Effing the Ineffable

Glen Newey

  • Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century by Jonathan Glover
    Cape, 469 pp, £18.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 224 05240 3

Goya’s The Third of May, 1808. The scene is laid in darkness outside Madrid, where the city’s captured defenders face a firing-squad. Some already lie dead, boltered with pink gore; meanwhile, the squad ‘a faceless testudo’ takes aim again. The eye is drawn to a man, arms raised, pleading for his life. A point of suspension between life and death, he effectively sabotages the representation. His shirt is a splash of paint so incandescently white it looks as if it belongs in a Persil ad. One dwells on the improbably lingering moment, his dazzling shirt, the wayward compositional lines; and the longer you look the odder it gets.

There is, at least superficially, a limit to this. Facts, so belaboured by Post-Modernism, prove pertinacious in the face of atrocity. It’s notable that the dogma of social constructionism, lately so infarcted in cultural and literary studies, has had little to say about the creation of ‘the Holocaust’, long dignified with the capital letter once reserved for the divine pronoun. In bookshops ‘Holocaust’ literature gets shelved, with more aptitude than the stores realise, under ‘Religion’. As misrepresentations go, it’s not bad: a deity created in our own image.

Jonathan Glover’s book is not exclusively about the Holocaust, but unlike many other atrocities chronicled in this lengthy codex it bags a section to itself, and the culminating one: the Final Solution as grand finale. The book’s subtitle is ‘a moral history of the 20th century’. Glover is a philosopher, so he presumably weighs his words. A moral history: what’s that?

Glover is in fact a moral philosopher, but Humanity is not a history of moral philosophy in this century. Nor is it really (as the uninitiated might think) a history of moral attitudes through the last hundred years, as regards either its content or its thinking about the nature of morality. It turns out that Glover’s idea of a ‘moral history’ is a rather queer one. The book deals almost exclusively with the large-scale, intentional killing of humans by other humans. Besides the Holocaust, slaughter in the mega-death bracket also bulks large: the liquidation of the kulaks and the Soviet famine during collectivisation, the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, deaths in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, World War One, the 1994 massacre of Rwandan Tutsis and the Hamburg firestorm. In between, we are treated to the odd near-miss, like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some large-scale killings don’t make it into Glover’s book, however, including the Turks’ massacre of Armenians in 1915 and the million-odd deaths accounted for by ex-President Suharto during his extermination of Communist opposition in Indonesia in the Sixties. Nor, for that matter, do the Johnson and Nixon regimes for their bombing (again probably breaking into the low-megadeaths) of Vietnam, though Cambodia rates a mention. Pol Pot gets fairly generous coverage, but mainly as another Asiatic despot on the model of Mao Zedong or Josef Dzhugashvili, with a vindicating ideology. When we put this together with Cuba we get what might be called a pattern, of benign (with the odd aberration, like My Lai) US liberal hegemony.

Cuba marked the Cold War’s major essay in what, using a term now as quaint-sounding as ‘Finlandisation’, used to be known as ‘brinkmanship’. Glover records the Strangelovean comment of Adlai Stevenson as US ambassador to the UN that ‘a nuclear war is bound to be divisive’ and judges that the ‘imagination’ (a term apparently used without irony) of the Pentagon top brass ‘had been charged by the traumatic briefing on the full effects of nuclear war’, a briefing which doubtless drew extensively on the dry-run conducted on Japan some 17 years earlier. The Missile Crisis stands alone in Humanity, as a salutary lesson in the vision thing. Glover knows, as did Kennedy, that the inconvenient fact that US missiles were already primed in the Soviet Union’s backyard in Turkey might invest the Cuban silos with a certain fearful symmetry. Glover fails to consider that there was a psycho edging the globe towards the brink, and it wasn’t Khrushchev. On the false symmetry assumption, some time after Kennedy’s death, a Western journalist asked Mao Zedong what would have happened if Khrushchev had been assassinated rather than Kennedy. After reflecting for a moment, Mao said that whatever else might have happened, he didn’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Khrushchev.

The more obvious question, though, is not why some atrocities get left out, but why so many are left in. Glover goes at it with a will. Massacre, torture, rape, man-made famine and pestilence – all human death is there. The impact is cumulative, but to the opposite effect to the one Glover presumably intends. One ploughs through the early chapters feeling like a reader of the Book of Job, but ends up, after four hundred pages of this stuff, feeling like Dr Pangloss – can’t this guy lighten up?

