Thursday, July 26, 2012

Avant-Garde of the Revolution by Bruce Chatwin

George Costakis is the leading private art collector in the Soviet Union (c.1973). And his is no ordinary collection, but one of compelling interest to all who would understand the art of this century. [2] For twenty-six years he has conducted his private archeological excavation – and this is what it has required – to unearth the Leftist art movement which burst on Russia in the years around the Revolution. Russia’s revolution is the outstanding intellectual event of the century, and her painters, sculptors and architects rose to the occasion. During the First War the center of artistic gravity shifted from Paris to Moscow and Leningrad where it remained for a few turbulent years.

‘I will make myself black trousers of the velvet of my voice,’ sang its most conspicuous spokesman, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. [3] Young women shivered with pleasure at the voice of the man who called himself ‘the cloud in pants.’ Characteristically it took a Russian √©migr√©, Serge Diaghilev[24], to galvanize the fading talents of Western Europe into a show of activity. But by his exile he divorced himself from the source of his inspiration. The Russian soil is a powerful mother and few of her artists survive the trauma of parting.

Those with strong will power stayed. The uniqueness of the Russian situation encouraged in them an almost Messianic belief in the power of art to transform the world. And because the most extreme apostles of modernism had opened their arms to the Bolsheviks, they were able to press their claims. Admittedly they fought each other (with fists) and divided into schismatic groups, each broadcasting its manifestos which read like the anathemas of the medieval church. They called themselves misleading names – Constructivists, Productivists, Objectivists, Suprematists – which often reflect personal vendettas rather than any real ideological split. As a whole, however, the work of the Leftists has a freshness and confidence, which towers over the smartness, the hysteria and the aridity of much European art in the Twenties.

When the full history of the Russian movement comes to be written – and to some extent we must thank Costakis that it can be written – it will probably emerge as he most significant of all. Whatever we think, later generations will look on the twentieth century as the century of abstract painting. Two Russians, Kasimir Malevich [16] and Vassily Kandinsky[3a], are its pioneers, and to understand the movement properly we must place it first in its original Slavic context.

For a few euphoric years the avant-garde flourished, but its anarchic philosophy appeared to contradict the crucial tenets of Soviet Marxism. It attracted official disapproval; was formally sat non; and then paintings disappeared under beds or into the vaults of museums. When Costakis began, Leftist art was quite forgotten. Outside the Soviet Union it attracted a few disparaging comments. Inside it did not arouse a flicker of interest. In 1947 an art critic could denounce Cezanne’s dishonest ‘indifference to subject matter’ and complain that his fruit and flowers ‘lack aroma and texture’. In those days the non-figurative artist was a pariah.

Costakis was the ‘mad Greek who buys hideous pictures’. He spent fifteen years in the cold and if, over the past ten, his apartment has become an object of pilgrimage, it gives him very obvious satisfaction. ‘…Kalf…Berchem…this kind of thing. Then little by little they all looked to me like one color. I had twenty paintings on the wall and it was like one painting.” He cannnot single out any one event of childhood that inclined him towards works of art, but imagines the ceremonial of the Orthodox Church may have affected him. ‘But this is not the real reason. All my life I wanted to write a book . . . or make an aeroplane . . . . or invent some industrial miracle. I had to do something. And I told myself, “If I continue to collect old paintings, I will do nothing. Even if one day I will find a Rembrandt, people will say ‘He was lucky’ and that is all.” Then, in he dark days after the war, someone offered him three brightly colored paintings of the lost avant-garde. ‘They were signals to me. I did not care what it was . . . but nobody knew what anything was in those days.’

Three paintings signaled to Costakis the existence of a world he had never suspected Whenever free from his duties at he Canadian Embassy he hunted for ‘lost’ pictures ‘thrown around all the corners of Moscow and Leningrad. The hunt led to old people who imagined that time had passed them by. Some were broken by events and delighted to have even a token of recognition. He rescued canvases that were rolled up and covered with dust. He met Tatlin before he died, ‘the great fool’ who designed the Monument to the Third International[4], and lived alone with some hens and a balalaika. He befriended Stepanova, the widow of the comprehensive genius Alexander Rodchenko. He tracked down the friends of the great Malevich. He bought works by the emigres Kandinsky and Chagall; by Lissitzky, the master typographer, and Gustav Klutsis, the Constructivist designer; by Liubov Popova, ‘the strongest painter of her generation’ )’When she was fighting for art, she was a man; but in bed she was a woman.’); and by Ivan Klium, whose cosmic abstractions anticipate Rothko. With persistence he traced obscure artists who had signed the early manifestos, finding in them qualities their contemporaries had overlooked. And as he accumulated, he pierced together the story of their ideologies, alliances, fantastic projects, squabbles and love affairs; for revolutionary freedom was synonymous with free love. . .

The existence of the Costakis’s collection introduces an unfamiliar aspect of life in the Soviet Union. In the Western imagination the Marxist State is the declared enemy of private property; and some might suppose that a valuable private art collection merely reveals the inconsistency of Marxism. This is not so. Nothing in the Soviet legal code prevents a man owning pictures any more than it prevents him owning a pair of boots. Nor can one suggest, by way of explanation, that Costakis uses his Greek citizenship to enjoy special rights and immunities. He does not.

There are plenty of private collections in the Soviet Union today and prices are rising. An entry in Costakis’s visitors’ book which reads, ‘An example to all of us Russian collectors of avant-garde art’, tells us he has competition. But two awkward facts remain; that abstract art was banned by 1932; that it has failed to resurface on he walls of museums. The Ministry of Culture, however, is showing signs of a more indulgent attitude. Rumors are in the air of a Soviet Museum of Modern Art. . .

The reasons for the ban are far from clear. Western opinions on the subject have long entertained a consoling fiction, that Party bureaucrats failed to understand Leftist art, therefore had it and branded it as subversive. Its disappearance is used as an excuse for pious assertions on the need for artistic freedom and for exposing ‘official’ Soviet art to ridicule. These have not been helpful. I do not mean to suggest that Leftist artists were not horribly wronged in the late Thirties. But the idea that their art was banned through ignorance is a trite explanation which belittles its significance.

In the pinion of its makers, the Bolshevik Revolution had set man free. The proletariat had won –was, in theory, dictator, and had the right to decide what was, or was not, proletarian art. Marx had hoped that once the worker had free time he would ‘among other things, paint. But for all his genius, he was not visually inclined and did not suggest what the worker should paint. Nor did his theory allow for the visual awareness of the Russians, nor for the Russian painter’s status as prophet and teacher. No government can afford to ignore him, and this is a fact not appreciated in the West, where a revolutionary art is defused by the patronage of the rich. One of Lenin’s secretaries records how people were led before Repin’s painting The Barge-haulers on the Volga[5] in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and converted to the revolution by its message against injustice. Now all good Bolsheviks believed that art belonged to the people. But by October 1917 there are two contradictory opinions on the form the new art should take.

In one camp were the Futurists. (I use the word Futurist in the widest sense.) As the old order tottered, they conducted a war of nerves against middle-class morality and taste. They saw themselves as a wrecking party which would unhinge the future from the past. Their painters saw in French Cubism a preliminary shattering of images beloved by the bourgeois. The philosopher Berdyaev[6] said Picasso was the last of the Stone Age men. Their poets had an ‘insurmountable hatred for the language existing before them’. They drained poetry of its meaning and insisted on the primacy of [pure sound. ‘Words are but ghosts hiding the alphabet’s strings.’ They published their manifestos – ‘Go to the Devil’ –‘The Thunder Boiling Cup’ –‘A Slap to Public Taste’ – on the cheapest paper, ‘the color of a fainted louse.’ Mayakovsky and David Burliuk[7], the self-appointed storm-troopers of Futurism, paraded around St. Petersburg in alogical fancy dress; crowds wondered if they were clowns or savages or fakirs or Americans. Mayakovsky once advised his audience to ‘carry their fat carcasses home.’

