Pity the Nation

When Kalil Gibran wrote these lines in ‘The Garden of the Prophet’ in 1933, he might have been thinking of the inward-looking island that now floats offshore of Continental Europe: 


‘And Almustafa was silent, and he looked away towards the hills and towards the vast ether, and there was a battle in his silence. 

Then he said: “My friends and my road-fellows, pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.

“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.

“Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

“Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.

“Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.

“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.

“Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.

“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation’. 

Words we are not allowed to use

What began as a sincere attempt to eradicate or at least reduce discrimination, has for some time been having the opposite effect. Millions of people who no doubt regard themselves as liberal and tolerant, open to other beliefs and points of view, are proving to be anything but. 


The policy of re-writing history, dictating what people must think and believe, was integral to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of East and Central Europe, and is also present, albeit to a lesser extent, in present-day Hungary under Orban and in Erdogan’s Turkey. But if you were to point out to the Thought Police of today  – the predominantly white, privileged, female social justice warriors who go boldly on the ether in their quest to make everyone as pure as they are – that they are behaving like Nazis, then you will be swiftly judged, found guilty and cancelled without trial. You might receive death threats, you could even be physically attacked – all for stating an opinion that they will not allow you to hold. But you are unlikely to meet these new Victorians in person: they rarely leave the safety of their keyboards.


The most recent manifestation of this new wave of visceral intolerance is being ‘woke’. This elastic concept has been adopted unreflectingly by a sizeable portion of the West’s most secure, comfortably-off citizens, and is increasingly used as a vehicle for their own prejudices and self-loathing, which they neither acknowledge nor confront.


To take but one example, there is the ‘N’ word. According to Woke Law, this deeply offensive word may never be used in any context whatsoever by anyone who is not Black. It must also be expunged from historical usage, including in books such as Huckleberry Finn, which reflects its era accurately and honestly. 

The Thought Police’s blanket ban on the ‘N’ word extends to non-Black people everywhere. Yet the vast majority of them would be unlikely to use it in any case, as it is almost wholly confined to the United States, with its history of legal segregation. 


When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s, racial discrimination was an ugly but rarely considered part of life, even among reflective individuals. If questioned, most people would have admitted that it was offensive, patronising, divisive and uncivilised; that it should have been illegal, as it has subsequently and rightly become. Yet the most insidious aspect of racial discrimination at that time was its casual, often instinctual nature. It was simply the order of things.


There were many words to describe people of colour, all of them more or less offensive and shameful, and which do not need to be quoted here. We all know what they are, and if we are honest with ourselves, most of us have used them or acquiesced in their use. But in our individual ways we have also helped to make their use socially and legally unacceptable. 


But in the UK and the rest of Europe, indeed in most of the world, the ‘N’ word or its equivalent in other languages was and is not one of them. It is an American phenomenon, reflecting the deep fissures in their weak, spoilt, unjust and divided society, which appears to be becoming more, not less fractured; and more, not less stupid. For all its economic and military might, the USA seems powerless to address its many divisions. By prohibiting the rest of the world from using their homegrown racial insult, they are attempting to export their own problems rather than confronting and solving them themselves; lecturing others rather than putting their own house in order. It is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror. 


Trying to dictate what people think is an ultimately futile pursuit; even a casual examination of the totalitarian regimes of the past will show this to be true. So don’t tell us which words we are or are not allowed to use, particularly if they are not part of our usual vocabulary. As can be seen from the growing resistance to the Woke Cult, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If you tell someone not to use a particular word, they will promptly do so. Anyone who has told a child not to swear knows this. 


You can give us your love, but not your thoughts. We have our own thoughts.


Recently I was re-reading Henry Bacon’s insightful study of the work of Luchino Visconti, the Italian cinema, opera and theatre director. Among the themes that Bacon discusses is the vital necessity for an artist to be free of any kind of boundary, any limit that society or life itself may attempt to impose on them, their nature or their vision. He refers to Isaiah Berlin’s reflections on certain nineteenth-century intellectuals, which he feels apply to Visconti, and also to Stendhal, who of all the writers of the era most closely resembles Visconti in character and background:

‘…they belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout their life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and style of a civilised and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures … who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between the douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalising future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being’. 