Stravinsky once described Britten’s War Requiem as ‘Kleenex music’. It would be callous to describe Glover’s book as Kleenex history, but nonetheless the susurrus of the man-sized four-ply keens distantly throughout his narrative. A lurking non-sequitur needs to be nailed before it’s possible to think clearly about the matters the book tries to address. This is that the undeniable importance of these events makes important whatever is said about them. It’s tough to think of anything which is both true and unbanal, and it plainly gets tougher the more saturated the market becomes.

One explanation not of Glover’s book, but the Holocaust industry in general, can be accepted at the outset. Anyone – to be more specific, mountebanks like Daniel Goldhagen and David Cesarani – with not a lot to say, but with a will to dilate about atrocity, can extort a hearing for themselves. Others, with more to say, seem to have a clause in their contracts demanding that they mention it at least once in any article, be it on Nazism or shortcrust pastry. Publishers, editors, producers, are duly cowed. They are also naturally lured by the money, for atrocity-moralism is big box-office. This can become a recursive process, as others see a juicy pie to stick their fingers in. Some may take exception to or – dread thought – offence at these remarks. But where only what fails to offend can be said, and offence can be orchestrated by those who want to gag views they dislike, the currency of public discussion becomes depreciated. Gresham’s law holds for the circulation of ideas as well as it does for specie.

No doubt here, more than anywhere, mereology is beside the point. There’s little to be gained in worrying whether the destruction of European Jewry was a single act, pre or post-Wannsee. Anyway, the genocide of the kulaks or of up to thirteen million Soviet civilians under Nazi occupation (a large number of Soviet Jews, of course, but still mainly Russo-Ukrainian yokim or, in the racist designation favoured by Cesarani, ‘Christians’) may well take the palm. But nobody endows chairs for Kulak Studies, or foundations for studying the victims of collectivisation. Why not? Was the fate visited on famine victims in the Ukraine less gruesome, their deaths less final, than Jewish victims of Nazism? Glover raises the question, but half-heartedly. Follow the money, follow the power. You can follow the same trail that led to a network ban in the US on the repeat showing of a Robert Fisk documentary criticising Israel. If enough powerful people – which means enough people with control over the major public communications in the US – make enough noise on behalf of victims in their team (more deserving of interest and concern than Ukrainians, Rwandans or Palestinian Arabs), they will join the elect, the pantheon of the remembered dead.

This casts a blearier light on all the double-minded scrabbling for the mot juste in the shadow of the unnamable, that these events are all so – what is the wrong word? – horrible. They speak of the unspeakability of it all, and then they go effing the ineffable, at monstrous length. This is called doing justice to enormity. What is it about a passage like this one, coming as it does after several hundred pages of similar stuff, that reminds one of pornography?

Christian Wirth commanded the ‘Clothing Works’ at Lublin, where starving Jews were worked to death sorting the clothes of those already killed. Wirth’s victims were allowed no hope for their own lives. They also knew there was no hope of their line being continued, as the children had been removed and killed. Wirth allowed one exception, as a cold joke of his own. One Jewish boy aged about ten was given sweets and dressed up as a little SS man. Wirth and he rode among the prisoners, Wirth on a white horse and the boy on a pony, both using machine-guns to kill prisoners (including the boy’s mother) at close range.

This episode is taken from Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Perhaps the pornotropic overtone issues from little grace notes like the white horse, incidental detail which touches off the ensemble. Maybe it’s the epiphany-like quality of the description, the bodying forth of what pudency has buried, in its rude vitality. Or is it that (like all pornography) there’s something strikingly innocent about it, drawing as it does on repressed infantile desires? The image of Christian Wirth prinking on his Lipizzaner, the little boy in his SS outfit, recalls a dream. And, as with Goya, this lies in the nature of the representation. Like a lens-mirror picking up condensation, it obscures what it aims to represent.

Immediately after recounting this episode, Glover tells us that ‘no reaction of disgust and anger is remotely adequate’ to ‘this ultimate expression of contempt’ and, as the saying goes, you can see where he’s coming from. Does he take his own point, before or after? No. What is needed, if anything, is deliberation about political solutions to current problems, rather than feel-bad/feel-good moralism about past ills. Those who write in this vein, ignoring latter-day hecatombs like the current Aids pandemic in Southern Africa, are convinced on one matter: they are serious. I do not think that we have to take them at their own evaluation.