But the Futurists usually came from ‘good’ families, and their posturing was of the essence of middle-class revolt. The Bolsheviks were tougher, more serious and their view of art different. The populist composer Mussorgsky[8] had once said that artists must ‘not get to know then people, but be admitted to their brotherhood.’ If serious, the artist must merge in with the masses and do nothing to affront the taste of the common man. That taste was bound to be traditional. And the pragmatic Lenin saw the need for an art which would broadcast the revolution in simple, traditional images.

Lenin was the son of a provincial director of schools, and historians have often noticed the firm, pedagogic manner with which he handled his colleagues. Edmund Wilson even called him “The Great Headmaster.’ Certainly his concept of partiinost, or sacrificial party spirit, reminds one of loyalty demanded for the schoolteam. His tastes were old-fashioned and austere. He knew that Marx’s moral and historical interpretation of history was right. He knew his own interpretation of Marx was right. And he also knew that if he waited for capitalism to collapse he would wait indefinitely.

On this crucial [point there are two distinct trends in Marx’s thought. One encourages the worker to rise and batter his oppressors. The other says capitalism will evaporate in the quickness of time and in accordance with the laws of history. Marx’s open legacy crystallized into a quarrel between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin, as Bolshevik leader, appointed himself the active agent of history, who was to accelerate its inevitable process by force. The Mensheviks dreaded force, preferring a gradual change to Socialism, through educating the workers.

Among the Bolsheviks themselves there was a similar split. A challenge to Lenin’s authority came from an ambitious Marxists called Alexander Malinovsky, who later changed his name to Bogdanov, which means ‘Son of God’ (God in this case being the ‘People’). He founded a rather nebulous institution called Proletcult which, he aid, was ‘a laboratory for proletarian culture’, and had set up a colony in exile on Capri which Lenin visited and loathed. Bogdanov countered Lenin’s demand for unity by calling for ‘Three Ways to Socialism – Political, Economic and Cultural’; in particular he insisted on the independence of cultural matters from the government. The Futurists preferred the independence of Bogdanov’s Proletcult to Lenin’s centralization. From the start they were in the wrong camp.

Years of committee meetings in exile had convinced Lenin that liberal intellectuals were weak-kneed and ineffectual. Unity, unity at all costs obsessed him, and he saw ‘no special basis for different directions in art’. Anything that reminded him of idealist philosophy he distrusted, and he would chide his colleagues for ‘coquetting with religion’. Maxim Gorky might exclaim, ‘Almighty, Immortal People, Thou art my God!’ but Lenin never. If he was a dreamer, he was, in H.G. Wells’s verdict, ‘a dreamer in technology’. His saying ‘Communism is Electrification plus Soviets’ expresses his faith in the machine as savior and agent of Socialism.[9]

Marx had warned against the delusions of abstract thought and Lenin probably thought the same of abstract art. At first he thought it harmless, but tolerance gave way to irritation. He disliked the street monuments which left spectators gasping for sense. And when some artists ‘cancelled out’ the trees of the capitalist period in the Alexandrovsky Gardens [12] outside the Kremlin by painting them in bright colors that wouldn’t come off, Lenin and Krupskaya[10] were very cross. In a dry memorandum of October 1920 Lenin wrote: ‘No creation of a new proletarian culture, but the development of the best models of existing culture . . .’ Marxism does not despise the achievements of the past.

Certainly the new masters of Russia preserved its treasures. Once the Winter Palace was stormed, the inventory of its contents began and looters were shot. Anatoly Lunacharsky [11], Lenin’s first Commissioner for Education, had once made his listeners cry as he evoked the wonders of old in the Naples Museum. In November 1917 he made himself cry at news of the destruction of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s [13&14], and resigned from the Revolutionary Committee. ‘I cannot stand it. I cannot stand the monstrous destruction of beauty and tradition.’ He reinstated himself two days later when he heard the news was false.

In contrast, a mood of iconoclastic fervor swept the Left-wingists. They couldn’t have cared less what happened to the Kremlin. Marinetti [15] had once called it ‘an absurd thing’; for all they were concerned it could burn. Malevich hoped all towns and villages would be destroyed every fifty years and said he’d feel more sorry about a screw breaking off than the destruction of St. Basil’s. The avant-garde hadn’t counted on the Bolshevik uprising, but they were the only group of artists in Russia to welcome it. Calling themselves Leftists, they clamored for complete monopoly in the arts.

They behaved with customary lack of caution but superhuman energy. Mayakovsky’s slogan ‘the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes’ flushed artists out into the open. They decorated the Agit-Prop trains which toured the country, staged mass spectacles, placarded old palaces with monumental posters, bundled Tsarist monuments into parcels of throbbing red cloth, played a symphony on factory sirens, evolved a new typography to broadcast the new message and said they were breaking down the divisions between art and engineering, or between painting and music: the latter is not difficult in a country where colors have equivalents in sound; reindeer bells tinkle red and for one poet the noise of the 1905 Revolution was mauve.

The ideas of the artists conflicted. At one extreme was Kandinsky, who for some years had been painting the private landscapes of his mind. He believed in painting as a healing ritual to cure mental anguish and wean men from materialism. ‘Painting’, he wrote, ‘shall free me from my fears’ But men like Tatlin and Rodchenko insisted that materialism was the only value that counted. All the artists, however, agreed to hate the image. The art of the new man must suppress all representation of man. Malevich, an eloquent if erratic propagandist, thundered against the Venus de Milo (‘not a woman but a parody’) and against the rubbish-filled pool of Academic art’ with its female hams, depraved cupids and congealed legacy from Greece. His tone is that of Isaiah on the subject of idols and I think the comparison apt. For beneath the Russians’ obvious devotion to human images lurks an impulse to smash them to bits. The ugly riches of late Tsardom, it is true, were an open invitation to wreckers, but iconoclasm in Russia has a longer history.

As ‘Third Rome’ and guardian of an orthodoxy denied by the renegade West, Russia inherited from Byzantium her peculiar attitude towards the image. The statue of an emperor or icon of a saint proved the legitimacy of a political or religious idea. The saying ‘He who delights in the Emperor’s statue delights in the Emperor’ apples as well to Justinian as to Tsar Nicholas II. Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy. But an abstract art of pure form and color, if it is serious and not merely decorative, mocks the pretensions of secular power because it transcends the limits of this world and attempts to penetrate a hidden world of universal law.

Anarchic peoples, like desert nomads, hate and destroy images, and a similar image-breaking streak runs through Russian history. The apparent endlessness of the country encourages the search for inner freedom – with mystics of all kinds, the Brodiagi or perpetual pilgrims, flagellants, Adventists, people in search of the Seventh Dimension and the famous Molokany, or Milk Drinkers, who influenced Tolstoy.

