Catastrophe

Claude Rawson

  • The Sinking of the Titanic by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
    Carcanet, 98 pp, £3.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 85635 372 8
  • Paul Clean: Poems translated by Michael Hamburger
    Carcanet, 307 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 85635 313 2
  • Talk about the Last Poet by Charles Johnston
    Bodley Head, 78 pp, £4.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 370 30434 9

Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote The Sinking of the Titanic in German. From information supplied in the poem, which in its present form is much preoccupied with the process of its composition, he began writing it in Havana in 1969, and completed it in Berlin in 1977: the poem is thus a close contemporary of Doctorow’s Ragtime, with which it shares several features of its subject-matter, including the historical period. In between those dates, he mailed a first version of the poem from Cuba (where there was no carbon-paper), but it never arrived. So he wrote the present version, which includes glimpses of himself writing both versions, as well as other autobiographical details of his life in Havana and Berlin. This version was then translated into English by the author, and the translation is remarkable for its ease and fluency, its narrative energy, its versatile and allusive play with a variety of verse-forms and literary styles, and its command of a language foreign to the author.

Berlin and Cuba are part of the poem’s plot. Both are imagined, like the Titanic, as threatened by an iceberg, invisible, lethal and beautiful. In Cuba, it comes ‘slowly, irrevocably ... nearer to me’, a phrase picked up in a later orchestration of ironies involving ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’, the hymn which, in some versions of the myth, the Titanic’s orchestra played as they sank. (Joseph Conrad said ‘it would have been finer if the band ... had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing.’) Berlin is ‘where Europa is at its darkest’, Cuba the locus of defeated aspirations. Cuba’s socialism gone sour has deep links with the Titanic’s capitalist catastrophe. The poetic emblem of the connection is the Havana cigar:

                                      the cigar boxes

in the smoking lounge are still handmade in Cuba,

radiant with gold medals.

The mythology of the Titanic seems to have been pretty cigar-ridden, even before the poem. Lord’s A Night to Remember reveals that the ship’s Captain allowed you in the room only if you were so still that the blue cloud didn’t move (‘firmness and urbanity’). From Ragtime we learn that the ship’s principal owner, J.P. Morgan, was portrayed by cartoonists with cigar and top-hat (‘incarnation of power’). The poem introduces an ironic variation. A garrulous Russian exile of 1912 uttering revolutionary cant aboard the Titanic in an exquisite haze of Partagas, and quarrelsome cigar-smoking Trotskyites in modern Havana, are its old and new forms.

So the new Cuba is as decadent as the old: no carbons, no fresh milk, ‘ “The People” ... queuing up patiently for a pizza’. Beneath the heady ardours of liberation, the ‘old servitude’ returns:

        We did not know
that the party had finished long ago ...
that the tropical party was all over.

‘The party’s over’: the words fit the Titanic story, which seemed even at the time to symbolise some kind of ending. Wealth, size and speed were not ‘unsinkable’ after all. Two years before the First World War, some cherished modern certainties appeared to be crumbling. We have been hearing the phrase again lately, and the blurb informs us that Enzensberger’s Titanic is ‘an emblem for the modern predicament’.

Enzensberger is mesmerised by such idioms. ‘We are all in the same boat’ is another. There is a whole canto anthologising such things:

The sinking of the Titanic proceeds according to plan ...
It is 100% tax-deductible.
It is a lucky bag for poets ...
It is better than nothing ...
It has a solid working-class basis.
It arrives in the nick of time ...
It is a breathtaking spectacle ...

The point, no doubt, is a satirical listing of received ideas and foolish language. It also signals that the poet knows that his story, so freely mythologised in his own poem, has in fact become all things to all men. But the ironies are gleefully paraded, with that over-insistent pleasure in the idiomatic phrase which sometimes comes over expert but non-native speakers (sometimes, not often, idiom falters: ‘It isn’t anymore what it used to be’).

