Friday, 1 March 2019

Saunders Lewis, unacknowledged and tainted depths

Saunders Lewis, unacknowledged and tainted depths, Maurice Barres

I read Maurice Barrès' 1904 novel Leurs figures, which turned up in a second-hand bookshop in Nottingham. The title refer to the shocked faces of French deputies on hearing a speech which threatened to break the Panama scandal – 150 deputies had accepted bribes, so the sense of guilt and fear was dramatic.

Leurs figures is dedicated to Edouard Drumont. An internet encyclopaedia says that Drumont's La France juive became “France's largest bestseller since Joseph-Ernest Renan's La vie de Jésus (1863)”. Drumont was the first person who became a full-time anti-Semite, thus leaving behind a long but insecure career as a journalist. If you see Marcel Ophuls' documentary Le chagrin et la pitié, it has a clip from a Nazi newsreel of 1940 which shows Nazi troops in front of the building housing Drumont's Anti-Semitic Institute and saluting it – this is where I first heard of Drumont. Hitler had great respect for him – he pioneered anti-Semitism as a “modern fake science”, moving it on from sermons by Catholic friars about “the murderers of Christ”. He removed the theological basis from the myth, even though it was completely theological for almost all of its career.

The Panama Canal was started in 1881, but not completed until 1914. The French project failed completely, which is why the Americans took over. The French version ran out of capital – the labour force kept dying of yellow fever, so the schedule kept slipping and slipping. The Canal Company had paid off a lot of journalists and deputies to get the initial capital offer approved and taken up, and went in with this to get more injections of capital (nine stock issues) to get past the delays due to the terrain and the mosquitoes. Eventually, paying people blackmail so they wouldn't reveal the bribery to the public was taking up more of the capital than digging and draining. Work was stopped in 1889, leading to bankruptcy, affecting very numerous share-holders (perhaps 800,000 of them). The parliamentary scandal followed in 1892. (Work in Panama resumed in 1904.) Barrès' novel blames two Jewish characters, one (Reinach) a go-between for bribes and one (Herz) very obscure but apparently blackmailing the go-between. He gives much less blame to the 150 corrupt deputies – this is where it gets odd, all the people who took bribes were French but he only makes out the two Jewish characters (recent immigrants from Germany) to be villains. He repeatedly attacks the parliamentary system – he doesn’t say what he wants instead, but since Barrès was a boulangiste deputy it is probable that he wanted a dictatorship by a “charismatic leader”, with plebiscites to link him to the popular will. The nation is like an army, following its great Leader. This would also have involved “la revanche”, a war against Germany to take back Alsace-Lorraine. If you put all this together, it does sound like a slate Hitler could use – fascism didn't exist in 1904 (publication date of Leurs figures) but Barrès and his allies had put the whole programme together in theoretical form.
The Panama thing was taken as proving that a parliamentary system was fundamentally flawed, an argument accepted by a range of opinion in France, right up to the 1950s probably. When Pétain abolished democracy, a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief, because they didn't want to be ruled by politicians. Why a dictatorship would involve less bribery, I don't know. You hate the press, you hate elected deputies – this argument worked for Hitler in 1933. 

My interest in Barrès is partly because he was Saunders Lewis' favourite writer, and I read (part-read) a book about the links between Fascism and Plaid Cymru which irritated me because its approach was so stupid, it didn't ask any sensible questions and so came up with no answers. (It was Richard Wyn Jones' book 'Y Blaid Ffasgaidd Yng Nghymru'.) It compared Lewis' writing to German and Italian Fascism and came up with no matches, but Lewis was a francophile and the only meaningful search is to compare him with the French Far Right of his youth– mainly Maurras and Barrès. To recall, Lewis was leader of Plaid Cymru from 1926 to 1939 but had to resign because the party's left wing found him too associated to the European Far Right, which was increasingly in the news during the Thirties and less attractive than it had been in 1926 (when the Plaid was formed). Wyn Jones seems to be completely a hostage to Welsh nationalism, his conclusions are not credible because he has avoided looking at any relevant evidence. I think the Left of the Plaid were right and it's unfair to them to air-brush Lewis' clerico-Fascist sympathies out of history. A quick search has found two websites which do explore the Lewis-Barrès links in a more open-minded way.

