Extracts from a book of fifty important books or people.  The second of four such volumes.


W H Auden

The Franklin Library, 1978; Limited Edition, The Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century.  Bound in green leather, embossed and titled in gold, with ridged spine; gold edges to pages, moire endpapers and satin book mark.

When I was a young boy, but old enough to hear jazz as a distinct form of music, I bought my first LP – ‘Jazz for People Who Do Not Like Jazz.’  All of the poets who feature in this book might attract a similar label, and none more so than Auden.  But it took me some time when I got a bit older to adjust to the proposition that the following poem was addressed to a boy or young man.  This may not have been a rite of passage, but it was at least a hurdle on the path of education.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms to break of day

Let the living creature die,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Auden had a dream upbringing and education, and studied English at Christ Church, Oxford.  He was ferociously bright, and would later write critical prose up to the intellectual standard of that of T S Eliot.  His poetry is, though, more accessible to the general reader than that of Eliot.  So, we might suspect, was his personality.  He had a long association with Christopher Isherwood, and he also had a following of acolytes.  The young Stephen Spender was desperate to get the attention of Auden.

‘You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.’  This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: ‘But do you really think I am any good?’  ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly.  ‘But why?’  ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated.  Art is born of humiliation’, he added in his icy voice – and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.

That was the kind of preppy stuff that bright young men went on with at Oxford in those days, and it is as well to recall how many of them went clean off the rails.

Here is Auden, perhaps a little out of character, in Roman Wall Blues.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging round her place,

I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish:

There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

Like so many of that ilk, Auden was drawn to the Spanish Civil War, but he would come to see it with an eye as clear as that of Orwell.  He contributed to the booklet Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, but he did so in a pained way that showed the pain in his own mind.  Still, he did better than some other big hitters.  Ezra Pound: ‘Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’  Evelyn Waugh: ‘If I were a Spaniard, I should be fighting for General Franco.’  T S Eliot: ‘While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best if at least a few men of letters should remain isolated.’  The only thing more limp-wristed than that is an aetherised hand upon a table.

He also had a clear mind on that curious notion, the role of the artist.

Artists and politicians would get along a lot better in the time of crisis [1939], if the latter would only realise that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed.

If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.

Tolstoy, who, knowing that art makes nothing happen, scrapped it, is more to be respected than the Marxist critic who finds ingenious reasons for admitting the great artists of the past to the State Pantheon.

Here is an intellectual and Anglican poet on religion.


With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,

He saw the Devil busy in the wind,

Over the chiming steeples and then under

The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.

What apparatus could stave off disaster

Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?

Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,

World a still pond in which its children drown.

The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:

‘Lord, smoke these honeyed insects from their hives

All works, Great Men, Societies are bad.

The Just shall live by Faith…’ he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.

Auden wrote a luminous and scholarly paper on Melville and others.  In his poem Herman Melville, he said:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table,

And we are introduced to goodness every day,

Even in drawing rooms among a crowd of faults;

He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,

But wears a stammer like a decoration;

And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;

It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover

And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,

And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

Later in life, Auden got interested in Tolkien.

Tolkien is a man of average height, rather thin.  He lives in a hideous house – I can’t tell you how awful it is – with hideous pictures on the walls.  I first encountered him in 1926, at a lecture at Oxford.  He read a passage from Beowulf so beautifully that I decided Anglo-Saxon must be interesting, and that has had a great interest on my life.

Auden might remind us of Schubert.  Or, perhaps, Louis Armstrong.  You could just turn him on like a tap.  This gorgeously handsome volume runs to more than 700 pages.  That is a lot of poetry.

Auden died in 1973.  The first poem in this volume is dated December 1927.  The last poem is dated April 1972 and finishes:

Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,

For all, both sweet and horrid,

Are jokes in dubious taste,

Too jejune to have truck with.

Sleep Big Baby, sleep your fill.

In one of the Forewords to his collections, Auden said:

In art as in life, bad manners, not to be confused with a deliberate intention to cause offence, are the consequences of an over-concern with one’s own ego and a lack of consideration for (and knowledge of) others.  Readers, like friends, must not be shouted out or treated with brash familiarity.  Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.

Auden said that in 1965.  He was not to know that he was speaking of what has become in 2017 the malaise of our time.