Malevich was touched by mystical yearnings. In his hands the non-objective canvas became an icon of anarchy and inner freedom: this is what made in dangerous to Marxist materialism.. Of his painting Black Square he said he had felt ‘black nights within’ and a ‘timidity bordering on fear’, but as he decided to break with reality and abandon the image: ‘a blissful sensation of being drawn into a “desert” where nothing is real but feeling, and feeling became the substance of my life’. Now this is not the language of a good Marxist, but of Meister Eckhart -, or, for that matter, of Mohammed. Malevich’s Black Square, his ‘absolute symbol of modernity’, is the equivalent in painting of the black-draped Ka’aba at Mecca, the shrine in a valley of sterile soil where all men are equal before God. And if this seems far-fetched, I quote the judgment of Andrei Burov [17], an architect who left the Constructivist Movement: ‘There was a strong Muslim influence and orthodox Mohammedanism at that; by way of decoration only clocks and letters were allowed.’

With militant enthusiasm the artists of the Left set about demolishing class barrier and imposing the art of equality on people. They then asked the Government to suppress the Society of Easel Painters and abolish all traditional forms of painting. The very fact of the Revolution demanded a complete break with the Academic tradition, which was alien and Western. The cry went out to jettison the relics of the past to prevent the new man being ‘weighed down like an over-loaded camel’. In Bogdanov’s opinion, the art of the past was not a treasury but an arsenal of weapons against the former age. ‘We will smash the old world wildly,’ announced Mayakovsky, who then suggested everything from Adam to Mayakovsky be consigned to the dustbin.

A White Army Officer
When you catch him
You beat him
And what about Raphael
It’s time to make museum
Walls a target
Let the mouths of big guns
Shoot the old rags of the past!

To many officials, the Leftists were to the ‘left of common sense’.

What had caused the hysteria? One suspects they were overcompensating for not having fought alongside the Bolsheviks But more important, the mystique of the machine seems to have gone to their heads. As John Reed [18], an American Communist, wrote: ‘The devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer. . .’ That kingdom was the kingdom of the machine. The backwardness of Russian industry before the First War is, I am told, often underestimated. The machine age came late to Russia, but when it did, it came with a startling abruptness. The growth rate was phenomenal. Industrial units were few, but were the largest in the world, and Texas oilmen would visit Baku to witness the latest techniques of oil-extraction. With the Revolution, the means o production had devolved on the workers themselves and in their hands the man-made machine would transform humanity. Such was the hope. ‘We are masters of the machine,’ said Mayakovsky, ‘therefore we need not fear it.’ The machine was going to introduce true Socialism. Experts said it would take six months.

Now Lenin’s Mechanical materialism was tempered by his sense of the practical. The Leftists did not know his restraint. Most of them hated nature, or pretended to. Man had a Promethean mission to hack up the earth and fashion it to his taste. The position of mountains and other inconvenient geographic features was ‘far from final’. Malevich, whose mysticism was aroused by machinery, called for man ‘to seize the world of nature, and build a new world belonging to himself’. Other artists described themselves as ‘Saints in the Church of the Machine’. In Vsevolod Meyerhold’s ‘biomechanical’ theatre the actors suppressed any life-like emotion and behaved as though they were stage machinery.[19] Pavlov’s dogs salivated mechanically to stimuli. The concept of the house as a ‘machine for living’ probably originates in Russia and not with Le Corbusier. There was an infatuation with an imaginary America with calls to ‘Chicago-ise the soul’ and ‘do our work like a chronometer!’ to ‘desoul’ art and reduce painting to the scientific application of color.

Once they had ‘desouled’ painting, painters could dispose with it altogether. The monochrome canvas, in effect, declared its extinction as an art form. Malevich exhibited his White On White canvases, which were his ultimate expression of non-objective bliss. Tatlin painted a plain pink board. At an exhibition at the Vkhutemas School in 1921 called “The Last Picture Has Been Painted”, Alexander Rodchenko [20] showed three plain canvases in the primary colors. His sketchbooks which lead up to the ‘suicide of painting’ still belong to his daughter in Moscow and reveal him as a conceptual genius on the level of Marcel Duchamp. In two years he tried out and discarded almost every experiment the New York abstract painters tried in the Fifties and Sixties before reaching the present impasse.

But in 1920 the Russian avant- garde was undismayed by the impasse. A useful art and architecture of iron, glass and concrete would, in one opinion, replace the old culture of wood, ‘itself a bourgeois counter-revolutionary material’. The man-made thing became the object of a minor cult, the factory a shrine to the dignity of labor. Tatlin designed stoves and casseroles [21], though one cynical observer noticed that if all the artists went into the factories they would be reduced to designing labels. Nevertheless, when today we talk of the dehumanizing effects of the machine, it’s strange to hear Malevich’s adulation of the ‘big city’s metallic culture, the culture of the new humanized nature.’

And the kingdom of the machine was not confined to earth. Air travel had also gone to their heads. In 1892 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who taught physics and mathematics at a girls’ school in Ryazan province, had said ‘This planet is the cradle of the human mind, but one cannot spend one’s life in a cradle’.[22] So, being a genius, the Father of the Russian Space Programme invented the first wind-tunnel and outlined the principle of the reactor rocket. A less talented visionary, who had the grace to call himself Kreisky ‘the Extreme’, pioneered the concept of stellar engineering. ‘We shall arrange the stars in rows. . . We shall erect upon the canals of Mars the Palace of World Freedom.’

Tatlin’s projected iron and glass Monument to the Third International, which was to have spanned the Neva, appealed to the yearning for the infinite. Its spiral form which certainly has Islamic ancestry) combines the idea of cyclic renewal with limitless upward progression. Later ‘the great fool’ retreated up the tower of the Novodyeviche Monastery to design an articulated glider called Letatlin, but it never flew.[23] One critic described Malevich’s White on White as a ‘rocket sent by the human spirit into non-existence’. The artist then passed from easel painting to a search for perfect architectural form, and made a series of plaster models. The fact that he called them Planetes suggest he intended his buildings to orbit.

Bad living conditions inflate the life of the fantastic. Berthold Lubetkin, the architect, who was a student at the Vkhutemas School, recalled for me the winter of 1918. He shared a room with sixteen other students behind the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. They ate hyacinths from window boxes; slept between joists wrapped in newspapers because they had burned the floorboards, had no blankets and no source of warmth other than a flat iron which they heated in the porter’s stove. A fellow student called Kalesnikov was unable to find a room and bored a hole in Lissitzky’s street monument The Red Wedge Invades the White Square, where he installed himself for the winter.[23] The same Kalesnikov submitted to the school a project recalling conceptual art of 1794 or a story by Borges) for converting the earth into its own terrestrial globe by attaching a steel arc from pole to pole, on which the artist could hop off for a day and and night.

This brand of proletarian thought might, at a pinch, get through to the industrial worker – albeit with negative results,. But there was no room for the peasants, the wronged peasants chained to the black soil and the seasons of ice and mud and sunflowers and dust. The Leftists preferred not to think about the peasant, and hoped that his condition was transitory. There was, it was true, a strain in Russian Intellectual life which regretted the passing of old Russia and idolized the peasant, from afar, as the incarnation of Russian virtue. Bu this peasant-consciousness had become tainted with middle-class longing for the primitive. Peasant smocks had arrived in the literary salons of St. Petersburg, peasant themes and peasant colors in the Daghilev Ballet.[24] The painter Mikhail Larionov evoked peasant lechery, yet continued to wear wing collars.[25] There was, however, one real poet of the earth, Serge Esenin, the blonde innocent who awoke the tenderest emotions in both sexes. But he failed to master the contradiction of his roots and assumed Bohemianism 9 including a marriage to Isadora Duncan). He destroyed himself with drink, then cut his wrists.[26]

The Leftists may have ignored the peasant. Lenin and the Party did not. Peasants accounted for eighty per cent of the population. Without their help the country would now starve. And in 1921 the government, prostrated by Civil War, granted an unknown freedom of action to the peasant in the New Economic Policy. Lenin believed that peasant solidarity was the course of true Russian Communism.. ‘We are, in a sense, pupils of the peasant.’ He once said. Now the peasant might be illiterate, but his visual acuity was exceptional. For centuries he had ‘read’ the Bible story on the iconostasis of his church; he had ‘read’ folk-takes and news on woodcuts, called lubok, which he pinned up in his cottage; and now he wanted top ‘read’ the message of Revolution and the discomfort of his old tormentors.