Glover has some philosophical scapegoats for his chronicles of death. The usual suspects are rounded up. Until late in the proceedings, only one is named. Not surprisingly, it is Nietzsche, though for once he doesn’t get saddled with his ‘You are going to a woman? Do not forget your whip.’ Here he is credited both with ‘amoralism’ and with a pernicious moral doctrine, though Glover also believes that this doctrine was ‘perverted’ by the Nazis. Later on, Heidegger files into the dock, along with his pupil Hans Jonas and the anti-semitic logician Gottlob Frege, as burlesque Doppelgänger to the Nuremberg cast of Hess, Goering, Höss and Kaltenbrunner.

It’s unclear why the philosophers merit special treatment, given the wholesale capitulation by Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to Nazism. Of course Heidegger was, to say the least, a cad. But he was far from uniquely bad. Why hope for better from philosophers than from industrialists, musicians, butchers? Yet Glover seems to think either that better was to be expected, or that their failure to be better was especially malignant. The reason why Heidegger’s philosophy is vicious is ‘easier’ than the reason why Heidegger the man was a stinker to ‘get wrong’, but consists in the ‘idea that philosophy is an impenetrable fog, in which ideas not clearly understood have to be taken on trust’. Frege, on the other hand, who can’t be convicted of wilful obscurantism, produced work that was ‘full of logical analysis’ remote ‘from anything of human significance’.

One is tempted to mention the less than diaphanous works of the proto-liberals Kant and Spinoza; or the fact that although Russell’s Principia Mathematica is ‘full of logical analysis’ it didn’t stop the ermined satyr spending a lifetime in proximity to warm human bodies. The passages which Glover cites at some length from Being and Time are held to involve a category mistake (by treating existence as predicable), or just to state the obvious with stupendous prolixity. What is the thought which Glover is trying and failing to have? I think there are two. First, that philosophy is a hobby pursued by a small number of socially marginal oddballs and has little impact on the wider world, most of the time. Second, that the faults of Heidegger and Frege as human beings may not be explained by whatever faults they had as philosophers.

The other main philosophical culprit is ‘consequentialism’, the view that actions’ consequences are the sole or prime coin of moral evaluation. But this, too, is largely wrong. Glover manages to dig up arguments of a roughly consequentialist kind (such as Mao’s ‘We have so many people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?’) though in fact the target he has in mind is a specific kind of consequentialism, namely utilitarianism, and a narrow sub-species of that, to which few utilitarians, not even R.M. Hare, subscribe. ‘Consequentialism’ remains a blank cheque until the relevant sorts of consequences are identified, along with some metric for comparing the consequences we’re meant to be interested in. The consequences might be human suffering, and the outcomes ranked accordingly.

The problem lies not in consequentialism itself, but in the wrong consequences having undue weight. What, finally, is the ground of the atrocity obsession? It certainly lends itself to writing in the grand style. It may feed off envy of its victims, the cachet of the dead, which some recent writers seem to regard as the appropriate posture for Holocaust historiography. Though apparently feel-bad, it actually offers a range of comforts – at being neither victim, nor perpetrator, nor bystander. And it’s surely important, insofar as anything is. Even if there is nothing important full stop, then surely it’s important at least sub specie? Presumably, sub specie humanitatis, or something like that. But the verdict on that only comes collectively, and after the fact. Recall another of Mao’s dicta, this time on the French Revolution: too soon to judge.

Over the past century a lot of philosophical fat has been chewed over whether moral propositions are capable of being determinately true or false – and over what this claim itself might mean. Even if these questions were resolved, it would probably do little good politically. For one thing, just knowing that moral propositions were capable of truth or falsity wouldn’t tell us which ones were true. But it’s an academician’s error to think that our problems would be over even if we knew that. For example, the absurdity of astrology seems to have had little impact on people’s propensity to go on about cusps and Uranus. Even those who have acknowledged (what this style of theory regards as) the plain facts may remain unmoved by them.

Sometimes Glover remarks or implies that a certain psychology accompanies the readiness to commit atrocities. This means, roughly, that some particular empirical psychology explains this readiness, not merely that the readiness itself is, ipso facto, a psychological trait that the perpetrators of atrocity share. He does not offer much detail about the content of this psychology, but says for example that ‘the human responses are overwhelmed, weakened, narrowed or eliminated’ in those who intentionally bring about mass killings. One benefit of looking at things this way is held to be that ‘to see the unity in the underlying psychology is to make the development of “a different moral reality” a more manageable task.’ That sounds like the claim that the right response to the atrocities is prophylactic, to be achieved by therapy. But to grasp the shape of a solution we need first to understand the problem.

