive to swim through pools of blood    

                              Or make a bridge of murdered carcasses,

                              Whose arches should be framed with bones of Turks,

                              Ere I would lose the title of a king.  40


Tamburlaine duly applauds the juvenile homicidal mania of his two “good” sons. Now the psychopathic bloodlust of these speeches, which are typical of the second play, has posed a critical problem. What is the author’s attitude? Is he glorifying war and slaughter or seeking to disgust us with it? The childish treble voices of the two “good” sons dutifully imitating their father’s genocidal tirades must seem like parody; but there are no clear indications by dramatic incident of a condemnation of this revelling in gore. Tamburlaine’s renegade pacifist son, who during the next battle prefers to play cards, is given one or two good lines, such as “What a coil they keep! I believe there will be some hurt done anon amongst them.” But he is not given a chance to talk back when his father drags him out and stabs him to death for his “sloth”. Nobody protests against this murder except Tamburlaine’s impotent captive enemies. There is no credible moral opposition to Tamburlaine in the play, and this has led some critics to conclude that Marlowe approves this behaviour, that he is a kind of adolescent fascist, filled with blood-thirsty warmongering fantasies. 

There is another explanation. Marlowe translated the Roman poet Lucan, a satirist whose technique of satire was unusually subtle. Lucan lived under the tyrannical rule of the emperor Nero, who demanded extravagant praise from all poets. Lucan was in fact a republican, who detested the emperor and blamed his ancestor Julius Caesar for founding the imperial dynasty. In the First Book of his Pharsalia, his long poem about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, he is careful to show his sympathies only by indirect means. He speaks of the horrors of the civil war, the bloody battles of Pharsalia, Carthage and Munda, but then gracefully bows in the direction of his patron, Nero. Marlowe’s translation brings out all the subtlety of the technique:


But if for Nero (then unborn) the Fates

Would find no other means (and gods not slightly

Purchase immortal thrones…)

We plain not heaven but gladly bear these evils

For Nero’s sake : Pharsalia groan with slaughter,

And Carthage souls be glutted with our bloods;

At Munda let the dreadful battles join ….

Yet Rome is much bound to these civil arms

Which made thee emperor, thee (seeing thou, being old

Must shine a star) shall heaven (who thou lovest)

Receive with shouts, where thou shalt reign as king,

Or mount the sun’s flame-bearing chariot,

And with bright restless fire compass the earth …

Nature and every power shall give thee place …..41


Now the grotesque flattery of these lines – the horrors of the civil war launched by Caesar were all worth it since they gave us Nero as a result, and Nero is a god waiting to ascend to heaven and take over the sun’s chariot – can be read in the first degree only by the obtuse. Any perceptive mind must see it as satire. The lines ram home the point that this bloody civil war only produced a dynasty of megalomaniac tyrants demanding sycophantic praise. Yet the irony is very indirect; it must be, if Lucan is to live. (As it happened, Nero was not so obtuse and put an end to the poet’s life at 26 – using the method of “suicide on command” used by Tamburlaine.) This is a technique of satire by grotesque exaggeration, and Marlowe, as his superb translation shows, mastered it perfectly. Now this seems to be the technique he is using throughout Tamburlaine II. The imagery of Lucan, comparing Nero to a god, and especially the sun-god Phoebus, is strikingly similar to that used throughout Tamburlaine II, where the hero compares himself repeatedly to the sun-god. Marlowe never criticizes, by any overt dramatic incident, the megalomania or psychopathic bloodlust of Tamburlaine. The grotesque violence and hubristic excess of his language speaks for itself, as it does in Lucan. But a poet able to render so perfectly all the subtleties of Lucan’s satire cannot be writing here in the first degree. Just as Lucan the republican detests Julius Caesar for starting the civil war and seizing absolute power, while appearing to treat him as the hero, so Marlowe detests the ever victorious Tamburlaine: he is a symbol of eternally triumphant evil. But to be eternally triumphant means to be without credible opposition, or that opposition would appear to speak for a moral order that is destined one day to overthrow him. This is precisely what is not going to happen. Only Tamburlaine’s captive enemies denounce him for the  murder of his own son; none of his loyal followers dares utter a word. There is no moral order waiting in the wings. Critics like J.B. Steane complain that Marlowe does nothing to undercut this monster, to discomfit him or bring him low, and therefore concludes the author sincerely admires him.42 But why undercut a tyrant if your point is to show that the world is ruled by this kind of monster, that the God in control of things (if there is one) is evil?  That is the position, objectively, that the play presents. And it violates all the rules of tragedy, which insist that good must be triumphant at the end, that the normal moral order must be restored after the hero’s death. Marlowe doesn’t believe good is triumphant in this world, any more than Lucan does. They are both dealing with a world ruled by evil: in Lucan’s case an imperial tyranny founded by a megalomaniac general, in Marlowe’s case a state of fanatical religious warfare across Europe, which glorifies slaughter and creates paranoid totalitarian regimes that keep writers in a state of fear. (Marlowe’s fellow-playwright Kyd was charged with “atheism” and threatened with torture, and he himself was probably murdered by a government agent – in striking parallel to Lucan.) Why show this triumphant evil order as being in any way threatened by a moral opposition when you don’t think it will be?   

   Now in the play The Massacre at Paris we get another angle on this. This is a nastily sectarian work which ends with calls for war against Rome. The dying French King swears:


To ruinate that wicked Church of Rome, 

That hatcheth up such bloody practices;  43


and with his last earthly breath: 


Bids thee whet thy sword on Sixtus’ bones

That it may keenly slice the Catholics.  44


Sixtus V in fact only became Pope in 1585, thirteen years after the Massacre, but in time to finance the Armada – he was Pope at the time of the play. This is therefore a politically engaged pro-war play, anxious to underscore the Papist plot behind the Spanish threat. (The equivalent today would be a play showing the hand of Al Qua’ida or of Iran behind every conflict.) Marlowe rams home the patriotic rabble-rousing with a direct reference to Queen Elizabeth, as the king greets her envoy:   


And here protest eternal love to thee,

And to the Queen of England specially,

Whom God hath bless’d for hating papistry.  45


What are we to make of this? Is this Marlowe’s work? Is it an attempt to prove his orthodoxy by producing a slavishly chauvinistic work, anti-Papist, flattering those in power? Or is it again in the second degree – a sort of Lucan-like fawning intended to disgust by exaggeration?

Marlowe grew up in Canterbury. When he was eight years old the town was suddenly flooded with French Huguenot refugees on their way from Dover to London after fleeing the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day. The tales of horror they brought with them seem to have made a lasting impression on him. That his imagination is full of horrific images of slaughter is undeniable. We may imagine the effect on an eight-year old boy of hearing these refugee tales as every Huguenot dined out on his horror story. This may have given him the sectarian hatred of Catholics shown in the lines above, assuming that The Massacre at Paris is entirely his. But it also makes him associate religious fanaticism with mass-murdering warfare. There are signs that the figure of Tamburlaine may be meant to evoke the warrior pope Pius V, who organised the league that defeated the Turks at Lepanto the year before the Massacre, and instigated the Massacre itself. In Tamburlaine II, there is a crucial passage where the Christians are debating whether they are bound to keep a treaty sworn on oath to the Muslim Turks. Some of them think they should, till one produces the trump card:


Assure your grace ’tis superstition

To stand so strictly on dispensive faith.

And, should we lose the opportunity

That God hath given to venge our Christians’ death,

And scourge their foul blasphemous paganism,

As fell to Saul, to Balaam and the rest,

That would not kill and curse at God’s command,

So surely will the vengeance of the highest…

Be poured with rigour on our sinful heads

If we neglect this offered victory. 46


Now this argument was notorious to Marlowe’s Protestant audience. It was the argument used by Pope Pius V in a letter to the French King, Charles IX, in 1569, urging him to exterminate the Huguenots, shortly after his victory over them at Jarnac.


The more the lord has treated you and me with kindness, the more you ought to take advantage of the opportunity this victory offers to you, for pursuing and destroying all the enemies that still remain …. Let your majesty take for example and never lose sight of what happened to Saul, King of Israel. He had received the orders of God, by the mouth of the prophet Samuel, to fight and exterminate the infidel Amelekites, in such a way that he should not spare one in any case, or under any pretext. But he did not obey the voice of God …. and therefore he was deprived of his throne and his life…. By this example he has wished to teach all kings that to neglect the vengeance of outrages done to him is to provoke his wrath and indignation against themselves. 47


For Samuel we are to read Pope Pius V, for Saul King Charles IX, and for the Amelekites the Huguenots. Pope Pius demands the “entire extermination of heretics” in a letter to Catherine de Medici, Charles’s mother, the same year. These letters, though not officially published till 1640 in Antwerp by the Spanish Secretary, were leaked after the massacre and widely cited by Protestant pamphleteers in the propaganda war in Marlowe’s time. The fact that Marlowe cites the same text about Saul and uses the same argument shows he was familiar with the Pope’s letters. This would mean that the Christian-Muslim subplot of this play is meant also to allude to the religious wars in France and the use of the bible to justify a treacherous massacre. But there is a double edge here. It also shows the Christians as morally worse than the Muslims. When the Christians break an oath they have sworn to Christ, it is the Muslims who are genuinely shocked.     


Can there be such deceit in Christians? …

Then if there be a Christ as Christians say

But in their deeds deny him for their Christ

If he be son to everlasting Jove ….

Thou Christ, thou art esteemed omnipotent,

If thou wilt prove thyself a perfect God

Be now revenged upon this traitor’s soul. …

To arms, my lord, on Christ now let us cry.

If there be Christ we shall have victory.  48


In the next scene the Muslims indeed have victory, and the Christians blame their own “accursed and hateful perjury.” The Muslim leader decides to honour Christ thenceforth, “not doing Mahomet an injury”, because of his just act of retribution. Now this is both orthodox and subversive. It is orthodox because the Christians are punished by Christ for betraying their oath, when Christ is appealed to by the Muslims. But the whole procedure is blasphemous. Christ in the desert forbade Satan to “put the lord to the test”. This is what the play is doing. Secondly, the Muslims are shown as morally superior to the Christians, suggesting their own god may be more powerful. Christ and Mahomet are put on the same footing, and it is not clear who is responsible for this victory. The equation of the two religious leaders suggests dangerous corollaries. If belief in Mahomet is a superstition, then why not belief in Christ as well? And if one is truly a power active in history, then why not the other? This kind of subversive question had already been asked when the French King Saint Louis was taken prisoner during the Seventh Crusade: did this not prove Mahomet’s greater power?  But there is a third point. If, as the events of this scene show, history is the acting out of God’s judgement on men, then what are we to make of the perpetual victories of Tamburlaine? Are these also, as he pretends, a sign of God’s favour? Though it is not him who uses the reference to Saul as a justification for slaughter of enemies, the evocation is enough to give his title “the scourge of God” an even greater contemporary resonance:  Tambulaine, like Saul, like Charles IX, like Pius V, is a man who is carrying out God’s mission of exterminating the infidel. The scene, and the entire play, opens a theological can of worms. It is again on the very edge of blasphemy. Even today this scene would provoke controversy in the theatre, and neither Christian nor Muslim would like it. In Marlowe’s own day it was dynamite, but dynamite even more carefully buried under layers of paradox and apparent orthodoxy than Lucan’s outrageous satire.   

The Tamburlaine plays are therefore highly charged with political-theological ideas that are deeply subversive. It is probably because of this intellectual richness and complexity, full of politically-loaded references to the current events of the time, that they are not great pieces of timeless theatre. The ideas and contemporary allusions seem of more interest to the writer than consistent characterization or plot. And we must admit that the technique of Lucan does not really work in the theatre. Tamburlaine fails dramatically precisely because we lack the clear guide to our sympathies provided by a technique of dramatic counterpoint of the type Shakespeare has got us used to.  Such shocking juxtapositions as do occur – as when Tamburlaine orders the massacre of the young women and then launches into a sublime poetic speech on beauty – only sicken us. It looks like sadism. The grotesque contradiction between the words and actions of the hero – while it mirrors the very real contradiction of a cult of chivalry in war, or of Nazi SS commanders listening to Mozart – leaves us perplexed because there is no explicit comment upon it. The audience therefore doesn’t know what to feel. They have no clear guidance that they are meant to hiss the hero here. Drama is a cruder, more time-bound medium than poetry. Lucan can make the reader reflect long and carefully about what he really means, but the dramatist must make us feel it instantly and react with our emotions in real time. If the emotional response elicited is contradictory, mixing sympathy and repulsion all at once, then we are profoundly uncomfortable. Marlowe may in fact want us to feel uncomfortable with the portrait of triumphant militarism he gives us. But the limits on freedom of speech in his time do not permit him to make his moral point more clearly and openly denounce the religious warmongering of his age. The denunciation must remain implicit – and therefore ambiguous and dramatically awkward.  

Whatever the confusion, ambiguities, and unresolved problems of this play, in which the 23-year old playwright seems to be trying to do too many things at once, its graphic representation of the bloody horrors of war is of great historical significance for the way war was perceived. In the tradition of Senecan tragedy developed by Kyd there was already a sensational taste for gore in the portrayal of cruel murders. It is Marlowe who transferred this cult of cruelty and gore into the depiction of war, and underlined the link between cruel wars and religious fanaticism, the divine mission to kill. His work stands as a milestone in the representation of war in literature as a hate-filled, megalomaniac, pathological obsession. And it is an exact mirror of what was happening in Europe in his time, and of the great religious war soon to break out in Germany – which was to go on for over thirty years and kill more people than all the European wars since Charlemagne put together.





A year before Marlowe was murdered by government agents, a Frenchman died who had lived through the religious civil wars at even closer quarters, and had become even more disgusted by human cruelty. Michel de Montaigne, a man steeped in the works of classical writers,  denounced both the cruelty of torture and contemporary methods of execution, which he saw as pathological, and also the destructive wars waged by his own civilization. He attacked the Spanish conquest of the Americas as based on treachery, and denounced the genocidal massacres carried out by the Conquistadors. He is the first in a long line of European writers who inveighed against the commercial impulse of their own civilization as the cause of the most destructive wars:


So many cities destroyed, so many nations exterminated, so many millions put to the sword, and the richest and fairest portion of the world turned toypsy-turvy to obtain pearls and pepper – victories of commerce! Never did ambition, never did national enmities, impel men to such horrible hostility towards others. 49


His denunciations of the Spanish Conquistadors were based on the published protests of their own priests who accompanied the expeditions. Dominicans like Montesinos and Bartolomeo de las Casas denounced the Conquistadors to their faces for their treatment of the Indians. The sermon preached by Fr Montesinos to the Conquistadors on Christmas day 1511 in Hispaniola: “By what right or justice do you keep the Indians in such horrible servitude? Are they not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” is unique in history.64 Never before or since have brutal conquerors been condemned so publicly to their faces by the moral and humane conscience of their age. The moral protests against slavery as well as against the wars of colonial conquest began almost from the outset of the European imperial adventure. While slavery was a universal institution as old as time, the subjection to it of the newly discovered populations of the New World (even though it was among their own practices) became a subject of bitter contention from the first.

As a hundred years of religious warfare drew to an end and the Enlightenment began to dawn, the propensity of man to make war came under attack from satirists – steeped equally in the moral outrage of certain classical poets and in the new humanism of a more rational age. But this humanism itself had Christian roots in the doctrine of brotherly love, and certain Christian ideas on man’s wickedness played their role in the growing critique of war. The satire of Swift is not aimed at particular war-mongers but at man’s own depraved nature, his cruelty and his tendency to pervert his intelligence to serve his pride and greed. Gulliver, among the giant Brobdingnags, proposes to instruct the King in how to make cannon. He gleefully describes the cannon-balls, which would “rip up the pavements, tear the houses to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every side, dashing out the brains of all who came near.”


The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines …. He was amazed how so impotent and grovelling an insect ….could entertain such inhuman ideas and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines.  50


The king informs him that he would rather lose half his kingdom than learn how to make such weapons and forbids him ever to divulge their secret. “A strange effect of narrow principles and short views!” comments Gulliver, and points out what an advantage over his enemies this foolish king was giving up. The Christian moralist in Swift is indignant at the use of human intelligence to further the slaughter of war. This represents a certain advance on the attitudes of an earlier age, where a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci (sufficiently sensitive to suggest that eating meat will one day be regarded as a form of cannibalism) could design ingenious machines of war to further the sanguinary ambitions of any princely patron willing to pay for them.    

In fact by Swift’s time the mechanization of warfare had taken another important step. With the musket came musket drill, the need to concentrate firepower by training all the men to fire together in a series of automated movements. The soldiers became like robots, deprived of the individual initiative shown by the 16th century warrior. As a symbol of this, they began to wear uniform, taken over from the livery of servants. A soldier was now a sort of slave, subject to ferocious disciplinary punishments. One military historian compares the new eighteenth century European soldier to the Turkish janissaries, a class of slave-soldiers created by forcibly seizing the children of Christian subjects. 51 From this period dates a certain current of contempt for the soldier, especially in Britain. It is true that this professionalization of armies was accompanied by a new Enlightenment concern to minimize civilian casualties. But this did not last long. With the rise of the notion of a people’s army, animated by nationalist sentiment, put forward by the French military theorist Guibert even before the Revolution, this squeamishness about civilian casualties was brushed aside. The new army was to live off the land, by forceful requisition, giving it more mobility. Guibert’s vision was put into practice by Napoleon. With the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars came mass conscript armies and a new cult of the citizen-soldier, enshrining the notion of military service as the sacred duty of citizenship. This new militarization of the nation itself accompanied the rise of nationalism as the 19th century advanced.

The French revolutionary wars were an inspiration to many liberals throughout Europe who saw the revolutionary armies as a force to smash the old reactionary order of the absolute monarchs and aristocracies. War thus became momentarily linked to human progress, and Napoleon enjoyed a remarkable cult even among liberals like Beethoven and intellectuals like Goethe. After his fall he was given an even more romantic aura by novelists like Stendhal (one of the few writers who actually fought in the wars.) Yet the romantic period brought some anti-war protest from poets, notably Blake, Shelley, and Byron. Blake and Shelley detested war as evil personified, one of the obstacles to human moral progress. Blake famously quarrelled with a passing soldier over the front gate and was charged with making seditious statements. This anti-war sentiment was strongest when Britain was engaged in a war against revolutionary France, with which the English romantics of the younger generation sympathized. However, there was a split in the romantic perception of war, depending on whether it was a war of repression or of liberation. Byron was eloquent against the violence of wars of repression, as when he paints Castlereigh “dabbling his sleek young hands in Erin’s gore” as he crushed the Irish rebellion of Wolfe Tone. But he was sufficiently in favour of wars of national liberation to take part in the Greek one, which cost him his life. The desire to support revolution and wars of liberation limited the romantics’ hostility to war as such. Such causes as Italian liberation from Austrian rule led many later romantics such as Verdi to a whole-hearted commitment to patriotic war, which they romanticized and glorified. Garibaldi’s campaign became an inspiration to romantic lovers of liberty everywhere, and reinforced the association of struggles for freedom with war. Decades later the same association occurred in the Irish struggle for national independence, where nationalist revolutionaries like Patrick Pearce became advocates of war and bloodshed. 


Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.… The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields…. Without shedding of blood there is no redemption. 52 


It tends to be forgotten to what extent the enthusiasm for war at the dawn of the 20th century was fed not only by “reactionary” jingoistic traditions, those of imperial great power rivalries, but also by revolutionary movements of national liberation, which were anti-reactionary and “progressive” in political tendency. Movements of national liberation, from the Irish to the Poles or the Serbs, wrapped themselves in sanguinary visions of salvation through violence and terrorism. Terrorism was far more rife in that period than it is today. Even the beautiful Empress “Sissi” of Austria was killed by an Italian terrorist on the staid, peaceful streets of Geneva before the turn of the century. The assassination of her nephew by a Serb anarchist sixteen years later started the First World War. This strain of violent, anarchist nationalism would lead on to the anarchist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s seizure of Rijeka or Fiume for Italy, and a certain current of Fascism. The romantic myth of the oppressed nation rising up to overthrow its oppressors entered powerfully into the appeal of both Fascism and Nazism. The cult of aggression and violence was fed equally from other intellectual sources. Marx’s writings seethed with the violence of revolution, apocalyptic visions of class revenge, just as Darwinism justified the brutality of colonial conquest and proclaimed war to be the natural condition of existence. But this growing cult of war, which accompanied the growth of European rivalries and the rise of conscript armies in the latter part of the 19th century, was not unopposed. It was countered by a current of Christian-humanist pacifism. The greatest writer of the 19th century to treat the horror of war as a theme in itself was Tolstoy – one of the few major writers of the period to have actually fought in a war. His first book, The Sebastopol Sketches, is about the Crimean War, which he took part in, and his great masterpiece, War and Peace, deals with the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoy’s life overlaps the beginning of what we have termed the masculine century. His humanist pacifism might be regarded as the starting point of civilized Western humanity before it became progressively brutalized by a century of militarism and war. 





In order to see where we are going we might as well state our argument at the outset. From Tolstoy through to the Vietnam war we see an evolution in the literary representation of war of a quite striking linear kind. The attitudes to war we have looked at so far range from the doom-laden tragic-heroic atmosphere of classical and Germanic literature, to moral indignation and repulsion at mass slaughter in Marlowe and Swift. This moral indignation becomes an eloquent emotional protest against war in Tolstoy and in the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen, and in a more complex way in Eric Maria Remarque. Then attitudes harden: first we have realistic, cynical, resigned descriptions of war as a kind of unstoppable madness by veterans who choose hardboiled recounting of the facts rather than protest. Then comes tough-guy stoicism, then sadistic enjoyment, and finally a hallucinatory recording of vivid sensations of battle and killing without any emotional response at all. We will examine these phases with reference respectively to Tolstoy, Wilfred Owen, Remarque, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Stephen Wright (author of Meditations in Green.)  All seven of these men went to war at about the age of twenty, and wrote of it soon afterwards. They cover among them the Crimean war, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War.

The striking characteristics of Tolstoy’s depiction of war are humanity, compassion and a rational sense that war is madness. There is a total lack of animosity towards the enemy, the French (though he disliked Napoleon, precisely because he embodied the cult of military glory.) Instead, there is a sense of the inhumanity and horror of war for all the people involved. For Tolstoy war is a fundamentally unnatural phenomenon, and this is the constant theme of his descriptions of it.

Here is how War and Peace describes a young soldier under fire for the first time. He has had his horse shot from under him and is confused about where he is.


“Can they be the French?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen, and in spite of the fact that only a moment before he had been dashing forward solely for the purpose of getting at these same Frenchmen to hack them to pieces, their proximity now seemed so awful that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Are they coming at me? Can they be running at me? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everyone is so fond of?” He thought of his mother’s love for him, of his family’s and his friends’, and the enemy’s intention of killing him seemed impossible.  53       


Tolstoy measures the unnaturalness of war against the yardstick of normal life, where for anyone to kill this charming, good-natured young man would be monstrous. He is forever portraying normal human reactions to the abnormal circumstances of war. His characters suddenly become aware of the utter unnaturalness of what they are required to do in battle, and through them we are made to feel the unbridgeable gulf between normal life and the collective insanity of war.

Tolstoy, of all the writers on war, is the greatest in his ability to place the madness of war in a larger human perspective, instead of allowing war to drown out all else. In his account of the Crimean war, in which he fought as a volunteer, he describes an incident of fraternization between French and Russian officers during a truce to clear away the dead and wounded. He describes their polite and eager conversation (since Russian officers all spoke French), their exchange of courtesies and compliments. One Russian officer is curious about the design of a Frenchman’s tobacco pouch and cigarette holder, which the latter at once offers him as a souvenir. They commiserate on the dirty job they have to do, on the dreadful slaughter of the day before, compliment each other on their bravery, ask after mutual acquaintances. Tolstoy momentarily shifts his camera to a young boy who has gone to pick flowers among the dead, and is suddenly terrified by the apparent movement of a corpse he has touched. Then his camera pans over the whole scene and he comments:


Yes, white flags have been raised on the bastion, and all along the trench the flowering valley is filled with stinking corpses, the resplendent sun is descending towards the dark blue sea, and the sea’s blue swell is gleaming in the sun’s golden rays. Thousands of men are crowding together, studying one another, speaking to one another, smiling at one another. It might be supposed that when these men – Christians, recognizing the same great law of love – see what they have done, they will instantly fall to their knees in order to repent before Him who, when he gave them life, placed in the soul of each, together with the fear of death, a love of the good and the beautiful, and that they will embrace one another with tears of joy and happiness like brothers. Not a bit of it! The scraps of white cloth will be put away – and once again the engines of death and suffering will start their whistling; once again the blood of the innocent will flow and the air will be filled with their groans and cursing. 54       


The power of this passage comes not merely from the Christian humanist idealism but from the reasonableness of the tone in which he describes an act of collective madness. The fraternizing officers are behaving normally and naturally; it is the war which then resumes which is a shocking violation of this human normality.

Tolstoy volunteered for the Crimean war in an élan of nationalistic and patriotic fervour. The Russians saw themselves as liberators of Christian Slavic lands which had been for centuries under the Turkish yoke, and they could not understand the outrageous decision of the French and British to side with the Turks and the continued Muslim oppression of Ukrainian Christians. But Tolstoy’s exposure to war led him to see a huge paradox: no matter how much a war might seem justified in geo-political terms or even moral terms, as a human fact it is an abomination, something utterly wrong and insupportable. The mass slaughter of men who have no reason to hate each other, who have the same ideas, dreams, beliefs and values, the same fundamental human decency, is simply unacceptable. It is that terrible contradiction which Tolstoy constantly tries to show us. Yet, as an ex-soldier himself, who wrote in much of his work about soldiers, he was not in fact for most of his life a pacifist. He believed that Napoleon’s invasion had to be resisted. He is simply appalled by the human fact of war and how unnatural it is, and he despises the glorification of it in the hero-worship of Napoleon, who to him was merely a butcher. In trying to show the gap between whatever beliefs might lead us to support a war and the appalling nature of war itself, the absolute contradiction between normal human decency and the savage mayhem of the battlefield, Tolstoy lays the basis of what will be the whole approach of the British poets who protested from the trenches against the First World War.  

They too had started out with enthusiasm, believing in the cause. Most of the great war poets were volunteers. And they too came up against the appalling reality gap between their patriotic ideals and the actual nature of war.  The one poet who died so early in the war that he was unable to record his disillusionment with his initial enthusiasm left a poem, The Soldier, which still embarrasses for the naivety of its patriotic feeling. This does not make Rupert Brooke a worse poet than the others. It simply means he missed out on the key insight and learning experience which characterized his generation. But the overwhelming horror of the reality of war as it was experienced in the trenches creates a shift in emphasis from what we find in Tolstoy. The British war poets also try to contrast normal life with the abnormal madness of war. But while for Tolstoy normality is still self-evident and the madness of war a clear violation of human normality, to the British war poets normal life increasingly seems an unreal dream and the horror of war the unending everyday norm. This comes out in the descriptions of fraternization in the First World War: they stand in marked contrast to the scene of fraternization described by Tolstoy.

What is different about the scenes of fraternization during truces in the First World War is the emotions of those who took part and described events afterwards. During the Christmas day truce in 1914 the British and Germans not only exchanged gifts, photographs and addresses, but according to one soldier they sang “everything from Good King Wencelas to the ordinary Tommy’s song, and ended up with Auld Lang Syne, which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurtemburgers, etc joined in. It was absolutely astounding…” 55 Why was it astounding? What was astounding? The normal behaviour of men singing songs together is now seen as astounding. The fact that they will afterwards run bayonets through each other’s bellies is the normal way of behaving: singing songs together is the miracle, the unnatural thing. This is the massive shift in perspective that occurs between the Crimean War and the First World War. In the Crimean War, the inhumanity of the participants in fighting again after they have just been chatting with one another is what astounds Tolstoy. In the First World War, it is the residue of humanity of the participants, their capacity for normal human behaviour, singing and chatting together when they have the chance, that now astounds. War is no longer the absurd, insane exception but the rule; it is ordinary human decency that now seems exceptional, absurd, unbelievable. Tolstoy describes war as an episode of madness in a larger sane world. In the First World War there are now only episodes of bizarre sanity amidst generalized madness. This is the process of “normalization” of war that takes place in the 20th century. The scale of the First World War is so massive and overwhelming that it imposes its reality on the participants as a new normality.    