Today we recognize the artists and architects of the Left as great original thinkers. We marvel at early Soviet photo-montage posters by Rodchenko or Lissitzky, which pack on to a sheet of paper all the enthusiasm of the Red Revolution. But their original message did not get home to its intended audience, the whole people of Russia. They did not pass this tricky barrier of communication. By their own admission they decided what the people should want, not what it did want. And, it must be said, the people wanted to possess the monumental architecture, opulent decoration, and gilt-framed pictures with which the old rulers of Russia had encrusted their lives. Lunacharsky was correct when he said: ‘The People too have a right to colonnades.’

The Society of Easel Painters revived itself and vigorously denied that the last picture had been painted. Architects began again to load buildings with ornaments. And the dispute between the ‘formalists’ and the ‘realists’ degenerated from an acceptable dialogue to mud-slinging and worse. Tatlin, speaking for the constructivist, used to say: ‘The material is the carrier of a work’s content’; that is, an object of arresting form in steel and glass could express the vitality of the machine age. The realists’ would say, this is nonsense; it will convey messages only to people who are first primed to receive them. So why bother? The one way an artist can encourage workers in a steel factory or in the harvest field is to paint their heroic struggle realistically; and the only way to beat the camera at this game is to make the figures more heroic-looking than they really are. Such was the rationale of the Socialist Realist Style which replaced the abstraction of the Left.

In any case, ‘urban life enriched by the sense of speed’ rapidly disenchanted the Leftists. They began to see the machine as an enemy. Mayakovsky – the gentle giant with fountain-pens in his top pocket to prove his modernity – visited America, said it was fine for machines but not for men, and granted amnesty to Rembrandt before putting a bullet through his brain. With his death in 1930 it was obvious that the Leftist Movement had failed. The Party did squash it. But it also died of fatigue.

What Am I doing Here by Bruce Chatwin; Viking Press, 1989; "George Costakis: The Story of An Art Collection In The Soviet Union"

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde


He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
"That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men
Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the terror of his soul
Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
Through a little roof of glass:
He does not pray with lips of clay
For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
The kiss of Caiaphas.


Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,
In the suit of shabby grey:
His cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
That in the springtime shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer's collar take
His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock's dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
In God's sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men we were:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.


In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman's hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing
No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher's doom
Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
Pent up in Murderers' Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
Could help a brother's soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring
We trod the Fools' Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
The Devil's Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watchers watched him as he slept,
And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
With a hangman close at hand.

But there is no sleep when men must weep
Who never yet have wept:
So we - the fool, the fraud, the knave -
That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
Another's terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
To feel another's guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
Grey figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
Mad mourners of a corse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
Was the savour of Remorse.

The grey cock crew, the red cock crew,
But never came the day:
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and long they sang,
For they sang to wake the dead.

'Oho!' they cried, 'The world is wide,
But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
In the secret House of Shame.'

No things of air these antics were,
That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
Some wheeled in smirking pairs;
With the mincing step of a demirep
Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning steel
We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars,
Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From some leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.


There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God's sweet air we went,
But not in wonted way,
For this man's face was white with fear,
And that man's face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
And through each hollow mind
The Memory of dreadful things
Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
And Terror crept behind.

The Warders strutted up and down,
And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at,
By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,
There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
And the soft flesh by day,
It eats the flesh and bone by turns,
But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer's heart would taint
Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God's kindly earth
Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
Christ brings His will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
May bloom in prison-air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
A common man's despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
That God's Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit may not walk by night
That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may but weep that lies
In such unholy ground,

He is at peace - this wretched man -
At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies:
They mocked the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
To Life's appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

This too I know - and wise it were
If each could know the same -
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,
And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.


In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

2nd Photo: Oscar Wilde's Tomb in Paris.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Oklahoma City by Andrew Gumbel & Roger Charles

Its always interesting to revisit these cases. For example, for want of $18,000 worth of rebar ( one-eighth of 1% of the total cost of construction of the Murrah Building in 1977) Tim McVeigh’s bomb would have done far less damage and the death toll may have been limited to just fifteen of twenty people. As early as 1988 The National Research Council suggested that the first thing such buildings under threat should do was to close any on-site day-care centers. Furthermore, all of the building’s security cameras except the one serving the GSA’s on-site manager’s office were disconnected as a cost-saving measure despite the warnings and applications of the head of security for the building.

In addition to huge arms stashes by the AFT, U.S. Customs were storing undocumented TOW missiles in the building, in contradiction to both safety and the law. Rescue operations were suspended twice without explanation while agents removed these dangerous items.

Larges bodies of evidence- including 24 eye-witnesses who testified that they saw McVeigh in Oklahoma City before the bombing in the company of one or more other people- 1,034 latent fingerprints taken from McVeigh’s car, the Dreamland Hotel where he stayed and the Ryder rental agency were never checked against the FBI’s computer databases- were systematically ignored during the investigation and prosecutions of McVeigh and Nichols. Greater cooperation between the FBI and AFT, less political interference from Washington, more vigorous pursuit of known extremists could have prevented the attack and broadened the scope of the investigation after. As it turned out the best “evidence’ the prosecutors presented to the jury was the testimony of the sufferings of the victims.

McVeigh ratted on Nichols and Nichols ratted on McVeigh though he did not ‘come clean’ with his whole story until 2007. Michael Fortier ratted on them both. The indictment itself, which came down fairly precipitously in August of 1995, set the start of the conspiracy at September 13, 1994. This day had nothing to do with the evidence. It was the day President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which first introduced the death penalty for using or conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. Prosecutors worried that if they put the start of the conspiracy any sooner, the capital charges might get thrown out.

McVeigh,in a forceful sort of way, had sex with Nichol’s wife on several occasions when her husband was absent. In February 1995, a couple of months before the bombing, McVeigh had sex with Richard Rogers who told the FBI that McVeigh’s tongue and throat action was “incredible”; “He was good at what he did”. A large amount of McVeigh’s activity in the two or so years leading up to the bombing was fueled by crystal meth (which reminded me of the story of Gary Gilmore in “The Executioner’s Song”.)

After sentencing McVeigh was moved to the Supermax prison in Colorado. He did his best to blend in with prison life, forming perhaps the most surprising friendship with Ted Kaczynski. They may have been from different places on the political spectrum, but they were both ideologues who believed in violence. Kaczynski was intrigued to learn about McVeigh’s Gulf War service. McVeigh commented: “Yes, sir. Ironic, isn’t it? In Desert Storm I got medals for killing people.”

Kaczynski thought that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “unnecessarily inhumane.” But he found McVeigh more intelligent than he imagined, and more open to other people and other cultures. “I expect that he is an adventurer by nature,” Kaczynski later wrote, “and America since the closing of the frontier has had little room for adventurers.”

