A beautifully limned and muscular Fascism

Finally saw The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie last night. Maggie Smith, gorgeous locations, etc. It seemed a rather nothing story about an incredibly irritating Scottish teacher and her perfect little students. La creme de la creme she called them. She worshipped beauty, art, perfection, punctuality.

It began to get more interesting. A few plot twists and character revelations developed–-lust, weirdness, disturbing intimations of a warped sexuality. Then slowly she revealed a fascination for fascism. First in hints. A mention of Mussolini. A true Roman she told her students. The romantic definition of hero, the Shining Hero, something long since lost to us viewers in war and compromise and threats of nuclear annihilation. Finally she revealed herself as an out and out Fascist sympathizer. She showed the class slides of a holiday in Rome, a plaza full of uniformed Fascisti. She mixed with them, she said. They had excited her. She nearly panted at the memory. She remembered exactly what she’d been wearing. Somehow her own perfect attire had matched their perfect uniforms. That startled me. Fashion and fascism. How her personal Romantic ideal and the massed Fascist Ideal blended perfectly. Their muscularity and her femininity. Her sex, their power. Etc, etc.

Come the Spanish Civil War the man of the hour became Franco. Oh she could go on about Franco. Near to swooning. I felt an automatic revulsion. We forget now that as many westerners supported the Nationalists as supported the Republicans, people like Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Salvador Dali, Wyndham Lewis and (of course) Ezra Pound. Even Gertrude Stein. Miss Brodie’s sympathies would not have been so shocking back then. Perhaps not really shocking at all. No more shocking than those enraptured by Stalin, perhaps even less so. Communists promised revolution and purges. Il Duce promised order. Brodie, we are told (by one of her skeptical students), was quite vocal about her sympathies. It became part of her curriculum. The humanities and fascism blending seamlessly. Her creme de la creme becoming perfect little fascists, she hoped.

They didn’t, except for the simple, suggestible one who, swept up in Miss Brodie’s excitement, made for Spain to join her brother fighting for the Nationalists. The poor thing was machine gunned at the French border. Miss Brodie showed little remorse, as the girl had died for the cause, for the new order. A silly eighteen year old girl meeting a glorious death. A heroic death. Hints of ancient Greece. You and I know it was a squalid ugly death, terrifying, an utter waste. In my head I heard her screams. Miss Brodie’s other students, the poor girl’s friends, knew better as well. (Indeed we find out later that the dead girl’s brother was fighting for the Republicans, something that had never occured to Miss Brodie.)

By this point the movie had slowly, subtly turned creepy, a fascinating look into just how high minded intellectuals bought into the Fascist ideology. How Mussolini and then Hitler had so many admirers in England, in Europe, throughout the Western world. And just how insidious a thing it was, this fascism, how it could mix with art and poetry and perfection, co-opt Romantic ideals, send middle class kids off in shiny uniforms to conquer and gas and execute and massacre without compunction, leaving tidy notes of how many were killed that day, how many men, women and children, and the inventory of what they left behind, hats, hair, overcoats, gold teeth.

We think of Nazis as brownshirted thugs, but the SS took the best and the brightest. There were more brilliant minds in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt than ever joined the German resistance, many times more. Fascism in all its forms–-Italian, German, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, English, all of it–-was fundamentally an intellectual movement. A middle class movement, rooted in universities. Indeed, deep down it had begun in poetry and art. Italians shocked into a new reality, hard and unyielding, by the lunacy of the Great War. As the old world destroyed itself then, empires fell, monarchs executed, tradition and history tossed out the window, the world seemed  divided between the deary proletarian future of Bolshevism or the beautifully limned and muscular Fascism. I can’t fathom the appeal at all, that thing that sent chills up young fascist spine, made the hair stand up on their arms, rushed the blood to the brain and loins. But you can see it in Miss Brodie, in her prime, remembering the musk of young rippling fascists on parade and taking unsaid fantasies with her to bed that night on a Roman holiday.

It took total annihilation to rid the world of Fascism. We lopped them off like a gangrenous limb. We hung the thugs and the intellectuals by the neck until dead or pulled their lifeless heads out of their kitchen ovens. We shot down Hitler Youth in their suicidal charges. We jailed nazi functionaries for years and put Ezra Pound in a cage. The trials were endless and humiliating, The denazification more so. Hitler shot himself in his bunker to avoid Mussolini’s fate dangling from a meat hook. Only Franco, smart enough to stay out of the War, survived the collapse of fascism, isolated and silent. Fascism as a living, growing ideology was dead.