An effect of frenetic sententiousness is compounded by a Brechtian penchant for the hectoring catch-phrase: ‘he who is poor is the first to drown.’ The sloganising seems, in this case, true to the mood of 1912. Such taunts were indeed thrown back at those who claimed that the rescue had observed the chivalric principle of ‘women and children first’. The poem offers a statistical table of the kind so familiar in Titanic literature, which points to the alternative formula: First Class first, Steerage last. Both claims were true in a way. The proportion of saved went up with the class. But if one looks at First, the great financial families of Astor, Guggenheim, Rothschild, Thayer, Widener all lost their menfolk, while their ladies, where present, were saved; in Second, 81 per cent of the women and children but only 10 per cent of the men were saved.

There was a dilemma for feminists, similar to recent questionings about extending the military draft to women. Should the women, as an English feminist said, have gone down as equals by the side of their husbands, or was it right for the men to go down, since men drew up the ship’s rules – as the President of the American Political Woman’s Union maintained? Asked what she would do if women got the vote, she sensibly answered that she would legislate for enough lifeboats for everybody, thus removing the problem at its root (much as anti-draft women said that if women had power they would eliminate war). There was a jingle about ‘votes for women’ versus ‘boats for women’. Enzensberger must have missed it, or we should have read all about it.

The feminist dimension is not among the elements of Titanic mythography to which the poem devotes much attention. It is confined to a few bits of lurid bizarrerie:

Three cheers for the Countess Rothes in her nightgown,
witch, suffragette, depraved lesbian,
gaining full sway over lifeboat and crew
and proclaiming the rule of women!

This lady (presented in A Night to Remember as particularly efficient and helpful during the rescue) lakes her place in the poem as part of a transsexual montage which includes ‘the veiled millionaire disguised as a woman’ (Lord says ‘third-class passenger Daniel Buckley’ admitted seeking safety this way and there may have been others) and a Gothic phantasmagoria of ‘hermaphrodites ... showing their orifices’ in the Turkish bath and

dowagers getting themselves whipped
under the card table by depraved cabin boys.

The official account of an orderly and even well-dressed descent into Hell did not go unchallenged, even at the time. The poem’s account of drunken officers shooting at steerage passengers was already in circulation: Lawrence Beesley, a second-class survivor, was denying it in his book within weeks of the sinking. Enzensberger’s steerage immigrants (‘Wogs, Jews, camel drivers and Polacks’) are the direct kin of those we see in Ragtime sailing into New York harbour (‘from Italy and Eastern Europe’) as the Little Boy’s Father sails out on the Roosevelt ‘after a champagne breakfast with the press’. In the novel they disembark to a lifetime of particularised misery, instead of perishing in a single night’s concentrate of all imaginable agonies. Similarly, the anarchist or feminist rabble-rousing on Enzensberger’s ship finds its counterpart on a plane of ‘historical’ detail in the novel. Ragtime leaves the Titanic alone, though the politics of the Roosevelt-Taft era, on which the sinking had a strong impact, are part of its world, and the ship’s owner, J.P. Morgan, is a major protagonist. In real life, Morgan might have died on the voyage with the other money-men, but he cancelled the trip because of illness.

‘It was a fancy-dress ball in Dante’s Hell,’ a survivor said of the procession of passengers, life-belted, going up the Titanic’s regal staircase. Enzensberger’s hell is more like Bosch-and-blue-movies than it is like Dante, but Dante is nevertheless a brooding presence. He is a character and an obsession in the poem, which is divided into 33 Cantos, like each major section of the Divine Comedy. Inferno actually has 34, so that the three sections make up 100, but its first Canto counts as an introduction to all three. ‘Inferno’ (with or without Dantean echoes) has also become one of our cant-phrases for ‘disaster’, in that sense of ‘disaster’ which gives its name to disaster-movies (cf. The Towering Inferno) and includes states of siege, earthquake, volcanic eruption, bombardment, radiation, fire, flood. Enzensberger’s poem, as it happens, evokes many of these, including volcanoes with precise eschatological trimmings (‘I saw an elderly man in braces showered by sulfur and brimstone’) and a negative version that goes not with a bang but with a whimper:

It is not like a massacre, not like a bomb;
there is no blood, nobody’s being mangled;
it is just a swelling, a steady increase,
all over the place. Dampness is seeping in.

