Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Human Order

^Nazi Rally

The text below is part of the incendiary introduction to Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. It lays out a brilliant premise for the sprawling novel. A virtuoso piece of writing in itself, these pages set the scene for a book that is definitely worth reading, even if it only partially reaches some of its aims, although its ambition is so vast, even a proportionally minuscule level of attainment would assure (and does assure) something quite notable.

"Political philosophers have often pointed out that in wartime, the citizen, the male citizen at least, loses one of his most basic rights, his right to life; and this has been true ever since the French Revolution and the invention of conscription, now almost a universally accepted principle. But these same philosophers have rarely noted that the citizen in question simultaneously loses another right, one just as basic and perhaps even more vital for his conception of himself as a civilised human being: the right not to kill. No one asks you for your opinion. In most cases the men standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit. You might object that killing another soldier in combat is not the same thing as killing an unarmed civilian; the laws of war allow one but not the other; as does common morality. A good argument, in theory, but one that takes no account of the conditions of the conflict in question. The entirely arbitrary distinction established after the war between “military operation” like those of any other conflict and the “atrocities” carried out by a minority of sadists or psychopaths is, as I hope to demonstrate, a soothing fantasy of the victors – the western victors, I should specify, since the Soviets, despite all their rhetoric, have always understood what was what: after May 1945, having tossed a few bones to the crowd, Stalin couldn’t have cared less about some illusory “justice”; he wanted the hard stuff, cash in hand, slaves an equipment to repair and rebuild, not remorse or lamentations, for he knew just as well as we that the dead can’t hear our crying, and that remorse has never put bread on the table. I am not pleading Befehlnotstand, the just-obeying-orders so highly valued by our good German lawyers. What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and had to be done, disagreeable and unpleasant as it may have been.. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame? What I am saying holds true even if you accept the artificial distinction between war and what the Jewish lawyer Lemkin baptized genocide; for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labour, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn’t have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it’s chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. Another example, taken from the abundant historical literature rather than from my personal experience: the program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, called the “euthanasia” or “T-4” program, set up two years before the “Final Solution”. Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas; others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate. Questioned after the war, each one of these people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession.  The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors. The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job – and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty? Everyone, or no one? Why should the worker assigned to the gas chamber be guiltier than the worker assigned to the boilers, the garden, the vehicles? The same goes for every facet of this immense enterprise. The railway signalman, for instance, is he guilty of the death of the jews he shunted toward the camp? He is a railway employee who has been doing the same job for twenty years, he shunts trains according to a schedule, their cargo is none of his business. It’s not his fault if these Jews are being transported from point A, across his switches, to Point B, where they are to be killed. But this signalman plays a crucial role in the work of extermination: without him, the train of Jews cannot reach Point B. The same goes for the Civil Servant in charge of requisitioning apartments for air raid victims, the printer who prepares the deportation notices, the contractor who sells concrete or barbed wire to the SS, the supply officer who delivers gasoline to an SP Teilkommando, and God up above, who permits all this. Of course, you can establish relatively precise degrees of legal responsibility, which allow you to condemn some while leaving all the rest to their own conscience, assuming they have one; its even easier when the laws get written after the fact, as at Nurenberg. But even then they were sloppy. Why hang Streicher, the impotent yokel, but not the sinister von dem Bach-Zelewski? Why hang my superior Rudolf Brandt, and not his superior Wolff? Why hang the interior minister Frick and not his subordinate Stuckart, who did all his work for him? A lucky man, that Stuckart, who only stained his hands with ink, never with blood. Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or another. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins. We like to contrast the state, totalitarian or not, with the ordinary man, the insect or trembling reed. But then we forget that the State is made up of individuals, all more or less ordinary, each one with his life, his story, the sequence of accidents that led him one day to end up on the right side of the gun or the sheet of paper while others ended up on the wrong side. This path is very rarely the result of any choice, or even of personal predilection. The victims, in the vast majority of cases, were not tortured or killed because they were good any more than their executioners tormented them because they were evil. It would be a little naïve to think that way; allow me to suggest you spend a little time in a bureaucracy, even the Red Cross, if you need convincing. Stalin, by the way, conducted an eloquent demonstration of my argument, by transforming each generation of executioners into the victims of the following generation, without ever running out of volunteers. Yet the machinery of State is made of the same crumbling agglomeration of sand as what it crushes, grain by grain. It exists because everyone –even, down to the last minute, its victims- agrees that it must exist. Without the Hosses, the Eichmanns, The Godlidzes, the Vishinskys, but also without the railway signalmen, the concrete manufacturers, and the government accountants, a Stalin or a Hitler is nothing but a wineskin bloated with hatred and impotent terror. To state that the vast majority of the managers of the extermination processes were neither sadists nor sociopaths is now a commonplace. There were of course sadists and psychopaths among them, as in all wars, and these men did commit unspeakable atrocities, that’s true. It is also true that the SS could have stepped up its efforts to keep these people under control, even if it actually did more in that line than most people realise. And that’s not easy: just ask the American generals what a hard time they had of it in Vietnam, with their junkies and their rapists, smoking dope and fragging their officers. But that’s not the problem. There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time. Our quiet suburbs are crawling with paedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs; and some of them do indeed become a problem, they kill two, three, ten, even fifty people –and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the state –especially in unstable times- now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry with little profit for you or me."