Or so we thought. Some Nazis escaped and helped keep the idea alive in South America. Peron seemed fascinated by fascist demagoguery, Pinochet goose stepped with the best of them. But that was a more Latin American thing, more Franco than Italian, devoid of Nazi racial theory and efficiency, their armies incapable of anything but parades, torture and repression. But it’s the idea of fascism that remained in Europe. Some strangely replicating meme that grew from the wreckage of fascist empires. That weird, warped romance, the thuggish hero, the big black shiny boots. The websites full of hate and purity and uniforms and alternative history, A reich that will rise again. There aren’t many of these new fascists–they’ve come nowhere near to seizing power anywhere–but they are there, vocal and obvious and scary. In milder form they’ve influenced elections in France. In savage form they’ve made headlines in Greece. They’ve infected football crowds in Italy and even, shockingly, held rallies in Moscow complete with placards of Adolf Hitler himself. I ask myself just how warped a Russian must be to idolize the very man who tried to exterminate them.

Now we’re told that nazi sympathizers pitched in and helped depose the old communist regime in Ukraine, much to the delight of Russian propagandists. If so, that would be the first constructive thing that fascists have done since their post war re-emergence. And what does that mean? I wonder if we’ll ever rid ourselves of the romance of fascism, if it will ever go away. Will it take a generation or centuries? Perhaps, like cancer, it’s built into the very DNA of European civilization, and it will never go away. Perhaps it will even come into intellectual fashion again, with Miss Jean Brodies teaching it to the creme de la creme.

Oh, the movie. It was good. It really was. I thought I was going to hate it, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Maggie Smith was splendid, of course. So were several of the girls. And the artist, though his lechery has not aged well since 1969. The scenery was gorgeous. And if the dialog was oh so precious in too many places, perhaps it might not be to a viewer in Great Britain. At least I told myself so. And yes, it’s utterly ridiculous to reduce a movie review to a tangent on fascism. There was much more going on. I certainly missed the point of the story. But I hadn’t really. It’s just that it was Miss Brodie the fascist that bothered me as I watched the movie. And still bothered me this morning as I drank coffee and listened to the rain, bothered me enough to write this. What an oddly horrible world it must have been where teachers taught fascism with art and etiquette and knew in their hearts they were right.

(Originally posted in 2016 on BricksPicks.com as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.)

The Lion in Winter

[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]

A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could actually speak much of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which was the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later). Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?

Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Ariistotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.

It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.

(Previously posted on BricksPicks.com)

Pillboxes

Has Trump ever seen all those zany pillboxes Enver Hoxha left scattered about Albania like a zillion mushrooms after a spring rain? There’s a couple hundred thousand of them, laid about in madcap fashion. They’re scattered across pasture land blocking each other’s field of fire. They’re in long lines just perfect for target practice. They’re set at the water’s edge, awash in the tide. The Albanians poured more concrete making those than would be in a dozen of Trump’s walls and they’re even more useless. He’d be mad with envy at the profligacy of it all. We need a zillion pillboxes, he’d say. The best pillboxes. Or maybe we can buy Albania’s. Maybe we can buy Albania. Maybe we can conquer Albania. Mussolini did.

The smell of dead potato

[Found this forgotten in the drafts folder from 2018.]

Was at Ralphs and checked out the poor people veggie bin and there were three big bundles of potatoes at 99 cents each. My Irish German heart was set aflutter and I bought all three and once home dropped them into the tuber bag with the sweet potatoes and rutabaga and onions of every color. There they sat.

A day or two later I noticed a smell. I took out the garbage. Still the smell. Took out the bag full of recyclables. Still the smell. Searched every corner and crevice of the kitchen with the broom. Sniffed the garbage disposal. Nope. Sniffed myself. Nope, just a manly deodorant. The next day the odor had grown stronger and more fetid and propinquitous. Ah ha, the paper bag root cellar where I’d put the new potatoes. Sure enough, the smell emanated from it.

I reached in and removed one of the potato bundles. They were small and red and white and blue (well, purple) and smelled like potato. The next bag was full of big honking spud beasts, huge Idaho potatoid monstrosities that taste absolutely delicious baked and topped with low fat sour cream and chopped green onions (my brunch). They too smelled like potatoes. Then the next bundle, much like the first but with the faint odor of aged brick cheese, like the time we opened a block of very aged brick cheese at a party at our place and the guests mutinied, but not then but two weeks later when either the reek or the memory of the reek lingered. That smell. I laid the bundle on the counter and carefully snipped open the netting which contained it. Then ever so gingerly I picked up each potato, sniffed it, and put it down.