It is quite hard to find people who write about Welsh nationalism without being taken hostage and simply trying to efface the truth. If Drumont was the founder of modern anti-Semitism, how do you get over the Lewis-Barrès-Drumont link without finding that Lewis was an anti-Semite? At the very least, you have to discuss this. At the risk of duplication, let me quote Tim Williams' on-line account of Lewis, which I think makes all the necessary points:

>>I took the same view in a piece I wrote on Lewis for the Jewish Chronicle in the early 90s (‘Judge a hero by his heroes’) which led me to incur considerable verbal violence. Have a look at the absurd attack on me by the then editor of Planet, entitled ‘Tim Williams, Saunders Lewis and the Jewish Chronicle’ where I was berated for pointing out Lewis’s anti-semitism and affection for Franco, Salazar and Petain, his denunciations of the French Resistance and support for Vichy. Plaid’s view of Mussolini was also benign especially after his Concordat with the Vatican. Their take on Hitler varied throughout 30s largely because of his obvious paganism though his anti-Bolshevism was clearly welcome. However, Y Ddraig Goch couldn’t hide its excitement when Hitler mentioned Plaid and the burning of the bombing school at the Nuremburg Rally in 1938  – ‘Hitler knows that Wales is a nation!’ screamed the party’s paper and nothing he did so outraged Plaid or Lewis that they felt compelled to join the European resistance to him.
Plaid’s neutralism throughout the Second World War, meaning their acceptance of a Nazi-dominated Europe as a consequence, has always been difficult to explain away and offended many of their own supporters (and leaders: Ambrose Bebb amongst them). It was no accident and didn’t stem from Christian pacifism but from their own nationalist opposition to Britain, which they saw as a greater threat to Wales than Hitler, and their anti-Communism. The Party paper as the thirties closed cited Jewish influence over the British media as a source of the drive to war as Jones must know but to which he does not refer.<<
(URL as above)

I can see that nationalists would be happy if this wasn't true, or failing that if Tim Williams wouldn't recall it to conscience and memory. If you read Lewis' works, it's clear that he has a whole world of assumptions, or maybe knowledge, behind him, which he never explains because it is so familiar to him. Welsh readers may have assumed that this mountain he is standing on was either worked out by Lewis or is objective truth, but I don't think it is either of those things. I think it comes from the right-wing thought of Paris, circa 1900 to 1925. It is difficult to say anything intelligent about Saunders Lewis without a proper grasp of that extensive area of thought – something few people have, because their ideas were wrong at the time, obsolete today, and influential on people like Hitler and the Vichy ministers. Barrès never joined Action française and was much more subtle and less fanatical than Charles Maurras – it's no good just folding Barrès within the Action française category. Likely, though, that he was the main source of ideas for Maurras. He wasn't a Fascist because no-one born in 1864 was, it was a slightly later development.