Some of the universality of the unreal atmosphere of war was the result of the ferocious war propaganda, the racist caricaturing of the enemy, which the British press in particular fed their people. This is in contrast to the situation in the Crimean War where the upper classes back in St Petersburg continued to speak French and admire the culture of their main enemy. With the press in London pouring out hate campaigns against “the Hun” throughout the First World War, the madness of war was no longer contrasted with some peaceful normality and rationality back home. The atmosphere at home was often so sickeningly jingoistic that officers on leave longed to get back to the comparative sanity of the trenches. There was, in short, no let-up from the hate-filled unreality of war. It is this that made close encounters with the enemy strangely disturbing, because they were almost the only reality check. One British officer reported of the Germans during the Christmas 1914 truce: “They were really magnificent in the whole thing and jolly good sorts. I now have a very different opinion of the Germans.” 56 The ordinary human decency of the enemy comes to him as a revelation. This leads at times to a sort of confused cynicism. The difficulty in adjusting mentally to the fact that the enemy were not what they were made out to be, that moral convictions were being enlisted in the service of an enormous lie, leads to a sense of absurdity, a refusal to draw logical conclusions from anything, a switching off of the mind. Philip Gibbs tells how, during a pause in the savage fighting at Loos, a British Guards Battalion gave a concert in the front-line trenches with mouth organs, combs and paper, and penny whistles. The Germans in the trenches opposite applauded each number and at one stage a voice shouted across in English: “Play Annie Laurie and I will sing it.” They did and a German officer stood on the parapet and sang the song. There was applause on both sides. The next day battle was resumed “and the young officers of the Guards told the story as an amusing anecdote with loud laughter.” 57

There seems to be an uneasy edge to their laughter. This episode of human normality and decency is recounted as an absurd prank. Normality has become a form of truancy. But the whole thing must not be taken too seriously. It doesn’t do to go too far down this path, which might lead to mutiny and a court martial for cowardice or treason. That way madness lies. Better not to think too much about it – treat it all as a joke, a proof of the absurdity of life. The high command, of course, feared the breakdown of morale and were deeply suspicious of all fraternization, which they soon forbade. During the second Christmas of the war, the British high command insisted on slow shelling of the Germans all day to discourage any attempts to fraternize like the year before.  

It is difficult to keep one’s moral bearings in this madness, and the sense of the absurd and the intolerable leads to complex reactions: there is moral protest, but there is also much nihilistic cynicism. Since the wider world has authorized and supports this madness –  even the Christian churches, the “universal law of love”, being dragooned into the service of mass-murder –  writers at the front have to cling on to a very personal sense of values in order to protest against the madness they are living through. Many are eloquent in their denunciation of the cult of death. Wilfred Owen’s poems are full of an indignant, bitter sense of wrong, of a tragic waste of life. Owen’s moral vision is based on constant reference to a system of values belonging to normal life and normal humanity, an alien forgotten world which he still believes in and insists on contrasting with the evil of war. Here is a poem, “Arms and the Boy”, the title a glance at the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid: traditionally (and poorly) rendered as: “Of arms and the man I sing”:


Let the boy try along this bayonet blade

How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;….

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads

Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads. 58


His appeal to the ordinary innocence of youth as a silent condemnation of what this youth will be perverted into – a killer or a mangled corpse – and his comparison of the bullet to a little pet animal which longs to nuzzle against a boy’s chest are striking ways of contrasting normality, youthful vitality and innocence with the sinister cult of death. The boy’s romantic infatuation with weaponry is seen as a fatal fascination, a perverse fixation with death, whose true horror he does not understand. Owen is determined to bring home that horror – to show the ugliness of death in war, in contrast with the beautiful patriotic clichés that seduce adolescents:


Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin….

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie – Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.  59


Owen bitterly condemns the Edwardian ethical, educational tradition that has complacently glorified death in war as the expression of love of one’s country – ennobling, idealistic, beautiful – when in reality it is a vile degradation of a human being into a beast and a thing. Owen rejects the romanticization of war all the more bitterly as a lie and a betrayal because it appeals so insidiously to youth’s idealism and thirst for self-sacrifice. Idealism is being used to seduce youth into its very opposite – a horrific destruction of all ideals in a sordid mass butchery. For Owen the ultimate nightmare is to imagine that in carrying out his patriotic soldier’s duty he will kill a poet like himself on the other side:


                      Whatever hope is yours

Was my life also……

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

“Strange Meeting” 60


The possibility that he may unwittingly kill all that he values – youthful idealism, nobility, wisdom, generosity, the worship of beauty – embodied in another human being in the ranks of the enemy strikes him as a kind of sacrilege against life that terrifies him. This is to him the horrific meaning of the war: the slaughter of youth by youth, poet by poet, idealist by idealist. Owen remains an idealist and a romantic right up to his death a few days before the armistice in November 1918.

It is important to see that Owen is a romantic, because there has been a tendency for a certain strain in the modernist movement to try to see the war poets as “realists” rebelling against Victorian “romanticism” and “idealism”. The difference between Owen and Rupert Brooke, who died before he could write of the full horror of the war and left a patriotic poem behind (“There is a corner of some foreign field/ That is forever England.”) is not nearly as great as it might seem. What Owen rejects is not romanticism and idealism but the lying exploitation of these things through the misuse of the patriotic poetry of another age, written long before war became a mechanized holocaust. What he revolts against is the betrayal of idealism by a system of colossal, futile and senseless mass murder that has nothing to do with the values of patriotism and self-sacrifice for freedom that are invoked to keep it going. But this does not lead him to reject romanticism itself. His whole frame of reference is 19th century romanticism, no different from Tennyson’s or Rupert Brooke’s. It is not so much Tolstoy’s Christianity, “the great law of love”, that he invokes to condemn the slaughter but romantic idealism, the cult of youth, beauty, art, poetry, friendship, comradeship, the love of life, and simple human decency. It is this personal set of human values, which he manages to make the universal values of humanism and civilization, that gives his protest the power it has.

But many other poets do not have the moral idealism of Owen. The war has destroyed their idealism and left a cynical nihilism behind. There are elements of this bitter cynicism in Siegfried Sassoon, who writes biting satirical poems which expose the ignorance and complacency of the establishment back home which has sent the young men to war.


The Bishop tells us: When the boys come back

They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought

In a just cause: they lead the last attack

On Anti-Christ…..


“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.

“For George lost both his legs and Bill’s stone blind.

Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;

And Bert’s gone syphilitic : you’ll not find

A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change!”

And the bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!” 61


Sassoon became involved with pacifist movements, and was at one point (after a period of hospitalization) tempted to refuse to return to the trenches, as a protest against the prolongation of the war by the British refusal to negotiate a settlement, despite German diplomatic feelers. Sassoon’s friend and fellow officer Robert Graves dissuaded him from this protest, as it would allow the authorities to brand him a coward. The officers who wanted to oppose the war were caught in a moral trap. They wanted to save the lives of brave men by trying to end the war, but to protest by refusing to serve was to be branded a coward by the high command and the press and lose the respect of the very comrades they wanted to save. Keeping the respect of their fellow-soldiers was the most important thing to them, and this was the lever the high command used to force them to submit in silence. They were victims of the very ethos of bravery and stoicism the war had created. The soldiers had a code of silence, and of suffering and dying in silence, like prisoners. Protest wasn’t the done thing. But this extraordinary difficulty of protest, the insoluble moral imbroglio of the whole issue, led to moral nihilism and finally in some cases to a kind of moral drift.

Sassoon was a contradictory figure; before he veered towards pacifism he had shown at the front a vengeful desire to kill as many Germans as possible. Every time he lost a friend he wanted to kill more Germans. Yet he was the one who later wanted to protest publicly by refusing to go back to the front. After the war he returned to the class  milieu that he came from (evoked in the title of his book Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man) and ended up dining with the very people who had supported the war or given the orders. He distanced himself from the pacifist camp, which had become identified with the left and social revolution, even though they were the ones who had hailed his poems. In short, even moral protest could not remain pure. Everything became muddied with the complexities of politics. This led some writers after the war to refrain from taking any moral view at all. They simply described what they had lived through, without protest or denunciation. They no longer seemed to know what to make of it themselves, or what lessons to draw. What they wanted to do above all was break through the barrier of obtuse incomprehension as to the nature of war. They seemed to see civilians themselves as almost the enemy, the uncomprehending fools. The only people they respected were other soldiers. Robert Graves in his memoir Goodbye to All That avoids any emotional, rhetorical denunciation of the war. Instead there is a cold realism, a meticulous description of daily life at the Front, in an utterly unemotional tone. The very detachment of the descriptions of shocking events becomes callous. The shock effect comes from the absence of moral or human judgement on what is happening. This callousness becomes a means of rubbing the noses of the complacent pro-war civilians in what it was like, without exposing the author to the criticism of being an anti-war bleeding heart. It becomes the preferred mode of anti-war writing of the twentieth century.

The bitterness of Graves is so deep that it becomes almost a point of honour not to seem moved at all by the horrors he is describing, to portray it all as utterly normal, in a matter-of-fact, seemingly unfeeling way. Instead of Tolstoy’s attempt to shock you emotionally with the total immorality of war, there is a studied emphasis on not being shocked at all. It appears that the conventions of prose writing, though not of poetry, have moved on to the point where a poignant rhetorical appeal like Tolstoy’s is no longer possible. Prose has become controlled by the stiff upper lip, the doctrine of not making an unseemly emotional fuss. Hemingway’s influence can already be felt (Graves does not publish his memoir till 1928, when Hemingway is already a dominant literary figure.) It is essentially the attitude of the trenches, a stoical spirit of suffering without complaint, which has entered the mainstream of literary style. 

What we get as a result is sometimes a kind of cool, matter-of-fact reporting of the brutality of life at the front, without any moral comment or emotional reaction, a telling of gruesome events in an understated way, as though they were normal. Perhaps the hope is that they will shock the reader through the very fact that they do not seem to shock the writer. 


The most important information that a patrol could bring back was to what regiment and division the troops opposite belonged. So if it were impossible to get a wounded enemy back without danger to oneself, he had to be stripped of his badges. To do that quickly and silently, it might be necessary first to cut his throat or beat in his skull. 62


This brutality was not only shown towards the enemy. Graves describes a moment in the middle of a battle, as “hundreds of wounded streamed by” and the company fixed their bayonets, waiting to attack.


At that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum-bottle, red-faced and retching. He staggered up to the Actor (the officer in charge) and said: “There you are, sir!” then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. The stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. This was a crime that deserved the death penalty. He put one foot on the storeman’s neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. Then he gave the order “Company forward!” The company advanced with a clatter of steel and that was the last I ever heard of the storeman.  63


The author’s evident approval of what seems to have been a summary execution by drowning in mud of a frightened man drunk on duty is passed over as one more minor incident in a day of butchery. One man’s sordid death is a mere detail. The only interesting thing is the officer’s admirable presence of mind in avoiding the rigmarole of a court martial by trampling him into the mud on the spot. We are left with a feeling of appreciation and respect for a no-nonsense leader. Tolstoy could not have written this. Compassion and humanity have disappeared from this conception of life.  

The carnage is such that it gives rise to a grim, macabre humour. A fellow officer tells Graves of an attack he had led, by platoon rushes with supporting fire.


When his platoon had gone about twenty yards he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on his left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole, waved and signalled “Forward!”

Nobody stirred.

He shouted: “You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?”

His platoon sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder gasped: “Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all f---ing dead.” The Pope’s Nose machine gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.  64


This is almost told as an elaborate joke, as black humour. The insidious efficiency of the Pope’s Nose machine gun of the enemy is almost admired. This is a kind of insider’s joke, to share with other insiders, or make outsiders feel how beyond their ken all this is. The callousness of tone is essential to this. This callousness of manner is provoked to excess by the presence of ignorant civilians. Here is Graves back in London on leave.


Some friends of the family came in one night, and began telling me of the Zeppelin air-raids, of bombs dropped only three streets off.

“Well, do you know,” I said, “the other day I was asleep in a house and in the early morning a bomb dropped next door and killed three soldiers who were billeted there, a woman and child.” 

“Good gracious,” they cried, “what did you do then?”

“It was at a place called Beuvry, about four miles behind the trenches,” I explained, “and I was tired out so I went to sleep again.” 

“Oh,” they said, “but that happened in France!” and the look of interest faded from their faces, as if I had taken them in with a stupid catch. 65


It is as though the civilians back home did not take seriously the slaughter happening in France – as  though it were on a different planet, an unreal place where such things were normal, only to be expected, and therefore not worth relating. There is in the writing of the First World War veterans both a weariness and a frustration in their attempt to make others understand what it was like, and to what extent this carnage violated their sense of normal human feelings. This translates into a blasé callousness, a casual acceptance of killing, a deliberate lack of any reaction to the slaughter, an attempt to shock by not themselves being shocked. He went back to sleep. Five neighbours butchered in their beds was a normal average night. No emotions were called for. It did not even keep him awake.

The First World war veterans’ emotional exhaustion in the face of the horrors of war has percolated into the entire mentality of twentieth century Western man. Never before had slaughter been presented so matter-of-factly, as a thing evoking no sense  of  shock or  horror. This attitude of callousness becomes part of the modern mind; it is part of the definition of what we mean by modernity. If you had to date a dozen passages about war written in various periods of history (in modern translation, so that the style was of no help), you would look for this element as determining that a passage belonged to the twentieth century.

The Great War saw the greatest numbers of men killed in a day’s battle that had ever been seen. Men were required to go over the top and run toward machine-guns which mowed them down like firing squads. Casualty rates in such charges could be as high as fifty per cent. How did these men feel as they did this? One described it in these terms:


In an attack such as this, under deadly fire, one is as powerless as a man gripping strongly charged electrodes, powerless to do anything but go mechanically on; the final shield from death removed, the will is fixed like the last thought taken into an anaesthetic, which is the first thought taken out of it. Only safety or the shock of a wound will destroy such auto hypnosis. At the same time all normal emotion is utterly numbed. 66   


Another described his experience in the third person:


It seemed to him that he was alone in a pelting storm of machine gun bullets, shell fragments and clods of earth. Alone because the other men were like figures on a cinematograph screen – an old film that flickered violently…. He could recognize some of the figures in an uninterested way. Some of them stopped and fell down slowly. The fact that they had been killed did not penetrate his intelligence….. They were unreal to him. His mind was numbed by noise, the smoke, the dust.  67


Another reported :


I grew into a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, not-seeing. I moved past trees, past other things. Men passed by me, carrying other men, some crying, some cursing, some silent. They were all shadows, and I was no greater than they. Living or dead, all were unreal.…  68


What is striking in all these accounts is the emphasis on numbness, on not feeling, on an utter absence of emotional reactions. Emotion was the first casualty of the Great War. And the survivors of these suicidal charges had to do it again and again. It was not just one supreme test of mad courage in a single afternoon’s battle, but a test that repeated itself over and over, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, for four years, if you were lucky enough to live that long. The effect of this repeated numbing of all emotional response can only be guessed at. It is certain that men came out of it utterly changed. The tone of those writing about it even several years afterwards, like Robert Graves, is one of emotional exhaustion, even a kind of permanent emotional anaesthesia. The overwhelming nature of this experience shaped the character and behaviour not only of the participants but of all Western men in a hundred ways. All men had to measure themselves from now on against this experience. At some deep level of the collective psyche, of unconscious fear, they all knew that this experience is what awaited them, this is what they had to prepare themselves for, because this is what being a man now meant. The war permeated every aspect of the culture of the next half-century. Men’s haircuts, styles of clothes, ways of walking, talking, joking and above all feeling (or rather not feeling) were altered for fifty years by the Great War. The sense of humour of the trenches, a quiet irony in the face of generalized madness and death, has become the quintessential modern sense of humour. The tendency to understate, to minimize horrors, to be matter-of-fact about appalling things, to deprecate emotion, are all products of the trenches. The war produced a generalized callousness, an inability to feel, even among those (like Graves) who began finally to oppose it as a senseless waste. Witness this exchange between Graves and Bertrand Russell. The ardent pacifist Russell asked him suddenly:


      “Tell me, if a company of your men were brought along to break a strike of munition makers, and the munition makers refuse to go back to work, would you order your men to fire?”

      “Yes, if everything else failed. It would be no worse than shooting Germans.”

      He asked in surprise. “Would your men obey you?”

   “They loathe munition workers and they would be only too glad of a chance to shoot a few. They think that they’re all skrim-shankers.”

“But they realize that the war’s all wicked nonsense?”

   “Yes, as well as I do.”

   He could not understand my attitude.  69


One sympathizes with Russell. What this suggests in Graves is that the numbing of all emotions has  created a moral indifference. It is the deadened response of the shell-shocked. He no longer feels that shooting strikers would be a big deal. He has seen too many men shot for it to matter. This suggests that morality is a to a large degree dependent on emotion: if we do not feel an emotional response of indignation or pity or revulsion, if these reactions have been deadened, then we do not make a moral judgement – or at least it remains without effect on our behaviour. The callousness is all the more remarkable because Graves shares the anti-war convictions of Russell and the putative strikers. What little capacity for human sympathy still survives is confined to the other members of the company, those who have shared the experience of the front. The strikers are not part of the brotherhood of sufferers and have no right to their pity. They have avoided serving and are therefore suspected cowards and shirkers, fitting objects of retribution. In the pages preceding this dialogue Graves makes clear his contempt for all fit men of military age who avoided serving in the war, even though he is himself against it. How can we explain this? That the brotherhood of sufferers at the front have become the only worthwhile human beings? That the sufferers respond with a collective aggression against the rest of the world, which does not understand what they have endured? That those who have suffered direct their resentment and hatred against all those who have not, like prisoners released from an atrocious prison? This goes a long way towards explaining the psychology of the violent fascist movements which arose among the veterans in most of the countries of Europe in the years following the war.

Graves’ detestation of the militaristic, patriotic hysteria of England makes him cut short his leave to return to the front as soon as possible, even though he is suffering from severe nervous strain. He hates both the militarists and the pacifists back home. He is revolted by the new army training sergeants, who urge recruits in bayonet practice to rip open German bellies with maximum cruelty. He hates all those who are not actually at the front, sharing in this ultimate experience, which strips men of whatever illusions – patriotic, militarist, religious, pacifist – they may have. His institutionalization, subordination to the system, in which he has been raised since his public school days, makes any public protest against the war, such as his friend Siegfried Sassoon wished to make, out of the question. He is terrified that Sassoon, by publicly refusing orders to return to duty, will be accused of cowardice. This to him is the one unacceptable fate. The only way you can prove you are not a coward is by going back to the trenches. Anything else would expose you to the contempt of your suffering comrades. That he is playing the game of the cynical military authorities in accepting this barbaric code does not sway him. He is trapped by his own soldier’s pride. He is a prisoner of a public school code of silence, which is similar to the code of common prisoners. You do not squeal and you do not make a fuss, whatever the atrocious punishment being meted out. (You simply take the opportunity to do the same to somebody else, e.g. the enemy or the striking munitions workers.) You go silently to your death keeping the rules of the institution which is destroying you. It is increasingly this code which becomes the code of twentieth century manhood. It is strikingly similar to the code of a prison population. One might call it the code of honour of cannon-fodder. It was first diffused from the trenches of the First World War, and gradually spread throughout an entire civilization. 

This is not to suggest that all men of the twentieth century absorbed the sufferings of the First World War soldiers by some mystical process of osmosis. But the men who fought in that war were numerous (65 million) and the 56 million survivors lived a further half century and had an overwhelming influence on those younger. In each of the major belligerent countries there were nearly ten million role models, men who had been to hell and back. Their attitude of having seen it all, of being men whom nothing can any longer faze, became for those growing up under their shadow a mere pose, it is true, but also an essential and expected style of behaviour. Men for the next half-century had to measure themselves against the war veterans, to try to give themselves and others the impression that they too could have endured the trenches. That became the measure of manhood. And so the style of the veteran of the trenches: short hair, suntan, dangling cigarette, the taciturn, unfeeling, nonchalant pose which does not flinch when someone a few yards away gets shot, becomes the male style of the twentieth century. It is essentially a style that advertises its insensitivity, its ability to endure punishment, to support shocks and shells and blood and horrors without batting an eyelid. It develops in a direct line to the casual heartlessness of the Nazi SS soldier, able to shoot a child in the back of the head without blenching.

In our general argument at the outset we suggested that signs of a new callousness and indifference towards bloodshed, death and the suffering of others are likely to be evidence of a shift in men’s character towards a new extreme of masculinity. This is what we find throughout accounts of the First World War: a new capacity not to feel or show emotion in the face of sickening horrors. This capacity is closely correlated to levels of testosterone; the more feminine you are, the more likely you are to vomit or be upset at the sight of someone being tortured, mutilated, cut open or killed, because you empathize more with suffering. Autism (which often makes people unable to empathize with others’ emotions) is an overwhelmingly male condition and has now been shown to be male-hormone related. Our ability not to react emotionally to things that should inspire emotion is a key sign of the over-masculinization of Western man in the twentieth century, largely as a result of the overwhelming effect of war on the human psyche. The psychopathic behaviour of the German SS battalions was not an inexplicable aberration, a perverse flying off at a tangent of the human personality. It was merely going a little further down the same path of “hardening” of the sensibilities that most “normal” Western men travelled in the twentieth century. In battle they learned to see their mates killed without blenching as they walked through a hail of machine gun fire. They learned to throw the corpses of dead friends onto carts like so many sacks of rubbish. They learned to cut the throats of enemy wounded in order to take back their regimental badges as evidence of the units they were fighting. In a later war, they learned to firebomb cities from the air, knowing that thousands of women and children would be burnt alive. And in the SS they learned to shoot little girls in the back of the head, or lock people in barns and burn them. These are not different types of behaviour; they are different degrees of the same thing. They are all different stages along the same continuum, of hardening your heart till you are capable of every form of brutality, which became the essence of 20th century manhood. When Germans in Police Battalions in Nazi-occupied Poland, assigned to shoot Jewish women and children, were asked after the war why they did not accept the offers of their superiors to be excused if they could not handle it, they replied that they did not want to be considered cowards. 70 They saw the shooting of women and children as one more virility test. The only question was: did they have the balls for it or not? Most of them wanted it to be thought that they had. 

In the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, in the country where I grew up, the initiation ceremony was to screw a sheep, gouge its eyes out, douse it with petrol and set it on fire. Cruelty was a central part of the test of toughness. This is merely an extreme form of the virility test that men as a whole were subject to in the 20th century. What it was testing was the ability to suppress the normal human impulses of pity and revulsion. For the 20th century that is what manhood often came to mean.

The founders of Nazism and fascism were before all else war veterans. They formed what Mussolini called the trenchocracy: the elite who had lived with death in the trenches. These were men who had seen slaughter at such an insanely high rate that human life meant nothing to them. If the poet Graves after this experience could relish the idea of shooting striking munitions workers, how much more easily could a fanatical, half-educated misfit like corporal Hitler relish shooting anyone who opposed his messianic beliefs. The idea of killing millions no longer appals if you have already seen millions killed. If you have seen close friends decapitated by your side and had to go on as if nothing had happened, then you can sentence your enemies to be shot without giving it a second thought. The morality of Nazism was born in the trenches. Nazism was merely the German version of “bringing the war home” – frustrated ex-soldiers, embittered at their “betrayal”, deciding to bring the ethos of the battlefield, the appalling cheapness of life, into the political arena. Auschwitz was merely Verdun inflicted deliberately on those you hate. Murder them mechanically by the thousand. It is what the soldiers had had done to them. The entire mass-murdering ethos of twentieth century totalitarianism grew out of the unprecedented mass-murder of the First World War. Not to have called off that war when it became a stalemate, to have prosecuted it to the bitter end, was the original sin of the twentieth century for which close to two hundred million lives had finally to pay. And one must consider whether the Allies bear the greater share of that guilt through their moral fanaticism in considering the Kaiser’s Germany “evil” and not fit to be negotiated with when a truce was on offer. 

Hitler was a product of the trenches. He merely carried out the soldiers’ revolution that many a veteran on the Allied side dreamed of. His attitudes are strikingly similar to those of Graves in contemplating the cowardice of those who had stayed home. 


The front was unknown to the whole parliamentary political rabble. Only a small fraction of the Parliamentarian gentlemen could be seen where all decent Germans with sound limbs left were sojourning at that time. 71  


When Eric Maria Remarque in All Quiet On The Western Front contemplates defeat by “too many fresh English and American regiments .… too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. Too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes”, he too draws the bitter lesson of betrayal.


But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels. 72


Nazism was partly the revenge of those who had fought in hell on those who hadn’t, of the soldiers on the skiving politicians and businessmen who had stayed home. And as one might expect in a veterans’ revolt, it was irrational, bloody and fanatical in the extreme. The wonder was not that Nazism succeeded in Germany, but that the same kind of movement of hate-filled, revengeful veterans did not succeed throughout Europe as fifty million of them returned home. This revolt could have gone in any political direction. Eric Maria Remarque speaks of the enormous energy of revolt generated by the war, and how the German soldiers, at a certain moment, after feeling their invincibility in battle, could have marched back from the front and overthrown the whole established order. “Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and strength of our experiences we might have unleashed a storm. Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.” 73 Such a revolt might well have been more socialist and pacifist than fascist. But the displacement of the anger of the veteran from those who had caused and supported the war to those who had tried to end it, Hitler’s fury at the treason of the munitions workers’ strike in 1917 (which he, like Graves, would have broken by force), meant that the greatest resentment was felt against those pacifist-socialist scum who had prevented the suffering soldier reaching his only salvation and redemption : victory. That is why it was two of the great losers of the war, Germany and Italy (which got an unexpected thrashing from the Austrians) where the veterans’ revolt succeeded, and that is why that revolt turned fascist and nationalistic. It was their soldiers who had been deprived of the psychological rewards of the superhuman efforts they had made. The veterans on the winning side were in a sense bought off by the fanfare and hoax of victory. They wore their tin medals and endured the charade of their triumph in bitter silence. Those on the losing side had nothing to assuage their fury and despair.

The whole tragic complexity of tormented emotion of the First World War is expressed at the highest level of art in one novel that we have already cited:  Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This is a novel in the German tradition of the bildungsroman, the novel of growing up, of youth becoming man. Perhaps because of the German tradition of introspection, of uninhibited description of youthful passions, thoughts and sensations, the novel reaches a level of psychological depth and emotional intensity that no other war novel comes close to. The author tells the story of a handful of young eighteen-year-olds persuaded to enlist by their patriotic teacher – who, by an irony, is later conscripted to join them, and whom they delight in tormenting by quoting his own fulsome patriotic phrases back at him as they drill him into the ground. It is a novel of bitter experience destroying youthful illusions, of youth being separated by the experience of war from all that it has known and valued. What is remarkable is the extreme swings of mood and emotion, from the most hard-bitten to the most moving. It starts off with a good-humoured quarrel over a field kitchen meal where the men cheerfully insist on being fed the full quota of 150 portions for their company, even though only eighty of them have survived the last battle. Then the narrator Paul has to watch an old school-friend whose leg has been amputated die of gangrene, crying quietly for the waste of his life. At nineteen they are already battle-hardened veterans who train the new recruits brought in to replace the casualties.

The scenes of battle have a fury and a madness that suggest men transported out of themselves by the terror of death and the blind determination to kill to avoid it. Here is a scene where they have been cooped up for days in the dug-out without food under a shell barrage so ferocious and so interminable that several of the new recruits go mad and have to be beaten unconscious to stop them running out of the dug-out to their deaths. At one point the dug-out is invaded by a swarm of maddened rats and they engage in a frenzy of slaughter which only just stops short of killing each other. Then they take a deafening direct hit which shakes the dug-out. One of the shell-shocked recruits makes a dash to the door and as the narrator runs after him there is a second blinding explosion and bits of the recruit are plastered all over the walls. They then try and play a card game but can’t concentrate and have to give up. They are starving. The shelling goes on.


Night again. We are deadened by the strain – a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible bursting roar. We have neither flesh nor muscles any longer, we dare not look at one another for fear of some incalculable thing. So we shut our teeth – it will end – it will end – perhaps we will come through.  74


Then the shell barrage shifts from the line of their trenches to a hundred yards behind them and they realize the moment has come for the enemy charge. They race out of the dug-out to prepare their defences. They begin hurling grenades at the oncoming troops.