In his book on Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann made the not-dissimilar observation that art is the ultimate manifestation of immanence, aspiration, and their interdependence: ‘Conceiving the world as a colourful and turbulent phantasmagory of images through which the ideal, the spiritual glows is something eminently artistic and allows the artist to find their true nature. They can be sensuously and sinfully attached to the world of phenomenon and appearances, because they know they belong to the spheres of both ideas and the spirit, as the magician who makes appearances transparent for them’. 

For some time we have been witnessing an imposition of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, moral or intellectual, which reflect the desire of fearful, insecure individuals to control that which is not theirs to control; to stifle the creative impulse. Humanity only flourishes when boundaries are set aside and imagination is given free rein, in order for connections to be created, bridges built, similarities celebrated. 

As Rainer-Maria Rilke wrote, in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’: ‘Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust’. 


The Summer of Friendship

07 Oct | Literature

During a trip to Flanders, I read Volker Weidermann’s almost mathematically precise novella, Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft – ‘Ostend 1936: the Summer of Friendship’, which I first encountered in 2014, when the drumbeat of Europe’s current existential crisis had already long been audible, – at least to those who care to listen – in the same way that the coming war was clear to observant and committed Europeans by the mid-1930s, if not earlier.

Set in the Belgian seaside resort, then far more fashionable and elegant than drab Ostend is now, it takes a magnifying glass to a small group of mostly Jewish writers, centred on Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun, who have fled Hitler’s rapidly expending Reich, to take refuge in Ostend; what turns out to be a form of ersatz literary exile which soon fragments under the inexorable pressure of events that were soon to engulf the whole of Europe. 

Comparisons between the 1930s and the present time are, of course – and with justification – very popular at the moment, with varying degrees of accuracy and insight. The rise of highly organised and increasingly ruthless extreme right factions in almost every European country is the most obvious symptom of decadence, as well an indication of a possibly impending conflict, that we share with the immediate pre-war era. Of particular concern is the agenda of Alternative für Deutschland, who occupy 94 seats in the German Bundestag, and whose discourse is more than an echo of right-wing groups who helped bring about the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

Nonetheless, this is not the 1930s. Europe has moved on from 1945, despite what England’s homegrown nationalists would have us believe. For over seventy years, there has been a prolonged and historically unparalleled period of peace on our Continent. 

Weidermann’s novella is not a historical commentary. Instead, and arguably more intuitively, it draws us into the often claustrophobic milieu of a small group of Jewish artists and intellectuals who will soon be scattered across the globe, and will perish – directly or indirectly – by their own hand, not that of the Nazi regime.  

It describes the often tenuous and complex friendship between Zweig, Roth and Keun, and others in their circle. The reality of their situation, the looming and indescribable horror, is familiar to all Europeans and most of the rest of the world. We know what is coming, and hope that it won’t be repeated; or at least, most of us do. 

Sitting in a café on a rainy afternoon in Ostend, I came across a passage that lies at the heart of this slim, clear-sighted book. In their different ways, Zweig and Roth both suffered from nostalgia for a recent but increasingly bygone era – that of the Habsburg Empire, a near-continent made up of dozens of peoples and languages where – and this is the element which most closely resembles the situation in 2018 – it was possible for its citizens to move freely from one country to another without a passport; to live, love, work and retire in any nation of the Kaiserlich und Königlich dominions, to speak their own mother tongue and be understood and accepted, even if your countries had once been at war. 

Perhaps the European Union will go the way of the Habsburg Empire, which it so resembles. Some of us would view that with sadness and even fear; others would not. In fact, they would do their utmost to accelerate the process. 

But where the present time differs from that described by Weidermann is in the title. For we have no summer of friendship: that has already been consigned to the bonfire of the past.