(originally posted 2/26/10)
Why has the western world shown such loss of will in defending itself from radical Islamic terrorism? Why, indeed, do substantial numbers of people–particularly those who view themselves as intellectuals–endlessly make excuses for dictatorships and terrorist movements whose values are completely at odds with their own stated values–and even romanticize these goons? I think some clues can be found in a forgotten novel by Arthur Koestler.
The Age of Longing (published in 1950) is set in Paris, “sometime in the 1950s,” in a world in which France–indeed all of western Europe–is facing the very real possibility of a Soviet invasion. Hydie Anderson, the protagonist, is a young American woman living in Paris with her father, a military attache. Hydie was a devout Catholic during her teens, but has lost her faith. She was briefly married, and has had several relationships with men, but in none of them has she found either physical or emotional satisfaction…she describes her life with a phrase from T S Eliot: “frigid purgatorial fires,” and she longs for a sense of connection:
Hydie sipped at her glass. Here was another man living in his own portable glass cage. Most people she knew did. Each one inside a kind of invisible telephone box. They did not talk to you directly but through a wire. Their voices came through distorted and mostly they talked to the wrong number, even when they lay in bed with you. And yet her craving to smash the glass between the cages had come back again. If cafes were the home of those who had lost their country, bed was the sanctuary of those who had lost their faith.
Through her friend Julien DeLattre, Hydie is introduced to a number of Paris intellectuals and and East European emigres. Members of the former group are mostly in denial about the danger of a Soviet attack…many of them have indeed convinced themselves that Communist rule wouldn’t be all that bad. For example, there’s Professor Pontieux (modeled on Sartre)…”He did not believe that the Commonwealth of Freedomloving People had solved all its problems and become an earthly paradise. But it was equally undeniable that it was an expression of History’s groping progress towards a new form of society, when it followed that those who opposed this progres were siding with the forces of reaction and preparing the way for conflict and war–the worst crime against Humanity.” Vardi, another intellectual, says that if he had to choose between the (American) juke box on one hand, and Pravda on another, he isn’t sure which he would pick.
Madame Pontieux, modeled on Simone de Bouvoir (with whom Koestler had a brief affair) is less ambiguous about her choice among the alternatives. “You cannot enter a cafe or a restaurant without finding it full of Americans who behave as if the place belonged to them,” she complains to an American official. When the Russian emigre Leontiev suggests that France would not survive without American military support, pointing out that “nature abhors a vacuum,” she turns on him:
“I am surprised at your moderation, Citizen Leontiev,” Madame Pontieux said sarcastically. “I thought you would tell us that without this young man’s protection the Commonwealth army would at once march to the Atlantic shore.”
“It would,” said Leontiev. “I believed that everyone knew that.”
“I refuse to believe it,” responds Madame Pontieux. “But if choose one must I would a hundred times rather dance to the music of a Balalaika than a juke box.”
(The French intellectuals Koestler knew must have really hated juke boxes!)
Julien is romantically interested in Hydie, but she is not attracted to him, despite the fact that he seems to have much to recommend him–a hero of the French Resistance, wounded in action, and a successful poet. On one occasion, she tells him that she could never sleep with him because they are too similar–”it would be like incest”..on another occasion, though, she tells him that “what I most dislike about you is your attitude of arrogant broken-heartedness.” Parallel to Hydie’s loss of religious faith is Julien’s loss of his secular faith in the creation of a new society. He does not now believe in utopia, or any approximation to same, but he does believe in the need to face reality, however unpleasant it may be. Hydie argues that the Leftists of their acquaintance may be silly, but at least they believe in something:
“Perhaps they believe in a mirage–but isn’t it better to believe in a mirage than to believe in nothing?”
Julien looked at her coldly, almost with contempt:
“Definitely not. Mirages lead people astray. That’s why there are so many skeletons in the desert. Read more history. Its caravan-routes are strewn with the skeletons of people who were thirsting for faith–and their faith made them drink salt water and eat the sand, believing it was the Lord’s Supper.”
At a diplomatic affair, Hydie meets Fedya, a committed Communist who works for the Soviet Embassy. She is powerfully attracted to him: things get physical very quickly and, from Hydie’s point of view, very satisfactorily. (Fedya is one of Koestler’s best-developed characters. His boyhood in Baku is vividly sketched, and Koestler–himself a former Communist–does a good job in showing how a political faith can become core to an individual’s whole personality.)
The affair blows up when Fedya humiliates Hydie sexually in a way that could only have occurred to a Dialectical Materialist–and, indeed, humiliation was not Fedya’s intent, he was “only” attempting the demonstrate to her the truth of Pavlovian conditioning as an explanation for human behavior. Hurt and furious, she pours out her heart to Julien…who now feels free to tell her the truth about Fedya, a truth he felt unable to divulge while Fedya was Hydie’s lover.
Fedya’s real job, underneath his diplomatic cover, is to collect lists of names–the names of the key people to be killed or imprisoned immediately after the Soviet invasion. Hydie is, of course, horrified, and is particularly appalled that so many people already knew about Fedya’s activities–and did nothing to stop them–while she was blissfully unaware.