We recognize the smooth distorted faces, the helmets: they are French. They have already suffered heavily when they reach the remnants of the barbed wire entanglements. A whole line has gone down before our machine guns….  I see one of them, his face upturned, fall into a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.  75 


The defenders are forced to retreat from their trenches, fighting as they go.


We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down – now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him;  we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold; we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. We crouch behind every corner, behind every barrier of barbed wire and hurl heaps of explosives at the feet of the advancing army before we run. The blast of the hand grenades impinges powerfully on our arms and legs; crouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him. 76


As they retreat, the enemy pursuing them suddenly falters and begins to fall back. At once they turn for the counter-attack.


The lines behind us stop. They can advance no further. The attack is crushed by our artillery. We watch. The fire lifts a hundred yards and we break forward.  Beside me a lance corporal has his head torn off. He runs a few steps more while the blood spouts from his neck like a fountain.  77


They charge back to their own front-line trenches and then beyond them on the heels of the retreating enemy. 


We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman lags behind, he is overtaken, he puts up his hands, in one he still holds his revolver – does he mean to shoot or to give himself up! – a blow from a spade cleaves through his face. A second sees it and tries to run farther; a bayonet jabs into his back. He leaps in the air, his arms thrown wide, his mouth wide open, yelling; he staggers, in his back the bayonet quivers.…

Suddenly in the pursuit we reach the enemy line….A machine guns barks but is silenced by a bomb. Nevertheless the couple of seconds has sufficed to give us five stomach wounds. With the butt of his rifle Kat smashes to pulp the face of one of the unwounded machine gunners. We bayonet the others before they have time to get out their bombs. Then thirstily we drink the water they have for cooling the gun.     

We jump through the narrow entrances into the trenches .… Haie strikes his spade though the neck of a gigantic Frenchman and throws the first hand-grenade.…... We stumble over slippery lumps of flesh, over yielding bodies; I fall into an open belly on which lies a clean new officer’s cap.  

The fight ceases. We lose touch with the enemy.…..We must retire .… we dive into the nearest dug-outs and with the utmost haste seize on whatever provisions we can see, especially the tins of corned beef and butter, before we clear out.

We get back pretty well.…. We lie for an hour panting and resting before anyone speaks. We are so completely played out that in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.

The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front. Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is very bad. We have a constant hunger.  78


The transformation of men into wild beasts is told so vividly, so precisely, in such an onward surge of delirious excitement, that we enter the minds of the men being so transformed, we relive the experience of frenzied mass homicide that made twentieth century man what he became. The genius is in the detail: after bayoneting the machine gun crew, they gulp down the water used to cool the gun barrel. Both killing and drinking are blind physical reflexes. They have become starving animals desperate to survive. But despite this transformation, these men remain in touch with what they were, with the human world, though it is now only like a strange dream that comes to them when they rest. A few lines later, after the men feast on their booty, we have this:


The evening benediction begins. Night comes, out of the craters rise the mists…. I am on sentry and stare into the darkness….. The parachute lights soar upwards and I see a picture – a summer evening, I am in the cathedral cloister and look at the tall rose trees that bloom in the middle of the little cloister garden where the monks lie buried. Around the walls are the stone carvings of the Stations of the Cross. No one is there. A great quietness rules ….

And I stand there and wonder whether, when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love. 79


Coming after the scene of slaughter this poetic interlude is surreal; and yet precisely because of this, it carries the ring of truth. We are reminded suddenly that this veteran of slaughter is not yet twenty. Next he remembers the line of poplars along a stream near his town where he played as a child – the idyllic place he had evoked to his childhood friend dying of gangrene. He tries to analyse why he thinks of these images now.


It is strange that all the memories that come have these two qualities. They are always completely calm …. They are quiet in this way because quietness is so unattainable for us now. At the front there is no quietness .… the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears…. But these last few days it has been unbearable.   

Their stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow – a vast inapprehensible melancholy….. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us….. we are dead and they stand remote on the horizon.

And even if these scenes of our youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. The secret tender influence that passed from them into us could not rise again. Today we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions and like butchers necessities. We are no longer untroubled – we are indifferent. We might exist there ; but should we really live there? We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost. 80


This is the theme of the novel: a generation’s sense of being lost. In his foreword Remarque claims it is “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men, who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”  81

   The hero feels this destruction of his identity when he returns home to visit his mother, who is sick with cancer. His feelings are so confused and inexpressible that he breaks down in helpless tears as he arrives. But he has to pretend all is well at the front to calm his mother’s worries, he realizes that just when he needs her comfort most he can never have it. There will never be communication, he can never bury his face in her breast and weep for his lost boyhood, even though his short pants are still hanging in the wardrobe. He must show no feeling that will upset her. He is no longer himself in this house he has grown up in.  He sits in his room among his prized books and tries to think himself back to who he used to be. He feels how utterly alien and unreachable the world of his youth now is. He wishes he had not come home, that he had stayed in the mood of indifference of the front. He has to face the mother of his friend who died of gangrene, and he insists to her that he died of a bullet in the heart. She makes him swear to it on all that is sacred to him, and he asks himself if anything is sacred. His father asks endless stupid questions, he wants to know all the prurient details of war. Has he had a hand-to-hand fight yet? “I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things…..it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I will no longer be able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?”  82

Remarque manages to convey in his superb narrative the schizophrenia that weighs on war poets like Owen: the huge, unspeakable contrast between the innocence and idealism of youth and the horror of the war. What Owen evokes through his contrasting images, the boy and the bayonet, the bullets that long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads like young pet animals, Remarque conveys through the narrative of his young soldier going home to the normal life that used to be his, and discovering it is no longer his life but someone else’s. 

His young fellow-soldiers themselves often remark that the war has destroyed them for anything but war. They cannot imagine civilian life, since they have never worked yet; they enlisted straight from school. In the course of their discussions the soldiers show nothing but cynicism concerning the politicians who have made this war, mixed with resentment of the profiteering which has left them so bereft of decent food and supplies. Conventional patriotism means nothing to them. They are fighting for survival and for their comrades. The middle-aged civilians Paul meets on leave complacently discuss which bits of Belgium and France should be annexed. He feels nothing but contempt for them. Later when he is stuck all night in no man’s land in a shell hole with a Frenchman whom he has bayoneted by reflex, mortally wounding him, he tries to dress his wounds, he begs his forgiveness. He tells him how much he would like to be his friend, and how similar they are, and how wrong the war is that they should be killing each other. The Frenchman cannot understand German and remains terrified of him. Paul cannot stand the interminable gurgling the dying man makes as his life leaks away.  Even after he dies he keeps talking to him, as hunger has made him delirious. He promises to write to his wife, finds the photographs of wife and child in his pocket, learns his name and profession: type-setter. He promises in his madness that if he survives he will fight against all wars.

But the hero too is animated by the same brutal soldiers’ morality as the generals, which consists of contempt for cowards and anyone trying to shirk battle. He catches his former hated NCO, now of the same rank, skulking in a dug-out pretending to be wounded, and he beats and kicks him till he forces him to go out and join the attack. He laments the greenness of the new young teenage recruits, who are so lacking in training that they die like flies, unable to fend for themselves. “It brings a lump to the throat to see how they go over and run and fall. A man would like to spank them they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be.” 83 They are so young they are too small for their uniforms: “no uniform was ever made to these childish measurements.” He finds a whole dug-out full of them dead from a gas attack “with blue heads and black lips” because of their ignorance. Then he reflects: “we are weary to death; when the attack comes we shall have to strike many of the men with our fists to waken them and make them come with us.” 84 The iron necessity of war forces him to be harsh and brutal towards his fellow soldiers. It is the price of collective survival in the mad world they are in, and there is no way out of it. 

But Remarque never glories in this brutality. He simply states it. He never supposes that the men who have hardened themselves in this mad world have achieved some superior status to those who haven’t. He sees them as men who have had violence done to them, who have lost their innocence and humanity, who have been distorted and “destroyed” by the war. Nor is there any merit in survival. They are down to thirty-two out of a company of a hundred and fifty after two years. The best soldier of all, their beloved company leader Kat, or Katczinsky, the one with the sixth sense for finding food, who can find his way through any barrage, is killed at last. Paul carries him all the way to the dressing station with a leg wound, but he catches a splinter of shrapnel in the head on the way. He is thunderstruck to be told on arrival that Kat is dead.


Do I walk? Have I feet still? I raise my eyes, I let them move round, and turn myself with them, one circle, one circle, and I stand in the midst. All is as usual. Only the Militiaman Stanislaus Katczinsky has died. 85 


He has already concluded that Chance rules all. There is no survival on merit. “Over us Chance hovers. If a shot comes, we can duck, that is all; we neither know nor can determine where it will fall….. It is this Chance that makes us indifferent.” 86 He describes extraordinary pieces of chance that happened to him, when he left a dug-out to go to visit some friends and found it destroyed by a shell a minute later. And in the last lines, he himself is killed on a day so still “that the army report confined itself to a single sentence: All quiet on the Western front.”  87

There is heroism in Remarque’s novel, but it is not primarily the bravery of men under fire. It is the heroism of the survival of humanity and human emotions – love, friendship, generosity, idealism, compassion –  in the midst of a mad, hellish world where they must behave like animals to survive.  Of all the First World War veterans who wrote of their experiences, Remarque comes over as the most human, the least callous, the least deformed by war. He tells of extreme experiences with the most intensity, the most vividness, the most sensitivity and emotional expressiveness. He is that rarity: the man writing of utterly dehumanizing experiences without having been dehumanized. Perhaps the romantic traditions of German writing have something to do with this: he was not under the bleak spell of Hemingway, which many English war veterans were by the time they wrote their memoirs. After Remarque the autobiographical narratives of war become more subdued, blasé, hardened; they lose any capacity to recreate the hysterical frenzy of battle, the inner state of young men out of their skins with fear and aggression. What predominates from then on is numbness, callous indifference or the sleepwalker’s detached suspension of feeling, which as we have seen are the major indicators of the ultra-masculine viewpoint. But there are new attitudes added, particularly by American veterans. The first is a note of grim stoicism, the acceptance of war’s horrors as normal, and the implication that this acceptance is a sign of toughness of mind. This is something Remarque never falls into for long, because his young schoolboy soldiers remain convinced that what they are living through is collective madness, which will ruin them for normal life. And on the heels of that American “normalization” of barbarity comes a second attitude: an insidious moralization of death or survival in war as merited, as a reward or punishment for courage or cowardice, by writers who see war not as an unnatural state but as a paradigm of life itself, a Darwinian jungle in which only the strong survive. This attitude is carried over into civilian life afterwards as if there is no difference between the two states, war and peace. The two writers who typify these two new attitudes are Ernest Hemingway (largely the first attitude) and Norman Mailer (both of them.)





Hemingway is one of the most influential authors of the 20th century; his way of writing about the wars and barbarism of the age left their mark on all who came after him. This is partly because he is an excellent narrator, with a spare style, an eye for detail, and an art of making you intuit feelings behind a minimalist description. But it is not so much in his technique that his influence resides as in his mental attitude. Here he is in his great novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom The Bell Tolls, describing matter-of-factly how the dead are treated. The fascists have just wiped out a group of partisans on a hill-top and the officer is inspecting the dead. 


“Take that one too,” he said. “The one with his hands on the automatic rifle. That should be Sordo. He is the oldest and it was he with the gun. No. Cut the head off and wrap it in a poncho.” He considered a minute. “You might as well take all the heads. And of the others below on the slope and where we first found them….”

Then he walked down to where the lieutenant lay who had been killed in the first assault. He looked down at him but did not touch him. “Que cosa mas mala es la guerra,” he said to himself, which meant, “What a bad thing war is.”

Then he made the sign of the cross again and as he walked down the hill he said five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys for the repose of the soul of his dead comrade. He did not wish to stay to see his orders being carried out.  88


It is the mixture of delicacy of feeling, sadness, silent grief, with the brutality of the hacking off of the heads of the dead enemies which is striking here. Firstly, it makes their barbaric actions seem more plausible, more human, not in the least an opponent’s caricature of the fascists. Secondly, it makes these brutal actions seem all the more commonplace, since they can be done by somebody possessed of delicacy of feeling. It is another technique for indicating the barbarity of war, how brutality is normalized. So that at first sight it looks to be similar to what Remarque is doing in his frenzied, violent narrative, or what Graves is doing in his laconic report on everyday atrocities – emphasizing the utter brutality and inhumanity of war, that it is a separate state ruled by a different moral order. But when you look more carefully, Hemingway is really doing something quite different from Graves and Remarque.

For these authors are writing about war as such – war as a special condition, a different moral planet from normal life, in stark contrast to it. Hemingway is writing about war as simply part of life, life at a more intense level. The normality, the complexity of Hemingway’s characters (even the sketchily drawn fascist officer), makes this a novel essentially about life, not about war. The explicit purpose of Graves and Remarque is to expose what the Great War was like, and how it affected the men who fought. Their work is more or less anti-war protest, however much Graves disguises this as simply providing an historical record of how it was. Hemingway is doing something different. On one level he is simply telling a story, an action story set in war-time, like hundreds of other popular war novels that followed. The story is about the attempt to blow up a bridge by some Republican partisans behind fascist lines, and the dramatic interaction of the characters in this group, including a love plot. It is not all that different in shape from a popular adventure-war-story like The Guns of Navarone. But the climax is not the success of their action (and the botching of the larger attack) but the death of the hero. The novel is about death, about inflicting death and facing death, universal themes. And war in this context becomes not the unnatural hell exposed by the weary, shell-shocked veterans of the trenches. War is merely a more intense state of life itself.

When the fascist lieutenant says “what a bad thing war is”, he really means “what a bad thing life is”.  These are not men behaving in some especially brutal way because of war. These are men behaving normally, dealing with the normal events of life according to their characters, and they happen to be in a war.  Remarque or Graves would have been eager to show us (by under-statement or simply letting the appalling facts speak for themselves)  the monstrousness of what these men are doing because of the unnatural condition of war. They show how monstrousness has been made normal by war – how an officer will trample a man to death in the mud, or a comrade will cleave a man’s face in half with a spade, because they are in some special state where normal human rules do not apply. Hemingway shows us, by contrast, the typical human nature of his characters’ actions, even when they do inhuman things. This is human nature in its normal state, not an unnatural or monstrous state at all. Or so he tries to convince us. 

In this novel there are relatively few scenes of battle. The most graphic descriptions of killing are civilian atrocities. Strikingly, for a man whose sympathies are clearly with the Republican side, Hemingway describes in most vivid detail the atrocities committed by Republican villagers against the local fascists. He does this by a clever narrative technique. It is all told through the recollections of Pilar, a Republican fighter whose boyfriend Pablo organized the massacre. She at first supports it and then is gradually sickened by it. We see it therefore through the eyes of someone at first detached, objective, or at least with mixed feelings, whose growing disgust keeps pace with ours. Pablo is holding prisoner the local fascists (landowners, shopkeepers, mayor, priest) in the government building, and has lined up the peasants outside in two ranks, armed with flails, clubs and pitchforks. They form a gauntlet through which the fascists will be forced to walk, so that they will be beaten to death by the whole community and then thrown into the river.


The first fascist notable who comes out the door is the Mayor. An instinctive respect for him seems to prevent the crowd hitting him as he walks through the lines. They cannot bring themselves to commit acts of cold-blooded violence. Then he comes abreast of a tenant of his with a grudge against him, who screams “Cabron!” and lashes out at him in fury. This releases the crowd’s inhibitions and they beat the mayor to death and throw him over the cliff. The vengeful tenant continues to shout “Cabron!” even as the body falls into the river below. With the second victim they are already more at ease in their task. The third victim provokes the peasants with insults and is thrashed to death with gusto. The crowd is now getting into the swing of things. It is the mood of the crowd which interests the observer, as it shifts from a reluctant participation in this necessary purge of the local class enemy to an uncontrollable sadistic rage. But the people are not demonized as an anonymous mass; they are sharply differentiated into a dozen or more colourful characters. The evolution of their feelings, including the growing disgust of some of them with the butchery, is detailed minute by minute. A young man called Don Faustino, a cowardly playboy who tried to be a bullfighter and failed, is so terrified walking between the lines that the crowd, in contempt and mockery, refuses to hit him, and he is thrown over the cliff alive. Pilar comments: “It was then that I knew the lines had become cruel and it was first the insults of Don Ricardo and then the cowardice of Don Faustino that had made them so.” 89 The next man, Don Guillermo, is the store–owner, a man considered decent apart from his politics, who under normal circumstances might have been let go by the crowd. But they are now on a roll, fuelled by drink and bloodlust, and are in the mood to mock their victims. They joke about his short-sightedness and the fact that the weapons they are using came from his store. His wife begins screaming his name from a nearby balcony, and they mock her screams. This provokes the old man to hit one and he is beaten to death under the eyes of his family.

Some peasants leave the lines in disgust at this and are replaced by riffraff. The gauntlet has degenerated now into a drunken mob. After killing one more they try to storm the building where the other fascists are still waiting, praying with the priest. Pilar, now full of horror at what is happening, looks through the window at the scene of desperation within. Pablo at last opens the door and lets the mob in to butcher the lot of them.

The whole event is described with such apparent objectivity, with such a sharp eye not only for detail but for human psychology, the crowd are represented as so “all-too-human” that we are left with a portrait not of a raging mob in a civil war but of ordinary humanity, a little out of control, but not all that different from their normal selves. It is the lack of overt moral condemnation, the very humanism and understanding of the author, which makes the scene so disturbing. His shrewd insight into the impulses behind these horrible acts and how they gradually build up and get out of control makes them seem not the acts of a special time of social collapse but the acts typical of human beings in any age. And it is this clear-eyed depiction of human cruelty, not as a repulsive pathology, or the product of special circumstances, but as something universal, comprehensible, inherent in man’s nature, that is Hemingway’s hallmark and perhaps his biggest influence on the spirit of the century. In his Nobel Prize citation he was praised as “one of those who, honestly and undauntedly, reproduce the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age.”  But this determination to reproduce the hard countenance of the age can become a sickness of another sort.

Let us fast-forward for a moment to another war, and land in the pages of the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz as he describes, in The Captive Mind, a young communist writer he calls Beta who was in Auschwitz, and who “read Hemingway avidly”. Death camp survivors, like the survivors of a terrible war, find that the sheer quantity of horror they must describe exhausts their capacity for emotional reaction. Hence they often adopt a tone of cold detachment which is like callousness. Beta goes to the extreme. He relates his experiences in terms that are utterly devoid of any emotions or moral viewpoint. His deliberate callousness is meant to rub in the totally dehumanized world of the camps, in the manner of Graves writing of life at the front, only much more so. The narrator makes himself out to be a self-serving, profiteering, gloating, servile collaborator with the kapos and the camp guards, because this was the only way of surviving, of getting the cushy jobs that provided enough to eat. He is obsessed with demonstrating man’s utter depravity, through displaying his own. Here is one incident where a furious camp officer orders the killing of some Greek prisoners who are too weak to walk properly. 


“Why are you standing there like a dumb dog?” the kapo screamed at me. “Tell Andrej to settle with them. Los!”

I ran down the path.

“Andrej, finish them off! Kapo’s orders!”

Andrej seized a stick and struck with all his might. The Greek shielded himself with his arm, howled, and fell. Andrej put the stick across his throat, stepped on it and rocked himself. I went on my way quickly.  90


The execution was carried out by Andrej, a Russian, obeying an order relayed by the Polish narrator, and given by a kapo whose nationality we are not told. The prisoners who wanted to survive became part of the chain of mass murder, automatically, without reflecting, as though everyone prefers to be with the killers than the killed. Such collaboration with the Nazi death machine seems to carry no shame, no remorse, no guilt. But the narrator goes further: he exults in the cleverness of his survival techniques. He triumphs over his less fortunate fellow inmates. “They keep moving to avoid a beating; they eat grass and slimy mud so they won’t feel hungry; they walk dejectedly, still living corpses.” But he is different, he reflects with satisfaction. “It’s good to work after one has eaten a breakfast of a rasher of bacon with bread and garlic and washed it down with a can of condensed milk.” 91 His collaboration has given him a host of privileges. He flaunts the fact that he still has a silk shirt which he keeps spotlessly clean amid the rags and filth of the others. He is a prisoner of another class, one of the survivors. In this way he relentlessly rams home his own viciousness of character, as a demonstration that in this world only the cruel and heartless survive. Selfishness is universal. He describes a young Jewish woman arriving at the camp who realizes the mothers of children are being loaded into trucks to be taken away and gassed along with their useless offspring. She hurries away to try to leave her child behind, but it runs crying after her. When challenged by the guard Andrej, she denies the child is hers. Andrej beats her to the ground and throws her into the truck with her child, reviling her as an unnatural mother. A watching Nazi officer approves the morality of this stern punishment of a reprobate parent. Beta also describes a scene where some Greek prisoners at the camp station are worried about the approach of a train, fearing that they may have to unload iron rails or planks. The heavy hauling worries them. They ask the guard if it will be heavy work.


        “Niks. Transport kommen, alles krematorium, compris?”        

     “Alles verstehen,” they answer in crematorium esperanto. They calm down; they won’t be loading rails on trucks or carrying planks. 92


The prisoners are relieved that their task will simply be herding Jews into the gas chambers.  Mass murder is a cushy job. Milosz comments after a number of these vignettes:


But the concentration universe also contained many human beings who spurred themselves to the noblest acts. None of them figure in Beta’s stories. His attention is fixed not on man – man is simply an animal that wants to live – but on “concentration society”. Prisoners are ruled by a special ethic ….. every man saves himself as best he can. The truth about his behaviour in Auschwitz, according to his fellow prisoners, is utterly different from what his stories would lead one to suppose; he acted heroically and was a model of comradeship. But he wants to be tough and he does not spare himself in his desire to observe soberly and impartially. He is afraid of lies. 93


Milosz, after mentioning Beta’s fondness for Hemingway, analyses Beta’s psychology as that of the disappointed lover. Disillusioned with the depravity, cowardice and cruelty of man, he is utterly determined henceforth to see in mankind only those characteristics. All idealism is hypocrisy. Human goodness lasts only so long as civilized law prevails. He has seen philosophers fighting over scraps of garbage. The only hope for him becomes Marxist-Leninism. There at last is realism, a system that recognizes that man is not governed by his good intentions but by the laws of the social order in which he is placed. Changing the social order becomes everything. So Beta returns to Poland and becomes the most fanatical and abject propagandist for the Communist Party. Thus the cynicism of disillusionment becomes the motive force for the worship of an iron tyranny, bent on world-conquest. Like Hobbes, his very contempt for human nature leads him to support absolute dictatorship. His disillusionment is above all with the values of civilization. He lumps capitalism, Christianity and Hitlerism all together in the same basket. Milosz sums up the tone of his later book, The Stony World, in the following sentence: “You told me about culture, about religion, about morality, and look what they led to!” 94 This disillusionment is an even stronger version of what some writers and artists felt after the First World War – blaming civilization for its  destruction by savagery. But this disgust with mankind ultimately becomes a self-disgust; or it becomes at any rate unendurable. Beta’s embittered love affair with humanity finally pushes him to gas himself in his kitchen at the age of thirty.  95 

Despite the similarity of their ends, this is a very different trajectory from Hemingway’s. But we can see how one path branches off from the other. Hemingway is far from blind to human virtues and idealism. For Whom the Bell Tolls contains love, tenderness, loyalty and selflessness. It is a meditation on death and human solidarity. But he sees these virtues as existing in a harsh world where viciousness and cowardice predominate, and death overshadows all. Milosz’s Beta sees the death camp as a paradigm of life, which reveals the truth of human nature. Hemingway sees war the same way. He treats the particular circumstances of war as though they were universal, as though they represented life at its most essential and most characteristic. When his hero Robert Jordan is wounded at the end and decides to say good-bye to the others and lie and wait with his machine gun for the fascists to come up the hill and find him, he is facing death not as one faces death in war, but simply as one faces death. As his wounded leg becomes unbearably painful, he asks himself whether he should hang on till the fascists come so that he can shoot a few and help the cause, or whether he should kill himself in case he faints first and is then captured and tortured for information. But this is not presented merely as a dilemma of war, but as a dilemma of life. It is a paradigm of any life where a man suffers and asks himself whether he should go on or end it now. His deliberations are meant to be those of every man facing death, as if death always comes with a choice: suicide or toughing it out and risking unbearable pain. There is nothing in his situation itself which is exceptional. Everything is presented as normal, as he looks out over the beautiful landscape, the hills, the pine trees, the heather and the gorse, towards the plain, stretching away to Madrid invisible in the distance. The charms of nature make him feel all the seductive attractions of staying alive. He reflects on his life: “You had  a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You had just as good a life as grandfather’s, though not as long.” 96 In his balance of gratitude and regret for life, he is Everyman waiting for this premature, unexpected misfortune to finish him off. It happens to have been caused by a bullet in a war, but it could have been anything: an accident, a sudden illness. We have to see the difference between this and Remarque’s hero spending the night in a shell-hole with an enemy whom he has bayoneted and then tries desperately to keep alive. This is a scene from nightmare, leading to a moralistic and humanistic conclusion: Remarque’s young German soldier begins babbling to the uncomprehending, dying Frenchman that if he lives he will preach against war forever, that war is an unnatural hell. For Hemingway war is merely life itself, a circumstance that intensifies life, but does not negate it. He spends his own life seeking exactly these extreme situations where life is balanced delicately against death, where the imminence of death concentrates the mind on life. Only in this state of tension is he fully alive. And he ends up killing himself to prevent a slow decline into the humiliation and helplessness of old age. One can only imagine that that act of suicide must have been the emotional highpoint of his life. 

We have moved then in Hemingway from a representation of war as hell (which we saw in Graves and Remarque) to a representation of war as life writ large. He conceives the cruelties and atrocities that people are capable of, whether in war or revolutionary anarchy, as simply human nature at its most typical, not something to arouse disgust and indignation, but something to be observed and understood. This leads on to far more extreme cynics of human nature, such as Milosz’s communist Beta, who see man as nothing but a vile animal. But this view of war as the epitome of life leads to other conclusions too. The values of war – ruthlessness, cruelty and callousness – become in this logic the values of life in general. They are no longer the values of an exceptional state, where normal morality has been suspended. They are normal morality. This is the step taken by a writer who spent all his life obsessed with following in Hemingway’s footsteps, however crudely he caricatured his views: Norman Mailer. 





Mailer’s best-selling war novel, The Naked and the Dead, was written in his mid-twenties shortly after he served in the war in the Pacific. It is about a platoon that takes part in the invasion of an island occupied by the Japanese. They repel a Japanese counter-attack and then the platoon has to make a patrol across the island to reconnoitre the Japanese rear. The first thing that strikes you in the novel is the absence of any real human bond among the men in the platoon. Their level of aggression and hatred of one another is astonishing. They are forever on the brink of fistfights. Anyone who tries to approach another man with overtures of friendship is seen as a neurotic weakling, and is rudely rebuffed. They occasionally have sessions of ribald joking together, but this seems to impart no permanent warmth to their relations. Though all of them seem to be constantly afraid, they give each other little encouragement even in the direst circumstances. There is none of that sense of comradeship and loyalty to one another which inspires Remarque’s German boys to see it through together, even after they have stopped believing in victory or their commanders. Mailer’s soldiers have no compassion for one another’s weakness, no admiration for one another’s strength. Weakness inspires contempt, and strength provokes jealousy and resentment. Though they are suffering the same discomforts, often imposed by a mean-minded and callous military command, they feel no common cause in their resentment, but turn it against one another, as though each suspects the other of a different attitude to authority than his own. Their dominant urges are competition, mutual hatred and spitefulness. Each of the men is carefully drawn as a character and given a neat, schematic history by means of flashbacks to his childhood and youth. But the characters are portrayed without sympathy. The author appears to like none of them and nor do we. 