Passing Bull 263 – Sovereignty

‘Sovereignty’ is a loaded term.  Sovereigns are big hitters.  The sovereign is supreme.  There is no one superior.  So when England was subject in some ways to the Church of Rome, its king was to that extent not supreme in his own nation.  Indeed, in scrapping with the barons over Magna Carta, King John became a vassal to Rome.  So when King Henry VIII was prevented by the Church of Rome from attending to an important matter of state – securing succession to the throne – the question for him was – who was preeminent in England – the king or the pope?  He settled the matter in his favour by persuading the parliament to break all ties with Rome by passing a series of statutes for that purpose.  One was naturally called the Act of Supremacy.  It iced the cake with the assertion that England was always known as an ‘empire’.  Now, Facebook is nasty and Mr Zuckerberg is nauseatingly unctuous, but Facebook is not challenging the place of the Commonwealth of Australia in the governance of this nation.  Rather, it is seeking to bring pressure on the government about a law it proposes to make – much as a union might do to an employer seeking to alter terms of employment.  Claims by government ministers that there is an issue about sovereignty resemble claims by employers that a trade union by industrial action is seeking to take over management of the company.  It is just a bit of local colour.  Facebook is well capable of shooting itself in its posterior.  And if it showed that to us on the way out, I would stand and cheer.


Extracts from a book of fifty important books or people.  The second of four such volumes.


Stefan Zweig

Viking Press New York, 1930.  Quarter bound in burgundy leather with title in gold on black label and navy cloth boards.

Some politicians get by with luck and grit, and not a lot more.  Perhaps that is all that it takes for most of them – as it tends to be for the rest of us.  One such politician was Joseph Fouché who was active during the French Revolution and who, as the Duke of Otranto, was Minister of Police for the Emperor Napoleon.  Fouché was the ultimate survivor.  The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who was an immensely popular novelist in the 1930’s, called Fouché ‘the most perfect Machiavel of modern times’ – ‘a leader of every party in turn and unique in surviving the destruction of them all.’.  Here was a ‘man of the same skin and hair who was in 1790 a priestly schoolmaster, and by 1792 already a plunderer of the Church; was in 1793 a communist, five years later a multimillionaire and ten years after that the Duke of Otranto.’  Fouché therefore was not just a survivor – he was a winner.

In introducing his book about ‘this thoroughly amoral personality’, Joseph Fouché, The Portrait of a Politician, Stefan Zweig said this:

Alike in 1914 and 1918 [the book was written in 1929] we learned to our cost that the issues of the war and the peace, issues of far-reaching historical significance, were not the outcome of a high sense of intelligence and exceptional responsibility, but were determined by obscure individuals of questionable character and endowed with little understanding.  Again and again since then it has become apparent that in the equivocal and often rascally game of politics, to which with touching faith the nations continue to entrust their children and their future, the winners are not men of wide moral grasp and firm conviction, but those professional gamesters whom we style diplomatists – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart.

Those observations have the timelessness of truth. 

Joseph Fouché was born in the seaport town of Nantes to a seafaring mercantile family.  The great places were reserved for the nobility, so Joseph went into the Church.  He went to the Oratorians who were in charge of Catholic education after the expulsion of the Jesuits.  He becomes a tonsured teacher, not a priest.  ‘Not even to God, let alone to men, will Joseph Fouché give a pledge of lifelong fidelity.’  Three of the most powerful French political thinkers then – Talleyrand, Sièyes, and Fouché – come from an institution that the Revolution will be bent on destroying, the Church. 

Joseph became friendly with a young lawyer named Robespierre.  There was even talk that he might marry Robespierre’s sister, and when the young Maximilien was elected to the Estates General at Versailles, it was Joseph who lent him the money for a new suit of clothes. 

When Joseph moves that the Oratorians to express their support for the Third Estate, he is sent back to Nantes.  He then becomes political, discards his cassock, and, after marrying the daughter of a wealthy merchant, ‘an ugly girl but handsomely dowered’, he is elected to the revolutionary National Convention in 1792 as the Chairman of the Friends of the Constitution at Nantes. 

Fouché is always cool and under control.  He has no vices and he is a loyal husband, but he will be an ‘inexorable puritan’ and invincibly cold blooded, at his best working in the shadows as an unseen second to the limelighters.  He prefers the reality of power to its insignia, but with ‘his resolute freedom from convictions’, he is quite capable of repudiating a leader who has gone too far.  ‘He knows that a revolution never bestows its fruits on those who begin it, but only on those who bring it to an end and are therefore in a position to seize the booty.’