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Pink Cloud *2

Pink Cloud. Pink. Cloud. Cloudy. Pinklike. ish. Bright Faded Cloud. Light, Pink Pure. Terror.


The PinkCloud is rolling in, damp and strange.
It makes things clearer but pushes them very, very far away.
I'm a radar touching misty distances.

Friday, 3 May 2013


We don’t have a door, there’s just a gap, very narrow and quite deep. In fact it’s so tight that it presses against your chest as you squeeze yourself through. Some kind people have scrawled amusing felt-tip graffiti in it at eye level over the years. Getting to the loo, getting a cup of tea, bringing furniture and equipment in, anything like that becomes a bit of a mission, and you put it off for as long as possible. A few weeks ago an intern got dumped by his boyfriend and lodged himself in there, in floods of tears, knocking his head back and forth on the walls, effectively, and quite theatrically locking us all in for hours.


This text was written for Pyramid Schemes, a project by Lawrence Lek and The White Review, for which contributors were asked to design a space in 100 words.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Room, The House, The City

^Charles Moore Foundation interior (Living Room)

"If (as the philosophers maintain) the city is like some large house, and the house is in turn like some small city, cannot the various parts of the house - atria, xysti, dining rooms, porticoes, and so on - be considered miniature buildings?"

Leon Battista Alberti

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Everything Is Filled With You

Everything is filled with you,
and everything is filled with me:
the towns are full,
just as the cemeteries are full
of you, all the houses
are full of me, all the bodies.

I wander down streets losing
things I gather up again:
parts of my life
that have turned up from far away.

I wing myself toward agony,
I see myself dragging
through a doorway,
through creation’s latent depths.

Everything is filled with me:
with something yours and memory
lost, yet found
again, at some other time.

A time left behind
decidedly black,
indelibly red,
golden on your body.

Pierced by your hair,
everything is filled with you,
with something I haven’t found,
but look for among your bones.

by Miguel Hernández

I came across this today. It devilishly mirrored something wandering around looking for someone, lost in circles, meeting itself again and again inside my head.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Bomb, The House, The Body

^V1 Rocket Damage in Antwerp 1944

“I live with my body in danger as regards menacing machines as well as manageable instruments. My body is everywhere: the bomb which destroys my house also damages my body insofar as the house was already an indication of my body. This is why my body always extends across the tool which it utilizes: it is at the end of the cane on which I lean against the earth; it is at the end of the telescope which shows me the stars; it is on the chair, in the whole house; for it is my adaptation to these tools.”

From Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness"

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Marvelous

^The Great Lawn, Central Park, in Spring <source>

In expectation of Spring, new things and old, here is an extract from Teju Cole's "Open City", 2011:

“In the spring, life came back into the earth’s body. I went to a picnic in Central Park with friends, and we sat under magnolias that had already lost their white flowers. Nearby were the cherry trees, which, leaning across the wire fence behind us, were aflame with pink blossom. Nature is infinitely patient, one thing lives after another has given way; the magnolia’s blooms doe just as the cherry’s come to life. The sun coming through the petals of the cherry blossoms dappled the damp grass, and new leaves, in their thousands, danced in the April breeze, so that, at moments, the trees at the far border of the lawn seemed insubstantial. I lay half in shadow, watching a black pigeon walk towards me. It stopped, then flew up, out of sight, behind the trees, then came back again, walking awkwardly as pigeons do, perhaps seeking crumbs. And far above the bird and me was the sudden apparition of three circles, three white circles against the sky.

In recent years I have noticed how much the light affects my ability to be sociable. In winter I retreat. In the long and sunny days following, in March, April, and May, I am much more likely to seek out the company of others, more likely to feel myself alert to sights and sounds, to colours, patterns, moving bodies, smells other than the ones in my office or at the apartment. The cold months make me feel dull, and spring feels like a gentle sharpening of the senses. In our little group in the park that day, we were four, all reclining on a large striped blanket, eating pitta bread and hummus, picking at green grapes. We kept an open bottle of white wine, our second of the afternoon, hidden in a shopping bag. It was a warm day, but not so warm that the great lawn was packed. We were part of a crowd of city-dwellers in a carefully orchestrated fantasy of country life. Moji had brought Ana Karenina with her, and she leaned on her elbow and read from the thick volume –it was one of the new translations- only occasionally interrupting herself to participate in the conversation. And a few yards away from us a young father calling out to his toddler who was wandering away: Anna! Anna!

