Images of Displeasure

Nicholas Spice

  • If not now, when? by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver
    Joseph, 331 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2668 8
  • The Afternoon Sun by David Pryce-Jones
    Weidenfeld, 214 pp, £8.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 297 78822 1
  • August in July by Carlo Gebler
    Hamish Hamilton, 188 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 241 11787 9

Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chairman, was displeased by television coverage of the American attack on Libya. British public opinion had swung so decisively against the raid, he said, because of the pictures people had seen on their television sets. Not pictures of bombed-out military installations, which would have been all right, but pictures of dead and wounded civilians. Pictures, in fact, not unlike those pictures of Mr Tebbit which became emblematic of the Brighton bombing two years ago, and which doubtless did a lot to turn the public against the justice of that assault too.

Like all modern statesmen and propagandists, Mr Tebbit understands the importance of keeping the news figurative, especially in time of war. Provided the cameras can be muzzled, this isn’t difficult, since we are slow to grasp the actuality of other people’s suffering, and quick even to forget our own, once it is past. We are also disposed towards angry fantasy, the projecting upon someone or something outside ourselves of all that is bad in the world and in us. In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil called this process the making of ‘displeasure-images’, and identified it as ‘part of the oldest psychotechnical apparatus mankind possesses’. Together with our tendency to take things figuratively, this is the mechanism which complies with states in the fashioning of enemies (the American imperialist aggressor, Libya, the Soviets, the Argies), larger than life and less than living, for whom no punishment is too dreadful.

‘So it is that the good Christian projects his defects into the good Jew.’ So it was that ‘in the last years before the war’ – the First War – ‘one of the most magnificent and popular means of satisfying this queer need’ for a displeasure-image ‘was Prussian Germany’. Within ten years of the publication of Musil’s words, Jewry and Germany had furnished the world with displeasure-images of monstrous proportions, exploited to justify the near-extermination of a race and the damning of a nation. Forty years later, there are still Germans who will maintain that the Holocaust was an anti-German fabrication. A recent opinion poll in Austria found that only 12 per cent of Austrians would call for the resignation of a politician who made anti-semitic remarks. In Britain children continue to lap up comic strips and TV films portraying the Germans as a nation of monsters.

Oddly enough, the most effective instrument for disabusing us of our displeasure-images, and bringing home to us that things actually do happen, is fiction, because when it is good, it allows us to experience as particular realities that are otherwise theoretical and remote. No one who has watched the war episodes of Heimat, Edgar Reitz’s film chronicle of life in a German village, could honestly continue to explain the rise of Nazism by reference to the categories of British war mythology. Equally, no one could read Primo Levi’s If not now, when? and be in any doubt as to the extent or actuality of the suffering and barbarism for which Germany in those years was primarily, if not solely, responsible.

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