Red is a drifter, driven by an aggressive spirit of rebellion against everyone and everything, from the moment when he walked out on the family that depended on him after his father’s death in the mine. He hates the army and picks endless quarrels, though he never quite goes through with the fights. Gallagher is a man consumed by a bitter sense of injustice, a conviction that he has always been hard done by. Martinez labours under a deep inferiority complex as a Mexican, as well as suffering from nerves shot to pieces by too much combat. Brown is obsessed with the fear of being cuckolded by his wife back home and pours out non-stop invective against women. Goldstein is convinced that everybody else is an ignorant, vulgar anti-Semite. Like the frail, wimpish Roth he thinks nobody likes him, and makes pathetic and clumsy attempts to find “buddies”, which always fail. Lieutenant Hearn has the same problem, an awkward well-meaning man who dislikes the privileges of the officers but is unable to get on with the men he wants so badly to be accepted by. Hennessey is a mooncalf wet behind the ears, who should never have been allowed out of the house, much less into the army. Wilson is perhaps the most likeable soldier, a huge southern redneck obsessed with women and whisky, but at least with a sense of fun. But the dominant character is Sergeant Croft, the man with ice in his veins. He is a natural leader, the one who drives the patrol onward across the mountain, and quells mutiny at gunpoint. He is seen as a man consumed by hatred but with the steel nerves and total aggression that Red lacks. The author explains that “he is that way because the devil has claimed him for one of his own”, and then evokes a tough Texas childhood, during which he never accepted defeat in a fight. He is of tough pioneer stock and worked as a cowboy, before serving a stint in the National Guard, during which he shot dead a striker. He then married an unfaithful woman, which drove him to enlist.

The lack of sympathy generated for the novel’s characters, their vicious, quarrelsome and  disagreeable nature, might tempt one to believe that the author is presenting a deliberately negative image of war and what it does to men. But, like Hemingway, Mailer makes little distinction between war and life itself. This is merely a cross-section of American manhood reacting in their own individual ways to the great virility test of war, and the more brutal and callous they become, the more successfully they have passed the test. Mailer seems to defend himself against the charge that this novel is brutal, heartless and full of despicable characters in the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition. He tells us in this introduction that Tolstoy was his inspiration in writing it, and that what Tolstoy taught was compassion combined with severity.


For that is the genius of the old man – Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiator’s arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not. 97


One might consider this a curious reading of Tolstoy, who, however sharp his irony, appears ultimately tolerant of all human foibles except cruelty. The notion of life as a Darwinian gladiator’s arena also seems rather removed from Tolstoy’s vision. The words “arena for the soul” appear a little disingenuous, since for Mailer physical survival alone counts, whatever the spiritual or moral condition of the survivor. But taking it on its own terms, let us see how well Mailer has learned the master’s lesson in “severe compassion”, by comparing a passage from The Sebastopol Sketches with one from The Naked and the Dead. Both books were written by young men who had gone to war in their early twenties, and these accounts of their experiences, written in their mid-twenties, made the reputation of both writers.   

Here is Tolstoy describing a soldier being killed in a mortar attack. First we have the man’s thoughts as the mortar shell hovers above the soldiers and they don’t know which one is going to be killed. 


“Who’s it going to kill? Mikhailov or me?……But perhaps it will only be Mikhailov who’s killed. Then I’ll be able to tell the story of how we were walking side by side when he was suddenly killed and spurted blood all over me. No, it’s closer to me. I’m the one who’s for it.”

It was at this point that he remembered the twelve roubles he owed Mikhailov as well as another debt he owed to someone in St Petersburg, one he should have paid a long time ago; the gypsy melody he had sung earlier that evening came into his head; the woman he loved appeared in his thoughts wearing a hood adorned with lilac ribbons; he remembered a man who five years earlier had insulted him and on whom he had never got his own back….. 98 


A few seconds later, after the mortar shell falls:


He could feel something wet in the region of his chest – this wet sensation made him think of water and he would have drunk whatever it was his chest was wet with. “I must be bleeding from that fall,” he thought, and becoming more and more obsessed with the fear that the soldiers who were continuing to flicker past were about to trample on him, he mustered all his strength and tried to shout: “Take me with you!” Instead, however, he began to groan so horribly that he grew terrified at the sounds he was making. Then red lights began to dance in front of his eyes and he had the impression that the soldiers were piling stones on top of him. The lights grew more and more sparse and the stones being placed on top of him seemed to weigh more and more heavily on him. He made an effort to heave them aside, straightened himself up, and then neither saw nor heard nor thought nor felt anything more. He had been killed on the spot by a shell-splinter that had struck him in the middle of the chest. 99


What we note here is indeed the compassion of Tolstoy, even though he sees clearly the vanity and selfishness of many of the soldier’s thoughts. But as the man dies, victim of  the sheer lottery of death in a mortar attack, he enters on a process of disintegration of his consciousness which transcends any personal faults or pettiness of character. There is a tragic dignity in this struggle of a human life against the enclosing darkness, irrespective of the qualities of the individual man.

Here is Mailer, describing a similar incident of a soldier being killed in a mortar attack. Hennessey is a naive, scatter-brained kid who has never seen action before, and when the first mortars explode above his foxhole he panics.


He heard an awful exploding sound which seemed to fill every corner of his mind, and the earth shook and quivered underneath him in the hole…. The explosion came again, and the dirt and the shock, and then another and another blast. He found himself sobbing in the hole, terrified and resentful. When another mortar landed, he screamed out like a child, “That’s enough, that’s enough!”

His thighs felt hot and wet and at first he thought, I’m wounded….He moved his hand back and realized with both revulsion and mirth that he had emptied his bowels…. He began to get the giggles.…. 100


At first he worried about whether he would have to pay the army for a new pair of trousers. Then he began to get the giggles again. “What a story this would make to tell Pop.” But then he looked out of his foxhole, saw no heads in the other foxholes, and began to think they had all gone.  

Hennessey began to suspect he had been left alone. “Toglio, Corporal Toglio,” he called, but it came out a hoarse croaking whisper. There was no answer….He was alone…. He had never seen combat before and it was unfair to leave him alone; Hennessey began to feel bitter at being deserted. Suddenly he knew he couldn’t stay here any longer. He got out of his hole. ….

“Hennessey, where are you going?” Toglio shouted. His head had suddenly appeared from the hole.

Hennessey started, then began to babble. “I’m going to get the others. It’s important, I got my pants dirty.”  He began to laugh.

            “Come back,” Toglio shouted.

The boy looked at his foxhole and knew it was impossible to return to it. The beach seemed so pure and open. “No, I got to go,” he said and began to run. He heard Toglio shout once more, and then he was conscious only of the sound of his breathing. Abruptly he realized that something was sliding about in the pocket his pants made as they bellied over his leggings. In a little frenzy he pulled his trousers loose, let the stool fall out, and then began to run again. ……

Abruptly he heard the mortars again, and then right after it a machine gun firing.  A couple of grenades exploded with the loud empty sound that paper bags make when they burst. He thought for an instant, “There’s some soldiers after them Japs with the mortar.” Then he heard the terrible siren of the mortar shell coming down on him.  He pirouetted in a little circle and threw himself to the ground. Perhaps he felt the explosion before a piece of shrapnel tore his brain in half.  101


This passage has many points in common with Tolstoy’s but compassion, even of a severe kind,  is not one of  them. What  Mailer has added is a note of contempt for the soldier being killed which is completely alien to Tolstoy. The boy is made despicable by his sobbing, by his childishly self-pitying thoughts: “It was unfair to leave him alone.” Finally his silly excuse: “I got my pants dirty” makes him seem almost mentally retarded. He is made ridiculous by having lost control of his bowels. Having to empty the turd from his trouser leg as he runs is a cruel touch. It reduces him even more to childlike status. He is clearly the impossible recruit, the addle-brained kid who never gets anything right. He remains that in death; it confers on him neither dignity nor tragedy. And what is most disturbing is the implication that this recruit, the greenest, most muddle-headed, panic-stricken and ignorant, somehow deserved to be singled out by the mortar bomb. Breaking and running in a moment of confusion and loss of nerve, he has got what was coming to him. There is a Darwinian element in this scene: war is somehow a way of killing off the weak, sorting out those fit to survive and those unfit. The tough, ruthless platoon sergeant Croft had already sensed Hennessey’s unfitness just before the action, as he watched him nervously scratching his knee.


Croft gazed at the white flesh with its blond hairs, noticed the pains with which Hennessey replaced his trouser in the legging….. That boy is too careful, Croft told himself.....And then with a passionate certainty he thought: “Hennessey’s going to get killed today.” He felt like laughing to release the ferment in him. This time he was sure.  102


The glee of a sergeant at the prospect of one of his own men (a harmless, naive kid) being killed is something peculiarly sick, but we never quite believe that Mailer himself sees it as sick.  Croft has a Darwinian philosophy of an extreme kind.


Croft always saw an order in death. Whenever a man in the platoon or company had been killed he would feel a grim and quiet satisfaction as though the death was inevitably just…. Croft had none of the particular blend of pessimism and fatalism that Red and Brown felt. Croft did not believe that the longer he was in combat the poorer his chances became. Croft believed a man was destined to be killed or not killed and automatically he had always considered himself exempt. 103


Now Croft’s thoughts are not necessarily Mailer’s, but the trouble is Croft’s ruthless  Darwinian philosophy is entirely borne out by the novel. All those in the platoon who die are somehow weak, unfit or cowardly specimens. There is Hennessey, who is mentally and emotionally unfit. Then there is Roth, who is physically unfit – a slightly built youth who cannot take the rigours of the long march across the mountain, and who is also a social misfit, unable to make friends with the tough, experienced soldiers in the unit he has just joined. Sheer exhaustion makes his nerve fail as they all have to jump across a gap in a ledge above a precipice. At first he refuses to jump, and then, goaded by the others, forces himself to. He misses his footing and plunges to his death. “The Platoon was shattered,” writes Mailer, “too stricken, too terrified to move on.” 104 This seems a little improbable, after the death of a man to whom they had never shown a shred of decency while he was alive. Croft had only hours before killed his pet bird, and even though Red stood up to Croft over it, when Roth tried to thank him later he brushed him gruffly aside, seeing him as a “mongrel dog” who if he gave him a scrap of food would follow him for days:


Roth would latch on to anyone who was friendly to him. He couldn’t afford it; Roth was the kind of man who would stop a bullet soon….There was something nasty, unclean about the emotion Roth was showing. Red always curdled before emotion. 105  


Gallagher at least has the honesty to blame himself for Roth’s death, recalling “the momentary power and contempt he had felt as he bawled at Roth to jump.” 106 A short time before on the trail Gallagher had tried to lift Roth, collapsed from exhaustion, and “had clouted him across the back of his head”, shouting “Get up, you Jew bastard!” The insult had hurt Roth more than the blow. It confirmed him in his general view of the unfairness of the world, since he didn’t even believe in Judaism. “Hitlerism, race theories” is all he can mutter to himself in his sense of outrage. 107 While our sympathies are with him as a victim of brutality and bigotry, his meekness, his social ineptitude (unable to adapt his preppy language or spaniel manner to the hard men around him), combined with his silent complaint about the world’s unfairness, reinforces our sense of him as a wimp, a man who just doesn’t have what it takes. When he dies, we are not meant to be surprised. Like Hennessey, he has only got what was coming to him. 

Lieutenant Hearn, who is killed when Croft leads him into a Japanese ambush by not telling him that his scout Martinez has killed an enemy sentry just up the track, is another ineffectual misfit. His weakness is both his paralysis when under fire and his confused social attitudes. He is a member of the upper class who has adopted liberal views. He is angered by the officers’ callous treatment of the men, and by the racist and fascist views expressed by the senior brass. He gets offside with most of them and is generally disliked. He is the aide of General Cummings, who treats him with a mixture of friendliness and playful cruelty, poking fun at his view of the world. Hearn lacks the sycophancy necessary for a successful career as an officer, and anyway detests the established order. But when assigned to lead the platoon, despite all his good will and eagerness to win the men’s friendship, he is resented by them. They see him as an inexperienced, “ninety-day wonder” upper-class officer, supplanting the tough sergeant Croft, whose brutal authority they prefer. Under fire for the first time, Hearn is paralysed and does not know what orders to give. His death, engineered by Croft, appears again as the strong snuffing out the weak. 

Even the powerfully-built, hard-drinking, bragging womanizer Wilson, who takes a Japanese bullet in the stomach and eventually dies of his wound, has been singled out for death by a prolonged bout of diarrhoea which has weakened him. He confesses to suffering already from some long-term stomach illness needing an operation, which he is afraid of. The bullet has mercifully selected a man doomed by disease anyway. Croft, looking at Wilson, actually formulates the conclusion the book seems to bear out: “If a man gets wounded, it’s his own goddamn fault, Croft thought.” 108 And the same goes for when a man gets  killed. 

Now this Darwinian elimination of the unfit deserving death contrasts starkly with the way death is portrayed by the other war veteran writers we have seen. Tolstoy, Owen, Graves and Remarque all see death in battle as a matter of pure chance. Both Graves and Remarque saw the best soldiers in their units killed by chance bullets. They would have been outraged by Mailer’s Darwinian view, that death in war is proof that a man was an inferior specimen. They would have seen this as an insult to dead comrades. To return to Graves for a moment, here is an incident where the fateful god that rules death in war is evoked. At one point an adjutant remarks to Graves and some fellow-officers on the extraordinary fact that they “have had five hundred casualties in the ranks since Loos and not a single officer.” 


Then he suddenly realized that his words were unlucky.

“Touch wood,” David shouted.

Everybody jumped to touch wood but it was a French trench and unriveted. I pulled a pencil out of my pocket, that was wood enough for me.  Richardson said: “I’m not superstitious anyway.”  109


David looked a bit worried that evening, and confessed to being fed up and having a cold. He was shot through the neck by a sniper a short time afterwards. At first Graves was pleased because a wound would mean his friend being sent home. Unfortunately he died in the dressing station, choking on his own blood. Richardson died a few minutes later. The adjutant was just telling Graves how deeply he regretted his unlucky remark when a shell killed the fourth officer who had been present. The hecatomb of men who had heard the unlucky remark is related as one of those eerie coincidences that feed the superstition of soldiers. But the superstition is absolutely impersonal. Bad luck is a demon with no regard for persons, whether fit or unfit. Death does not select unfit specimens, only unlucky ones. There is not a hint of Darwinism here, as there is in Mailer. Death in war has no rhyme or reason, which is what makes its operation tragic. It strikes down the brave and the cowardly, the good and the bad, with perfect indifference. The tragic world-view itself was the product of a warrior culture, that of ancient Greece which saw war as a chaos without any moral order. It is the world-view largely shared by Hemingway. But Mailer’s view is very different. 

In Mailer’s novel there are no brave men killed, and therefore no real tragedies. The apparent exception, Wilson, was in fact a fool and a drunkard, suffering from some stomach disease which mysteriously attracted the Japanese bullet. All those who were killed deserved it. They were all, in their different ways, cowards and weaklings. Courage protects a man like an amulet. This peculiar combination of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” beliefs and Calvinist notions of divine election and predestination is echoed in Mailer’s later books, set in peacetime. Certain passages in An American Dream suggest a curious notion of a deity who tests men’s courage, rewards risk-takers and destroys cowards. Courage is to Mailer the only important human virtue. Certainly compassion and humanity can’t hold a candle to it. Those who place compassion and kindness high on their list of virtues (Roth, Hearn) are killed. Those who believe in courage and ruthlessness, Croft and General Cummings, come out winners. The ordinary soldiers, in preferring Croft’s harsh style of command to Hearn’s humane methods and attempts to win them over, make clear the book’s moral judgement. Even when Croft goes to extremes in his slave-driving leadership, he successfully faces down an attempted mutiny. Only an attack of hornets, a terror more powerful than him, is finally able to break his iron hold over his men as they panic and run. But even this does not undercut him – it only shows up the poor human material he is trying to lead. There is irony in the novel’s ending, especially towards the army commanders, but it is never directed at Croft. He remains the exemplar of courage and iron willpower in carrying out the hard and often pointless missions of war – the unsung, undecorated American hero. 

Croft is presented to us with all the insignia of the American hero from the beginning. We first see him on board the troop ship, in a midnight poker game: when a soldier trying to sleep tells them to keep the noise down, Croft, described as “a lean man of medium height”, challenges him quietly to a fight and the soldier backs down. Once ashore, they have to push some anti-tank guns through the jungle to reinforce their line, and Croft shows himself the toughest and most tireless in this exhausting task. When the Japanese try and attack by night across the river, Croft is the hero of his sector, keeping his nerve and repulsing the attack while a number of his men go to pieces. A few days later comes an even more revealing incident. Croft, Red and Gallagher are out on patrol when they come across four Japanese soldiers resting in a hollow. Croft takes them out with a grenade. He then tells Red to finish them off as they lie motionless, either dead or stunned. Red, though resenting Croft’s order, shoots three of the enemy soldiers in the back of the head. His rifle jams as he is about to shoot the fourth,  who leaps up and draws a bayonet. Red runs, and Croft masters the situation by forcing the Japanese to surrender at gunpoint. Red is ashamed of having panicked, and Croft tells him to go ahead up the track and they will take care of the prisoner. The prisoner, fearing what is to come, pleads for his life. Croft plays a little game with him, giving him a cigarette and a bar of chocolate. The Japanese soldier calms down and they have a rudimentary conversation in sign language in which the prisoner shows them photos of his wife and children. Gallagher mimes that his wife is about to have a baby and the prisoner smiles. Croft gives the Japanese another cigarette, and then, as he puffs at it and smiles dreamily, shoots him in the head. 


The prisoner did not even have time to change his expression before the shot crashed into his skull. He slumped forward and then rolled on his side. He was still smiling but he looked silly now.   

Croft stared for almost a minute at the Jap. His pulse was slowing and he felt the tension ease in his throat and mouth…. He felt quite blank now. The smile on the dead man’s lips amused him and a trivial rill of laughter emitted from his lips.…. “Goddam,” he said, “that Jap sure died happy.” The laughter swelled more strongly inside him.  110


There is no further comment on the incident. Croft is in no way diminished by the act of murder, or the sadistic game he played. It is thought of as part of his hard man’s character. It  in no way leads anyone in his platoon to respect him less, but rather the contrary. The jungle law of Mailer’s world means the most brutal, violent man is necessarily the dominant male whom all look up to. This act of murder is therefore one more proof of his dominant virile status. What is troubling in this scene is the author’s attitude: there is none of Tolstoy’s irony to make us see other perspectives on this. We seem invited to enjoy Croft’s action, or be impressed by it rather than condemn it. Graves also tells stories of men killing prisoners out of laziness, revenge, or jealousy of their being sent to a cushy, safe prison camp. It is considered a nasty piece of spite, a dirty trick and nothing more. Graves sees it perhaps as one more testimony to the corrupting effect of war on man’s moral sense. In Remarque enemies trying to surrender are killed during the frenzy of a charge where men can no longer control their homicidal urge. What is disturbing in Mailer is the cold-bloodedness of the act, and the author’s apparent lack of distance, his lack of awareness of the moral issue. He seems to identify emotionally with Croft. The dwelling on the killer’s physical sensations, his tense throat, his racing heart, suggests that we are meant to view the act of killing as a heroic overcoming of nerves, a challenge to his courage which he has successfully faced. The act of murder of a Jap is presented as a sort of achievement, a mastery of oneself, a demonstration of mental toughness.

At the end of the novel, after the American offensive has broken the Japanese resistance on the island, there is a mopping up operation where the scattered remnants of the enemy are hunted down and killed. General Cummings reviews with satisfaction the numbers of dead:

Sixth day: 347 Japanese – 1 American.

Seventh day: 502 Japanese – 4 Americans. 

This is not fighting but massacre. The half-starved Japanese, out of ammunition, are not fighting, they are being hunted down in a turkey shoot. Mailer emphasizes how little this affects the men:


It was simple, a lark. After months of standing guard at night, of patrolling up trails which could explode into ambush at any moment, the mopping up was comparatively pleasant, almost exciting. The killing lost all dimension, bothered the men far less than discovering some ants in their bedding. 

Certain things were SOP (Standard Operating Procedure.) The Japanese had set up many small hospitals in the last weeks of the campaign, and in retreating they had killed many of their wounded. The Americans who came in would finish off whatever wounded men were left, smashing their heads with rifle butts or shooting them point blank. 111  


There is a gloating approval in these lines that is morally disturbing. The remark that these killings caused less disgust than finding ants in the bedding recalls other comparisons of dead Japanese to insects or animals. Martinez after he stabs a Japanese sentry feels “the mixture of relief and revulsion a man feels after chasing a cockroach across a wall and finally squashing him. It affected him exactly that way and not much more intensely.” 112  Mailer repeatedly emphasizes how little killing affects men, how unimportant it is to them. Even the German SS commanders in the East were not this blasé: as we shall see later, they constantly worried whether all the massacres were making their men psychopaths, unfit for human company.  

Mailer goes on to describe the “other more distinctive ways” of killing: waking Japanese soldiers at dawn and shooting them in their sleeping ponchos. The sadism of the authorial attitude (we are not seeing things through any character’s eyes here) is not justified by any reference to Japanese atrocities, which were, of course, far worse. These acts are not even seen as hate-filled revenge but as mere standard procedure, a question of convenience. 


Occasionally they would take prisoners, but if this was late in the day and the patrol was hurrying to get back before dark it was better if the prisoners did not slow them. 113


Mailer describes one incident where a squad was taking three sick prisoners back who were holding them up.  

The platoon leader looked at his watch at last and sighed: “We’re going to have to dump them.” 114


With this mild expression of regret, they were shot without ceremony.

Now these are, of course, war crimes. When the Germans did the same thing after the Normandy landing, shooting some Allied prisoners because they no longer had the manpower or logistics to guard them or ship them to Germany, this was held up as one more proof of the barbarity of the Nazi regime. The Americans were doing it (and though this is a fictional work this behaviour was widely reported) in circumstances where nothing prevented them shipping these prisoners to America or Australia. This is not meant to rake up old questions of equivalence between the war crimes of the Allies and their enemies: the vast disproportion in cruelty between the two sides is beyond any doubt. But one would expect an intelligent American writer to be at least aware that the concept of a war crime exists. And it is extremely doubtful whether Mailer has this moral awareness. Graves reports (with a certain sanctimony) that the stories of killing prisoners in the First World War were mostly told by and about Canadians and Australians. “At all events, most overseas men, and some British troops, made atrocities against prisoners a boast, not a confession.” 115 We are left in no doubt that for Graves it is not something to boast of. In Mailer we have an enormous doubt about his attitude, because what has entered into the equation is this new Hemingway-style cult of toughness, and the Darwinian idea that life is a jungle. If a man like Croft is a genuine hero, a man who understands the laws of life, then the turkey shoot of Japanese prisoners and wounded is simply an expression of the tough values that lead to victory. What Mailer seems to be doing in describing these acts is not exposing them as atrocities, nor showing how war debases human beings, but rather shoving them in the face of the naive, hypocritical, namby-pamby liberal who might foolishly believe that victory in war is possible without these atrocities. You cannot win a war, he seems to be saying, without creating the kind of soldiers who will kill prisoners in cold blood without a qualm. Their brutality is essential to victory. Mailer is rubbing our noses in this fact: wars are won by brutality, not by chivalry. This is a very different view from what we saw in Remarque or Graves. It shows a complete turnaround in the moral perspective. The earlier war writers saw that the realities of war did not conform to the Christian-humanist morality they believed in, and on balance they rejected war. Mailer, in contrast, rejects the Christian-humanist morality. If war is necessary (if you are defending your country), then you must have a morality which conforms to the harsh realities of war – which accepts brutality and cold-blooded murder as facts of life. Or to put it more subtly, the earlier writers saw war as a tragedy because it requires the temporary suspension of the humanist morality for the sake of which it is supposedly being fought. Mailer sees war as proving that the humanist morality is unrealistic, namby-pamby drivel and should be suspended for good.

Mailer shares with the Nazis a Darwinian conception of war, which is not different from the conception they both have of life. For Mailer, as for the Social Darwinist Nazis, war is merely life on a more intense level and it obeys the same laws. And the basic law is the law of courage and mastery of oneself. The reluctance to kill is merely a nervous weakness to be overcome. Mailer’s later fiction demonstrates the peculiar nastiness that arises from seeing war as a paradigm of life itself, and the brutal values of war as the essential values of life. For he carries these sadistic attitudes, this gloating representation of murder as a moral achievement, a mastery of oneself, into an obsession with violence and killing in all his subsequent fiction, which is not about war but supposedly normal life. His later novels are filled with the notion of murder as a liberating act, just as Croft’s murder of the Japanese prisoner seems to release all his tension. One of Mailer’s heroine’s sees a  murderer as someone “painted with magic”, somebody with an extraordinary glamour – and irresistibly attractive to women. Because Mailer does not see war as an abnormal or exceptional state, he transfers the amorality of killing in war into a disturbing sense of the amorality of killing in general. And this amorality begins to infect the whole cult of fantasy violence that dominates the imagination of our age. All the  ruthless killer-heroes who sadistically murder people in popular action movies today, while remaining the cool, collected, dominant, sexy hero, are cut from the same cloth as Croft. And the calculated ambiguity of the figure of Croft, not explicitly approved by the author, but shown to be life’s winner, is the same ambiguity we find in the killer-heroes of these films. It allows filmmakers to pretend they are not really glorifying pathological violence, when in fact they are.  

It often seems an unfair invasion of privacy to look at the relation between an author’s work and his life, but in Mailer’s case it is enlightening. The brainy Jewish kid from Brooklyn who went to Harvard at sixteen and went to war just after his degree, serving in a Texas reconnaissance regiment, could not have had an easy time being accepted by the hard cowboys of the south. The scenes of the green, well-meaning Roth, the middle class Jewish city boy, being scornfully rebuffed by experienced, knockabout soldiers like Red must have had a real-life basis in Mailer’s own beginnings in the regiment. But unlike the wimpish Roth, Mailer managed to transform himself at least partly into a hard man – otherwise he wouldn’t have been made sergeant, or boxed for his regiment. One may surmise he ended the war somewhat closer to the tough Texas cowboy, Sergeant Croft, than to the wimpish Roth. The transformation was not complete, however, or we wouldn’t find him at thirty-two still talking about trying to get more nerve and become more of a man. You couldn’t imagine Croft talking that way. But the brainy Jewish boy seems to have been marked for life by his youthful hero-worship of the Texas tough guys and his efforts to transform himself into one of them. And the character he worshipped would have contained much of the thoughtless cruelty and brutality which men who grow up herding animals, hunting, drinking and fighting are prone to. Mailer’s own story is one of failure to integrate this rough and violent experience with the more civilized tradition of life he came from. It is a story of self-rejection, or rather self-transformation from what most people would consider a higher (or at least more intelligent and sensitive) state of being to a lower and more brutal one. So we end up with a highly educated writer who seems seriously to believe that fist-fighting, proving one’s toughness, and aggressive, performance-driven sex are the most important things in life. He embodies the cultural problem posed by modern America: a great scientific, intellectually advanced civilization with the emotional immaturity of a Texas cowboy. This moral and emotional primitivization of American society in an era of extraordinary scientific advances is largely due to the world wars themselves. It is above all due to the curious atavism they triggered, by which certain American intellectuals began to worship the rough brutality of the country’s pioneer past and cowboy way of life, as though it represented some moral and human ideal. What the war did to Mailer you might argue it did to the intellectual, educated class in general. Instead of that class trying to lift the less-educated majority up towards a higher ideal of civilized, enlightened behaviour, the war dragged the intelligentsia down to imitate the ignorant tough-guy brutality of the rural redneck. Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities has a scene where New York lawyers, graduates of top universities, sit around with their knees splayed like football jocks talking black street slang and acting like tough-guy hoodlums. This is the cultural effect of the democratization operated by the world wars: the crudest and most brutal expressions of masculinity were imposed on all men in the name of the new virility cult. That process shaped the peculiar culture of what we have called the masculine century.  





One of the curiosities of Mailer’s war novel is that his characters spend more time challenging each other to fist fights or threatening to shoot one another than they do fighting the Japanese. There is little here of the famous sense of comradeship that makes a platoon fight as one man, which we find among Remarque’s Germans. Rather it is their constant in-fighting for dominance in their own group which fuels the aggressiveness needed for survival. The lack of solidarity among the soldiers is even more noticeable in later American wars in Asia. The bitter moral and political conflicts that tore American society apart during the Vietnam war are reflected in the war itself and the behaviour of soldiers towards one another. In the Vietnam war, the practice of “fragging”, or using a fragmentation grenade to kill one’s own officer during a firefight, formed the subject of many a veteran’s yarn. The number of second lieutenants killed by their own men was, if one were to believe the anecdotes, legion. As a student in the last years of the war I heard an African-American anti-war activist at a peace rally at a Canadian university give an explanation of “fragging”, calling it the ultimate act of protest. The student audience greeted his account with a spontaneous burst of applause – an enthusiastic moral tribute to the political virtue of murdering one’s own officer. Now, how much of all this was myth and legend? Or a dozen incidents endlessly recounted and embellished by veterans eager to impress their fascinated listeners? The fact remains that an atmosphere existed where these treasonous acts seemed plausible. Not only were human lives cheap but many of them, even on one’s own side, were lost without regret. In an atmosphere of violent controversy over the war itself, of varying degrees of faith and cynicism towards the military leadership, there seems to have been an astonishing lack of solidarity and trust among soldiers. This is reflected in one of the most impressive novels written about the Vietnam war, Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green. In this novel we see a universal egotism, an amoral lack of loyalty, a growing sense of war as totally impersonal if not unreal, a mad, drug-induced sense of detachment from events, and descriptions of firefights utterly devoid of emotion, as though the whole thing were a sensational comic strip and the deaths occurring were not those of human beings.      