Faced with Glover’s roll of slaughter we can regard humanity as being, in Nietzsche’s suggestive phrase, pieces of mechanism that have come to grief. We might see that as a form of maladaptation analogous, though not identical, to evolutionary unfitness. That spells trouble for the philosophical enterprise (sometimes misnamed ‘the Enlightenment project’) of basing morality on human nature, for example by discovering in it sentiments of benevolence or sympathy. If this enterprise succeeded, it would offer explanatory gain, with morality’s content explained by something pre-moral. But Glover’s observations about ‘the unity in the underlying psychology’ should make us doubt this characterisation; maybe we just impute certain psychological traits to people when we see that they are capable of this kind of behaviour. As an insight into the psychology of mass extermination, it doesn’t get us a lot further than ‘Hitler has only got one ball.’ A case in point is Glover’s tellingly bathetic judgment that Stalin’s and Himmler’s ‘human responses’ were ‘narrowed’. The question is what psychologically acceptable rider to this judgment would let us pronounce that, mega-murder notwithstanding, Stalin and Himmler were good eggs. Collapse the dualism of ‘symptom’ and ‘syndrome’ and the psychological ‘unity’ seems less (or more) than coincidental.

At some points Glover seems to acknowledge, rightly, that the attitude behind the acts he describes may be mere indifference, rather than a specific motivational state. But he risks making the same error as those who hunt for a motive common to all who commit atrocity – of thinking that they must share something beyond a readiness to commit atrocity. Glover’s problems start with the ambivalence in his characterisation of the ‘human responses’. These announce themselves no more vocally in a bon mot from Mao, or a good turn by the merkin-sporting man-god Jesus, than in the mass killings which Stalin seems to have conjured on a whim in his more Caligulan moments. It’s bathetic, again, but at least on the right lines, to say that Hitler’s problem was not being nice enough. Intuition is far from clear whether his problem was being inhuman – or all too human.

Despite what’s sometimes concluded from this reasoning, it does not doom naturalism. Rather, it sets the terms on which any credible naturalism must engage. It has to start from what we, thinking as we must, think about what we are, being as we are. It does, however, serve to dispel one powerful fantasy, which has exerted a grip over many moral philosophers. That is that moral philosophy itself might be morally improving, as if Emperor Bokassa’s problem was not having ploughed through enough R.M. Hare. A related fantasy is that philosophy can be remedial in some more vicarious way, by putting Bokassa (or his 21st-century epigoni) on the couch. It’s not just that those most in need of it are among those least likely to volunteer for treatment. The problem is that the crimes are political ones, and insofar as they have human solutions at all, they have to be solved politically. Even if what actuates the likes of Macias Nguemo or the wife-guzzling Idi Amin is psychic disorder, the hope for therapeutic remedy is, in general, sunbeams-from-cucumbers reverie. Like therapy, politics is an ex post facto game, whose main business is not damage prevention but unprevented damage.

Nobody on earth has a coherent (coherent, that is, with facts well known to any sane and minimally informed adult) political plan for dealing with human nastiness. Recognising this fact can induce despondency. Any solution worth the name will be a political one; but politics is no good, most of the time. How much more agreeable to work with something as plastic as an individual psyche, and build an extension onto it, with room for more sympathy, more imagination, more drawing-room niceness. These are, to be sure, goods, and praemia vitae in their own right. How human a response to flinch before the horrors, to cast about and find in the balked confrontation itself, in the ineffable too much effed, a hot-water bottle, masquerading as something grand.

Alasdair MacIntyre once commented that our modern lot is to be unhappy, but reasonable. It is not wrong to hope that philosophy might help to provide the resources to recognise this – perhaps even to come to terms with it. But this project will not be accomplished merely by beginning at an arbitrarily short distance from received opinion. One thing which philosophical reflection may do is to alter both our sense of the project and philosophy’s capacity to complete it. And that might herald a shift not towards grandeur, but away from it. We might be forced to confront our own shallowness, that what once struck us as oceanic in its purport turns out, on closer inspection, to be a puddle. And the confrontation itself may be the best we can do. Wittgenstein said that philosophy is at its best (or, perhaps, least bad) when it assembles a series of reminders for a particular purpose.