The whimper, in due course, gives way to its own special bang, ‘an unheard-of sound’ which smashes the glassy calm. But there is no doubt that Enzensberger sees the sinking of the Titanic as one of the ways the world ends. His poem, in its English form at least, is full of Eliotic echoes. A phantasmagoric passenger-list which includes Dante is framed in Prufrockian mannerisms:

I recognised them all:
Gordon Pym, Jerome the stoker, who never uttered a word,
Miss Taussig, Guggenheim (copper and tin),
Engels (textile), Ilmari Alhomaki, Dante –
I was cold and afraid.

This is the prescribed Anglo-Laforguian way of glimpsing the Eternal Footman (‘And in short, I was afraid’), just as Prufrock’s ‘I have known them all already, known them all’ is echoed in the beginning of this passage and even more closely in an earlier rundown of dead passengers: ‘I for one know them all ... I think I know them.’ But, most of all, the accents are those of an ironic, plaintively knowing Tiresias, a variation on The Waste Land’s variation on Dante’s Inferno III, 55-57: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’

Those undone include people who can be checked in the passenger-list in Lord’s book, whether they perished (Guggenheim, Alhomaki) or survived (Miss Taussig), as well as other personages from fact or fiction, in a Tiresias-like scrambling of time and space, plus some extra tease. ‘Engels (textile)’ seems to merge Marx’s cotton-trade friend with the Manchester mill-owner who elsewhere in the poem indignantly advocates discipline and authority, signifying some ironic equivalence of Right and Left – like those cigars, one of which exhales revolutionary sentiments at him through the mouth of the Russian exile. Dante comes up all the time, sometimes in ways which suggest that there may have been someone by that name on board (‘There is always a passenger bearing this name on board,’ ‘This is a man called Dante who is not Dante’), though on one occasion his dates, ‘(1265-1321)’, are given in a list which includes persons who really were on the Titanic as well as one born 31 years after the sinking.

The knowing reader is invited to savour puzzles of ‘identity’, while unknowing readers, if unknowing readers still read poems, are invited to be puzzled. It won’t do to take them in completely, an old dilemma for literary hoaxers, especially perhaps those in the travel-story business. The trick is to be sufficiently mystifying to tease and sufficiently demystifying for the tease to be sensed. Otherwise, as Defoe, Swift and others found, the point is missed altogether.

Hence the occasional supply of dates in the poem, or the information, on the fourth of Gordon Pym’s appearances, that he was only Pym’s ghost. Pym, from Poe’s story, offers a fact-fiction tease and also adds a traditional cannibal metaphor to the poem’s theme of man’s inhumanity to man: ‘I have eaten the flesh of man, just like you and like Gordon Pym.’ Cannibal episodes have been proverbial indicators of the tall traveller’s tale ever since the ancient world stopped believing Odysseus’s narrative to Alcinous. The ‘inhumanity’ metaphor, ironically, also goes against what seem to be the zoological facts: cannibalism is apparently more common among humans than among other animals (the traditional saying that man is a wolf to man means man is to man as wolf is to man, not as wolf is to wolf). But life imitated Poe’s art down to some quite remarkable coincidences of circumstance and name in the real-life case of the Mignonette, while the sinking of the Titanic, as W.C. Wade’s The Titanic: End of a Dream[*] most recently pointed out, was anticipated by several stories and poems, including one about an 800-foot liner called the Titan. Enzensberger’s poem turns the tables on all of this by imagining at one point that ‘there was no such a thing [sic] as the sinking of the Titanic’ and that A Night to Remember is now showing in the ship’s cinema.

The poem’s urgencies about impending catastrophe are filtered through layer upon layer of intervening works of art. In one of several ‘digressions’ on paintings, a Brown-ingesque artist working on an ‘Apocalypse’ reflects on the problems of depicting catastrophe: ‘Destroying the world is a difficult exercise.’ Some have found an artistic pleasure in doing it for real, and Nero used art as an adjunct to the pleasure. Bards of Fascism like Marinetti or Céline have sometimes lusted for conflagration, ‘genre de Néron’, similarly aestheticising the experience as an enhancement of destructive delights, though liberal critics writing in their defence sometimes call it ‘distancing’. And it is liberal poets, not the other sort, who distance catastrophe by aestheticising it: preferable any day, humanly speaking, to the Célinian alternative, but overprotected by irony and allusion, in Enzensberger’s case, from the purported anguish and pain.