There had been a plane travelling above us at such a height that the grumble of its jets was barely audible over our discussion. Then only its faint contrail remained, and just as that faded, we saw the three white circles growing. The circles floated, appearing to float upward at the same time as they were falling down, then everything resolved, like a camera viewfinder coming into focus, and we saw the human shape within each circle. Each person, each of these flying men, steered his parachute, to the left and to the right, and, watching them, I felt the blood race in my veins.

Everyone on the lawn was by now alert. Ball games stopped, chatter became loud, and many arms pointed upward. The toddler Anna, astonished as we all were, held onto her father’s leg. The parachuters were expert, floating towards each other until they were in a kind of shuttlecock formation, then drifting apart again, and steering toward the centre of the lawn. They came closer to earth, falling faster. I imagined the whoosh around their ears as they cut through the air, imagined the tight focus with which they were bracing themselves for landing. When they were at a height of some five hundred feet, I saw that they were dressed in white jumpsuits with white straps. The silken parachutes were like the enormous white wings of alien butterflies. For a moment, all surrounding sound seemed to fall away. The spectacle of men fulfilling the ancient dream of flight unfolded in silence.

I could almost imagine what it was like for them, surrounded by clear blue spaces, even though I’ve never skydived. Once, on a similarly fine day a quarter of a century ago, I had heard a boy’s cries. We were in the water, more than a dozen of us, and he’d drifted away toward the deep end. He couldn’t swim. We were in a large swimming pool on the campus of the University of Lagos. As a child, I had become a strong swimmer at my mother’s insistence, and somewhat to my father’s dismay, since he was himself afraid of water. She had taken me to lessons at the country club from the time I was five or six and, a good swimmer herself, she had watched without fear as I learned to be at home in the water; from her I had learned that fearlessness. I haven’t been in a pool in years but, once , my ability had made a difference. It was the year before I went away to NMS; I had saved another’s life.

This boy, of whom I remember nothing other than the fact that he was, like me, of mixed race (in his case, half-indian), was in mortal danger, drawn into increasingly deeper areas of the pool the more he struggled to keep his head above water. The other children, shocked into inaction by his distress, had remained in the shallow end, watching. There was no lifeguard present, and none of the adults, assuming any of them was a swimmer, was close enough to the deep end of the pool to help. I don’t remember deliberating, or considering any danger to myself, only that I set off in his direction as fast as I could. The moment that has stayed in my mind is of having not yet reached the boy but having already left the crowd of children behind. Between his cries and theirs, I swam hard. But caught in the blue expanse around me and above, I suddenly felt like I was no closer to him than I had been a few moments before, as though water intervened intentionally between where he was in the shadow of the diving structures and where I floated in the bright sunshine. I had stopped swimming, and the air cooled the water on my face. The boy flailed, briefly breaking the surface with frantic arms before he was pulled under again. The strong shadows made it difficult for me to see what was happening . I thought, for an instant that I would always be swimming toward him, that I would never cross the remaining distance of twelve or fifteen yards. But the moment was to pass, and I would become the hero of the day. There was laughter afterward, and the half-Indian boy was teased. But it might easily have been a tragic afternoon. What I hauled the short distance to the diving platform might have been a small, lifeless body. But almost all that day’s detail was soon lost to me, and what remained most strongly was the sensation of being all alone in the water, that feeling of genuine isolation, as though I had been cast without preparation into some immense and not unpleasant, blue chamber, far from humanity.

For the parachuters, the distance between heaven and earth began to vanish more quickly, and the ground suddenly rushed upward to meet them. Sound returned, and they landed, one after the other, neatly, in billowing clouds, to the whoops and whistles of picknickers in the park. I applauded, too. The parachuters slipped out from under their tents, crouching, and signaled to each other. Then they rose like victorious matadors, gesturing to the crowd, and were rewarded with our happy cries and louder applause.

Then it stopped. Above the noise, we heard the blaze of sirens on the east side of the park. Four officers came racing over the ropes around the perimeter of the lawn and ran toward its centre. One was white, one Asian, and the other two were black, all as ungainly in their movements as the parachuters had been balletic. We began to boo, safe in our numbers, and were pushed back from the congratulatory circle  we had formed, so that they could arrest the daredevils. Someone at the far end of the circle shouted “Security Theatre!” but the wind had picked up, and it swallowed her voice.

The parachutists did not resist arrest. No longer encumbered by their wings, they were led away by the police. The crowd began to cheer again, and the parachutists, all young men, grinned and bowed. One of them, taller than the other two, had a full ginger beard that glinted in the sun. The parachutes remained in a glossy heap in the grass and, when the wind picked up again, seemed to give off trembling exhalations. And so we watched the parachutes breathe for a while, while the men were led away. Then, but only after what seemed like a long time out of ordinary time, we came out of the marvellous and resumed our picnic.”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ode to Foster

walk the spiral
up out of the pavement
Into your reflection, into
transparency, into the space
where flat planes are curves
and you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
where fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St Mary Axe is brimming


This is a poem by Jo Shapcott that I came across thanks to London Underground's ever enjoyable Poems On The Underground program.