Julien tells her, as does her father the Colonel, that nothing can be done about Fedya because of diplomatic immunity and because the French government does not want to create an international incident by deporting him. Refusing to believe this, Hydie arranges a meeting with a senior French security official. The improbably-named Jules Commanche (who, like Julien, is a hero of the French Resistance) also tells Hydie that nothing can be done, and that if she attempts to make an issue of it, the Soviets and their fellow-travelers will simply paint her as nothing more than a hysterical jilted lover. Hydie remains unwilling to accept the conclusion that Fedya must be left alone to continue his activities:
“How can you, a Frenchman, say that it is not a crime when a man walks around marking down your compatriots with a pencil–like a man branding cattle for the slaughter-house? Don’t you see–don’t you see what is waiting for you?”
Commanche, who had half risen, let himself slump back into the chair. He no longer tried to conceal his exasperation.
“Are you really so naive, Mademoiselle, as to imagine that we know less about these things than you do? Do you think that we were unaware of Monsieur Nikitin’s activities, of of your affair with him, if it comes to that? And as for your somewhat patronising remark about what ‘waiting for us’–myself, my family, my friends, in short, the French people–allow me to refuse to discuss it, in order to avoid embarrassing you.”
“Me? I don’t understand?…”
“Well, we both know what is waiting for you. A comfortable airliner, when things get hot–and some nostalgic regrets for the sunny cafes on the Champs-Elysees…”
For his own part, Commanche plans a heroic but militarily-futile death in resisting the coming Soviet invasion: he does not wish to survive what he sees as the inevitable destruction of European civilization. After sharing his own sense of hopelessness with Hydie, he asks her for a date, which she rejects.
In an anguish of anger and despair, Hydie buys a gun and goes to Fedya’s apartment. After asking him for a drink, she draws the weapon and tells him why he must die.
He summoned all his patience and self-discipline for a last attempt to bring her back to reason. He forced himself to make his voice patient and gentle; and, after the first few words, its sound made him indeed regain his calm–and even feel a kindly pity for the unhappy fat-legged girl.
“Listen, please,” he said. “We have talked about these matters often before. You don’t like that we make scientific studies of human nature like Professor Pavlov. You don’t like revolutionary vigilance and lists on the social reliability of people, and discipline and re-education camps. You think I am brutal and ridiculous and uncultured. Then why did you like making love with me? I will tell you why and you will understand…”
“I am not a tall and handsome man…There are no tall and handsome men who come from the Black Town in Baku, because there were few vitamins in the food around the oilfields. So it was not for this that you liked to make love with me…It was because I believe in the future and am not afraid of it, and because to know what he lives for makes a man strong…Of course many ugly things are happening in my country. Do you think I do not know about them?…And what difference will it make in a hundred years that there is a little ugliness now? It always existed. In a hundred years there will be no ugliness–only a classless world state of free people. There will be no more wars and no more children born in Black Towns with big bellies and flies crawling in their eyes. And also no more children of the bourgeoisie with crippled characters because they grew up in a decadent society…I am not handsome, but you have felt attracted to me because you know that we will win and that we are only at the beginning–and that you will lose because you are at the end…That is why I was not afraid of your little revolver, because you can’t have the courage to shoot me. To kill, one must believe in something.”
Nevertheless, Hydie pulls the trigger…
One one level, this book is sort of a romance novel, with the theme “chicks like self-confident guys.” This is no doubt true, but emphasizing this point wasn’t Koestler’s main reason for writing Age of Longing. Koestler’s deeper theme is that the decline in religious belief in the West (and Koestler himself was certainly no traditional religious believer) has created a hunger for faith which will likely be filled by those who carry their convictions with great certainty. As Jules Commanche explains to Hydie:
“You cannot cure aberrations of the political libido by arguments…Now the source of all political libido is faith, and its object is the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lost Paradise, Utopia, what have you. Therefore each time a god dies there is trouble in History. People feel that they have been cheated by his promises, left with a dud check in their pocket. The last time a god died was on July 14, 1789, the day when the Bastille was stormed. On that day the Holy Trinity was replaced by the three-word slogan which you find written over our town halls and post offices. Europe has not yet recovered from that operation, and all our troubles today are secondary complications. The People–and when I use that word, Mademoiselle, I always refer to people who have no bank accounts–the people have been deprived of their only asset: the knowledge, or the illusion, whichever you like, of having an immortal soul. Their faith is dead, their kingdom is dead, only the longing remains. And this longing, Mademoiselle, can express itself in beautiful or murderous forms, just like the frustrated sex instinct…Only the longing remains–a dumb, inarticulate longing of the instinct, without knowledge of its source and object. So the people, the masses, mill around with that irksome feeling of having an uncashed check in their pockets and whoever tells them ‘Oyez, oyez, the Kingdom is just round the corner, in the second street to the left,’ can do with them what he likes.”