In Leurs figures, the go-between is Jacques Reinach – a fixer, someone who enabled the public issue of the Panama project to go ahead, a great feat if you take that canal (linking two hemispheres, as the caption goes) as one of the great achievements. He kills himself as the details of the bribes are about to come out, and Barrès makes a great play of how he was dug up, weeks later, to seek traces of poison – details of his guts spilling, of the smell coming out of the coffin after being opened, etc. Would these details have been included if he wasn’t Jewish? I doubt it. Aspects of the novel are like a Hollywood film –the two villains look repulsive, lack human feelings, are depersonalised. This is a rehearsal for much more thorough anti-Semitism and must be based on excited reading of Drumont's propaganda – linking to the dedication to Drumont, who was a Far Right deputy along with Barrès, at a time when the novel was being composed. Depressingly, it is a very good novel– Barrès was a great novelist but this isn't a great novel, evidently, it is more like a gripping TV series about a political scandal, say “Washington behind Closed Doors”. The description of the atmosphere, the conversations, the logistics involved in bribing 150 legislative leaders of a great country is brilliant and has presumably never been excelled. No credit is given to Reinach for fine feelings leading to suicide, such as guilt, empathy, wish to atone, or desire to protect his friends. Suicide is not a selfish act, so we normally attribute such feelings to someone in his position, especially when they have such great psychological talents and intelligence. But Barrès does not attribute such sentiments to a Jew.
A few weeks after reading the novel, I am much more aware of its anti-Semitism. Let me start by saying that I believe in an instinctive aversion to illness, in parallel to how apes react – reports of chimpanzees killing a band member who was visibly disabled (with polio, I think). This serves to protect the group against infection. Evidently, if you describe a character, in visual art or fiction, as ill, in certain terms, the reaction is aversion, and this can be manipulated to sweep away compassion. In Leurs figures, there is extensive description of how ill Reinach looks. This serves to express his state of mind in the few days leading up to his suicide. It speeds up the plot by suggesting both that he is ill and that a crisis is coming, in the course of which we will get to hear what really happened. This narrative function disguises the fact, obvious on later reflection, that we are reading a description of a Jewish character as physically repulsive and ill. This raises the aversion reaction. Bizarrely, it is the evidence that he is the villain - illness displaying moral infection. This image is combined with the so-called Feindschema or “schema of the Enemy”, where we only perceive the bad and aggressive traits of someone. Leurs figures is a profoundly anti-Semitic novel and this is only disguised by Barrès' literary gifts and the “documentary” function which means that the two characters concerned really were Jewish (and Reinach really did poison himself). If Reinach is described as “a rat behind the wainscot”, this simultaneously dehumanises him and defines him as a threat and a source of infection, even if it also evokes his state of panic (and his “behind the scenes” role in arranging certain deals). How can this not be anti-Semitic?
I don't think you can eliminate caricature, dehumanisation, and the “enemy schema” from political art. This doesn’t bestow a “get out of jail free card” on anti-Semitism; it makes me question the means of art, rather than excusing base malice.
I think it's reasonable to think that Lewis' idea of nationalism came from Barrès. There is the stress on “énergie nationale”  Lewis never resorts to sociology, in talking about the decline of the Welsh language, but always deals in terms of an energy, a national energy to be channelled by young idealists in an exalted mood, where Redemption can come despite all the facts and all the ordinary people who have decided to speak English. This national mission takes precedent over ideas of bringing social equality or of increasing national wealth, which Lewis saw as uninteresting and unworthy goals. Barrès was always preoccupied by the return of the German-speaking areas annexed by Germany in 1871, and Lewis took this over as his image of a political mission, to retrieve Wales from English domination. Barrès writes a lot about Lorraine (where he came from) as a bulwark against the east, the last rampart of classicism – Lewis also cast Wales as a relic of the Roman Empire, its poetry retaining classical Latin values in ways not always obvious to anyone except Lewis, the Norman overlords acting as channels for wonderful Franco-Latin culture. Barrès has a touching idea of Lorraine (this is a broad and vague concept but he meant French-speaking Lorraine, the department of Meurthe and Moselle, which was still French after 1871) as the home of douceur and natural life, as expounded in a very moving passage, a letter from one of the characters, over 30 or so pages at the end of Leurs figures. It is hardly in doubt that Lewis applied this image to Wales, and it is also clear that Lewis could not actually write convincingly about traditional Wales or the life of the people. There is no sociological component, almost no realistic feature, in Barrès' description of Lorraine, which serves as a foil both to his “Babylonian” idea of Parisian corruption and to his idea of the Prussian yoke (starting just a few miles away and taking in Metz and Thionville, as well as Alsace), so rhetorically necessary and not based on real life. Basing politics on unrealistic views of nationality was clearly Lewis' greatest fault. His views of economics were shallow, but it is not a great stretch to say that he saw the Welsh economy as being at the mercy of the English, and that they play the role which Barrès allots to the Jews (and the Germans) in his account of the Panama affair. So, it was clearly the fault of the English if Wales were not an idyllic pastoral land run by lords and priests (both patronising culture), and getting rid of the English would surely restore this state of affairs in short order. It seems that Lewis did not approve of trade at all.
I guess that Lewis saw his injection of French culture into Wales as making him like a Norman overlord of the 13th century, speaking French and raising Eastern Wales into the light of Mediterranean civilisation. I think he was also influenced by Action française, which took up most of Barrès' ideas. So if we see him inspiring the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, which bypassed electoral politics and popular support, and favoured action and shock tactics by fanatics, that sounds pretty much like Action française- which never put up any candidates. The idea that the mass of the population can be wrong, and exalted and illegal bands of enthusiasts can legitimately take political decisions for them, sounds like Maurras and Action française. The idea that a writer needs a “square mile”, or milltir sgwar, that the purpose of literature is to describe the blameless lives of local people who never travel more than five miles, in contrast to urban people who are to blame for everything, has eaten its way quite deeply into Welsh writing, but presumably is copied from a strand of French culture, conservative and anti-republican. It may be a passing fad. I can't point to any specific passage where Lewis describes the English, but the idea that history can be accounted for in terms of racial conflict and that there is a “national enemy” (for Barrès, the Prussians, obviously) seems ludicrous and is presumably copied from Barrès and his allies. Lewis' view of English people has almost no objective content at all. It does have a strong literary content, forming villains to animate plots. Is it a straight copy of Barrès' methods?