In July 1999 McVeigh was handcuffed, chained and flown with nineteen other prisoners to the new federal death row facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. This was the real-life version of the popcorn Hollywood movie Con Air, with heavily armed federal marshals watching nervously over the likes of Anthony Battle, a mentally disturbed serial offender from Georgia, and David Paul Hammer, a brilliantly devious con man and murderer who inspired both Cyrus the Virus, the John Malkovich character in Con Air, and Thomas Harris’s man-eating evil genius, Hannibal Lecter.

The first time McVeigh spoke to Hammer, who was feared by almost all his fellow inmates, he bragged about the destruction in Oklahoma City, saying: “The official score is 168 to 1. I’m up.” To which an unimpressed Hammer replied: “Well, I guess I can’t kill you more than once.”

Gradually, McVeigh, Hammer, and a third inmate, Jeffery Paul, began holding meetings they nicknamed “Klan rallies,” because they were the only whites on death row. They were not friends, exactly, but they looked to each other for companionship and protection. McVeigh was called “baby killer” by his fellow inmates, and teased for his dearth of sexual experience, but Hammer was his insurance policy against anything worse.

Hammer also helped McVeigh move up the date of his execution by waiving all final appeals on his own death sentence. Hammer did not want to die, although he vacillated about that for years; his principal goal was to set a legal precedent. McVeigh had told his biographer “ I will be glad to leave this fucked-up world.” If his last habeas corpus petition was turned down, as he was almost sure it would be, he wanted to close down the legal process. The problem was, he knew of no one on federal death row who had done this before. So Hammer put in his own request. It was accepted, and McVeigh had his precedent.

McVeigh was not hanged from the gallows in the town square, but his death by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, broadcast via closed-circuit television to the media and relatives of the victims, was the closest thing to a public execution in modern American history. McVeigh called it “Bloodstock.”

Inside the prison, and especially in the death row wing known as Dog Unit, the first federal execution in thirty-eight years was met with a sense of unshakeable gloom. McVeigh had a knack for making himself popular, and found a way of laughing and joking even about his own death. “Still breathin” he signed off his last letters. David Hammer remembered McVeigh forming his hand into a noose and making a yanking gesture whenever anyone asked how he was. “I will grieve for what Tim once was, and for who he is now, because no man ceases to be a human being, no matter his actions or how horrid those actions were,” Hammer wrote in his journal three days before the execution.

Many of the inmates had difficulty eating and sleeping. They were put in lockdown, and the prison authorities replaced the usual menu of cable television programs with comedy films. Hammer, a diabetic, gave himself an insulin overdose the night before McVeigh’s death. “I did so hoping to die,” he later wrote.

In his final appeal at Terry Nichols sentencing trial Michael Tigar did something utterly unexpected: he physically embraced his client and called him his brother, evoking the way Joseph, in the Old Testament, had revealed himself to his brother Benjamin when he stood in judgment over him. The point, Tigar explained, was not to negate the loss of all the brothers, mothers, fathers, and sisters in the bombing, but rather to understand something fundamental about Western Civilization. “ He reached out because even in that moment of judgment he could understand that this is a human process and that what we all share looks to the future and not to the past. My brother is in your hands.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Apocalypse by W.B. Sebald

Ditchingham churchyard was the very last stop on my walk through the county of Suffolk. The afternoon was already drawing to a close, and so I decided to return to the main road and continue a short way in the direction of Norwich, to the Mermaid in Hedenham, where the bar would be opening soon. The route I had to take led me past Ditchingham Hall, a house built around 1700 in beautiful mauve-colored brick, the windows of which were fitted with dark green shutters. It was situated well off the main road above a serpentine lake, and encompassed on all sides by extensive parkland.

It occurred to me that Ditchingham Park must have been laid out around the time Chateaubriand was in Suffolk. Estates of this kind, which enabled the ruling elite to imagine themselves surrounded by boundless lands where nothing offended the eyes, did not become fashionable until the second half of the eighteenth century. Planning and executing the work necessary for an emparkment could take two or three decades. In order to complete such a project it was usually necessary to buy parcels of land and add them to an existing estate, and roads, tracks, individual farmsteads, sometimes even entire villages had to be moved, as the object was to enjoy an uninterrupted view from the house over a natural expanse innocent of any human presence. It was for the same reason that fences were replaced with broad, grass-covered ha-has , which were dug out at a cost of many thousands of working hours. Naturally, such an undertaking, with its considerable impact not only on the landscape, but also on the life of local communities, could not always be accomplished without controversy.

At the period in question, an ancestor of Earl Ferrers, the present owner of Ditchingham Hall, having become embroiled in a confrontation with one of his estate managers, dispatched him with his gun, for which deed he was in due course sentenced to death by his peers in the House of Lords, and hanged publicly in London by a silken rope.

The least costly aspect of laying out a landscaped park was planting of trees as specimens or in small groups, even if it was not seldom preceded by the felling of tracts of woodland and the burning-off of unsightly thickets and scrub that did not comply with the overall concept . Nowadays, given that only a third of the trees planted at the time are still standing in most parks, and that more are dying each year of old age and many other causes, we will soon be able to envisage once more the Torricelli-like emptiness in which the great country seats stood in the late eighteenth century.

Chateaubriand himself made a modest attempt to realize the ideal of nature projected into such emptiness. When he returned in 1807 from his long journey to Constantinople and Jerusalem, he bought a summer house that lay hidden among the wooded hills in the Vallee aux Loups, not far from the town of Aulnay. It is there that he begins to write his memoirs, on the first pages of which he speaks of the trees he has planted and tended with his own hands. Now, he says, they are still so small that I provide them with shade whenever I step between them and the sun. But one day, when they have grown, they will give shade to me, and look after me in my old age much as I looked after them in their youth. I feel a bond unites me with these trees; I write sonnets, elegies and odes to them; they are like children, I know them all by name, and my only desire is that I should end my days amongst them.

This picture was taken at Ditchingham about ten years ago, on a Saturday afternoon when the manor house was open to the public in aid of charity. The Lebanese cedar which I am leaning against, unaware still of the woeful events that were to come, is one of the trees that were planted when the park was laid out, and most of which, as I have said, have already disappeared.

Since the mid-Seventies there has been an ever more rapid decline in the number of trees, with heavy losses, above all amongst the species most common in England. Indeed, one tree has become well nigh extinct: Dutch elm disease spread from the south coast in Norfolk around 1975, and within the space of just two or three summers there were no elms left alive in the vicinity. The six elms which had shaded the pond in our garden withered away in June 1978, just a few weeks after they unfolded their marvelous light green foliage for the last time.

The virus spread through the root systems of entire avenues with unbelievable speed, causing capillaries to tighten and leading to the trees’ dying of thirst. Even solitary trees were located with infallible accuracy by the airborne beetles which spread the disease. One of the most perfect trees I have ever seen was an almost two-hundred-year-old elm that stood on its own in a field not far from our house. About one hundred feet tall, it filled an immense space. I recall that, after most of the elms in the areas had succumbed, its countless, somewhat asymmetrical, finely serrated leaves would sway in the breeze as if the scourge which had obliterated its entire kind would pass it by without a trace; and I also recall that a bare fortnight later all these apparently invincible leaves were brown and curled up, and dust before autumn came.