Paul Celan was also a poet of holocaust (his parents died in an extermination camp, and he eventually killed himself) whose ‘aestheticism’ has been an issue:

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes with leaden bullets his aim is true.

We are told that critics objected to ‘his “aestheticising” of the death camps’ in ‘Death Fugue’, his best-known poem, in which these lines occur. What, one wonders, would they have made of Enzensberger’s Umbrian Master and his ‘Apocalypse’? Later poems by Celan are even less expansive in their painterly sarcasm. The starkness of ‘For a Brother in Asia’, as of ‘I hear that the axe has flowered’, may be set beside the garrulous ecstasies of Marinetti’s ‘fiery orchids of machine guns’ or Céline’s bombs ‘like giant blossoms’.

Celan’s poetry, at least in Michael Hamburger’s superb rendering, has an unluxuriating desolation which is quite extraordinary. To speak of agonised lyricism is for once to mean agonised rather than lyricism. There are poems in what English readers might recognise as the Hughes holocaust-vein, stripped of all crow whimsy: you realise suddenly that holocausts are not for the pleasure of poets. His work comes as close to asserting what Hamburger calls the ‘commonplace’ about ‘the impossibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, let alone about Auschwitz’ as is compatible with writing poems at all. Some poems have a shocking brevity. Celan is given to a somewhat riddling manner, and found Brecht too ‘explicit’. His own ‘inexplicitness’ is not an ornament for the horror but the exact measure of its unspeakability.

Sir Charles Johnston, a distinguished retired diplomat, is probably best-known to readers as the translator of the recently Penguined Eugene Onegin, said to be the best English version of Pushkin’s poem. The title of his new book comes from a review by Clive James in the London Review of Books[†]; of both the Pushkin translation and a subsequent book, Poems and Journeys: ‘He is the faithful servant of Empire, who now emerges ... as its last poet.’ Talk about the Last Poet, Johnston’s response to this, is also the opening of the title-poem of the collection, a work ‘loosely based’ on the Eucharisticus, an autobiographical poem by Paulinus of Pella, a Latin poet from the Greek-speaking East, who was a grandson of Ausonius and administrator of Bordeaux at the time of the fifth-century barbarian invasion of the Western Roman Empire. In a graceful pirouette, Johnston makes Paulinus refer to Ausonius, not himself, as the ‘last poet’, ‘the ultimate in imperial poets’:

(what about me? you ask; oh, I don’t count –
no, I’m no poet, just an eyewitness
reporting the world’s end in flattish idiom).

As in Enzensberger, an Eliotic note is struck, combining Prufrockian self-depreciation and the Hollow Men’s sense of an ending. But the poem is not mannered in the way this might suggest, and its feeling is well-described in Johnston’s own words: ‘Like Paulinus, I register the end of Empire without expressing either joy or regret, without either fashionable gloating, or fashionable nostalgia.’ The resigned and ironic grace of this poem, and some vigorous epigrams from Johnston’s diplomatic days, ‘when Empire still looked solid enough to be mockable’, connect in an unexpected way with his feeling ‘in all humility, very close to Pushkin, who combined a streak of robust, almost jingoistic patriotism with a keen sense for the arrogant ugliness of absolute power’.

The translation of Eugene Onegin suggests a slightly different mix: a benign unforced urbanity, the mark of a civilised unaggressive sensibility which is never soft, though it is sometimes lax as Byron was sometimes lax. Byron informed Pushkin’s work, and Johnston’s through Pushkin as well as directly. If Eugene Onegin derives to some extent from Byron’s Don Juan, The Bronze Horseman’ (included in the present volume) has something of the hallucinatory quality of ‘Mazeppa’. The final section, where the clerk Evgeny imagines himself pursued by the bronze statue of Peter the Great, and flees from this until he dies, has something of the frenetic pace and terror of Mazeppa’s ride through the forest.

After ‘The Bronze Horseman’ comes a poem closely contemporary with it, Lermontov’s ‘The Novice’. This, too, is a poem of visionary experience and unsuccessful escape. The mood, however, is one of melancholy and resignation rather than of frenetic intensity. The escape ends in recapture rather than death. In some ways, its affinities are with Wordsworth rather than Byron: there is even a solitary Georgian Lass, singing.

[*] Weidenfeld, 1979.

[†] Vol. 1, No 5.