I said the Left of the Plaid threw Lewis out, but that doesn’t mean that the centre or Right of the party were pro-fascist or even vaguely tolerant of Fascism. Lewis was a fish out of water in Wales, other people weren’t Catholic and weren’t reading Barrès or thinking about Action française.
How was Barrès a boulangiste deputy at a date when General Boulanger had already committed suicide? I don't know. French politics are not transparent. It is fairly transparent that the Dreyfus affair, beginning with a forgery in 1894, sprang directly out of the Panama bribery row, and that Barrès was an instinctive anti-Dreyfusard.

Leurs figures has got the stereotype anti-Semitic novel (or film story, later) all worked out. 20th C versions of the story derive from Barrès. But was he the first? I don't actually know. There are terrific histories of anti-Semitism, such as the one by Léon Poliakov, but they deal with factual books and speeches (pseudo-factual, obviously) rather than novels.
The components would be:
1) ruined ordinary people wondering Why
2) murky dealings involving positions of trust (political and financial); a conspiracy is involved
3) very high living involving exciting cocottes; the women wear great frocks, clearly sinful. Scenes of luxury and debauchery
4) the villains are Jews
5) the villains are sophisticated and reveal a degree of cynicism/abstraction which people in (1) can hardly understand. They are mocking.
6) total ruin of (4), in spectacular form
7) (4) are dehumanised, their skin is an unusual colour, their flesh is hanging slack, they evoke stereotypes of sickness and aversion
8) it is unclear how (4) make their money or what they produce; they do manipulations and become rich
9) there is a peaceful, natural life far away from the city and its fever. Its gains are only long-term and reached by hard work.