It was then also that I noticed the crowns of ash trees were become sparse, and the foliage of oaks was thinning and displaying strange mutations. At the same time, the trees themselves were producing leaves from hard old wood, and by mid-summer they were dropping masses of rock-hard, deformed acorns that were covered with a sticky substance. The beech trees, which until then had remained in good shape, were affected by several long droughts. The leaves were only half their usual size, and almost all the beechnuts were empty. One after the other, the poplars on the meadow died. Some of the dead trunks are still standing, while others lie broken and bleached in the grass. Finally, in the autumn of 1987, a hurricane such as no one had ever experienced before passed over the land. According to official estimates over fourteen million mature hard-leaf fell victim to it, not to mention the damage to conifer plantations and bushes.

That was on the night of the 16th of October. Without warning, the storm came up out of the Bay of Biscay, moved along the French west coast, crossed the English Channel and swept over the south-east part of the island out into the North Sea. I woke at about three in the morning, less as a result of the thunderous roar than because of the curious warmth and the increasing air pressure in my bedroom. In contrast with other equinoctial gales which I have experienced here, this one came not in driving gusts but with an unrelenting and, it seemed, ever more powerful force. I stood at the window and looked through the glass, which was strained almost to the breaking point, down towards the end of the garden, where the crowns of the large trees in the neighboring bishop’s park were bent and streaming like aquatic plants in a deep current. White clouds raced across the darkness, and again and again the sky was lit up with a terrible flickering which, I later discovered, was caused by power lines touching each other.

At some point I must have turned away for a while. At all events, I still remember that I did not believe my eyes when I looked out again and saw that where the currents of air had shortly beforehand been pouring through the black mass of trees, there was now just the paleness of the empty horizon. It seemed as if someone had pulled a curtain to one side to reveal a formless scene that bordered upon the underworld. And at the very moment that I registered the unaccustomed brightness of the night over the park, I knew that everything down there had been destroyed. And yet I hoped that the ghastly emptiness could be explained by some other means, for in the mounting din of the storm I had heard none of the crashing sounds that go with the felling of timber. It was not until later that I realized that the trees, held to the last by their root systems, toppled only gradually, and because they were forced down so slowly their crowns, which were entangled with each other, did not shatter but remained virtually undamaged. In this way, entire tracts of woodland were pressed down flat as if they had been cornfields.

In the first light of dawn, when the storm had begun to abate, I ventured out into the garden. For a long time I stood choked with emotion amidst the devastation. It was like being in a kind of wind tunnel, so strong was the suction created by the onrushing air, which was far too warm for the time of year. The ancient trees on either side of the path leading along the edge of the park were all lying on the ground as if in a swoon, and beneath the huge oaks, ash and plane trees, beeches and limes lay the torn and mangled shrubs that had grown in their shade, thujas and yews, hazel and laurel bushes, holly and rhododendrons. With pulsating radiance the sun rose over the horizon. The gusts continued for a while, and then it was suddenly quiet. Nothing moved, apart from the birds which had lived in the bushes and trees and which were now flitting about amongst the branches that remained green well into the autumn that year.

I do not know how I got through the first day after the storm, but do recall during the night, doubting what I had seen with my own eyes, I walked once more through the park. As there were power cuts throughout the whole region, everything was in deep darkness. There was no glare from streetlights or houses to dull the sky. But the stars had come out, in a display so resplendent as I had seen only over the Alps when I was a child, or over the desert in my dreams. From the extreme north right down to the south where the view had before been blocked by trees, the sparkling constellations were spread out, the Plough, the tail of Draco, the triangle of Taurus, the Pleiades, Pegasus, the Swan and the Dolphin. Unchanged and, it seemed to me, more magnificent than ever before, they revolved above me.

The silence of that brilliant night after the storm was followed by the revving of chainsaws during the winter months. It took four or five laborers until March to cut up the branches, burn the rubbish, and haul away the trunks. An excavator dug large holes in which stumps and roots, some the size of a small house, were buried. Now, in the truest sense of the word, everything was turned upside down. The forest floor, which in the spring of last year had still been carpeted with snowdrops, violets and wood anemones, ferns and cushions of moss, was now covered by a layer of barren clay. All that grew in the hard-baked earth were tufts of swamp grass, the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knew how long. The rays of the sun, with nothing left to impede them, destroyed all the shade-loving plants so that it seemed as if we were living on the edge of an infertile plain.

Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. Translated by Michael Hulse, A New Directions Book, 1995

Sunday, July 8, 2012

McVeigh Confronts His Public Image by Jody Lynee Madeira

In the years preceding his execution, not only was Timothy McVeigh a toxic presence in the bombing victim’s lives; they were also a devastating presence in his. Immediately after his arrest, victims criticized McVeigh’s unemotional and defiant persona, the protested the utter implausibility of his insistence that the Oklahoma City bombing was a military attack, with victims’ deaths constituting “collateral damage”. News media broadcast and built upon these remarks, formulating them into a formidable public representation of McVeigh that was, in his own view, malicious, even monstrous. McVeigh responded to the treatment he was given in the media with a slew of interviews and an authorized biography.

For McVeigh, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City teemed with enemy non-combatants, and he, a patriotic warrior, would lead the attack that would vindicate the government’s deadly actions at Waco, Ruby Ridge and elsewhere. But family members, survivors and both the American and international public lived in an entirely different universe, one in which the Murrah Building was a place where ordinary Americans far removed from controversial events such as the massacre at Waco came to earn a living just like any other employees. McVeigh attempted to reconcile these two worlds and, indeed, even believed that it was possible to do so; a grave lesson in what can (and must) get lost in translation.

With his lawyer’s help, McVeigh was determined to show the public a friendly face. Above all, he wanted to be taken seriously, but a man made into a monster was likely to be seen as bestial, not rational so McVeigh was frustrated by media coverage awash in victims laments and felt it was important to salvage his mission and redeem his message before dying. What began as a statement of defiance became damage control. From his perp walk until his execution, McVeigh was engaged in a dialogue not only with his victims (particularly a handful with high media visibility) but also with the image of himself that the victims and others helped to create.

What the victims saw as a heinous instance of mass murder, McVeigh regarded as a military mission. He clearly saw himself as a soldier and analogized his reasons for the bombing to other U.S. military actions abroad. To McVeigh, the government actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge necessitated that he ‘go on the offensive' and his stoic soldierly mind-set allegedly accounted for his lack of remorse:

It’s a military act . . . . That’s the way I handle taking a human life... It’s like breaking the neck of a chicken. Look at the atom bomb at Hiroshima, 70,000 people were wiped off the map. To this day, the pilot of that plane says it was a dirty job, but he had to do it.

For McVeigh, then, the bombing was an act of war, and those who worked in the Murrah Building were “eligible combatants whether they’re on the front lines or not.” But family members, survivors, rescue workers, residents of Oklahoma, and the American public did not and could not see the Oklahoma City bombing in such martial terms. They could understand McVeigh’s righteous indignation over Waco and Ruby Ridge, but his decision to bomb the Murrah Building was riotous; being angry at the government was far different from taking innocent lives in retribution.

But McVeigh consistently objected to what he callously termed the “woe-is-me” crowd, objecting that their victimization was the same as that experienced by innocents harmed by U.S. attacks on foreign soil:

Those people, the victims, seem to elevate themselves into something special. They say that no one should have to go through this pot-traumatic grief that their whole city is going through. At the same time, we’re doing it to other nations all the time.”