Fouché starts up the ladder.  He had aligned with the moderates known as the Gironde on the issue of death for the king, but sensing the shift in the breeze, he stabbed them in the back with the words la mort when it came his turnto cast his vote.  He acquires huge power as Representative on Mission, a kind of Roman proconsul.  He has what we would call a communist social program, especially toward the Church.  He issues an utterly chilling instruction: ‘Everything is permissible to those who are working for the revolution; the only danger for the republican is to lag behind the laws of the Republic: one who outstrips them, gets ahead of them; one who seemingly overshoots the aim, has often not yet reached the goal.  While there is still anyone unhappy with the world, there are still some steps to take in the racecourse of liberty.’ 

The çi devant Oratorian declares war on the Church ‘to substitute the worship of the Republic and of morality for that of ancient superstitions.’  He abolishes celibacy and orders priests to marry or adopt a child within one month.  In Moulins, he rides through the town at the head of a procession hammer in hand smashing crosses, crucifixes and other images, the ‘shameful’ tokens of fanaticism.  This is the phase of dechristianization, far, far more brutal than the Reformation in England.

But we also speak of the Terror, when an anxious France was guillotining its enemies within, and Robespierre would implement the Law of Suspects.  It is the black night of the revolution and it leads Stefan Zweig to this most remarkable judgment which still speaks so clearly to us at a time of a collapse in public life.

By the inexorable law of gravity, each execution dragged others in its train.  Those who had begun the game with no more than ferocious mouthings, now tried to surpass one another in bloody deeds.  Not from frenzied passion and still less from stern resolution were so many victims sacrificed.  Irresolution, rather, was at work; the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob.  In the last analysis, cowardice was to blame.  For, alas, history is not only (as we are so often told) the history of human courage, but also the history of human faintheartedness; and politics is not (as politicians would fain have us believe) the guidance of public opinion, but a servile bowing of the knee by the so-called leaders before the demons they have themselves created.

With those words, Stefan Zweig justified not only this whole book, but his whole life.  The words ‘the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob’ should be put up in neon lights in every parliamentary and government office, and in the booth of every shock jock, poll taker, and sound-bite grabber, and that of any other predatory bludger, urger, or racecourse tout.

And the Terror was in turn at its worst for those parts of France that had sought to rebel in bloc, like the great city of Lyon, the second of France.  The revolt in the west in the Vendée was seen to be Catholic and Royalist; in Lyon, it was a revolt by class and money.  The reprisals for each had a manic cruelty and intensity unmatched until the times of Stalin and Hitler.  In the Vendée, a man named Carrier was responsible for the infamy of the noyades, when batches of priests were manacled, and placed on barges that were towed in the Loire and then sunk.  Fouché executed revolutionary justice at Lyon where the guillotine was thought to be too cumbersome.  The depravity is described by Zweig in these terms:

Early that morning sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples.  Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone.  Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution.  The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair.  A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’.  The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off.  Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured.  But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed.  As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.

All this was done in front of a crowd of appreciative onlookers.  The next batch was enlarged to two hundred ‘head of cattle marched to the slaughter’ and this time the avengers of the nation dispensed with the graves.  The corpses were thrown into the Rhone as a lesson to the folks downstream.  When the guillotine is again put to work, ‘a couple of women who have pleaded too ardently for the release of their husbands from the bloody assize are by his [Fouché’s] orders bound and placed close to the guillotine.’  Fouché declares: ‘We do not hesitate to declare that we are shedding much unclean blood, but we do so for humane reasons, and because it is our duty.’ Zweig concludes: ‘Sixteen hundred executions within a few weeks show that, for once, Joseph Fouché is speaking the truth.’  That may be so, but the invocation of humanity for this butchery defies all language.

I am relying on a translation (by Eden and Cedar Paul in the 1930 Viking Edition), but Zweig attributes to Fouché what he calls ‘a flamboyant proclamation’;

The representatives of the people will remain inexorable in the fulfilment of the mission that has been entrusted to them.  The people has put into their hands the thunderbolts of vengeance, and they will not lay them down until all its enemies have been shattered.  They will have courage enough and be energetic enough to make their way through holocausts of conspirators and to march over ruins to ensure the happiness of the nation and effect the regeneration of the world.

There, surely, you have a preview of all the madness and cant that will underlie the evil that befalls mankind in the next century.