Barrès' novel fulfils all these (except [3]). It is credible that gutter anti-Semitism, as it surfaced for example after the Wall Street crash of 2007-8, is recycling this myth or fantasy. There is a certain resemblance between Leurs figures and Lion Feuchtwanger's Jud Süss (1925). This may just expose my limited reading – Jud Süss is a great novel, and obviously Feuchtwanger wasn't an anti-Semite, being Jewish and quite far on the left. (There was an East German issue of stamps which included one showing Feuchtwanger.) How far is it true that the staple Marxist novel exposing the fantasies and wickedness of Babylonian-style bankers and speculators followed the same pattern as Barrès' novel, but with the lead characters no longer being Jewish? So points (4) and (7) are not present. I don't know. I try not to read that kind of novel. But I do have Friedrich Kaul's Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval, (East Berlin, 1959), a documentary account of various scandals and trials under the Weimar regime, which he was clearly a Communist opponent of before being the Democratic Republic's most celebrated lawyer. (He even appeared in a TV series from 1959-62, Fernsehpitaval, doubt I can get that one on DVD. 'Pitaval' means a 'collection of criminal histories', like the Newgate Calendar.) Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval is a cracking book, forget about Edgar Lustgarten. There is an unmistakable resemblance to Barrès (in 1904). If you disprove the banker myth, does Marxism collapse? I think the explanation of povety is a worthwhile endeavour, it's just that you can't resolve it by setting up stories about evil bankers and stockbrokers.
Michael Curtis said that fundamental features of Barrès were ambiguity and equivocation. This matches with what Jean Guéhenno (1890-1978) says about him (in Les années noires), where he tries to recall why he admired Barrès so much at twenty and despised him so much aged fifty. Guéhenno wrote: (27 January 1942)
 “I am returning to Barrès, ‘my old enemy’, always with the same pleasure. Yesterday I re-read Une impératrice de la solitude in Amori et dolori sacrum. What does it matter, after all, what he thought or believed that he thought, and his doctrinal positions and prejudices. He had the instinct of grandeur, and the very design of his sentences, this sort of rapture of pathos which it evokes, this feeling of discomfort in one’s own skin, this tension at the limit of one’s force, these discouraged collapses, this effort always begun again, moved me too much in my twentieth year, taught me too much, for me not to recognise my debt. And now that everything is destroyed, that all the ideas are in a heap on the ground, more than ever, these words, too vague, but which awoke the fervour of a twenty-year-old, ‘Having a soul’, seem to me to define the only possible revenge. Having a soul, to suffer thoroughly at least, if we cannot do anything else. Having enough soul to say no.”.

To clarify, “la revanche”, revenge, was Barrès’ lifelong preoccupation but meant at that time the return of Alsace-Lorraine; in January 1942, 19 years after his death, it still meant defeating Germany, but also defeating Barrès’ former associates on the monarchist and nationalist Right, who by now were working with Pétain. This is why the ideas of nationalism had fallen “to the ground”. Guéhenno was a dissident communist, in 1942, and quite indifferent to Barrès’ right-wing constructions. (At 20, he was a manual labourer plotting to find a way back into formal education.) Guéhenno’s remarks stress the vagueness, although his other remark on Barrès’ preoccupation with himself and with appearance is what Guéhenno always says about writers who weren’t socially committed. Describing Barrès for someone who hasn’t read his books is difficult, possibly more so than for any other writer. It is hard to evoke how someone can write a book called Le culte du moi (the cult of the self) and also be political, in fact a member of the Assembly for many years. This ambiguity is not truly complexity, as the contradictions don’t point to anything deeper. The uncertainty obviously helps with the composition of novels, we read them because not only the outcome but the theme is fundamentally uncertain.
The parts aren’t fastened together, but this subtlety covers up the negative implications of Right attitudes more than with any other writer. This was a cover-up – so that when Barrès lost his reputation, with the disillusion with wartime patriotism after 1918, it was a cover-up which fell apart. When people realised that it was nationalism which had made the war and its mass deaths come about, they questioned nationalism – and Barrès had been the most dedicated nationalist, its theologian. Barrès is not a detached narrator of nationalism, he is committed to it– its high priest. The implications of choosing war and “glory”, of putting territorial claims above any other questions, of defining the nation primarily as something unified by honour and aggression, of racial intolerance – these profoundly needed to be covered up. The First World War was not beautiful. Maurras is the dark side of Barrès, and Maurras pretty much invented fascism. 
I don't know why I am digging up these right-wing figures. A few weeks ago I wrote about the film version of The Valley of the Dolls; I suspect that writing about very high-quality, demanding poetry for so many years left me in a state where I wanted to write about trash. There is also the question of "right-wing artists and thinkers being excluded by a liberal consensus", a contemporary myth which is worth attacking. My copy of Leurs figures is from Livre de Poche – the biggest paperback house in France. As I said before, the Western media industry is dominated by the profit motive, not a "liberal consensus" which is able to silence its enemies.

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