He was frustrated by the depth and visibility of the victims grief, and he complained that victims were perpetually wallowing in their misery:

I had no hesitation to look right at them and listen to their story, but I’d like to say to them, I’ve heard your story many times before. The specific detail might be unique, but the truth is you are not the first mother to lose a kid, you’re not the first grandparent to lose a granddaughter or a grandson. I’ll use the phrase, and it sounds cold, but I’m sorry I’m going to use it because it’s the truth: get over it.

Family members and survivors could not understand McVeigh’s lack of remorse, and McVeigh was equally puzzled by their inability to do so. In an early interview McVeigh disclosed that he had received a letter from Kathy Wilburn, whose two grandsons he had murdered in the bombing. McVeigh appeared to be frustrated not by her anger but by her inability to understand why he did not show emotion for the murdered bombing victims:

People. I don’t know if they can understand or won’t understand, but when you see a picture of a pilot climbing out of is plane, coming back from a bombing mission, is he crying? If a cop shoots a perp, does he come home and cry? In these fields of fire rescue and law enforcement, you learn to suppress, to block out emotion. . . People grow accustomed to it. You ever see a person from a Third World country encounter a disaster? It’s like, OK, let’s pick up our shit and move somewhere else. You don’t see this weeping.

One news article from the Canadian Press quoted family member Jim Denny, whose two children were injured in the bombing, as saying that he did not understand McVeigh’s comparison between the Oklahoma bombing and the Gulf War. Enclosing the letter to a reporter, McVeigh noted in the margin: “I don’t want to be too harsh on JD, b/c I know emotion clouds reason and logic . . . I know what his kids went through (and are still going through), but what world is this guy living in?!?”

McVeigh’s overall attitude towards the majority of victims was inconsistent. At times, he derided, even mocked, their thoughts and feelings, yet on other occasions he claimed to feel “empathy” for them. McVeigh was clearly aware of how his behaviors impacted family members and survivors, noticing that when he “laughed at pretrial it bothered the victims.” He confirmed that his attitude at trial was at times defiant:

My attitude was, and is, carpe diem, seize the day, enjoy every day. I’m not going to go into that courtroom, curl into a fetal ball and cry, just because the victims wanted me to do that. I’ve already accepted my death, victims, you’re getting what you want, I’m getting what I want. . .

In one stunningly offensive remark, McVeigh analogized the Murrah Building employees to functionaries on the Death Star, the Galactic Empire’s space station and weapon made famous in the Star Wars movie:

The federal government is an army of people. They’re like storm troopers in Star Wars. Although they may be individually innocent, they’re part of the whole . . In the storm troopers analogy, they blow up the entire Death Star. In different scenes, you’d see different women sitting at the consoles in the Death Star, or you’d see storm troopers running around, not shooting at anybody. Guess what, they all get blown up in the Death Star and the audience was happy. As a whole, the Death Star represented the whole empire. Death Star, Murrah Building, they’re all working or the same cause...”

At the same time, McVeigh claimed he took no pleasure in what he did. He regretted that there was some collateral damage, that he did not know there would be customers in the offices of some of those agencies, like Social Security.

It really pissed me off that the prosecution presented that the day care center was easily visible. Mike Fortier and I were in the front of the building, that glass was black, just a sheen. You couldn’t see the kids in there . . . I recognized beforehand that someone might be walking down the road with heir kid or bringing their kid to work. However, it it was known there was an entire day care center there, it might have caused me to switch target and that might have made a difference. That’s a large amount of collateral damage. That issue really irked me; it was terrible that there were children in the building.

McVeigh knew that, in order for his ideological messages to be credible, it was most important to convey that he was not mentally ill. Early on, He disclosed to reporters the results of his psychological examinations in prison:

I was seen repeatedly by 3 defense shrinks (to psycho, 1 psychia.) pre-trial. I got along great with two; the 3rd grew frustrated b/c his job was to formulate a possible ‘mental defect’ mitigation – and he couldn’t find any basis for such. None of these 3 professionals, when everything was explained, found anything wrong with me.

He vehemently denied he was a sociopath, pointing to his ‘sensitive’(yet private) side,” and contended that “if I am sociopathic, still, I am only a reflection of the average American.” As if to offer the ultimate proof that he was rational and sane, McVeigh described his experiences in late 1992 with what he referred to as “delayed PTSD.” Although he termed PTSD ‘a misnomer,” he remarked that “As long as I was busy with something, it didn’t seem to affect me . . . However, whenever life became boring, I would start to ‘slip’ (feel upset at everything, super-restless, etc.).” He attributed the condition to his Gulf War service and characterized it as isolating:

Now that you’ve seen the extremes, experienced the ultimate highs, lows and realities – well, who gives a shit about conversations about the weather. . . the daily grind, all of a sudden, has gotten much more intolerable . . . you separate yourself from these encounters, and this from the people, to escape these conversations.

McVeigh was resentful that the media appeared to credit rescue workers’ PTSD accounts but not his own:

What’s funny is how these articles about victims and rescue workers are all sympathy, with experts weighing in, etc. - but how no such consideration was given me or my life . . . the way I look at it, either hand out the sympathy equally, or hand out none at all!

Yet, in describing the bombing conspiracy itself, McVeigh was profoundly angered by insinuations that he was not its mastermind:

Show me where I needed anybody else – financing?, Logistics?, Specialized tech. skills? Brain-power? Strategy? Or, old fashioned ‘means, motive, opportunity ‘test? Show me where I needed a dark and mysterious ‘Mr. X’!!

He repeatedly emphasized that he was calm and collected, even after the bomb detonated, that he “never lost composure” was “never hyped-up, always in control,” and even walked “calmly” to his getaway car.

In his letters McVeigh tried to showcase his thoughts and motivations so that others could appreciate the complexity of his intellect:

I’m trying to show you that my opinions are not just ‘jumping to unsupported conclusions, but that my opinions are formed over years of diligent observation and educated conclusions. . .One thing that separates me from the 5-minute attention span masses is that I remember what I’ve read in the past – I have it all stored away and made available for reference and cross-reference at any time.

McVeigh was very self-conscious about his communications and often reminded journalists that he was forsaking eloquence for efficiency. McVeigh was concerned about what would happen to his correspondence after his execution: “I hate to think what the likes of some reporters would do . . . I didn’t exactly pick up a dictionary or consult punctuation rules when I am writing an informal personal letter.” Bacharach found McVeigh’s self-concern and self-scrutiny interesting: “I was struck that he would care that people might pick apart his writing ability . . . someone who kills 168 people . . . he’s concerned they’re going to make fun of his punctuation.”

Killing McVeigh; The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure by Jody Lynee Madeira; New York University Press, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Theresienstadt by W.G. Sebald

Soon after the beginning of the New Year, said Austerlitz, what was described as a Vershonerungsaktion or general improvement was undertaken at Theresienstadt, with an eye to the imminent visit in the early summer of 1944 of a Red Cross commission, an event regarded by those authorities of the Reich responsible as a good opportunity to dissimulate the true nature of their deportation policy, and consequently it was decided to organize the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up program. . .