Fouché and his accomplice get news that the wind may have changed in Paris and the other is sent back to cover their backs.  Fouché now has to deal with Robespierre, ‘that tiger of a man, balancing adroitly as usual between savagery and clemency, swinging like a pendulum now to the Right and now to the Left’, who was unhappy with Fouché for having displaced his own henchman (the crippled lawyer Couthon who had no stomach for the task).  Robespierre is the cold lawyer from Arras that we associate with the height of the Terror – and with its end.  Zweig says that Robespierre was ‘wrapped in his virtue as if it were a toga’.  That about sums it up, but Zweig has a most remarkable passage that includes:

Robespierre’s tenacity of purpose was his finest quality, but it was also his greatest weakness.  For, intoxicated by the sense of his own incorruptibility and clad as he was in an armour of stubborn dogmatism, he considered that divergences of opinion were treasonable, and with the cold cruelty of a grand inquisitor, he was ready to regard as heretics all who differed from him and send them to a heretic’s doom…..The lack of communicable warmth, of contagious humanity, deprived his actions of procreative energy.  His strength lay exclusively in his stubbornness; his power, in his unyielding severity.  His dictatorship had become for him the entire substance and the all-engrossing form of his life.  Unless he could stamp his own ego on the revolution, that ego would be shattered.

That judgment may be too severe for Robespierre, but it looks dead right for Lenin – especially the last, about the insatiable need to stamp his own ego on the revolution.  There is the key to the agony of all the Russias.

There followed a duel between Fouché and Robespierre.  Fouché ‘had never asked Robespierre’s advice; had never bowed the knee before the sometime friend.’  Robespierre turned on Fouché in the Convention: ‘Tell us, then, who commissioned you to announce to the people that God does not exist, you, who are so devoted to that doctrine?’    Fouché is just one target in a speech that ends in a hurricane of applause.  Fouché goes quiet, he goes underground, he performs the then equivalent of working the phones – and then he surfaces – as the next elected President of the Jacobins Club!  This is the rank and file of the ‘party’. 

The response had to be nasty, and the next time Robespierre is brutal, with the by then standard allegation of conspiracy.  ‘I was at one time in fairly close touch with him because I believed him to be a patriot.  If I denounced him here, it was not so much because of his past crimes because he had gone into hiding to commit others, and because I believed him to be the ringleader of the conspiracy which we have to thwart.’  This was vintage Robespierre paranoia and the stakes were terminal.  Fouché is expelled from the Jacobins.  ‘Now Joseph Fouché is marked for the guillotine as a tree is marked for the axe…..Fifty or sixty deputies who, like Fouché, no longer dare to sleep in their own quarters, bite their lips when Robespierre walks past them; and many are furtively clenching their fists at the very time when they are hailing his speeches with acclamations.’ 

Robespierre is circling in his sky-blue suit and white silk stockings, and the very air is thick with fear.  He gives a three hour harangue, but then declines to give names.  ‘Et Fouché?’ gets no answer.  Fouché furiously works the numbers: ‘I hear there is a list, and your name is on it.’  ‘Cowardice shrinks and dwindles, and is replaced by desperate courage.’  God rolls the dice, the bunnies become wolves, and Robespierre and his lieutenants are submitted to the blade that they had brought down on so many others.

Here Zweig permits himself a general political observation.  He condemns those who overthrew Robespierre for their ‘cowardly and lying attitude’ who ‘to gain their own ends have betrayed the proletarian revolution.’  That is an assessment made in 1929 that many French historians would embrace, and Fouché had tried to get on a populist horse.  This time he picked badly, and the new regime had different views about the Terror – and Lyon.  Fouché ‘like many animals shams dead that he may not be killed.’  He goes underground for three years living on the breadline.  No one mentions his name.  As to the proletariat – what a dire and debasing word! – there is not much use crying over spilt milk.  Those who are crying wanted the French terrorists to do what Lenin had tried to do, and transfer all power from the king to all those at the bottom inside one generation.  It cannot be done.  It took the English, who are geniuses at this, seven centuries.

Fouché lies low and poor.  The carpet-baggers of the new shop-soiled regime, the Directory then the Consulate, need someone who can work in darkness, a cold-blooded spy, a collector of information on others, a man to hold chits IOU’s and grudges, and someone who can oil the wheels of power and money.  Who else?  ‘Joseph Fouché has become the ideal man for these sordid negotiations.  Poverty has made a clean sweep of his republican convictions, he has hung up his contempt for money to dry in the chimney, and he is so hungry that he can be bought cheaply.’  Is it not remarkable how deathless are all these political insights? 

The dark and dangerous mitrailleur of Lyons is back in town – as minister of State, the Minister of Police to the mighty and all-conquering Republic of France!  Well, our man ‘has no use for sentimentality, and can whenever he likes, forget his past with formidable speed’.  The Jacobins are a shadow of themselves, but they are also beside themselves at this heartless enforcer of tranquillity – who calmly says that there must be an end to inflammatory speeches!  In France?  In Paris?  In 1799?