The climactic battle of this extraordinary novel, as the Vietcong attack the US camp, is watched from the guard tower by a soldier (appropriately named Vegetable) stoned on hashish. It becomes a surreal spectacle. He is utterly detached from the human reality of what is happening. The violent battle-scene is described as though it were a bizarre fantasy, a film with fantastic special effects:   


He seemed to be so high the action down there seemed unreal, kitchen match fires, plastic toy soldiers. When the photo lab blew up, he saw a little man pop into the sky and separate into little pieces that fell flaming back to the ground. That was the best so far….. What a time they were going to have smoking and joking and talking about this night. Privileged with such a good view, he was trying hard to collect interesting impressions.  117


This detached, purely aesthetic enjoyment of the battle is taken a step further by another character, Wendell, the army film-maker, as he tries to film a hand-to-hand fight.


Wendell couldn’t believe his luck: Captain Raleigh and a genuine VC in black shorts locked in a lover’s clench on the gravel outside the O club and stabbing one another at intervals with long knives. Wendell circled them carefully tracking the angry movement of arms and blades.

He squatted in the shadows, attempting to backlight his protagonists against the bonfire consuming Chief Winkly’s hooch. Beautiful. Through the viewfinder Cain and Abel grappled in some bizarre biblical epic. 118


The idea of intervening to help his officer never crosses Wendell’s mind. A minute later he gets hit by a shell and before he dies presses the camera into the hands of his buddy Griffin, begging him to continue filming the battle, “the war in Vietnam: the Final Hours.” 


Griffin put his hand into Wendell’s remaining good one and squeezed and got a squeeze in return. He was trying hard to manage the first emotion he’d felt in months when he realized he didn’t have to..…. Now he wanted to miss nothing. He leaned in closer. Yes, those were Wendell’s eyes, that was Wendell’s face, but Wendell was gone. Something else occupied his spacesuit.  119


The curious, slightly mad detachment of this makes the fascist lieutenant in Hemingway, muttering a prayer as he orders heads to be hacked off, seem down-to-earth and normal. This is the fascinated reaction of a boy watching a farm animal killed for the first time and wanting to see the light go out in its eyes. That he should take the time to do this in the midst of a desperate battle is surreal, a striking testimony to a mind out for lunch and wandering along its own bizarre byways. The ultimate emotional distancing from the butchery of war comes through drugs, which give the whole thing a hallucinatory unreality in which dazzling, overwhelming sensations are unaccompanied by any recognizable human emotion. Finally Griffin cannot distinguish between reality and hallucination. He seems to remember bayoneting a VC. “In fact, he couldn’t be sure whether this incident was an actual occurrence or simply hallucinated desire.” 120 Delirium and madness are his final refuge. He ends up back home in hospital, a mental basket case.

Is it going too far to read into this series of extracts a progressive growth of callousness, of numbness, of incapacity to respond emotionally to these horrors, as the twentieth century advances? From war to war do we not see a creeping emotional anaesthesia, a paralysis of the moral and human faculties in which the abnormal state of mind of the warrior is no longer subject to any rational, human reality check? Is there not a clear line of evolution from the passionate humanist protest of Wilfred Owen, the adrenaline-charged emotional high of Remarque, the matter-of-fact grimness of Graves, detailing war’s horrors with cool exactness, the stoicism of Hemingway, seeing war as merely life writ large, to the gloating sadism of Mailer (every act of killing a proof of virility, an assertion of dominance) and finally the delirium and hallucinatory madness of Wright, where the Vietnam war has pushed the mind over the edge till it no longer grasps the reality of what is happening and sees it all as cinematic fiction? And is not this final state a sort of endgame, after which the mind has got to recoil and go in the other direction and shake off the whole legacy of this century of war and carnage?

But of course the mind does not recoil and go in the opposite direction. It keeps going in the same direction in the entire industry of cinematic violence that has swept over our world in the past thirty years since the Vietnam war ended. The chief characteristic of violent films is now their utter amorality – the representation of violence as a purely aesthetic spectacle, a sequence of interesting and picturesque deaths, appreciated for their pictorial originality, and triggering no emotional or moral responses. Wright’s “he saw a little man pop into the sky and separate into little pieces that fell flaming back to the ground. That was the best so far…..” is now exactly the way violent deaths are appreciated in the cinema. George Orwell in 1984 depicts such a scene in a war film as a helicopter bombs a boat full of refugees: “the boat went all to matchwood; then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air … and there was a lot of applause from the party seats…” 121 He meant it as a horrific vision of the utter depravity of a society. It is exactly what happens in any cinema today. Picturesque scenes of human beings being blown to pieces are greeted with guffaws of admiration. They are shown in films for family audiences. The image of men being blown apart by explosives – perhaps the single most recurrent image of modern action movies – seems to have haunted the human imagination ever since gunpowder was invented. Swift has an image of men being blown up by ship’s cannon very similar to Orwell’s, and describes how “the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of all the spectators.” 122 Perhaps Orwell even takes it from Swift, though he had seen enough of the real thing in Spain. It is a curious coincidence that Stephen Wright uses it again,  though here it seems to be a case of life imitating art. In all these cases what is significant is the lack of moral or human reaction. We do not even ask ourselves whether the people being blown up are ours or theirs, good or evil, guilty or innocent: we see it as mere spectacle. Orwell has a revealing passage in Homage to Catalonia where he remarks that when you are watching artillery firing, you always want it to hit its target, even when the target contains your friends or your dinner. This is the eye of the soldier appreciating marksmanship coming to prevail over the eye of the human being. It has become the eye of Everyman in the century of war, appreciating the aesthetics of mass-murder. It was given its greatest expression in the first Gulf War, where the murder of Iraqis from the air became no more than a nightly video-game, with rounds of spectator applause for direct strikes.   





What was the effect of war not on those who fought it but on those for whom it was an offstage presence? Orwell is an interesting representative of the generation that lived through the First World War but were just too young to fight. He was born in Bengal and was at Eton during the war. Afterwards he returned to the East as a policeman in Burma. Kipling and Conrad had written about the East and colonialism as grand adventure, full of colourful dramas. Orwell writes about colonial Burma as a quiet ongoing disaster, filled with bureaucratic pettiness and outmoded snobberies of rank, like the Great War itself. Orwell writes all his life as though there is an unmentioned tragedy going on all the time in the background; we are meant to infer what it is, but it would be uncool to state it. Everything happens against the background of this unexplained horror. Is it colonialism? The class system? Capitalism? Perhaps it is the war, which he missed out on fighting by a couple of years, but in which so many Eton old boys died while he was there. The awareness of this enormous human tragedy that had occurred just offstage in his life seems to cast a shadow over all his writing, as if everything must be written with other people’s searing grief constantly in mind. It is as though he spent all his life at a funeral without ever mentioning the corpse. No matter what circumstances he is writing about, there is no satisfaction or fulfilment possible. Life is somehow not worth it from the start. He seems to have been haunted all his life by a nameless sense of guilt, which drove him first to become a tramp and then to volunteer to fight in Spain. Was this a kind of survivor guilt (such as drove some death camp survivors to commit suicide?) Someone once said, provocatively and shallowly: “After Auschwitz there can be no poetry.” (This statement was quoted approvingly by George Steiner in a lecture at Cambridge, in the presence of a head of department who had been tortured by the Japanese. The professor stalked out and Steiner blamed this incident for not being given the Cambridge post he wanted.) 123 But though the statement is shallow, many writers of the post-First World War period seem to have felt something similar. The poetry had gone out of existence, a pall had been flung over the whole business of living, and henceforth all joys must be subdued, tinged with gloom, with a dark sense of the obscenity and horror of life. The great modernist authors of the twenties all adopted a pessimistic as well as a reactionary standpoint. The modern world was to be rejected, and various versions of the past were erected into ideals – whether the epics of Homer, the civilization of Byzantium, the Italian Renaissance or the ancient Etruscans. For the younger generation who came after them, the poets of the depressed thirties, Auden, Spender, Day-Lewis, Isherwood and co, the rejection of the modern world swung the opposite way, against the past as well. The obligation was to move forward out of the rotten present by embracing communism, the creed of the future. But apart from occasional Marxist rant, their poetry too seemed under an obligation to take account of the horrors the world had just lived through. The repression of feeling, the elaborate strategies of indirectness of emotion were for the poets who came of age after the war the only way of acknowledging the unspeakable. If the expression of emotion cannot be adequate to the vast scale of collective experience, then better not try to express it: better keep it all under wraps, taken as read but never stated. Poets become like men in the front line: never expressing directly the great emotions – fear, despair, horror, pity – that dominate their minds. They make a virtue of not saying what they are feeling. That becomes the way of saying it. The grim understatement of the trenches becomes the paradigm of male communication in the twentieth century, even for the poets.

Those rare writers who did tackle the subject of the war head-on, and attempted to express some emotion commensurate with the enormity of the event, failed rather dismally in their endeavour. Ezra Pound, who did not take part in the war, made one such attempt in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley – and his lines, because of the very rarity of this kind of summing up, have unfortunately become a favourite quote for those trying to evoke the war. He sees young men as having died


For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilisation…..

For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.  124


The bitterness here is second-hand. It is also wrong-headed. This was not a war to save old Europe’s venerable culture (which existed in equal measure on both sides.) It was a war to destroy it, waged by new forces of nationalistic mass hatred, whipped up by a vicious populist press and wrapped in bigoted, moral self-righteousness, which was at the opposite pole from the old cosmopolitan literary and artistic traditions of Europe. What Englishman of any previous age would have referred to Goethe or Beethoven or Dürer as “Huns”? Men were not killed for the sake of “high culture”. They were killed for a hate-ridden militarist ideology spewed out by the gutter press on both sides, which kept the war going. These lines of Pound are cheap journalism. They have nothing like the depth of real feeling of his Pisan Cantos at the end of another war in which he chose the wrong side. But their very feebleness illustrates the impotence of the poets to express what had happened. Pound’s attempt rings so false that other writers probably feared having the same effect. An enormous pudeur thus descended upon the world about speaking of the horror that had just happened. At first it was too obvious to mention, like a decaying corpse in the corner of the room, and then gradually the presence faded, until those who came after could find almost no trace of the monstrous thing that had weighed so heavily on the minds of those before them. Not-saying, not expressing emotion, had by then become a habit, a morbid self-repression that only deepened the neurosis. The decades following the war were an age in spiritual convalescence from a disease which its sufferers seemed unable to diagnose. 

The non-saying of the horrors of our century continued after the Second World War. While popular novels and films depicted the war as a subject of thrillers or adventure sagas, serious art made little attempt to come to terms with it. In a century of the most dramatic and extreme events of the whole of human history, the arts of painting, sculpture, and supposedly serious music degenerated steadily into a stuttering inexpressive cult of non-communication. This became the quintessentially modern mode for all the arts. The scale of the tragedy was too big for small minds, and they took refuge in saying nothing and pretending that nothing was everything. The blank canvas became the characteristic expression of the last age of avant-garde painting before it disappeared into the cheery, in-your-face charlatanism of “conceptual art”. “Highbrow” music degenerated into a deliberate cacophony, a careful combination of noises designed to set the teeth on edge. Not only was it utterly unrelated to the way human brains process sound or human emotions respond to it, but it seemed totally indifferent to the expression of any emotion whatever except tormented madness. Most music-lovers deserted it in favour of popular music, which became the only outlet for musical talent in the age, and vastly expanded its range and vitality in the sixties. Theatre showed signs of following the same sterile path as the plastic arts and “serious” music. Becket’s cult of non-saying, laced with nihilism, became the intellectual theatrical fashion of the fifties. In Waiting for Godot, his vague evocation of self-pitying, pessimistic emotions without attaching them to anything precise – the very definition of sentimentality, where an emotion does not arise from a concrete situation, but is assumed as a general, stock world-view – seemed the only adequate emotional response to a disaster too big to depict or even mention. A man who spent his sterile life cultivating depression – living over a prison in the most beautiful of cities – became suddenly, by accident, the voice of an age. His last work, heavy breathing and a cry followed by silence, almost achieves the sublime emptiness of the more egregious pieces of charlatan installation art – the crumpled sheet of paper, the pickled fish, the dirty bedsheets, the rows of bricks, the cans of shit.


The effect of the world wars on artists and writers was therefore a sort of emotional castration, a seeming loss of the capacity to express emotion, to believe in its importance, to take emotion seriously. What we see in nearly all modern art (above all the plastic arts and serial music) is a numbing of the mind, a numbing of the sensibility, a numbing of a capacity for emotional reaction, a progressive anaesthesia, a fleeing of any vision, a terror of committing oneself to any statement whatever, for fear of being thought inadequate to the immense scale of the horrors of the age. Instead of deep reflection, or compassion on a deep enough level to comprehend the enormity of what had happened, we get numbness, silence, a retreat into infantile doodling, or eruptions of mindless violence, neurotic screams, a quest for some ultimate sensational expression of hatred, rejection of the world, self-hatred. And this psychosis in art was  symptomatic of a growing psychosis of violence in human beings in general. 





The most immediate effect of the mass slaughter of the trenches was both a numbing of human sensibility and a blurring of the moral sense in the face of violence and killing. The effect of sending wave after wave of young men to their deaths not in a single decisive battle of an afternoon, but in an ongoing, routine process for four long years, with 65 million men participating, and 9 million losing their lives (plus as many civilians) was to make mass killing seem a more normal thing than it had seemed for at least a hundred years. A number of men suddenly appeared on the stage of history for whom the murder of millions of human beings seemed a perfectly conceivable solution to intractable problems. The mass murder of the death camps and gulags of the 20th century was certainly born in the trenches of the First World War. It is when men see friends and comrades killed as an everyday mishap that they can envisage the killing of unarmed strangers as a routine solution. Life was made cheap on the battlefield, and its taking away on a huge scale could be viewed with complete indifference. It was no more, in Mailer’s phrase, than killing insects. Genocide was born of modern warfare.

The Turks started it by killing a million and a half Armenians during the First World War itself, convinced that this turbulent minority, whose sympathies could only be with the Christian Russian enemy, posed a security threat to a nation fighting for its life. As though encouraged by the world’s indifference to this massacre, the Russian communists, after the warm-up of their civil war, got to work in earnest. In the thirties they killed about seven million Ukrainian farmers, either by shooting or deliberate starvation, by requisitioning at gunpoint every grain of corn, even the seeds needed to sow next year’s harvest, in order to break the resistance of the peasant class to the policy of collectivization. Starving Ukrainian women begged strangers at the windows of transiting trains to take their emaciated babies, knowing it was their only chance of survival. The Stalinist gulag system began its immense work of doing to death tens of millions of men and women in the vast wastes of Siberia and the Arctic circle, where starvation, cold, disease and exhaustion were the cheap, silent weapons of extermination. But the most spectacular climax of mass murder (because of its speed and industrialized scale) was of course provided by the death camps of the Nazis, where somewhere around six million Jews and millions of others (Russian POWs, gypsies, Polish intellectuals and political dissidents from all over Europe) are generally thought to have perished during the war. But this was merely the beginning for Hitler. He planned a far greater extermination of the inhabitants of Ukraine and Western Russia, to make room for German settlers. Tens of millions of deaths through systematic starvation were envisaged by Hitler as a necessary clearing of living-space for the new German empire to the east.  In the event, between twenty and twenty-five million Soviet citizens are thought to have died, as a result of military action, starvation in besieged cities, deliberate massacre and a scorched earth policy. In Asia the Japanese army carried out unspeakable atrocities in China and elsewhere. And in all theatres of war, the carpet bombing of cities, with the aim of killing a maximum number of civilians, was practised by all sides, culminating in the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. After the Communists took power in China, they killed tens of millions of their opponents in a gulag system similar to that of the Russians, and starved millions more. The macabre accounting remains approximate and disputed, but present estimates suggest that somewhere approaching two hundred million human beings were killed in the 20th century either by war, massacre or being worked or starved to death in prison camps, or by famine deliberately engineered for the purposes of extermination by totalitarian governments. 125  

Of course, these killings are generally viewed among the Western Allied nations with horror (except for our bombing of enemy cities, which is frequently still defended, even though it was for the most part militarily pointless as well as immoral.)  But the knowledge of these horrors did not lead to a sudden moral rejection of this kind of barbarism: it usually led to similar kinds of cruelty towards the people held responsible. German POW’s probably suffered a good part of their privations (tens of thousands were deliberately starved to death in American and French POW camps in the years after the war) because of the vengeful hatred inspired by the discovery of the German death camps by the Allied troops. 126 The discovery of the other side’s atrocities often provoked a response in kind, or was used to justify one’s own barbarity. British bomber pilots who had problems of conscience firebombing cities which they knew were full of German women and children were given pep talks by refugees like Arthur Koestler about the mass extermination of the Jews being carried out by the Nazis. This was supposed to ease their conscience about frying women and children alive. In an exact mirror image, the German police battalions in the East charged with the task of shooting Jewish women and children in the back of the head were urged to think about the German women and children being burned alive by Allied bombing. 127 The killing of women and children on one side was thought to justify the killing of women and children on the other, in one of those perverse pieces of wartime logic whereby pity for their own victims gives people the moral force to commit atrocities against the enemy. On the Nazi side the logic connecting Jewish civilians with the Allied bombing can only be understood as a kind of superstition akin to a belief in witchcraft. It seemed to be based on a mad conviction that the Jews in a remote Polish village had some occult connection with the international Jewish conspiracy thought to be behind the Allied war effort – so that humble village tailors (and their wives and children) could be killed as foot-soldiers of a worldwide enemy army. On the Allied side the civilian bombing followed a perverse logic that the German people had elected Hitler and must therefore have wanted this war, and their will to fight had to be broken. This is an argument so wilfully ignorant of the realities of a ruthless dictatorship that it can only be understood as a racist hatred of the Germans by an Allied high command that still believed its own anti-Hun propaganda of the First World War. The man in charge of the RAF bombing of Germany, “Bomber” Harris, was a fanatical Hun-hater, whose deliberate carpet-bombing of cities of no military significance can only be seen as a gigantic war crime.

The Nazi genocide of the Jews was a crime so unprecedented in Western European history,  in its methodical, meticulously organized character, that it has provoked long analyses and heated debates over how it was possible. It is beyond the scope of this work to go into these in any detail, but the subject cannot be avoided because of its bearing on our general theme – the brutalization of man in the 20th century. A recent book, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, has argued that the German nation’s long history of anti-Semitism was the key to the Nazis’ ability to carry out the extermination, which required the active participation of larger numbers of Germans than has been supposed. Goldhagen believes that the willingness of German police battalions (which were full of fairly ordinary Germans who did not undergo the intense indoctrination of the SS) to carry out the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland can only be explained by their deep-rooted racist belief that Jews were subhuman. It is not always clear whether he means this as evidence of the power of Nazi propaganda, or whether he is convinced that the Germans were so deeply anti-Semitic they did not even need this Nazi propaganda in order to start murdering Jews. Though the first scenario is rather more plausible than the second, this aspect of things seems only partly to explain the genocide. Theoretical beliefs alone are seldom enough to motivate action. There is a very long step between being racist and being personally willing to kill those of another race. Similarly, one may believe that another religion is false and that its misguided adherents are  maliciously disposed towards those of one’s own faith, without being ready to exterminate them. To explain fully why these men actually performed this horrendous task it is necessary to look at other aspects of the psychology and mood of the regime they lived under.

The Nazis not only promoted a supernatural theory of Jewish evil and malice; they also promoted a new brutalization of life, a conscious rejection of humane and civilized standards of behaviour, which made their regime an atavism, a throw-back to a pre-humanist moral order. They rejected that entire humane moral code, derived from an enlightened reading of Christianity – what Tolstoy called “the law of love” –  which had gradually been adopted over the previous hundred years by all Western nations: abolishing torture, public executions, judicial floggings, slavery, and serfdom, and accepting that we had a duty to help our weaker fellow citizens suffering from poverty, hunger or illness. All of this was despised by the Nazis as bourgeois decadence, a weak, debilitating mental poison which was against nature’s stern laws and would threaten the survival of the strongest race, whose vocation was to rule the others. What the Nazis revolted against was bourgeois morality – that humane milksop morality gradually introduced by the rising middle classes in the 19th century, with all its stuffiness, sentimentality and squeamishness about blood and pain. The Nazi attitude had something of the vigorous revivalism of certain fundamentalist Muslim regimes of more recent years, with their return to medieval punishments. The Nazi revival of public executions with the axe, the revival of torture, the beatings and shootings in the street, the creation of hundreds of concentration camps where millions would be imprisoned, brutalized, used as slaves and finally done to death, was a deliberate step back into the past – and a past that was the product of a lurid and cruel imagination. The first large-scale act of mass murder undertaken by the regime was the extermination of the mentally retarded and the insane in October 1939, as a way of strengthening the German nation for the war that had just been launched. This was done in order to eliminate useless mouths to feed and at the same time to prevent the sick, unfit specimens from contaminating and weakening the race in a time of crisis. There was nothing anti-Semitic about this programme, yet it seemed to find no shortage of willing executioners. A certain number of camp guards must have been readily convinced that the elimination of the weak was a thoroughly moral programme. It was the first step in the application of that callous Darwinian theory which lay behind Hitler’s entire vision of life.

Brutality was an essential part of this vision. Germans were to be inured to slaughter and cruelty and encouraged to practise it upon their enemies, the inferior races of the East. In preparing the army for the war against Russia, Hitler specifically prescribed cruelty as a sacred duty, however unpleasant the soldiers might find it. He told his generals this, in terms which shocked and outraged some of them:


The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a chivalrous fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, merciless and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies. I know that the necessity of such means of waging war is beyond the comprehension of you generals but I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction. The commissars are the bearers of an ideology directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. 128


Part of his plan was deliberate starvation of the Russians. Their agriculture was to be requisitioned to supply Germany, and too bad for their own population. “Many tens of millions of people in the industrial areas will become redundant and will either die or have to emigrate to Siberia.”  129  

As for the great cities, Leningrad and Moscow, they were to be totally destroyed. In a directive to his commanders of 29 September 1941 he orders this:


The Fuehrer has decided to have St Petersburg wiped off the face of the earth. The further existence of this large city is of no interest …. The intention is to close in on this city and raze it to the ground by artillery and by continuous air attack…. Requests that the city be taken over will be turned down, for the problem of the survival of the population and of supplying it with food is one which cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for existence we have no interest in keeping even part of this great city’s population. 130 


The phrase “no interest in keeping” means, of course, no interest in keeping alive: they are to be left to starve to death. The Darwinian language is clear in the phrase “the war for existence” (the struggle for survival): one race, the German, was quite simply going to wipe out a less adapted race, the Slav, by war and deliberate starvation, in accordance with nature’s cruel process of selection of the fittest. The goal was a German-ruled area as far as the Urals: “no foreign army must ever be allowed again between Germany and the Urals.” The Russians had to disappear or migrate into Asia. In order to carry out this great reordering of the human population, the Germans had to be taught to harden their hearts against pity. They must be trained in brutality and be capable of mass slaughter. It is clear that this cult of cruelty also played a crucial role in the process of exterminating the Jews in the conquered territories, even if that was simply the first part of this gigantic reshaping of the human species in Europe. Some Nazis engaged in the extermination work spoke of their own cruelty as though it represented a sort of triumph over human weakness, an act of self-abnegation in denying their own instincts of pity, in pursuit of the grand purpose. Major Wilhelm Trapp, the commander of Police Battalion 101 charged with exterminating Jews in occupied Poland, was apparently a fatherly figure (nicknamed “Papa” by the troops) who saw this unpleasant task as imposed by an iron necessity that he must bow to, despite being himself deeply disturbed by it. 131      

But the Nazis were not unaware that this transformation of their men into mass killers might not be easy and might come at a psychological cost. Among Nazi officers there was worry that the systematic killing of civilians, especially women and children, might harden the men to the point of making them psychopaths. “Oehlendorf …. and other Einsatzgruppe commanders were leery that their men would not have the stomach to carry out such gruesome orders, and that the deed would also brutalize them, rendering them unfit for human society.” 132 That is why various schemes were devised to lessen the amount of direct killing the men had to do. One such scheme was to employ local thugs (Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians) to kill the Jews for them. Another was to employ gas, so the act of killing could be distanced from the perpetrators – and so that prisoners or foreign auxiliaries could again be used as much as possible in the dirty process of disposing of the bodies. According to Goldhagen, “the move to gassing  whether in mobile or fixed installations – contrary to the widely accepted belief – was prompted not by considerations of efficiency but by the search for a method that would ease the psychological burden of killing for the Germans.” 133 He stresses that gassing was not necessarily more efficient and that mass shootings of Jews also continued throughout the war.

That the Nazi field officers were concerned about the human effect on the men suggests that although the moral taboo against killing Jews had been lifted by the ceaseless brainwashing in racial theories, the physical taboo against killing itself was still something that had to be reckoned with. But this problem seems often to have been resolved by the simple process of habituation. Whenever possible the troops were at first ordered to kill only men. Only once they had got used to this were they then ordered to kill women and children as well. This was combined with an appeal to the men’s sense of manhood and pride as soldiers. It is this notion of manly courage, of hardness of heart as a heroic virtue, which succeeded in overcoming the social taboo against killing, and the natural squeamishness of the human stomach.

In one police battalion Goldhagen studies, the men were at first subdued and silent after their day of killing, and had no appetite, but they were soon making jokes and laughing about the gruesome aspects of the whole business. The process of killing involved each policeman of the killing squad selecting an individual Jew (who might be a woman or a child), walking beside them to a place in the woods, telling them to lie down and shooting them in the back of the head. The brains and gore often spattered the killers’ clothes. Many found this disturbing. Their commanders, far from forcing the men to do it with threats of a firing squad, often gave the men, especially the older ones (who might be fathers), the option of not participating if they did not feel capable of this gruesome work. A few members of the battalion asked to be excused and they were transferred to other missions without being punished for it. But most went ahead and took part. One of the men, when asked after the war why he had not taken the option of being excused from this work, gave this reply:  


“When the question is put to me why did I participate at all in the shootings, I must say that one does not want to be considered a coward.” 134  


This speaks volumes of the ability of military institutions to present the committing of atrocities as a virility test for the  men –  a test they were eager to pass, to prove their courage and toughness both to their comrades and their superiors. One can imagine that those who asked to be excused from this work, while not subject to reprisals or official sanctions, were the objects of a certain amount of macho contempt by their fellow-soldiers. They were softies who had admitted they didn’t have what it takes. They were leaving this dirty job to others because they couldn’t handle it themselves. This would undoubtedly entail a loss of respect. It is this masculine sense of pride in their own hardness and self-control, the fear of looking like wimps in the eyes of their comrades, which  appears to have counted most in motivating  men  to take part willingly in the executions even of women and children.

The scene in Mailer of Croft shooting the Japanese prisoner in cold blood, the reports of widespread summary executions of wounded or captured Japanese soldiers by the American army in the Pacific war, are not a separate category of experience from the Nazi police battalions’ murder of Jewish women and children, or the Japanese army’s use of Chinese civilians for bayonet practice. They are all the same category of experience, but simply at different points along the continuum of what men can persuade themselves to do. And the driving force behind them is the soldier’s pride in his own brutality, his sense that to be unable to kill is a failure of courage, his contempt for the sensitivity which might make his hand tremble or drop the gun rather than fire into the helpless head before him. Human beings regard the overcoming of the taboo against killing as a sort of initiation into toughness and total self-control. Medical students must learn to steel themselves when wielding the surgeon’s scalpel on a human body. British veterinary students are initiated into the killing of animals by being made to kill a cow in an abattoir. Both these experiences are nerve-racking, stomach-churning ordeals for the students, and afterwards they feel they have overcome some weakness in themselves. So it is when a soldier kills his first enemy. The violation of the taboo against killing is seen as a progress of the spirit and the nerve towards a new hardness and capacity of self-control.