Finally I got to the bottom of the pile of potatoes. There in the middle was a mid sized white potato with a sickly pallor and swollen appearance. I lightly touched it and poof! it popped open and the room was fragrant with rotten potato. It was an eye watering reek. I pulled open the windows and then took the offending spud outside and threw it into the planter. Instant mulch.

Amazing how bad that rotten potato stench is. Not sure what causes it, is it the result of the fungus digesting (so to speak) the innards of the potato, or more likely the bacteria that accompanies the fungus? Doubtless I could spend the day looking this up on Google, but I won’t. (I did later, though. It’s the bacteria.) But I did remember how Irishmen digging up their fields in the 1840’s found row after row of shriveled, mushy, foul smelling potatoes, each rotten with fungus. Doubtless they smelled like this, rank as the ripest foulest cheese, and as the potato famine spread you would have smelled that same dead potato reek across the whole island (but especially in the Gaelic speaking west and south) as peasants desperately dug up every plant looking for a potato their family could eat. A million Irishmen died in the famine that followed and the smell of dead potatoes mingled everywhere with the smell of dead people into a sickly perfume till even the roses smelled of death.

The wreck of the Mars

The warship Mars, the flagship of the Swedish fleet, on the floor of the Baltic where it’s lain just like this since a long forgotten battle (the first battle of Öland) in a long forgotten war with Denmark (the Northern Seven Years War) in 1564. The ship (three decks high and 300 feet from bow to stern, enormous for the time) had a crew of eight hundred (half sailors and half soldiers) and one hundred and seventy cannon and was aflame and in desperate battle with three Danish warships who were boarding her and as the decks and rigging seethed with hand to hand combat and point blank musketry the flames reached the kegs of gunpowder in the magazine below and they exploded without warning, sending the crew and the hundreds of boarders into oblivion in a scene worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Imagine the sudden silence.

La Marseillaise

One of these days I’ll get to Paris for Bastille Day. Not too likely this year. The closest I’ll get again will be this clip from Casablanca. It’s the best La Marseillaise I’ve ever seen on film, helped along no doubt by the fervor of the extras who were all refugees from Paris, escaping the Nazis. You can feel the genuine emotion in the explosion of Vive la France! at their anthem’s rousing finish.

You have to admit it’s a helluva song, La Marsellaise, an 18th century march, a popular form of the time, and written by some creaky old brigadier to fire up the hearts of the ragamuffin citizen soldiers being sent out to face the combined armies of all the kings of Europe. It worked, and the citizen armies made quick work of the walking muskets (Napoleon’s term) facing them. War was changed forever, it seemed, with massed drafts of citizens fighting in simpler formations (that needed less drill) and driven more by elan than the automaton discipline. War became vaster, more overwhelming, more dangerous. It took atomic bombs to finally slow it down, and there is no song for dropping atomic bombs, except maybe We’ll Meet Again. But then we’re being ironic, and there was nothing ironic about La Marseillaise. Irony went out with the Ancien Régime. Revolutions are like that.

I think when we Americans hear anything sung in French we think La Vie En Rose. Romantic, sad, wistful. When we actually see the lyrics of Le Marseillaise it’s kind of shocking. We forget it was written in the 1780’s to spur on citizens to take up arms against foreign armies intending to crush their revolution. So when we hear this:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

We still think of Maurice Chevalier loving Paris in the winter when it drizzles. We don’t know it says this:

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

And that is the nice verse. It goes on for half a dozen more.

A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history

The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France—it is perhaps the most decisive defeat that the peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. This doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi consolidation of their conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little known factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.

Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.

Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.

Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?

Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25217,_Henry_Philippe_Petain_und_Adolf_Hitler

Maréchal Pétain meets Adolf Hitler in October 1940. As low a point as there ever was in French history, it is also the high water mark of the French far right’s political power. You’d be hard pressed to find an entire political movement that ever betrayed its own country in such abject humiliation as did French conservatives after the French surrender in 1940. Not even Lenin turned his entire country over to the Germans in 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hitler left the French with no pride whatsoever, and the French Right had no problem with the set up at all. Thus Marine Le Pen licking Putin’s jackboots was nothing new to those aware of the history of French fascism.