They have learned little during these years.  They threaten the Directory, the Ministers of State, and the constitution with quotations from Plutarch.  They behave as rabidly as if Danton and Marat were still alive; as if still, in those brave days of the revolution, they could with the sound of the tocsin summon hundreds of thousands from the faubourgs.

But our man has got his sense of scent back.  He knows the public mood.  The former president just closes down the Jacobins Club – the next day.  People are sick of strife.  They want their peace and their money.

Then some people higher up start to fear the information that he gets – on everyone.  Knowledge means power, and Fouché has more knowledge than anyone – more even than Napoleon.  And people start to notice that his eyes look upwards as well as downwards.  Talleyrand, who also stands up to Napoleon and lives to talk about it, and who is another consummate and totally conscienceless puppeteer, says: ‘The Minister of Police is a man who minds his own business – and goes on to mind other people’s.’

But when Napoleon becomes Consul for Life, his family, the biggest weakness of the loyal Corsican, urge him to fire Fouché.  Napoleon shifts him sideways, but ‘seldom in the course of history has a minister been dismissed with more honourable and more lucrative tokens of respect than Joseph Fouché.’  It was ever thus. 

Fouché goes into retirement again, the polite and thrifty squire with his wife and children who gives a homely entertainment now and then.  The neighbours see a good husband and a kind father.  But the old campaigner feels the itch.  ‘Power is like the Medusa’s head.  Whoever has looked on her countenance can no longer turn his face away, but remains for always under her spell.  Whoever has once enjoyed the intoxication of holding sway over his fellows can never thenceforward renounce it altogether.  Flutter the pages of history in search for examples of the voluntary renouncement of power….Sulla and Charles V are the most famous among the exceptions.’ 

Napoleon senses the itchiness of Fouché but he does not want to take him back; ‘the argus-eyed unsleeping calculator’ is too dangerous.  But then Napoleon errs – he has the Duke of Enghien kidnapped over the border and returned to France to be shot – he passes his grave on the way to his ‘trial.’  This leads Fouché (some say Talleyrand) to make the famous remark: ‘It was worse than a crime it was a blunder.’  Napoleon needs someone to hold the stirrup again, and on his ascension to the purple – he allows the pope to watch him crown himself – Son Excellence Monsieur le Senateur Fouché is appointed Minister by Sa Majeste l’Empereur Napoleon.  He will become the Duke of Otranto and while the rest degenerate into ‘flatterers and lickspittles’, the Minister of Police stiffens his back, and minds his own business and that of everyone else. 

Fouché is a millionaire many times over, but he lives a frugal almost Spartan life.  His image is part of his terrifying power.  He and the Emperor are at arms’ length.  ‘Filled with secret antipathy, each of them makes use of the other, and they are bound together solely by the attraction between hostile poles.’

The stakes have gone up now.  At Marengo in 1800, Napoleon won with thirty thousand men; five years later, he has three hundred thousand behind him; five years later, he is raising a levy of a million soldiers.  He will leave five million in their graves.  And now Fouché must deal with the political genius of Talleyrand, another of the world’s very greatest survivors.  ‘Both of them are of a perfectly amoral type, and this accounts for their likeness in character.’  For a long time tout Parisgazes in a kind of trance at the duel between Fouché and Talleyrand, and, as it happens, both survive Napoleon. 

Fouché was either working for Napoleon or plotting against him, or both, even during the Hundred Days leading to Waterloo.  In fact, Fouché served as Minister of Police to Talleyrand as Prime Minister after 1815 for Louis XVIII.  Since he had voted for the death of that king’s brother, Louis XVI, this might be seen as the masterpiece of his slipperiness or negotiability.  He then proceeded to orchestrate a new terror, the White Terror, against the enemies of the Bourbons.  This revolted even Talleyrand, and Fouché was shifted again, this time for the last time.  He died in his bed in Trieste in 1820.

It is hard to imagine our story, for that in part is what it is, being told better than Stefan Zweig tells it in this wonderful book.  The author moves so easily from one graceful insight to the next, and like a true champion he makes it all look so easy and so natural.  And as our author leaves his subject, he leaves us with the question that Shakespeare leaves to us with various bastards, in the proper sense of that word, and Richard III and Falstaff – why are we so taken with the life and character of such an absolute villain?  And he also leaves us with the same old problem – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart.


Extracts from a book of fifty important books or people. The second of four such volumes.


Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsenwrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero. 

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.) 

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was jailed for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art. 

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Arthur Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing thought’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at its worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy. 

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

The book is dedicated to Marilyn.