Lawrence of Arabia relates his sense of horror as he had to execute two thieves among his Arab troops by shooting them in the head as they knelt before him. He had to close his eyes as he fired his revolver – a confession that certain commentators have found wimpish. Robert Graves recounts a fellow officer’s complaint about his cowardly company: “In both the last two shows I had to shoot a man of my company to get the rest out of the trench. It was so bloody awful I couldn’t stand it.” 135 Graves sees him as a brave man deserving sympathy. His distress showed his humane, sensitive feelings, but the important thing is that he was able to overcome these feelings and shoot a couple of men to get the others to go into battle. The overcoming of taboos, of biological instincts not to take life, are so many milestones in the development of a man’s sense of courage, firmness of purpose and mastery of himself.

But the removal of physical taboos against killing also loosens the moral taboos which are so closely tied up with them. The man’s preparedness to kill is not merely a physical but a moral state. When his physical revulsion against killing has been deadened, his moral revulsion often has as well. After his years at the front, the 22-year old Graves told Bertrand Russell he would quite willingly order his men to shoot striking munitions workers: “It would be no worse than shooting Germans.” 136 Soldiers slide easily from shooting armed enemies to shooting prisoners or torturing them (as the French army showed in Algeria.) And the pushing of the soldier’s hardness to an extreme during a prolonged war goes a long way towards explaining the vast programmes of atrocity and mass murder that the twentieth century produced.

Some Greek philosophers opposed the eating of meat because the practice of killing animals makes men more capable of killing each other. In medieval Italy the butchers’ guilds were employed as hired killers. The assumption was that the main requirement for killing is the overcoming of physical squeamishness and sensitivity: once the psychological barrier goes, the  moral barrier falls more easily. And it is above all a question of habit. Armies understand this. The Japanese reportedly trained their infantry in Nanking with live bayonet practice on Chinese civilians tied to posts. On a less extreme level, the US Marine corps till recently used to toughen its recruits by screaming at them: “Kill the girl in you!”

When men “kill the girl” in them completely, they become capable of killing little girls with a bullet in the back of the head.  

The deep-rooted anti-Semitism of the Germans which Goldhagen sees as the fundamental cause of the Holocaust is part of the picture, but the Nazi cult of toughness and brutality was just as important in making these crimes possible. Anti-Semitism alone does not explain Nazism or account for Hitler’s wider goals: the annihilation of Western Russia and the expansion of the German nation to the Urals. Only a primitive Darwinistic vision of some ultimate survival struggle between the German and Slav races can explain his plans. We must look at the young, embittered Austrian German, one of a minority “ruling race” which had lost its rightful dominance in an increasingly democratic, Slav-majority empire, to find the seeds of this obsession. The Jews were to be only a first step in a wider plan to reshape the European race – to wipe out the non-Germans from central and eastern Europe. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not the motive force of his whole exterminationist impulse, which had an altogether wider scope. It is a serious distortion of history to try to reduce Nazism merely to anti-Semitism. 

Goldhagen seems to be arguing that without deep-seated German anti-Semitism, predating Hitler’s regime, the Nazis would not have been able to carry out their programme of extermination of the Jews, which required the willing complicity of thousands of ordinary Germans. Though he may be right about the deep roots of anti-Semitism in 19th century German culture, the prior existence of a widespread prejudice against certain people does not seem to be indispensable for totalitarian regimes to be able to exterminate them. There is no evidence Soviet soldiers had a deep prior hatred of Ukrainian farmers, other than what the regime instilled in them by labelling these people profiteers. Yet they still killed millions of them, men, women and children. The example of certain communist countries shows how easily state propaganda can foment hatred for social groups which have been virtually invented by the regime. Imperialist Running Dogs, Capitalist-Roaders and Revisionist Backsliders are categories of human being that few Chinese people had heard of before the communists came to power. Yet there was considerable success in fomenting popular hatred of these fictive human groups, to the point of inciting displays of mass hostility against any individuals presented as belonging to them. The behaviour of prison guards and others charged with the punishment or elimination of these miscreants suggests the same process of dehumanisation at work as in the case of the Jews. Vicious brutality towards such depraved beings became a positive virtue, something the guards felt good about. Chinese prison personnel were capable of killing millions of human beings in order to wipe out a fictive evil invented only a decade or two before. The mass torture and murder of the Falun Gong sect in China today again shows how regimes can demonize even new religious minorities, against whom there can be no deep-seated cultural prejudice. It is doubtful whether the Japanese military had any deep ideological reasons for their treatment of Western prisoners of war as subhumans, who may be tortured for fun, or experimented on surgically while conscious (“logs” was the euphemism used by Japanese medical personnel for the Western prisoners of war subjected to surgical experimentation without anaesthetic.) It would be interesting to invest-igate whether the Japanese personnel of biological experimentation Unit 731 harboured a deep racist hatred of Westerners long before the war, but it is quite probable that they did not. The categorization of certain people as subhuman, and the indoctrination of whole classes and even nations to treat them as such, can be achieved with extraordinary rapidity by totalitarian regimes, and does not seem to require any previous prejudice to build upon. The Khmer Rouge managed to incite their followers and security forces to a murderous hatred and cruelty against teachers, doctors and all those with an education – people who had previously been looked up to, not despised or resented. In the Nazi concentration camp system, prisoners of very diverse nationalities became kapos or collaborators charged with the brutalizing and killing of other prisoners, including many Jews. It would be pointless to study the national origins of the worst brutes in this system to see if their national traditions of anti-Semitism can explain their behaviour. It is clear that the ideological, political or racial beliefs that allow one to treat others as subhuman are mere pretexts, adopted without reflection by people keen to enjoy the absolute sadistic power which these beliefs confer. What counts is not how deeply these beliefs are held, but the fact that they permit one to give full rein to one’s cruelty and lust to dominate. Once one has enjoyed torturing another human being, belief in his inferiority or viciousness, however contrary to common sense, becomes axiomatic as a justification of one’s own acts. Cruelty then becomes, with habit, a compulsion, and its practitioners, like drug addicts, go further and further in their atrocious acts as they need stronger doses of the stimulus to feel pleasure. It is probable that an essential part of the pleasure of extreme cruelty, in addition to the exercise of power over another, is the exercise of power over oneself. The torturer is demonstrating his own hardness, his lack of squeamishness, his ability not to empathize with suffering, not to be disgusted by screams or blood or gore or unimaginable things done to another living, sentient being. And this suppression of humane instincts seems a proof of supreme self-control, of triumph over weakness, which it gives him pleasure to demonstrate again and again, to himself and to others.

It is therefore not primarily by combatting racism or anti-Semitism that we can prevent these evils recurring, but above all by combatting the hardening of the human heart, the enjoyment of cruelty (even in films or fiction), the enjoyment of violence against others, the dehumanizing of another person by hatred (whether for political, racial, religious or any other reasons), and the moral self-righteousness that allows people to believe that their cruelty to others is a just punishment of vicious beings. The notion of brutality as a demonstration of toughness, the association of cruelty with the moral virtue of inflexible determination – these are the real enemies of humane values. And along with this is the nihilism that sees life as worthless and contemptible, something that may be taken from somebody as a joke (in the way Mailer’s Croft takes it from the Japanese prisoner.) Ironically (given their present canonization) it is this nihilism that was spread between the wars by a generation of modernist artists, who like Samuel Beckett saw life as shit and human beings as deluded trash waiting for a meaningless death. It is Beckett-style nihilism and contempt for life rather than any deep racist or political convictions that ruled the minds of the Nazi or Soviet camp guards as they casually shot a prisoner for looking sideways at them. It appears that the horrors of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes have taught us nothing. We have continued to inculcate cruelty and violence through the popular art of the cinema, and nihilism and contempt for life through the supposedly serious plastic arts over the past half century. We have developed a popular culture where violence and cruelty are the staple entertainment, disseminated in every second film in every cinema across the planet. There is scarcely a single action film that does not feature the savage murder of at least one human being, presented to us either as a good thing to do or a piece of casual comedy. A Nazi-style conditioning of people in brutality and contempt for human life goes on in our societies on a daily basis. Popular entertainment has not focused to this extent on violence and cruelty against human beings since the days of public executions by means of gruesome tortures in the 18th century. No public entertainment for the past two hundred years – not even cock-fights, dog-fights or bear-baiting – compares in bloodshed, violence and sadism with the popular “action” films of the last thirty years. We have got so used to the violence of our cinema that we scarcely notice how unnatural and depraved it is. If all the victims of brutal and violent acts in the cinema were of one race, and if all the perpetrators were of another race, we would at once understand that this is racist propaganda, inciting violence against another race, and we would put an end to it. As it is, it is inciting violence against the human race in general, and we pretend that it is not happening, or that it is doing no harm.   




When contemplating the horrors of the 20th century, compared with the steadily increasing (even if relative) decency of the 19th century (a century in which Europe made unprecedented moral and humane progress by abolishing such age-old, universal evils as slavery, torture and public executions for the first time anywhere on earth), we are struck by the sense of an enormous step backward in man’s moral sense. All the progress of the 19th century was suddenly reversed, and we went back to the worst medieval horrors. In the 1930’s half the governments in Europe practised torture and arbitrary imprisonment. In the early 1940’s, nine-tenths of them did. But the totalitarian movements of the 20th century that carried out appalling acts of mass killing, torture and enslavement did not see themselves as sliding backward but as moving forward. Both the Fascists and the Communists saw themselves as creating a New Man, a man fitted to the new industrial age, and the new era of state power – a human type that was to be harder, more disciplined, and more determined than any before, and would ruthlessly clear away the rubble of the decadent bourgeois civilization to make way for a glorious future. Both these ideologies can only be understood in terms of a cult of revolution, a cult of starting history again from zero, a cult of abolition of the past, a cult of modernism and the modern age as something unprecedented and utterly different from anything that had gone before. It is the notion of total revolution which lies at the root of all the great events as well as the greatest evils of the twentieth century. The First World War, by sweeping away so many of the structures of the old order, and above all by concentrating enormous power in the hands of the state for the industrial war-effort, inspired hopes for a systematic rebuilding of society on completely new lines. Even liberal democrats like Prime Minister Lloyd George were enthralled by the prospect of total change which the war offered: “No such opportunity has ever been given to any nation before – not even by the French Revolution. The nation is now in a molten state …. We cannot return to the old days, the old abuses, the old stupidities.” 137 The notion that everything must be reshaped from zero according to a ruthlessly rational plan, sweeping away all the accumulated rubbish of the past, underlay the grandiose schemes for a new society of both the Soviet Communists and the Nazis.

But this cult of revolution, the cult of the abolition of the past, had already been expressed in another domain before the First World War broke out. This was the domain of art. The cult of modernism, the idea that the new century had brought a totally new perspective on existence, and that the whole superstructure of existing civilization could and should be swept away as a dead, bourgeois, fossilized relic, was not primarily a political but a cultural phenomenon. As the new century dawned, the revolutionary theories of Marx, the growing unrest of the workers’ movements, even the occasional shocking violence of the anarchists, were nothing compared to the violent lust for change that ran through the artistic world. It is to the notion of revolution in the arts and in human thought that we must turn in order to understand how the cult of revolution took hold of so many minds that it could propel to power the worst revolutionary dictatorships in an age of burgeoning democracy.














To examine the movement called Modernism in any detail would of course take a long book just for itself, but we cannot avoid looking at some aspects of it – those that connect most closely to our theme of the masculinization and brutalization of culture in the 20th century. In the course of this brief analysis we will stress the contradictions of Modernism. As a counter to the usual reverential consecration of Modernism in all the arts as some wonderful brave adventure in liberation, an intellectual expression of freedom and democracy, we will see it instead as a fundamental part of that same obsession with violently abolishing the past which gave rise to totalitarian utopias, and made the 20th century, in much of Europe and Asia, the most cruel, bloody and oppressive age in human history.

By Modernism we mean of course the 20th century artistic movement that began in around 1909 with Futurism. Discussions of Modernism and Postmodernism often bizarrely confuse Modernism, the 20th century artistic movement, with Modernity, the period of Western civilization generally thought to have begun in the late 17th century with the first scientific societies, and which of course we are still part of. There is no way we will ever get beyond Modernity unless there is a nuclear war or other planetary catastrophe (or the cultural collapse of the West) which annihilates the technological, science-based society. But Modernism, the artistic and literary movement, is one that is coming to an end. It has arguably ended already in literature, which is now largely anti-modernist, and it has reduced to gibbering imbecility the visual arts and serious music, which can only be revived on an anti-modernist basis. This appears confusing to some, because the Modernist movement identified itself strongly with Modernity, that is, with the scientific, technological society, which it believed had made the 20th century unique in its advances and definitively different from all the ages before. It should be clear that the end of Modernism does not mean the end of Modernity, but only of a certain artistic obsession with the machine age. There is, however, nothing that can usefully be called Postmodernism, because the very people who have invented this term and all the drivel that goes with it are simply Modernists.

The Modernist movement in art arose at the dawn of the 20th century in the context of a general zeitgeist that included three main elements. First was a growing aggressiveness and militarism, reflected in the new colonial conquests in Africa and in the increasing tensions between rival colonial powers. War was saluted by thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche and Theodore Roosevelt as a healthy, manly, revitalizing activity. Most nations began preparing their people for it by military service, a cult of sport, as well as quasi-militarist movements like the Boy Scouts (which grew out of the Boer War.) Violent struggle was seen as the basic mechanism of evolution, recently shown by Darwin to be the driving force of all life. It was also seen as the path of social progress, according to the revolutionary left. War, in short, was the father of all things.1 Second, there was a new cult of science, industrial machinery and technological progress. The great exhibition of London in 1851 set off a lasting, world-wide fascination with technology and its evolution, leading to the notion that constant change and revolution in techniques has somehow made the past obsolete. Trains, cars, electric lighting, the telegraph, the telephone, the aeroplane, soon to be followed by radically new scientific theories of matter and the universe, were thought to have created a new world different from anything that had ever existed before. Suddenly people believed that the achievements of the past had been outdistanced and relegated to some primitive pre-history of man: only now in the new “modern age” was mankind coming into his own. The future stretched gloriously ahead and there was nothing technology could not achieve. The third element was a cult of social revolution which spread from the anarchist and socialist groups into a generalized expectation of a cataclysmic social upheaval. There was a widespread belief (especially among artists) in the rottenness of what was known as “bourgeois society” with its rigid class system, hypocritical morality, inherited injustices, and defunct ideas. There was a conviction that the whole of civilization had to be overthrown and a new start made, in which science and technology would reshape the world. All three of these elements: the cult of aggression, the cult of technological progress, and the cult of social revolution, form the core of 20th century Fascist ideology. They also form the core of the first great movement in Modernist art, Futurism, which burst on the Paris literary scene in 1909.

The founder of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, worshipped speed, fast cars, power and industrial machines and denounced all attachment to the past. He exalted aggression, virility, patriotism and war (which he defined as the “sole hygiene of the world” – in other words, a force for the purification of the race, the essence of the Nazi concept of war.) He urged the destruction of all libraries and art museums as reliquaries of the dead past. His outlook seems to encompass the views of Henry Ford (“History is bunk” – though Ford was a lot more intelligent than the remark attributed to him), Adolf Hitler (war as racial hygiene) and Mao Zedong (who really did destroy the art works of the past as part of his  perpetual revolution) all rolled into one. He adored factories, motor cars, locomotives, steel bridges – everything noisy, powerful, technological. He and his friends loved to drive cars at full speed across the Lombard countryside, and his ideal of beauty was a roaring machine: “a racing car which seems to run on gunpowder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”2 This elevation of industrial products over the great art of the past is typical of the whole tradition of modern art which derives from Futurism. Marinetti became an ardent Fascist, and saw Mussolini’s Fascism as the fulfilment of his visionary programme. Mussolini reciprocated by promoting Modernist, Futurist architecture in Italy and its African colonies. Futurism became by and large the Fascist style (though it had to compete with the revival of the Roman imperial style.)





It would of course be superficial to claim that Modernism is somehow inherently “fascist” merely because one of its founding movements, Futurism, identified itself with Italian Fascism. But the fact is that all through its history Modernism has manifested the same elements that are displayed in Fascist Futurism. The entire movement of perpetual pseudo-revolution which has governed the art world for the past hundred years (rather like the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” which governed Mexico for much of the 20th century and kept proclaiming its revolutionary nature as it grew more and more fossilized) – the cult of innovation, novelty, originality, sensationalism, shock, which fills museums like the Tate Modern with its bizarre objects even today – is a direct descendant of Futurism. The whole abstract-conceptual tradition, from Vorticism and Cubism onwards, with its geometrical forms, machine-like shapes, its industrial feel, its use of ready-made industrial objects, machinery, bits of manufactured junk, its contempt for the ideas of art and beauty of past centuries, its rejection of nature, its desire to shock with crude and brutal effects, to degrade, insult and spit on everything traditionally respected (Manzoni’s cans of shit, Duchamp’s urinal, lumps of used chewing gum, a pile of bricks, a mutilated sheep carcass or dirty bedsheets as works of art) – all this is in a direct line from Marinetti and Futurism. It also reflects much of the underlying spirit of Fascism: its desire to shock and violate sensibilities with a show of brutal violence and an abrupt break with all conventions.

This association of Modernism with Fascism goes against the whole grain of academic criticism for the past fifty years. The tendency of intellectuals since the Second World War (influenced by a Marxist view of history) has been to ignore the revolutionary side of Fascism and pretend that it was merely a defence of the old order, an essentially conservative movement (as Franco’s regime in Spain largely was.) This has made us forget the violent, revolutionary, collectivist, anti-bourgeois nature of Nazism and Italian Fascism, their radical break with the past, their obsession with new technology, their ambition to create a New Man, which was as great as that of Soviet communism. The Nazis not only shocked bourgeois sensibilities by their reinstatement of public cruelty and violence in the beating up of Jews in the street, the gunning down of their opponents, the public executions. They also violated sexual taboos. There were of course conflicting tendencies in Nazism – a puritanical and a pagan hedonistic current. This led them briefly to ban nudist societies in 1933 before authorizing them again a few months later. Those among their supporters who looked forward to a restoration of moral decency after the decadence of the gay cabaret scene of Weimar Berlin were soon disappointed : the neo-paganism of many of the top leaders led to the setting up of brothels for party members and the staging of shows featuring naked women in Germanic mythological roles. Official Nazi art, far from being prudish, glorified the nude. The 1960’s New Left in Germany tried to justify its promotion of sexual liberation by depicting  Nazism as a sexually repressive society. This, it is now recognized, was a falsification. The German Christian Democrats of the 1950’s based their conservatism on the opposite perception: that Nazism had been a sexually permissive society – and they remembered it a little more accurately.3 Sexual liberation was part and parcel of the Nazi ideology, along with the cult of youth. The Hitler Youth Movement, with its camps of boys and girls side by side in the countryside, made the Germans the most sexually precocious people in Europe, with pre-marital sex the norm. Of the millions of teenage girls enrolled in the League of German Maidens, a large number finished their away-from-home Household Year or Countryside Year not only no longer maidens but also pregnant. This, far from being disapproved of, was welcomed by the Party as part of the necessary breeding of soldiers for the Reich. The “Strength Through Joy” movement was gleefully interpreted by the young as a licence for teen-age sex, which the Nazis saw as a sign of the vitality of the race. Just after the outbreak of war, Himmler announced that it was women’s sacred duty to bear children to soldiers, even outside wedlock (a message the female youth leaders had already been giving their charges.) Illegitimacy was to be no bar to the replenishment of the ranks of the fighting men. 4 Himmler’s plan to release the SS of their marriage vows after the war and get them to breed with specially selected women to create a new master race illustrates the degree to which Nazism was a complete break with traditional bourgeois norms of morality in matters of sex as well as in attitudes to killing. In this it was part of the ongoing revolution of modernist thinking, what we might call the desecrating, the de-sacralising of all things, the systematic violation of moral taboos and social conventions – and not, as the Left has tended to see it, a conservative reaction defending the old bourgeois order. Himmler’s lebensborn breeding plans, along with the mechanized extermination camps, are an even more brutal moral break with the bourgeois past than anything in Stalinism. They are far closer to the Brave New World of a ruthless, scientific reduction of human beings to the status of objects to be produced, used and disposed of. And in this they closely follow the Modernist ideology of total revolution, the cult of machine production, and the Modernist contempt for bourgeois individualism, personal emotions, and for the Christian-humanist superstition of the absolute value of the individual human being.

But, you will answer, surely the Nazi attacks on Cubism and abstract art, the closing of the Bauhaus, Hitler’s taste for neo-classical architecture and Wagner’s operas, are proof that Nazism was a reactionary movement from an artistic point of view, not a revolutionary one? Surely Hitler would have preferred, in Marinetti’s terms, the ancient Greek sculpture known as “The Victory of Samothrace” to a racing car! It is not certain. Let us say he would have pretended to prefer the Greek sculpture but in practice would have gone for the racing car. We have already pointed out that Mussolini was a great patron of Modernist architecture, and the Fascist expansion of Italy’s African colonies led to a new crop of Futurist buildings, today hailed as Modernist masterpieces, in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara. But even though Hitler, unlike Mussolini, did not recognize the affinities of Modernism with his own political movement, those affinities are there. The Nazi regime in practice often moved in the opposite direction to its own proclaimed beliefs. A movement which glorified the bucolic life of the countryside was responsible for the industrialization of war and death on a scale never seen before. And a movement which sought votes by pretending to stand for traditional moral values in fact abolished them more completely than any other. The whole ritualistic aspect of Nazi parades, designer uniforms and visual symbols, while it pretended to be a throwback to imperial ceremonial, was bathed in a Modernist cult of style. A violent, vandalistic, collective will to raze and destroy the recent (democratic, liberal, bourgeois) past is at the core of both Nazism and Modernism. Both have a contempt for individual liberty as a passé bourgeois delusion: the future belongs to collective action, the subjection of the individual to the group (the party, the collective art movement) and its doctrines. The Nazi faith in new secret weapons, in victory through technological superiority, echoed the Futurists’ cult of machines and technological progress. In many ways Nazism was a revolution pretending to be a restoration of the past. But in this very contradiction it was Modernist to the core: one has only to remember the key place of primitivism in Modernist art, the degree to which the artistic revolutionaries disguised their revolution as a return to the forms of the remote past, while abolishing the more recent past – that of bourgeois civilization. Nazism in its trumpeted goal of abolishing bourgeois stuffiness, conventionality, weakness and humanistic moral squeamishness in order to return to an era of past grandeur of a brutal and primitive kind (worshipping Odin and Thor, executing with the axe in public) is essentially the political and ideological equivalent of Modernism in art. In both movements, crudeness, violence and a cult of deliberate outrage are justified by a belief in the greater vigour of primitive savagery over genteel bourgeois convention. Nazism is to liberal bourgeois society what Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is to a Mozart symphony. 

In fact what unites Modernism and Nazism is essentially the one quality: brutality. A cult of masculine values – of contempt for prettiness and anything feminine or delicate – runs through both movements. (“Contempt for women!” was a Futurist slogan.) What neither the Nazi nor the Modernist must have is scruples or delicacy or sensitivity. For both movements, the elegant, refined, rather feminine aesthetic values of the old aristocratic civilization, which had dominated the West since the Renaissance, were dead – and the carnage of the First World War buried them. Henceforth no painting must be delicate. Hardness is the nature of the age. Lines must be crudely and coarsely drawn, colours applied with a ladle. Caricature replaces portraiture. Distortion replaces naturalism. There is no longer a careful and loving representation of the precise forms of nature – Constable’s or Monet’s delicate reproduction of the exact impression of light on water or fields. Modernism is crudeness. And Hitler, though he himself would hardly have recognized the parallel, is doing the same in politics. Henceforth the time for bourgeois drawing-room chatter has gone. The machine gun must replace philosophical debate. The jackboot and the firing squad will settle all essential questions. Nazism is to parliamentary democracy what modern art is to a Constable landscape. A faithful transcription of all the subtle complexities of nature, a sensitivity to the most delicate impressions, a sense of proportion, a civilized respect for norms, are replaced by an arbitrary act of force, a crude redrawing of nature with bold, harsh strokes, a brutal destruction of the traditions of the civilized past in the name of a restoration of primitive vigour or the imposition of an ideological abstraction. Both movements, Fascism and Modernism, represent violence and brutality in power. Hitler’s personal attachment as an artist to 19th century artistic styles prevented him from seeing how closely his own political movement paralleled the Modernist revolution in art (a parallel which Mussolini saw far more clearly.) As an artist the young Hitler remained a bourgeois; as a politician he violently destroyed bourgeois civilization. But the fact that he could not see his affinities to Modernism does not prevent us from seeing them. We are not obliged to share his blindness. It is our job to see the paradoxes he failed to see, and to place him more accurately in his cultural context than he placed himself.





Early Modernist poets, more intellectual and self-aware than other artists, recognized the deep contradictions and incoherence in their own movement. They were quite openly both Modernists and reactionaries. The most important thing to grasp is that the first generation of Modernist poets in English, unlike the Futurists, hated the modern age. The major figures of early twentieth century poetry, Yeats, Pound and Eliot, were profoundly reactionary. They were all attracted to Fascism, but only those aspects of it which seemed to promise a restoration of past grandeur, and an abolition of the detested present – in other words Fascism’s reactionary facade rather than its modernistic, brutally revolutionary reality. They believed in orderly parades and stately ceremony, not jackboots in faces and corpses in the streets. All of these poets worshipped the art of the past and disliked most of the art of the present, even to the point of half-lamenting the changes they themselves were carrying forward. Yeats saw himself as the last romantic and denounced modern poetry as “all out of shape from toe to top”.5  Pound worshipped the Provençal poetry of the 12th century, the Chinese classical poets, and Renaissance Italy. Eliot admired the 17th century metaphysical poets, and his oeuvre consisted largely of pastiches, quotations and allusions to the literature of the past, expressing a nostalgic yearning for bygone ages which he saw as more emotionally and spiritually intense than the present. The art these first Modernists wanted to create had become obsolete in the modern age and they struggled to bring it back. All of them engaged in experiments to revive past forms – Eliot and Yeats verse drama, Pound the classical epic (as revised by Renaissance Italian poets.) They became Modernists almost in spite of themselves – in their very attempt to go back to the past. But their successors (and above all the academics who interpreted their work) looked back at the first Modernists and acclaimed them as great technical innovators. They were in love with Modernism and the modern age. It is their successors who created the myth of Modernism as a triumphant rejection of the past. Its founders would not have subscribed to this myth for one moment. They would have seen themselves as rejecting the present, as a catastrophic fall from a past they venerated and longed to return to.  




Yeats began his career as a late romantic, lamenting the end of the romantic movement: “The woods of Arcady are dead.” 6 He spent his life idealizing a series of past ages: 18th century aristocratic Ireland, the ancient heroic Ireland of Cuchulain, Renaissance Italy, and in later life Byzantine civilization, whose art he saw as embodying spiritual values in eternal, unchanging forms – a bastion against the ephemeral tides of modernity. He even expressed the wish to be reincarnated as a Byzantine work of art, a golden bird, to be set upon a golden bough to sing “To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” 7 In his last poetic testament, Under Ben Bulben, he heaped scorn on modern poetry:


Irish Poets, learn your trade,

Sing whatever is well made,

Scorn the sort now growing up

All out of shape from toe to top,

Their unremembering hearts and heads

Base-born products of base beds. 8


He detested not only the formlessness of modern free verse but also the break with the past, the loss of memory of the great traditions of poetry. While he appreciated some of the contemporary styles and fashions in other arts in his youth (especially dance), he felt deeply alienated from much of what was happening in poetry and painting, and was given to violent diatribes against contemporary artists (one of his bêtes noires was Degas, whose dancers he found graceless and ugly, precisely the qualities now admired.) He saw the modern age as degenerate in almost every domain: artistic, cultural, social. His later poetry, supposedly anchored more than his youthful work in the harsh realities of modern times, in fact fed on a constant vision of past ages of history (Byzantium, ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or eighteenth century Ireland), which he saw as ideal periods from which the modern world had fatally declined. He classified all ages in a cosmic system of his own, with the modern age as the very nadir of history, a time of cultural catastrophe. It is clear that Yeats only managed to endure the age he lived in through an imaginative dwelling in the past and a mystical belief that past ages were somehow still in existence on some cosmic plane. In so far as he expressed a political vision it was deeply reactionary, sympathetic to Mussolini and O’Duffy’s Irish Fascist movement. His deep if forlorn hope was for a restoration of the aristocratic order of the past, which he saw as more civilized than modern democracy. A Modernist more profoundly anti-modern it is hard to imagine.