A few thoughts on Commanche’s speech and its applicability to our times…
First, I think I disagree with Commanche/Koestler that loss of belief in personal immortality is of the essence here. Indeed, Fedya is an atheist, but his faith is strong. What matters more (from a societal standpoint) is the belief in the society’s moral authority, in its future, in its system of symbols. And it is specifically these things that have been systematically undermined by so many forces in our society and especially in academia. (When people with PhD’s are willing to accept the idea that gravity is a “social construct”–see The Sokal Hoax–is it any wonder that many ordinary people feel disoriented?)
Second, I think that while our present problem does involve people chasing new gods and promulgators of new faiths–Gaia-worship, Obama-worship…our more serious problem involves those who are no longer seeking and have abandoned themselves to cynicism. I find Hydie, as drawn by Koestler, to be a fairly appealing person, despite her naivete and self-centeredness. I suspect that a present-day Hydie would be much less likeable. I’m reminded of some lines from Kipling, in which he describes the fall of a soul into Hell:
The Spirit gripped him by the hair, and sun by sun they fell
Till they came to the belt of Naughty Stars that rim the mouth of Hell.
The first are red with pride and wrath, the next are white with pain,
But the third are black with clinkered sin that cannot burn again.
There are probably more people now at the clinkered sin that cannot burn again stage than there were when Koestler wrote.
Julien, in explaining to Hydie why he cannot write anymore, says:
Fallen angels don’t write poems. There is lyric poetry, and sacred poetry, and a poetry of love and a poetry of rebelling; the poets of apostasy do not exist.
The book ends on a note of almost unredeemed darkness:
Her thoughts travelled back to Sister Boutillot standing in the alley which led to the pond…Oh, if she could only go back to the infinite comfort of father confessors and mother superiors, of a well-ordered hierarchy which promised punishment and reward, and furnished the world with justice and meaning. If only one could go back! But she was under the curse of reason, which rejected whatever might quench her thirst without abolishing the gnawing of the urge; which rejected the answer without abolishing the question. For the place of God had become vacant and there was a draught blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived.
Sixty years later, I think we now begin to see who the New Tenants might be, and it is not comforting knowledge.
Hydie’s (pre-Fedya) sexual frustration is, of course, symbolic: it reflects the West’s loss of self-confidence, but it can be interpreted at a more literal level as well. Does a societal loss of self-confidence also play out at the individual level of attraction or lack of same?
A commenter at this blog reported that a significant number of female British medical students have been converting to Islam. This writer, herself a Muslim, says that “Since 9/11, vast numbers of educated, privileged middle-class white women have converted to Islam”…she identifies these converts as including women at “investment banks, TV stations, universities and in the NHS.” Her concern is not that they are converting to Islam…something I’d presume she would applaud…but that they are converting to “the most restricted forms” of the religion. (And it is, of course, among the believers in the most absolute form of any religion or political system that one is likely to find the most obviously self-confident believers.)
David Yeagley, the American Indian who blogs under the traditional name Bad Eagle, has quoted a Commanche saying: “A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” The link from the preceding paragraph suggests that in Europe, at least, there are more than a few female hearts on the ground concerning the future of Western civilization.
I don’t think Koestler’s protagonist would have been attracted to a fundamentalist Muslim in the way that she was drawn to the communist Fedya. The gap in values would have been far wider: while Communism is a bastard child of the Enlightenment, radical Islam is counter-Enlightenment, and does not make the kind of universalist, humanitarian, and secular promises that the Communists made–the cruelty is closer to the surface.But the loss of Western self-confidence has greatly accelerated since Koestler wrote, and today’s Hydies are unlikely to share the educational and religious depth of the woman Koestler imagined.
I said earlier that the book ends on a note of almost unredeemed darkness…Koestler does permit his readers a small glimpse of hope. One of the book’s characters is the British nuclear physicist Lord Edwards, known as “Hercules the Atom-Smasher” because of his powerful physique. Edwards/Hercules is a Communist sympathizer and fellow-traveller who has repeatedly modified his views on the expanding-universe question to conform to the latest “politically correct” edicts from Moscow.
In this passage, Lord Edwards is talking with the French poet Navarin. It has now become clear that the Soviet invasion is imminent.
“So what are you going to do?”
As Navarin looked at him with an uncomprehending smile, he added in a grunt:
“I mean if you are invaded.”
The poet arched his eyebrows in surprise at the Englishman’s awkward manner of formulating the question, and answered in a tone of explaining to a child that the earth is round:
“In the case of conflict, which could only be caused by Imperialist provocation, the duty of every democratic-minded person is to support unreservedly, unhesitatingly and unconditionally the Commonwealth of Freedomloving People.”
“Hmm,” said Hercules. He said nothing for a while…then unexpectedly he wagged a finger in front of Navarin’s face and grunted:
“I call that treason.”
Navarin thought he had misunderstood Edwards, whose French accent was abominable.
“I beg your pardon?” he asked, with his ravaged cherub’s smile.
“I call that treason,” Hercules the Atom-Smasher shouted over the rattle of the wheels; then with a deep contented sign that seemed to release his chest from some long-standing oppression, he settled back into his corner, and decided then and there to go once more into that wretched question of the expanding universe; but this time in the light of purely mathematical evidence.
Original CB comment thread here
A discussion of the book and this post at Shrinkwrapped