As the time of the visit itself approached and Theresienstadt, after another seven and a half thousand of the less presentable inmates had been sent east amidst all this busy activity, to thin out the population, so to speak, became a Potemkin village or sham Eldorado which may have dazzled even some of the inhabitants themselves and where, when the appointed day came, the commission of two Danes and one Swiss official, having been guided, in conformity with a precise plan and a timetable drawn up by the Kommandant’s office, through the streets and over spotless pavements, scrubbed with soap early that morning, could see for themselves the friendly, happy folk who had been spared the horrors of war and were looking out of the windows, could see how smartly they were all dressed, how well the few sick people were cared for, how they were given proper meals served on plates, how the bread ration was handed out by people in white drill gloves, how posters advertising sporting events, cabarets, theatrical performances, and concerts were being put on every corner and how, when the day’s work was over, the residents of the town flocked out in their thousands on the ramparts and bastions to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying and evening stroll on the deck of an oceangoing steamer, a most reassuring spectacle, all things considered, which the Germans, whether for propaganda purposes or in order to justify their actions and conduct to themselves, thought fit after the end of the Red Cross visit to record in a film given a sound track of Jewish folk music in March 1945, when considerable number of the people who had appeared in it were no longer alive, and a copy of which had apparently turned up in the British-occupied zone after the war, although he, Adler himself, said Austerlitz, never saw it, and thought it was now lost without a trace.

For months, said Austerlitz, I tried in vain, through the good offices of the Imperial War Museum and other agencies, to find any clue to the present location of the film. I kept thinking that if only the film could be found I might perhaps be able to see or gain some inkling of what it was really like, and then I imagined recognizing my mother Agata, beyond any possibility of doubt, a young woman as she would be by comparison with me today, perhaps among the guests outside the fake coffeehouse, or a saleswoman in a haberdashery shop, just taking a fine pair of gloves carefully out of one of the drawers, or singing the part of Olympia in the Tales of Hoffman which was staged at Theresienstadt in the course of the improvement campaign. I imagined seeing her walking down the street in a summer dress and light-weight gabardine coat, said Austerlitz: among a group of ghetto residents out for a stroll, she alone seemed to make it straight for me, coming closer with every step, until at last I thought I could sense her stepping out of the frame and passing over to me.

It was wishful fantasies such as these which cast me into a state of great excitement when the Imperial War Museum finally succeeded, through the Federal Archives in Berlin, in obtaining a cassette copy of the film of Theresienstadt for which I had been searching. I remember very clearly, said Austerlitz, how I sat in one of the museums video viewing rooms, placed the cassette in the black opening of the recorder with trembling hands, and then, although unable to take in any of it, watched various tasks being carried out at the anvil and forge of the smithy, in the pottery and woodworking shop, in the handbag-making and shoe manufacturing sections – a constant, pointless to-do of hammering, metal-beating, and welding, cutting, gluing, and stitching; I saw an unbroken succession of stranger’s faces emerge before me for a few seconds, I saw workers leaving the huts when the siren sounded and crossing an empty field beneath a sky filled with motionless white clouds, a game of football in the inner court of one of the barrack buildings, with hundreds of cheerful spectators crowding the arcades and the galleries on the first and second floors, books being borrowed from the library by gentlemen of soigne appearance, I saw a full-scale orchestral concert and, in the moat surrounding the fortified town, kitchen gardens neatly laid out where several dozen people were raking the vegetable beds, watering beans and tomatoes, searching brassica leaves for Cabbage White caterpillars, whilst at the end of the day others were sitting on benches outside the houses, apparently in perfect contentment, letting the children play a little longer, one man reading a book, a woman talking to her neighbor, many of them just taking their ease at the windows, arms folded, in a way once common at the onset of dusk.

At first I could get none of these images into my head; they merely flickered before my eyes at the source of continual irritation or vexation, which was further reinforced when, to my horror, it turned out that the Berlin cassette inscribed with the original title of Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt had on it only a patchwork of scenes cobbled together and lasting some fourteen minutes, scarcely more than an opening sequence in which, despite the hopes I had entertained, I could not see Agata anywhere, however often I ran the tape and however hard I strained to make her out among those fleeting faces.

In the end the impossibility of seeing anything more closely in those pictures, which seemed to dissolve even as they appeared, said Austerlitz, gave me the idea of having a slow-motion copy of this fragment from Theresienstadt made, one which would last a whole hour, and indeed once the scant document was extended to four times its original length, it did reveal previously hidden objects and people, creating, by default as it were, a different film altogether, which I have since watched over and over again. The men and women employed in the workshops now looked as if they were toiling in their sleep, so long did it take them to draw needle and thread through the air as they stitched, so heavily did their eyelids sink, so slowly did their lips move as they looked wearily up at the camera. They seemed to be hovering rather than walking, as if their feet no longer quite touched the ground. The contours of their bodies were blurred and, particularly in the scenes shot out of doors in broad daylight, had dissolved at the edges, resembling, as it occurred to me, said Austerlitz, the frayed outlines of the human hand shown in the fluidal pictures and electrographs taken by Louis Draget in Paris around the turn of the century. . .

Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of the sounds in this slow-motion version. In the brief sequence at the very beginning, showing red-hot iron being worked in a smithy to shoe a draft ox, the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the sound track of the Berlin copy had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisiene and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended. At the point where, on the original Berlin copy, a male voice, in high-pitched, strenuous tones forced through the larynx, had spoken of task forces and cohorts of workers deployed, as circumstances required, in various different ways, or if necessary retrained, so that everyone willing to work – jeder Arbeitswillige! , so Austerlitz interrupted himself – had an opportunity of fitting seamlessly into the production process, at this point of the tape all that could now be made out, Austerlitz continued, was a menacing growl, such as I had heard only once before in my life, on an unseasonably hot May Day many years ago in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris when, after one of the peculiar turns that often came over me in those days, I rested for a while on a park bench beside an aviary not far from the big cats’ house, where the lions and tigers, invisible from my vantage point and, as it struck me at the time, driven out of their minds in captivity, raised their hollow roars of lament hour after hour without ceasing.

And then, Austerlitz continued, towards the end of the film there was a comparatively long sequence showing the first performance of a piece of music composed in Theresienstadt, Pavel Haas’s study for stringed orchestral, if I am not mistaken. The series of frames begins with a view into the hall from the back. The windows are wide open, and a large audience is sitting not in rows as usual at a concert, but as if they were in some sort of tavern or hotel dining room, in groups of four around tables. The chairs, probably made specially for the occasion in the carpentry work-shop of the ghetto, are of pseudo-Tyrolean design with heart shapes sawn out of their backs.

In the course of the performance the camera lingers in close-up over several members of the audience, including an old gentleman whose cropped gray head fills the right-hand side of the picture, while at the left-hand side, set a little way back and close to the upper edge of the frame, the face of a young woman appears, barely emerging from the black shadows around it, which is why I did not notice it at all first. Around her neck, said Austerlitz, she is wearing a three-stringed and delicately draped necklace, which scarcely stands out from her dark, high-necked dress, and there is, I think, a white flower in her hair. She looks, so I tell myself as I watch, just as I imagined the singer Agata from my faint memories and the few other clues to her appearance that I now have, and I gaze and gaze again at that face, which seems to me both strange and familiar, said Austerlitz, I run the tape back repeatedly, looking at the time indicator in the top left-hand corner of the screen, where the figures covering part of her forehead show the minutes and seconds, from 10:53 to 10:57, while the hundredths of a second flash by so fast that you cannot read and capture them . . .

[Later] I spent several days searching the records for the years 1938 and 1939 in the Prague theatrical archives in the Celetna, and there, among letters, files on employees, programs, and faded newspaper cuttings, I came upon the photograph of an anonymous actress who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother, and in whom Vera, who had already spent some time studying the face of the women in the concert audience which I copied from the Theresienstadt film, before shaking her head and putting it aside, immediately and without a shadow of doubt, as she said, recognized Agata as she had been then.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald : Random House, N.Y. 2001