Ezra Pound is a similar case of a man at odds with his age, who dwelt in the past and longed to restore it. For him the temptation of Fascism was its promise to restore a type of state modelled on Renaissance Florence, ruled by a vigorous, paternalist dictator with a strong interest in supporting the arts. He gives an account of his struggle to produce art against the current of the times in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). 


For three years, out of key with his time

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry; to maintain “the sublime”

In the old sense. Wrong from the start – 9


He then goes on to tell us in what way his conception of art was out of key with his time:


The age demanded an image

Of its accelerated grimace,

Something for the modern stage,

Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;


Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries

Of the inward gaze;

Better mendacities

Than the classics in paraphrase!



The “age demanded” chiefly a mould in plaster

Made with no loss of time,

A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster

Or the sculpture of rhyme.


His meticulous craftsmanship, his technical perfectionism, his use of traditional rhyme, his contemplative themes, his imitations of the classics, are some of the things the modern age did not accept. The poem goes on to denounce the age in all its aspects, by ironic juxtapositions with the grandeur of the past.


The tea-rose tea-gown etc

Supplants the mousseline of Cos,

The pianola replaces

Sappho’s barbitos.


The modern age is contemptible even down to its vulgar, tasteless fashions in clothes and music. The obscurity of the classical references (how many readers know that a barbitos is a lyre?) is a frank declaration of intellectual elitism, which illustrates the profound contempt he feels for the  vulgar, Philistine, mass-market democratic age.


All things are a flowing

Sage Heracleitus says;

But a tawdry cheapness

Shall outlast our days.


Faun’s flesh is not to us,

Nor the saint’s vision.

We have the press for wafer;

Franchise for circumcision.


Modern political democracy, with its crude electioneering and vulgar mass media, has replaced the spiritual and mystical rituals of religion. The poem goes on in this way to pillory the whole modern age, not merely the bourgeois Philistinism which had been a favourite whipping boy of artists for fifty years, but every aspect of modern existence, including democracy, the press, modern scepticism in matters religious, and contemporary popular art forms.

Yet Pound in this poem is also making a kind of mea culpa for his own aesthetic neurasthenia in the pre-war years. He had “observed the elegance of Circe’s hair/Rather than the mottoes on sundials.” He sees the exquisite delicacy of his earlier art, the late romanticism of his Provençal imitations, as a sort of culpable navel-gazing which prevented him from facing the harsh realities of the age. After the catastrophic war and economic depression, a new social realism of subject matter is called for. So his poetry turns to harsher themes than Provençal romances and the delicate complexions of young women. He begins to rant and rave about Usury (his trope for modern capitalism), writes a long, rambling verse history of civilization, in which Usury plays a prominent role, and ends up in Italy supporting Mussolini’s Fascist movement. He finishes the war in an Allied prison camp facing a charge of treason for making radio broadcasts for the enemy, which he dodges only by pleading insanity and being locked away in a psychiatric hospital. This is an intellectual career which might seem confused – but it is profoundly revealing of the tensions and contradictions within Modernism as a whole, and its love-hate relationship with the modern age. We could argue that Pound, in going over openly to Fascism, follows the trajectory of early Modernism (that of Marinetti) most faithfully. For Fascism too was full of contradictions. It was a movement of violent rejection of the present bourgeois civilization, in pursuit of a mad dream to reinstate the lost grandeur of the past (the Roman empire) – but it tried to achieve it through a Futuristic cult of technical progress. Mussolini saw himself as a great modernizer, a bringer of electricity to villages, determined to drag poor, backward Italy into the 20th century. At the same time his regime modelled itself on the ancient Roman empire. On the one hand, the Fascist cult of war and violent methods led to a primitivist glorification of savage instincts – a typical element of early Modernism, from Stravinsky to Lawrence. On the other hand, the movement was imbued with the worship of new technologies and industrial progress. The rejection of bourgeois civilization went both backwards and forwards: a vision of a more natural, instinctive, passionate and vigorous pre-bourgeois past to be restored through a Futurist cult of technical revolution. The paradox of both Modernism and Fascism lies in a simultaneous cult of the future and revival of the distant past.  The ultimate expression of Fascism (in its Nazi extreme) is the scientific mechanization of death in the service of a dark, medieval superstition. But this paradox is not alien to a Modernist movement which hailed as futuristic progress a return to a level of primitive crudeness in art not seen since the drawings of cave men. Both movements used a cult of progress and revolution to go back to a crude, savage past which genteel bourgeois society had condemned as barbaric. And both movements found that their attempt to restore the remote past created instead a new and unrecognizable reality.

T.S. Eliot’s greatest work, The Waste Land, illustrates perfectly the paradoxical Modernist hatred of the present and love of the past. Though its stylistic innovations announce its modernity, its theme is a systematic attack on the modern world. It weaves a web of allusions, pastiches and images from past periods, whose spiritual values are evoked only to emphasize the decadence and squalor of the present age. References to Petronius, Wagner, Ovid, Shakespeare, Webster, Goldsmith, Dante, Verlaine, the Grail legend, Saint Augustine, the Buddha, the Upanishads, etc., are all meant as counterpoint to the sterility, emptiness, ugliness and depravity of modern life. For those who do not have the poem at hand, and whose memory of it is fading, a quote or two may illustrate the technique. He takes the lines of Marvell in To his Coy Mistress :


But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near         


and turns it into this:


But at my back from time to time I hear

The sounds of horns and motors, which shall bring

Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the spring. 10


The poetic winged chariot of time (urging the lovers to get on with it) becomes the ugly modern cacophony of motor-cars and their horns, bringing his character Sweeney, a gross ape-like sexual omnivore, to the sluttish Mrs Porter, of ribald drinking-song fame. Similarly, his classical persona, the seer Tiresias, watches the soulless sexual encounter of a pimpled house agent’s clerk with a secretary, and comments afterwards in a parody of Goldsmith’s lament over a fond woman betrayed by a faithless lover: 


When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about the room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.  11


The bored indifference of the woman to her casual sexual exploitation, the trivialization even of sin, drives the poet to despair. Every few lines there is another allusion of the same sort, contrasting the depressing vulgarity and sordidness of the present age with a nobler past. The references pile up densely stanza after stanza, page after page, into an overwhelming impression of decline, depravity and squalor. It is clear that this is not merely an unhappy man writing about life. It is an unhappy man writing about an age he hates – the modern age. In no previous century did the poets write so obsessively about their own age as a subject in itself – and an object of contempt and revulsion. A romantic poet like Shelley was unhappy, but his quarrel was with mankind, not with the age. He blamed his unhappiness on oppressive political and religious systems, and he saw those systems stretching back into the past and reflecting eternal human vices, so that past ages were no better than his own. Even writers like Scott or Keats who romanticized the Middle Ages did not do so to express loathing for the present. For Eliot, in such works as The Waste Land or The Hollow Men, the age he lives in becomes the dominant subject of his work. And he detests that age like a disease and would willingly swap it for almost any other. Images of the crowd flowing over London bridge on the way to work, where “each man fixed his eyes before his feet”, become Dantesque images of a modern hell of the walking damned. Faced with the nightmare of what he calls “the dead land”, “cactus land”, he can only evoke the end of the world, “falling towers”, the collapse of civilization, as a merciful deliverance. What is extraordinary is the degree to which this expression of one individual’s neurosis and alienation struck a chord with so many others in his time. Something called “the modern age” came to oppress the imagination of thinking people in the early twentieth century with a nightmarish intensity – and  this horror at the modern world became one of the main elements in Modernism itself.

In the novel we see the same thing. James Joyce is, like Eliot, a man obsessed with certain aspects of the modern world which he loathes. And he expresses that loathing by constructing a modern novel about day-to-day humdrum existence inside a framework of allusions to Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Every comparison of an event in the lives of the characters with an event in Ulysses’s life is an exposure of what Pound calls the “tawdry cheapness” of the modern age. The Nausicaa episode is typical: Ulysses’ seduction by an island nymph who makes him forget the purpose of his journey is replaced by the henpecked, cuckolded, middle-aged sad-sack Bloom masturbating at the sight of a lame girl on the beach showing him her knickers. Here the sordidness and sterility of modern sexual experience seems to be reinforced by the detail of the girl’s lameness, which Bloom only notices as she walks away, provoking a sudden post-orgasm depression.12 Even the way the girl herself perceives this squalid sexual incident is satirized by the tone in which her thoughts are expressed – a parody of the rose-water style of popular “bodice-ripper” romances. The girl interprets her prick-teasing exhibition of her knickers to a wanking voyeur as a romantic flirtation of a delicate, unspoken kind with a mysterious, distant admirer. Her every thought and feeling is a vulgar cliché from the shallow popular trash her head is filled with. Even the climax of the novel, the much admired Molly monologue, without punctuation to emphasize her semi-literacy and scatter-brained non-sequiturs of thought, is a send-up. Her reverie about her first sexual experience with Bloom is a build-up to her own masturbation, and the final repetitions of “Yes” at the end are the moment of her own orgasm. The climax of the book is the climax of a wank. Romantic memories are for jerking off to. There is no sadder send-up of love than this (especially when the couple are no longer having sex) and yet this passage has been considered a wonderful affirmation of life and love by the sort of liberal American academic in desperate need of philosophical uplift. One can only suppose that people who think this also see the Nausicaa episode – a crippled teenager exhibiting her knickers to a wanking voyeur, narrated in a parody of the lady-like style of the spinster’s penny romance – as a wonderful love experience showing the marvellous sexual vitality of the modern age. 

The basic structure of most of these early Modernist works is a form of parody or satire of the present, by ironic counterpoint with an idealized past. It is a form of satire where the rage of the artist is directed exclusively against the modern world, not against the past, for which he generally feels a deep reverence and nostalgia. This is very different from the ridicule and desecration of the past which a later generation of Modernist imitators went in for.  In short the perspective of the first generation of Modernist writers is hatred of their own age and glorification of past ages. By a curious paradox, the next generation, raised on Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Joyce, come to reject the past world that these writers glorified, and instead exalt the artistic styles of Modernism which these writers almost accidentally produced. Their rage shifts from the modern age as a decline from the past, to the past itself as a false and outmoded ideal. This new generation of the depressed thirties, desperately clutching at a communist dream of endless future happiness after a period of suitably indiscriminate massacre, lumped past and present together to be thrown into one enormous dustbin of history. Only after they have fulfilled Marx’s favourite dictum : “Everything that is must be destroyed!” (the words of Goethe’s devil) will the Brave New World crawl out of the debris and the reign of the Saints begin. The generation of the thirties therefore looked back at the great Modernist poets of the previous decades as the demolition agents of the past, whose new literary techniques cleared away the debris of history and tradition so a new glorious future could be built. In contrast, those first Modernist poets had seen their work as a desperate attempt to preserve the past in the teeth of an age they hated (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”)12 No greater misunderstanding can be imagined. There is nothing more alien to the vision of the first generation of Modernist poets than the myth of Modernism built upon their work by the generations that came after.

This myth that the great Modernists were rebels against the past is partly due to their technical innovations. In the case of Joyce this is a very free revamping of the whole structure of the novel, using parody and pastiche in entire chapters, and a multiplicity of styles. T.S. Eliot freely revamps the structure of the long poem in the same way, switching styles, rhythms, voices and personae, and also using parody and pastiche – to evoke the past, the touchstone of human values. But in early Modernist poetry a good part of the sense of innovation lies simply in an evolution of language – the rejection of a special poetic diction. There is a common assumption nowadays (it is one of the academic myths of Modernism) that poetry has always tended to use archaic language, which must periodically be renewed and updated. This has not generally been true in English. There have been individual poets who used archaic diction, such as Spenser and Chatterton, but new movements like Donne’s, Dryden’s or Wordsworth’s have represented changes of style rather than renewals of language. There was nothing in the poetry of Shakespeare or Milton which cried out for a renewal of language; their respective successors Donne and Dryden simply chose to write differently. But this notion of the renewal of language was substantially true of the late 19th century, because of the major changes the language had gone through over previous decades. The older grammatical forms of thou, thee, hast and hath which disappeared from standard (southern) British speech in the early 19th century (as part of a steadily increasing formality of speech among the new prissy, Puritanical gentry, eliminating the equivalent of the familiar tu form in French) were kept on by the poets because they sounded more personal and intimate – just as the church kept the thou form in prayers. For the generation of Shelley and Byron, to say “I love you” instead of “I love thee” would have sounded as stiff and pompous as to say “je vous aime” to a Frenchwoman today. This new formality and stiffness of language only gradually imposed itself with Victorian Puritanism. There was a fashion among Victorian poets, in revolt against their time, to affirm their allegiance to a more passionate age by continuing to use its language – not only its more intimate pronouns (Swinburne still wrote “thou” in 1866, long after anybody actually said it, except in dialect), but also a certain number of archaic words which they felt were more poetic than the modern equivalents. This self-conscious archaism of diction expressed a nostalgia for the past, and especially for an idealized pre-industrial age where man was closer to nature and felt deeper emotions than in the coarse, materialistic, brutalizing industrial world in which the poets now found themselves. Though this poetic diction was disappearing by the end of the century, elements of it still cropped up out of habit in the work of some poets. Ezra Pound, after indulging himself in this archaism and medievalism for much of his youth, writing Provençal imitations as archaic in language as Spenser’s poems, became a great advocate of modernizing language and getting rid of old-fashioned diction just before the First World War. This is when he was associated in the founding of Vorticism with Wyndham Lewis – a painter and writer with a sharply observant but deeply schizophrenic attitude to the modern age, both loathing it and embracing its fashions as the new reality. Pound from then on became the guru of “making it new” in poetry. Through the literary magazines he edited he had an influence on Eliot and even Yeats in promoting a new consciousness of the need to remain close to the way people now talked. But in none of them was this modernization of language associated in any degree with a revolt against the past. All three were profoundly reactionary in politics, beliefs and cultural and artistic tastes (though they were the tastes not of the previous generation but of a remoter past.) They adapted their language to the age but not their souls. 

Perhaps a second element in the myth of Modernists as rebels against the past came from the attempts by the state to censor some of their work. James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in Britain and America for obscenity – it contained some of the swearwords and terms for bodily functions that ordinary young Irish people actually used. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for similar offences. Lawrence was another reactionary who hated the modern industrial age and dreamed of a return to some primitive natural simplicity, such as that of the ancient Mexicans or the ancient Etruscans, worshipping dark and bloody gods. But though he was in fact a proto-fascist, raving on about the dark gods, the leadership principle and thinking with the blood, he was attacked by the puritanical establishment not as a fascist but as a threat to sexual propriety. He fought bitter battles against censorship for obscenity, which made him a cult hero of the left. The liberties taken by these early Modernists in crude language or open treatment of sex and other bodily functions were enough to win them the badge of progressives – rebels against convention, avatars of a new freedom of expression – when in fact their entire worldview was profoundly anti-modern, anti-democratic and reactionary.

The next generation of English poets, Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, reinterpreted this hatred of the modern industrial age as a hatred of the capitalist system. They were mostly Marxists (for a time) who looked forward eagerly to the revolutionary cataclysm and the year zero, making a clean sweep of a corrupt civilization. Salvation for them lay in the future, not the past, but they saw themselves as carrying on to the next stage a poetic revolution begun by the generation of Eliot. It is this second generation which established the myth of Modernism as a revolution against the past. Critics talked much of the technical innovation of their verse, of their break with traditional  forms. But their technical revolution has been much exaggerated. Any innovation was confined to content, attitude and style rather than verse technique – their anti-romanticism, their rejection of Yeats’ emotional hyperbole and grand poetic manner in favour of understatement, irony, a prosaic style (not to be confused with a colloquial style, because it meant introducing an academic and journalistic vocabulary) and in Auden’s case a certain tendency to vacuous, abstract generalization. Auden later recants the strident Marxist verse propaganda of his earlier years and retreats into the boring platitudes of a country vicar. But from a technical point of view (metre, rhyme, stanza forms), they remained by and large very traditional poets to the end. Most of their verse is in strictly traditional metres (far more conventional than Eliot’s or Pound’s) and often rhymed. Even when they seem occasionally to be writing “free verse” their lines can usually be scanned; they are simply varying the length of them. And when they turn conservative, as they do in middle age, the essential traditionalism of their verse reflects more and more the tired disillusionment of their views. The Modernist revolution in poetry is very largely an academic myth. Walt Whitman in the mid-nineteenth century wrote far “freer” verse than Eliot, Pound or Auden (let alone Yeats.) While Whitman had his modern imitators, who wrote prose and called it poetry, all the major poets of the 20th century (including the major Americans, Frost, Crane, Stevens, Roethke and Lowell) wrote verse that remains by and large within traditional metres. This goes so much against the grain of what is often taught in universities by the mythmakers of Modernism that it is perhaps worth looking at it for a moment to make the point.




Eliot, in an introduction to Pound’s poems, made clear the distinction between the sort of modern verse he and Pound wrote, and the writing of what he called the disciples of Walt Whitman. He repeats his earlier remark on vers libre that “no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” He traces the notion of “free verse” to Jules Laforgue, who wrote verse that was free “in much the way that the later verse of Shakespeare, Webster, Tourneur, is free verse; that is to say, it stretches, contracts and distorts the traditional French measure as later Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry stretches, contracts and distorts the blank verse measure.” 13 He sees his own verse as fitting into this tradition of stretching and distorting the blank verse line (by adding or subtracting a few syllables while keeping the same number of beats.) By contrast he regards Whitman as “a great prose writer”. He distinguishes between revolutionaries who “develop logically” and those who “innovate illogically” –  implying that Pound is the first and Whitman the second. He regards Whitman’s work as “a logical development of certain English prose.” But he saw it as “spurious in so far as Whitman wrote in a way that asserted that his great prose was a new form of verse.” 14  

The point Eliot seems to be making is that Whitman was writing lines without any relation to the paradigm of verse, which consists of a number of discernible beats in a line (not, of course, necessarily the same number in each line.) These beats impose a musical rhythm on the line which exists in a certain creative tension with the syntax of the sentence, and modifies the way we say it. Whitman’s writing, in contrast, has, in Eliot’s view, the natural, irregular rhythm of prose, which simply follows the syntax and does not set up any secondary formal rhythm in tension with it. Now what Eliot says is not in fact always true of Whitman, but it is very often true, especially when he gets carried away in his longer poems. And it is certainly true of his disciples, such as Marianne Moore, who set out deliberately to ignore and exclude the rhythm of verse, and by their choice of line-breaks make it impossible to read their lines as verse – while insisting bizarrely on calling it poetry. It is important to look at this distinction between the Eliot-Pound current and the Whitmanites more closely, because it is crucial in defining how far Modernism in poetry constituted a technical revolution at all, and how far it was merely one more stylistic development, comparable to the changes brought about in their own generations by Donne, Dryden or Wordsworth.




In what sense was Eliot an innovator? If, as he rightly claims, he kept to a blank verse line not greatly altered since late Shakespeare, in what way did he change the technique of poetry? In terms of metre he merely pushed slightly further a development that had already been pioneered by Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach way back in 1851 – the changing of metre from one line to the next not through a regular stanza scheme but through an organic following of the shape of the thought. Here is Arnold, talking of the sea of faith:


But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. 15


This is a mix of iambic pentameters and trimeters (five-beat and three-beat lines), but the switch from one to another occurs irregularly, following the pattern of thought, and there are long passages in this poem where he sticks to one or the other. Eliot does the same:


Here I am, an old man in a dry month,

Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

I was neither at the hot gates

Nor fought in the warm rain

Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,

Bitten by flies, fought.  16


This again is a mix of pentameters and trimeters, but as in Arnold the switch from one to another is dictated by the shape of the thought, not by a regular, repeated stanza scheme, as we would find in Shelley, Tennyson or Hardy. So in verse forms Eliot is merely continuing Arnold’s Victorian innovation  – switching metres from one line to the next as the spirit moves him. He is not modifying the metre within each line. The opening pentameter above only displaces beats, stretches and distorts the blank verse line, in the manner of late Shakespeare or Webster. As Eliot himself said, he was not modifying the iambic line any more than they did three hundred years before him. 

What is utterly new in Eliot is the content, the mood, the attitude.  Look at the famous opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:


Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table. 17


What is new in these two fairly regular, traditional iambic pentameters is the incongruous image of the sunset as an operating theatre – deliberately, outrageously, almost offensively anti-romantic. It expresses a rejection of the natural world, a total alienation of man from nature – that nature which the romantic poets had felt an instinctive kinship with. The image of modern hospitals, of operations, epitomizes the modern technical age which has broken man’s connection with nature. But the image perfectly reflects the state of mind of the neurotic, alienated narrator: even the evening sky shares his psychological paralysis, his helplessness. The narrator, who is a rounded character like Browning’s dramatic narrators, then invites us to accompany him on his visit:  


Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:


The squalid urban landscape is described not so much as a physical reality, but as a psychological space, a state of mind of desolation and faint patrician disgust for the sordid pleasures of the flesh. The journey becomes even more a psychological one:


Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question…. 


We gradually pierce the mystery of the narrator’s neurotic state of mind. He is a timid, balding intellectual pushed to propose marriage to a woman acquaintance not out of passionate love but out of frustration, depression, need, fear of loneliness – and dreading the moment of truth, the social disaster of rejection, as if the room full of tea-drinking women were as terrifying as a battle-field. This is what sexual love – which had been seen by the romantic poets as a redemptive force, the one thing that makes life worth living – has now been reduced to in the modern age: a combination of tedium, neurosis, and nightmarish fears.

What is new is not any innovation in verse technique – these are solidly conventional iambic pentameters and trimeters – but the new freedom of the poet to range from physical to mental description, from concrete to abstract vocabulary, in the construction of a Browning-style dramatic persona. And what is new above all is the persona itself: a man full of obscure psychological fears, a neurotic. This is modern, urban, intellectual man: a shrunken, timid, lonely, balding, shy, sexually inhibited, self-conscious, prudish, emotionally impotent man facing a room full of arty, tea-drinking women. But though this figure seems at first to be a self-deprecating joke, it gradually becomes the portrait of a misfit, a psychological basket case. The poem becomes a quiet, civilized scream of protest against the superficial, alien social world he lives in:


When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall

Then how should I begin  

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 18  


It ends with an evocation of suicide — a complex image of drowning, but also of a life of erotic reverie, dreaming of mermaids, from which the human reality is a rude awakening : 


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown. 19


The final intensity of the poem wrenches it out of its dramatic framework. It becomes all too clearly the personal cry of the poet. The poem is about the death of the dream of romantic love – killed off by the everyday reality of a superficial, boring social world of women who no longer inspire or are interested in the passions of the romantic poet. Real women, real relationships, he seems to be saying, are very different from the romantic dream. On one level this is an embarrassing confession of sexual failure – the lament of a man who is not getting his end away, and, more important, no longer has much hope that he ever will. Lots of romantic poets complain of solitude, but their dreams of the beautiful lady who will finally save them from themselves remain intact till death (it helps in these cases to die young.) What Eliot is creating here is a character who is the very antithesis of the romantic persona of the poet unconsciously copied from Keats and Shelley for a century. These poets might be desperately lonely, but at least they still have the dream that one day the gentle, understanding  woman will show up and make it all worthwhile. Eliot presents us with anti-romantic man par excellence – a man who no longer believes in his own seductive potential, and therefore his own chances of happiness. For whatever psychological reasons, he can no longer see woman (and love) as the solution to the problem of life.

We have said that Eliot, like the other early Modernist poets, glorified the past and detested the present. But it was not all of the past he glorified. He glorified certain ages such as the Jacobean and the neo-classical, while hating the romantic period, and especially the late romanticism immediately preceding his own age. Why? Because for him the romantic world-view was too optimistic, too naive, too much in love with life. It worshipped the beauty of nature, it felt (with Hamlet) that man was “infinite in faculty”, it believed paradise on earth was possible in the love between man and woman – in short, it forgot original sin and guilt, the inherent depravity and worthlessness of human nature, which must poison everything. Eliot identified only with those periods of the past that recognized man’s sin and depravity – notably the 17th century of the metaphysical poets, with their bizarre alternation between the themes of sexual indulgence and desperate prayer. Eliot believed in original sin before he came to believe in redemption. He was a Christian in his despair before he became a Christian in his hope. His conversion was almost programmed by his pessimism – it was that or suicide. Life was to him not a journey through a fascinating landscape but a voyage of the damned, and he wanted to rub our noses in the psychological horror of the modern world. His writing, like that of Sartre and other later Modernists, is dominated by disgust. Now disgust is not a romantic emotion. It is by definition anti-romantic. The romantic on some profound level loves life, whatever it does to him. Even if he is alone and abandoned, he has a tree, a leaf, a birdsong to console him – a darkling thrush, a heaven in a wild flower. Even his bitterest sadness is savoured in the full belief that (as Ben Jonson, with classical rather than romantic optimism, put it) “in short measures life may perfect be”. Or, as Shelley put it, with a more mystical, romantic faith: “For love, and beauty, and delight,/ There is no death nor change.” When you lose the belief that life may be perfect (whether for short moments or for all eternity), and come to believe that it is inherently corrupt beyond remedy, because you hate who you are and have lost, like the Ancient Mariner, your capacity to love, then you feel disgust, and you reject every form of romantic illusion with a bitter, jeering hatred. This is Eliot’s viewpoint and it is this that makes him seem “modern” more than any merely technical innovation he introduced. His Modernism is his disillusionment, his disgust with life – a characteristic still on display in every late 20th century monstrosity in the Tate Modern Gallery. This is where Modernism turns a psychological corner.

We have described already how the leading early Modernists rejected the modern age, and saw it as a falling off from past ages which had deeper and more passionate beliefs. But Eliot in rejecting the modern age was also expressing a rejection of life, a disillusionment, an alienation, a neurosis,  which came to epitomize the modern age itself. The opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding /Lilacs out of the dead land” express a state of mind where the faith in Nature of the romantic poets, the cult of spring as the rebirth of life, no longer exists. The whole poem is about the failure of life to return in spring (he points to this in his footnote on Jesse L. Weston’s theory of the Grail legend as originating in a nature cult.) This failure of spring to return and bring new life to the Waste Land – which the Fisher King is to blame for – is the cause of the anguish and despair of the poem, its evocation of deserts, of desperate thirst, of a failed redemption, and finally a collapse of civilization itself in the falling towers and cities of the world. All of it, of course, is an elaborate metaphor (or “objective correlative” to use his own term) for a depression which a patient cannot recover from. Eliot wrote this poem after a nervous breakdown, probably caused by some sexual or emotional frustration (some have speculated about repressed homosexuality.) The poem expresses his depressed inability to feel life’s renewing, healing force within him. But Eliot’s age read the poem as a reflection of the failure of life and hope to return after the horrors and mass death of the First World War. The poet’s depression becomes a mirror of the age’s depression – its sense of not feeling any spiritual recovery from the catastrophe. The poem’s anguished assertion that Nature has failed – that its healing force does not work, that spring does not return – becomes a rejection of romanticism, the most recent expression of the cult of Nature, including the cult of love as the source of rebirth and redemption. The Waste Land announces the Death of Nature in much the same way that Nietzsche announced the Death of God. An anti-romantic rejection of faith in Nature and faith in love becomes part of the modern world-view which Eliot helped to shape.

