As we slip out of the moorings of the autumn of 2017 into the winter to come, I want to look back on two artistic anniversaries, twenty years apart, we have just celebrated. Two anniversaries that in my mind still speak to our collective experience and even our present political travails. These two works of art were influenced directly by the events they were created in. One looking back to the calamity and horror of World War One with hindsight and wisdom, the other created in the heat of World War Two, looking forward, barely hinting at the full horror to come; reminding us that the past we know so well, was still the future in 1942. One high-brow, the other of a middling persuasion. Their paths parallel.
The first happened ninety-five years ago. At the end of October 1922, T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, was first published. It joined James Joyce’s Ulysses - published in its entirety for the first time, in February of the same year - as the second great pillar of literary modernism: pun-filled, playful, difficult. Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, to quote Prufrock.
They were great pieces of literature, written by emigres, which seem to carry a definitive sense of time and space.
Ulysses provides a specific mental map of Dublin on June 16th, 1904; now celebrated as Bloomsday, the day Joyce had his first outing with wife-to-be Nora. Written while Joyce was ensconced in a continental Europe that was disintegrating before his eyes. Published as his homeland, Ireland, succumbed to civil war.
The Waste Land, Eliot’s response to the horrors of the Great War, written while living as an American citizen in London (he took British nationality and renounced his US citizenship in 1927), took its inspiration from the Arthurian legend of The Fisher King: a wounded monarch, keeper of the grail, unable to support or father the next generation. Unable to fulfil his duty. His impotence reducing the kingdom he rules to the waste and desolation of the poem’s title. The Fisher King stands for the old Edwardian rulers of Europe. Rulers who denigrated the land and whose arrogance led to a lost generation of young men, killed in a Europe smashed apart.
In that conflagration, The Austro-Hungarian empire - where Joyce was living, in Trieste, now part of Italy - and the Ottoman Empire, both vanished from the map. In Russia, the Czar, was overthrown and shot. While across the world the apogee of the still dominant British Empire occurred. An empire whose exterior looked fine and regal, but where the foundations were already rotten and teetering. The seeds of conflicts to come, declarations and treaties, some of which still haunt us, were planted and watered with care and attention: Balfour and Versailles to name but two. Out in the west and far east, new powers were beginning to flex their muscles.
Jump ahead twenty-years.
November 1942, seventy-five years ago, marked the release of Casablanca, a film made in Hollywood predominately by emigres, which aimed to create a definitive sense of time and space. A time and space smashed apart from that which was known to Eliot when he wrote The Waste Land twenty years before, as his poem reflected the similar destruction of the Edwardian era.
Bogart and the film’s writers were American, the director and all the other stars of the movie, European, including designated enemies of the Reich. Watching the film now, the romance and drama remains as strong as ever, but the depiction of the Nazi regime has a naiveté about it that would not pass muster in our world today. The film was released eleven months after the infamous, and top secret, Wannsee Conference, the high-level meeting that set-in motion the holocaust. While Casablanca references Nazi Concentration Camps, and their evil is suggested, it seems a pedestrian evil, human in scale. The collective horror and annihilation such places represent now, the horror unleashed by Wannsee, unimaginable to the writers then.
Casablanca is an unabashed piece of highly engaging propaganda. A film designed to make the US entry into the war palatable to an American population still reeling from the infamy of Pearl Harbour. A film which, thanks to its acting, direction, lighting, cinematography, and not forgetting a wonderful timeless story, is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Casablanca, the town as portrayed in the movie, is the last gasp of a corrupt European imperialism. Bogart, on the other hand, represents the epitome of America: straight-talking, rugged and courageous. Frontier roughness with a heart of gold. In the end, his sacrifice is for the greater good, as is Ilsa’s. Throughout the movie the United States is portrayed as the hope the world needs, the antidote to the travails of Europe. The answer to The Waste Land.
The events that led inexorably from one anniversary to the other are well known.
In Italy, October 1922, Mussolini attained power.
A year later, November 1923, Hitler led his Beerhall Putsch in Munich. In the next ten years he took the Nazi Party from a group of two-thousand thugs to the rulers of Germany. Six years after that, he had taken control of most of Europe and plunged the world into the horrors of the most brutal war ever fought. A new global conflagration on a scale unprecedented. A war that put the final nails in the coffin of imperial Europe with the metamorphosis of the British Imperium to the British Commonwealth.
The rise of the Nazi’s in Germany, like the Fascists in Italy, happened with the blessing of an out of touch and arrogant ruling order who thought they could control the right-wing populist upstarts they had empowered. They thought that once in government the fascists would curtail their baser instincts. They allowed the brutality of the thugs to be tolerated as long as the billionaires got their free market without interference (or, presumably, taxes). They expected that these untried rulers: Hitler, Mussolini, could be controlled and that they would be forced to revert to the established political norms.
They thought that democracy and the constitutions of Italy and Germany would be upheld.
They were, of course, wrong.