Modernism in poetry announces itself, therefore, not as a revolution but as a nervous breakdown. It is the loss of nerve after a psychological collapse – the inability to get back the love of life. Eliot’s two major early poems, Prufrock and The Waste Land, reject the faith in the redeeming force of sexual love and the redeeming force of Nature, the eternal rebirth of spring. But this is not merely a rejection of the romantic world-view. For this world-view is much older than romanticism. It had ruled the Western poetic imagination ever since Chaucer’s hopeful young lovers rode out in the merry month of May. In fact this faith in Nature pre-dates Christianity (though the latter was largely adapted to it – Coleridge Christianizes the redemptive love of nature as a love of all God’s creatures, which finally saves the Ancient Mariner.) It goes back to pagan nature cults, celebrating spring, which Jesse L. Weston saw as the origin of the Grail legend with its mysterious waste land. The Eleusinian mysteries, the Greek nature cult celebrating rebirth (and probably including a mystic marriage), lasted for fifteen hundred years as the dominant religious ceremony of the classical world. Even when the official ritual ceased, the human need that underlay it remained. The cult of Nature is what has distinguished the Western worldview ever since it began to express itself in art. Western art has always resisted abstraction. From the naturalistic representation of beautiful bodies of the Greeks and Romans, to the animals, birds and  human figures of early Romanesque cathedral sculptures, Western artists have always depicted the real physical world, with a loving exactness that suggests a worship of nature. When the Western nations took over the Greek Byzantine tradition of religious art, they pushed it towards naturalism. Instead of the stiff, stylized rows of identical saints, expressing an abstract spirituality, Western artists began to give the saints individual personalities – and to depict the biblical stories with a far livelier interest in their human aspect. You can see this in the mosaics of the 12th century Norman Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, as the Norman invaders (importing artists from all over the region) give us their Western version of Byzantine art – a cinematic, naturalistic portrayal of biblical stories. We see the building of the ark, the bringing on board of the animals, the sending out of the dove, we see camels drinking at water-troughs, and animals and birds depicted no longer merely as religious symbols but as interesting and beautiful creatures in their own right. The Westernization of religious art consisted of nature taking over from abstraction, symbolism and stylization – and within two hundred years European art had become a riot of sensuality and naked flesh, devoted to a naturalistic representation of the earthly passions of real people. The evolution of Western art is a progressive rejection of the austere other-worldly vision of the Eastern religion which Europeans had adopted – its transformation into a cult of life in all its physicality. The love of life, the joy in nature as a regenerative force, celebrated at spring festivals like Mayday, is the ancestral European religion (originating in the extreme variation of the northern seasons, which created an obsession with spring as a rebirth of life after the cosmic death of winter.) Christianity, despite periodic attempts to suppress its predecessor, was largely adapted to it – whether the Easter spring festival of eggs and rabbits, or the mid-winter pine-tree festival, adapted to celebrate a divine baby born in a freezing stable as a promise of life’s renewal. One does not need to be an adept of neo-paganism to see the force of the concept of Nature in Western culture, and how it gradually got the upper hand over an imported Eastern religion of other-worldly inspiration. It is that age-old faith in Nature’s constant renewal of life (celebrated most recently by romanticism) which Eliot rejects in The Waste Land as something defunct, discredited, no longer operative in man’s world. Man now inhabits a dead land (the modern age) where spring does not return. This rejection of the faith in Nature (and the faith in sexual love that goes with it) becomes a lasting part of the cynicism and nihilism which forms a major current of the Modernist movement. That is how a poet whose starting-point is a rejection of the modern age as a terrible decline from a nobler, more spiritual and artistic past comes to embody a world-view that rejects romanticism, rejects Nature, rejects love, rejects hope, rejects life. And this perspective of negativity, disillusionment and nihilism ends up paradoxically (in a later Modernist generation) in a jeering contempt for past ages and the great art of the past that Eliot so admired. From Eliot’s rejection of the modern age as a waste land we finally end up with a late Modernist art movement which revels and wallows in this waste land – which in fact produces waste, rubbish, garbage and calls it art: cans of shit (Manzoni), old urinals (Duchamp), used chewing gum, blank canvases, bricks, sacks of straw, shovels, coathooks, crumpled paper, dirty sheets, dead fish, butchered sheep. And the perpetrators of this rubbish are animated by a Philistine, illiterate contempt for everything that early Modernists like Eliot valued.

Eliot’s despair and rejection of life therefore sets in motion a movement that finally turns against everything he himself believed in. He finds a personal solution to his own despair by his conversion to Anglicanism in his early forties (a path later followed by Auden, though many of those who came after preferred to stay in the desert Eliot had led them into.) His faith brings him a degree of consolation. He gives up talking about sex (with that odd mixture of disgust and frustrated envy), seems to feel less revulsion from life as he goes on, moralizes about the age instead of hating it, abandons the dramatic characters he inhabited, and becomes himself at last. He discovers his true identity as a sage or secular bishop, pontificating quietly on life, and writing poetry of excruciating boredom:


The world turns and the world changes

But one thing does not change.

In all of my years, one thing does not change.

However you disguise it, this thing does not change:

The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil. 20


This reeks of bedpans and pre-chewed food, even though he is not yet fifty. Eliot’s embrace of Christianity, while it reconciled him to living, did not make him love life. There is none of that spontaneous joy in life that religious faith gave Blake or Gerard Manley Hopkins. There is in Eliot no vision of light; only a tedious argument with the dark. He undergoes conversion, but he experiences no enlightenment. His new affirmation of life seems to be purely intellectual, not emotional. The shadowy figure of the “praying sister” who haunts his later poems appears an inadequate and rather perfunctory Muse. He is not in love with her, the way Dante is with Beatrice, or Petrarch with Laura – both of these poets drawing inspiration from the idealization of a girl they could not have. Eliot doesn’t have the ability to idealize a girl – to make physical beauty into a spiritual ideal (as Yeats does, for example.) The experience of St Theresa’s mystic marriage is beyond his range – the transformation of sexual longing into a spiritual transcendence of the self. Eliot remains trapped in Modernist nihilism in his soul, whatever the change in his intellectual beliefs. He remains a psychic invalid in lifelong convalescence. He is, as the French say, mal dans sa peau, and there is no cure for it. He is a man suffering from eternal spiritual toothache.

It is this despair and nihilism that remains Eliot’s main influence on the age. The nihilist current in Modernism that springs partly from him became a torrent after another world war had brought even more horror – reaching a high point (if that is the best word) in the work of Samuel Beckett, and the visual arts of the past fifty years. Modernism has had three phases (roughly speaking): the fascist, communist, and nihilist generations. In the twenties, the poets rejected the present and glorified the past, in the thirties they rejected both past and present and glorified the Marxist future, and in the fifties they rejected past, present and future. We are still (despite the academic fiction of something called post-modernism) living in the nihilistic phase of Modernism – the cult of pickled fish and dirty bedsheets as works of art. Given the third-phase Modernist viewpoint of total disgust for life, it was inevitable that art should degenerate into incoherence, ugliness, emptiness, stupidity and  endless, tedious attempts to shock and repel. The disgust for life became a spiteful rejection of the public, a jeering contempt for their expectation that art should express meaning or emotion, a reduction of art to hoax. It culminates in Piero Manzoni exhibiting cans of his own shit, Robert Rauschenberg painting blank white canvases with rollers, and his friend John Cage “composing” four and a half minutes of silence, performed in New York by a concert pianist and in London by a full orchestra. Since then there has only been boring repetition of the same imbecilic drivel.

We have suggested that technically Eliot (and Modernism in general in its major poetic offerings) did not in fact represent a huge break with the past. It was technically no more of a revolution than that initiated by Donne, Dryden or Wordsworth. But ideologically, the current of Modernism which Eliot in some sense began – nihilism – does represent a total break with the past. It is a rejection of Nature and of faith in life, and therefore an absolute break with the entire world-view that underlies Western culture. We have analysed this sketchily as a multifaceted Nature-worship, a tendency to represent Nature in art, a faith in Nature’s powers of renewal (whether seen in religious terms or sexual terms), and a related cult of love between the sexes (which has been the main theme of Western literature ever since the 12th century.) The abandonment of the entire Western tradition of faith in Nature  leads Western artists to nihilism – typified in abstractionism, the rejection of the natural world. But while this nihilist current took over the visual arts and “serious” music, giving us piles of bricks and concertos for scraping chair-legs, it did not take over literature for very long. The visual arts and “serious” music have become so marginalized they are now in danger of disappearing – replaced by the cinema and popular music, which, however vulgar and debased in their mass commercial forms, at least satisfy the human need for stories or songs about love and a celebration of nature’s visual beauty. Literature, on the other hand, is thriving – because it is also giving people the traditional fare the human spirit needs. Twentieth century literature as a whole did not succumb to Modernist nihilism. Only a minor current of it, in figures like Beckett or some of the French dadaist experimenters with automatic writing, continued down the nihilist, experimental road which Joyce had pointed them in with Finnegan’s Wake, written in a private incomprehensible language. But most major writers resisted nihilism (and the disintegration of form it led to) because of their own belief systems. Many of the thirties generation of poets espoused Marxism and then Christianity, while Pound went over to fascism. But the greatest poet of the 20th century, Yeats, was never tempted by nihilism because he never gave up the “old religion” of the romantic poets – the cult of Nature and the belief in love. He developed his own new version of it – through a never-ending exploration of esoteric cults, neo-paganism, and various mythologies and literary and artistic traditions, from Celtic to Byzantine. And he expressed this ancient faith in life and sexual love in largely traditional verse forms, which he mastered to a degree that stands comparison with the poets of any previous age. 




Yeats began as a late Victorian romantic, singing “the woods of Arcady”, and adapted his extraordinary skill in traditional verse styles only marginally to the new movement. If we see Modernism as a movement rather than a period, it is debatable whether we can call Yeats a Modernist at all. He himself, as we have seen, despised contemporary poetic styles as “out of shape from toe to top”. He never wrote a line that was not perfectly regular, in a metre that was used by poets of previous centuries (and he mastered an extraordinary number of them.) He also never adopted the nihilistic, anti-romantic viewpoint. The conventional academic view is that Yeats started out as an old-fashioned late romantic Tennysonian dreamer, using archaic Victorian poetic diction and wallowing in Celtic mythology, and later became a Modernist, using a strong, realistic, everyday, down-to-earth vocabulary, and shaking off the outmoded mythological trappings of his youth. Let us see if this is true. Is there anything obsolete, archaic, or precious in this poem of 1904 (before Modernism was thought of)?  


Sweetheart, do not love too long:

I loved long and long,

And grew to be out of fashion

Like an old song.  21


Which words would you change to “modernize” these lines? Or these :


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,  22


How exactly could we modernize the diction of this, dating from 1893, when Eliot and Pound were just starting primary school? And what would you want to update from The Lake Isle of Innisfree in the same year?


And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning, to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.  23


This has an opulent sensuousness of sound, but every image is sharp-edged, clearly defined, every word essential and perfectly chosen. There is only one adjective in the stanza, the word purple; there is none of the vague poetic diction, the straining for poetic effect, which made other late Victorians seem archaic or precious or second-hand. There is nothing to be updated or modernized here. He describes a vision of rural peace, of escaping from the city, and he does it perfectly. Later he chooses to do other things, and he does them perfectly as well. (The modernist critics who dislike this phase of Yeats do so because they hate poems about love and the beauty of nature, not because the language is old-fashioned – it isn’t.) The truth is that Yeats wrote with an extraordinary precision and economy of language from the beginning. Naturally his style evolved as his interests and experiences evolved, as he lived through a civil war, as he developed from a lonely dreamer to a very active “public man”, and finally a senator. But there is no revolution in Yeats’ work, no break between a romantic and a modernist – merely a steady maturing. He never left behind his mythological and esoteric interests: they simply shifted in nature. His artistic tastes evolved from a youthful cultivation of sensuousness, as he wrote mainly about love and Celtic myths, to a mature taste for hard, cold, sculpted forms, as he began to see art as an eternal repository of spiritual values, in the manner of Byzantine religious art. The later hardness is just as rooted in traditional verse forms and private mythology as the youthful  lyricism. There is no sharp break between them. And Yeats finds his way to a graphic realism in his description of the horrors of the age without any help from Pound or Eliot. A year before Pound’s Mauberley and three years before Eliot’s Waste Land give their literary, pastiche-ridden take on the horrors of the modern age, we have Yeats’ sober description of civil war – or rather the British military repression by the Black and Tans, war veterans sent into Ireland to put down the nationalist movement (somewhat like the Serbs in Kosovo or the Russians in Chechnya) in his poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen: 


Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep; a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free.

The night can sweat with terror as before

We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,

And planned to bring the world under a rule,

Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.  24


This is a somewhat more reality-based despair than the literary or philosophical angst of Eliot and Pound. This is a man seeing his country torn apart, terrorized by its neighbour, in the year of the organization of the League of Nations. Yet he expresses this horror with a sobriety, a restraint, that is reinforced by the regularity of the traditional metre. Here his iambic pentameters, closely resembling late Shakespeare’s in their straddling of lines, have all the easy natural flow of everyday speech, while making that speech powerful and memorable. The rhyme-scheme is intricate, but never laboured; half-rhymes are casually used where full rhymes can’t be found. Every line-ending sounds perfectly satisfying without drawing attention to itself. In tone, what is notable here is the restraint, the tact, the refusal of hysteria or hatred or fanaticism, the refusal to point the finger, or even to mention the nationality of the “drunken soldiery”. He wants only to talk of the pain, the terror, the despair, as universals, common to all civil wars. Yeats speaks to our age, to the people of Bosnia, Kosovo, Croatia, Serbia, Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Lebanon, as no other poet in English does. As Ireland went through something similar to what the Balkans recently went through, a war of secession and then a civil war, Yeats had his own political convictions, but he does not inflict them on us. He is never tempted to give us his analysis, or even to get in a passing dig at his enemies. He simply expresses the human tragedy, and even those who disagreed strongly with the position he took (nationalist but later in favour of the Free State compromise) could love his poems. The lucidity, the sober narrative of atrocity (a single striking image of a murdered mother, not an abstract catalogue of wrongs), the disillusioned reflections, showing bitterness, indignation, despair, but never spite; together with the technical perfection, the rhythm natural but powerful, the intricate rhyme-scheme unobtrusive, but making every line-ending sound perfect – all  this is unsurpassed in English, in any age. The verse technique has not in fact changed much since Shakespeare; it is the tone that stamps it with our age. This is some of the greatest poetry ever written; it is absolutely modern and  absolutely traditional.  

Yet in case you think this is somehow the “modernist” Yeats who has undergone a conversion from his early romantic Celtic mythologizing, he ends the same long poem with a curious apparition, after a storm, of one of his early mythological characters: 


That insolent fiend Robert Artisson

To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought

Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.  25


This might seem bizarrely misplaced. But this evocation of an ancient love affair from his own private Celtic mythology points to what underlies Yeats’ invincible faith in life, despite the horrors and despair he describes: his faith in love, the force of rebirth, and its eternal presence in all ages.  Yeats sticks to the old traditional Western belief in Nature and love, and he evokes both throughout his life, through his retelling of myths and legends and his exploration of esoteric traditions which go back to the nature cults. The “romantic” Yeats with his esoteric mythologizing and the “modern” Yeats with his terse, passionate commentary on current events both remain present and interwoven in his work to the very end of his life. In the poem above the two elements may not seem entirely in harmony. But they fuse perfectly in the poem that expresses most powerfully the horrors of the age – a prediction of apocalypse, of a Second Coming but this time of evil, which seemed only too horribly fulfilled in the war that began nine months after he died. His image of the “gyres” – the spiral shapes of historical eras – falling apart into chaos is superb:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity..  26


Here he has made his private mythology into universal images that evoke the horrors of the mid 20th century better than anything else in the literature of the age. The poem was published in 1921 and relates more to the British repression and then the collapse of Ireland into civil war, but it seems to predict the horrors of world war, genocide, and savage slaughter that were about to blast away fifty-five million lives. Above all it expresses the sense of helplessness of the individual human being as order and civilization collapse and bloodlust gathers force, as though unleashed by occult powers. And nothing equals for sinister horror the prediction of an apocalyptic era, a Second Coming of violence, that ends the poem.


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


This “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi”, the product of his own private esoteric system, has stamped itself on the mind of the age. His quirky private mythology suddenly becomes a universal vision of extraordinary power. This mythological symbolism is what enables Yeats to represent the apocalyptic horrors of our time. If we look at another great poem about these events, Auden’s poem on the outbreak of the war, what we notice is the inadequacy not of the language but of the imagery.


Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.    27


This is good, but it does not haunt the imagination like the rough beast or the turning falcon or the blood-dimmed tide. The difference lies in the whole visionary system of Yeats, this esoteric mythological dimension so despised by modernist critics, but which gave Yeats the physical, sensual images to express apocalypse. Auden does not have this imaginative power because his language remains down-to-earth, rational, everyday – in a word, modern. Yeats encapsulates the horrors of  the modern age precisely because he is not Modernist in either his language or his visionary mythology – at least if we follow the usual concept of Modernism – a progressive freeing of language of all its romantic, emotive symbolism from past ages and its formal rhetorical rhythms. Yeats is “adequate to the age” (in Matthew Arnold’s sense of being capable of expressing the age) precisely because of those aspects of his poetic power where he is not a Modernist – his imagery from past mythologies, and his traditional cadenced rhythms.

This is not meant to provoke a sterile semantic debate about what Modernism is and whether Yeats fits into it. But it is meant to counter a certain strain in academic treatment of Yeats which consists of respecting the poet while dismissing the whole mythological-esoteric-mystical aspect of his work as tiresome New Age rubbish. This mystical system is what gave Yeats his extraordinary poetic, visionary power. Without it he is just another verse journalist.

Throughout his life he develops this private mythology in new directions. He shifts from the Celtic myths of his youth that revolve around love-stories, the spirit world and nature cults, to neo-Platonist concepts of spirituality, which he associates with the stylized religious art of Byzantium. His preoccupation with immortality shifts from cults of rebirth to a cult of art. He develops another way of dealing with the fear of old age than the self-pity and despair of Prufrock – a strange and mystical joy:


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.  28


He calls on the Byzantine “sages standing in God’s holy fire” to “be the singing masters of my soul.” He wishes to learn from them the discipline of artistic perfection, which will burn away all petty sentiments, all self-pity, all personal weaknesses, and will allow him to express the truth in a way that will stand the test of time. The last image of the poem, where he seeks rebirth as a golden bird, a work of art (something many have interpreted literally and sneered at), symbolizes what he now sees as the path of immortality for him: dedication to beauty, to artistic perfection, to the creative embodiment of eternal spiritual truths, which will inspire the love of life of new generations. Even though in this poem he abandons the world of the living (“That is no country for old men, the young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees/ Those dying generations”) as no longer for him, and voyages toward this world of spiritual art instead, the two are complementary. The one inspires the other. His work of art will sing not to priests but “to lords and ladies of Byzantium”, the very same dying generations. Through his wayward, eccentric intellectual paths he has achieved an extraordinary synthesis: the austere, stylized, symbolic art of Byzantium with the Western cult of Nature. The spiritual and the natural. Eastern transcendence and Western Nature-worship. Art and life. This is a man whose faith in life is absolute, even in the face of death – and even in that very cult of art which he finally saw as the answer to death.




If Yeats was neither a Modernist in his poetic technique nor in his world-view, surely (you might think) nobody can deny that Ezra Pound was a Modernist? In his technique, yes. In his world-view, not entirely. His sympathies were also with an idealized past, and his answer to the nihilism of Eliot was to embrace an  ideology which was in some ways a crude caricature of Yeats’ neo-paganism and nostalgia for a vanished aristocratic order. We have suggested (perhaps flippantly) that the first generation of modernist poets were fascists. Pound is the only one for whom this is literally true. For Yeats and Eliot it is a question of sympathy for many of the ideas that were in the air at the time and which were also shared by fascist parties. But a whole cluster of ideas – the return to nature, to the soil, to folkloric traditions, to national pride, to a nostalgia for the past, a rejection of capitalist materialism, of urban alienation, of the mediocrity of bourgeois workaday existence – circulated in the twenties, and this common stock was dipped into equally by writers and by extremist political parties. Writers as talented and famous in their countries as Heidegger, Céline and Knut Hamsun thus found themselves in agreement on many subjects with fascist regimes, and compromised themselves by open support for them. The active espousal of Fascism by Pound and these other writers appears incomprehensible to a generation raised on neo-Marxism: how could these writers have ignored the criminal violence of this movement? But it is best understood by comparing it with the wilfully perverse espousal of Maoist communism by so many young Western intellectuals in the 1960’s. The latter could not claim Pound’s ignorance of the horrific mass-murder committed by the regime they supported – information on Mao’s gigantic atrocities was far more generally available in the West at that time than was information about Mussolini’s more limited crimes in the Italy where Pound lived. (This is not to underestimate the evil of Italian Fascism, whose crimes in Africa and the Balkans were atrocious and have been glossed over, but anything is dwarfed by the scale of Mao’s seventy million victims – and the horrors of his regime were exposed in popular publications like The Reader’s Digest throughout the 1960’s.) Spending the war (and the pre-war decade) in Fascist Italy no doubt kept Pound from any hard news about Hitler’s genocide of the Jews – even assuming he would have believed it was anything but Allied propaganda. When we try to understand the commitment of people to mad and evil systems of rule, we can only explain it by pointing to parallels, and to the circumstances of their choice. This is not justification; it is an attempt to see why and how these choices could be made by intelligent, seemingly decent people, without evoking mental illness. For both Pound and the Maoist radicals of the sixties the main motive for supporting a totalitarian dictatorship was hatred of their own society (and belief it was lying about the other side.) That hatred was certainly more justified in the hungry, repressive 1930’s than in the prosperous, liberal 1960’s. Nor were the international-Jewish-conspiracy theories of the 1930’s all that far removed mentally from the international-capitalist-conspiracy theories that were the staple diet of 1960’s Maoist and Marxist thinking. But because academia is still largely in the hands of neo-Marxists, our age has not yet thoroughly examined how intellectual support for Maoism (and Stalinism) in the West was possible, and we have not fully grasped how evil that support was. Until we do we will not understand Pound’s support for Fascism (or be able to judge its evil in perspective.) This intellectual-political blockage has led to a certain decline in Pound’s reputation, which is not merited on artistic grounds.   

Pound is generally seen not only as an innovator in Modernist poetry, but as one of the prime driving-forces behind Modernism, with his incessant call for “making it new”. He had an effect, as we have seen, on the elimination of remnants of older poetic diction, which he himself had indulged in to excess. This is not merely seen in the elimination of dead words, but the introduction into poetry of a whole range of new words, from conversational slang to academic abstractions, which he is able, through perfect phrasing, to sculpt into superb poetry. The use of abstract Latinate words often makes poets like Auden seem to clutter their lines with academic counter-words which are opaque and colourless. But Pound can take a word like “mendacities” or “paraphrase” in the lines quoted above, and give it back all its Latin or Greek sensuousness, simply by where he places it, and which other sounds influence the way we hear it. By putting the word among new neighbours that bring out key sounds by assonance or alliteration, he gives it back its original, exotic flavour, and we savour it as though for the first time.

But what Pound brings to the technique of poetry is above all an uncanny ear for phrasing which nobody else managed to imitate. Any of the stanzas quoted above from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley illustrate it. He has the phrasing of a jazz musician – an acute sense of the beat, even when he is slightly behind it or in front of it. We are always aware the beat is there, but we are sometimes unsure where it falls. He plays with different possibilities. Is a line a trimeter or a dimeter? A tetrameter or a pentameter? In many of the lines above, he leaves us to interpret it as we like, by hanging between two alternatives. This acute sense of beat is what gives him an ability to change speeds and moods very rapidly in the course of a poem, to switch between conversational and poetic mode in a flash. Let us look at one of his superb translations of the ancient Chinese poet Rihaku: The Exile’s Letter. After reminiscing at length about the good times he and his old friend had together and their forced separation long years ago, because of the failure of his civil service career, the narrator ends like this:


And once again, later, we met at the South bridge-head.

And then the crowd broke up, you went north to San palace,

And if you ask how I regret that parting:

It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end

   Confused, whirled in a tangle.

What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,

There is no end of things in the heart.   

I call in the boy

Have him sit on his knees here

   To seal this

And send it a thousand miles, thinking. 29


Let’s try to see how he performs this magic. The first four lines are iambic pentameters (five-beat lines.) The first two are loose or stretched, each with three extra syllables (thirteen in all.) They are rather flat, matter-of-fact, they go at a fairly quick walking pace – they have to, to get the extra syllables in. Then he suddenly launches into the superb, slow dance measure of the third and fourth lines, ending in the sudden arrest of a trimeter in mid-pirouette. But how does he slow down the lines in this way? By suddenly shortening them into classic iambics with no extra syllables – eleven and ten. By making the lines shorter but with the same number of beats, he slows them down, gives each syllable its full weight, and puts an emotive charge into the lines that brings out the superb image of the flowers falling (the syncopated rhythm, the succession of heavy stresses in “flowers falling” and Spring’s end” acts out the meaning of the words.) He then breaks the tension, recovers from his sudden emotion, and returns to a casual, conversational walking pace in the long hexameter. It is as if he is dismissing his feeling, trying to talk it away, with a banal cliché (what is the use of talking?) But the slackening of tension only prepares for the next piercing thrust, an abrupt, curt tetrameter: “There is no end of things in the heart.” And then he turns to the practical business of getting the letter sealed, out of a kind of pudeur, a looking away from his own emotion. It is a rare moment.

The key to the emotional effect lies in the alternation of lines which attempt to downplay the speaker’s feelings, to cover them up out of politeness, to talk casually of other things, with lines where he lets his feelings come through with sudden intensity. And this corresponds to the interplay between lines with “loose rhythm” and “tight rhythm” – between lines which have been stretched to accommodate extra syllables so that the five-beat iambic metre fades into the background and becomes almost unnoticeable, and lines where the rhythm is suddenly tightened to an absolutely regular iambic pentameter, so that the beat becomes paramount. This results in a sudden change of pace, like a  walker suddenly launching into a slow, formal dance. The switch to the perfectly regular iambic pentameter is like putting an electric charge through the line: it slows it down, makes the voice tremble, gives it an intense burst of emotion. The resurgence of the regular metre to the surface is the whole source of the power of the line.

There is an enormous difference between playing with the resurgence and the fading of regular metres, as many good 20th century poets do, and having no basic metre in the lines at all. If you have a verse rhythm, you can play tricks with it, hit the beats early or late, make them obvious or subtle, make the metre dominant or scarcely perceptible.  But if you have no verse metre in the lines at all, like some of the “free verse” disciples of Whitman we will come to later, then the lines have no power, because the electric charge cannot be put through them. They cannot shift from walking pace to dance.  

It is significant that Pound produced his best work in these Chinese translations, just as Eliot produced his best work in dramatic mono-logues. It is as if they both needed a persona to be themselves. When they speak in their own voice they become all too often bores. Eliot becomes a preaching, moralizing, philosophizing church elder, and Pound a haranguing political tub-thumper. When Pound moves away from his own miniaturist brilliance and attempts a large-scale architectural work, as he does in The Cantos, he goes to pieces and becomes largely unreadable. There are some good passages, but they are interspersed among much that is boring, repetitive, obsessive, obscure, carelessly written, and a waste of the reader’s time. It is not quite as bad as Joyce’s private language in Finnegan’s Wake, but it results from the same vices of self-indulgence, pedantry, arrogance, and contempt for the reader. (There is also the effect of academia itself and its new mania for interpreting the obscure – a groupie-like fascination for the delphic, incomprehensible utterances of the new literary idols. Finnegan’s Wake can be seen as a huge joke at the expense of American academics – giving them something impenetrable to waste their time making sense of. To be fair, it can also be seen as an attempt to represent the chaotic thought-processes of senility – just as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man represented the lyricism of youth and Ulysses the boring stream-of-consciousness of middle age.) In general by the mid-1930’s the ideological obsessions of the age have overwhelmed the poetic urge and turned many of the early Modernist poets into prolix, tedious pontificators, their poetic skills forgotten as they decide that what the world really needs is their thoughts. Only Yeats goes on from strength to strength, his old-fashioned Victorian discipline of traditional versific-ation (and his perfect ear) able to accommodate his philosophical musings without any loss of poetic power – largely because he gives us his thoughts in images rather than in arguments. But by then other voices have arrived on the scene.





At the start of the 1930’s along came another generation, that of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, and MacNeice. Now Auden benefits today from a reputation that some might consider inflated; some critics do not hesitate to call him the greatest poet in English of the 20th century, a title which any sane human being could only give to Yeats. But he is certainly, with Eliot, Pound, and Dylan Thomas in the top five – where exactly you place him in the charts is a matter of taste. But his reputation from the first was bound up with a myth of innovation, poetic revolution, the cutting edge, “the very next phase” – in short, a cult of modernism – which it is hard at this distance to comprehend. The truth is that Auden is one of the most conservative poets since Alexander Pope. That is no r