Thin Ice of Civilisation



Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built… The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.


                      (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Rebecca West 1942)


In 1900 the German scientist Max Planck announced the Quantum Theory, stating that light rays, X-rays and other rays were not emitted at an arbritary rate from a body. Instead atoms absorbed and emitted radiation in tiny, discrete packets known as quanta. This was the beginning of a long series of investigations that brought about the steady subversion of reality. The ghostly microworld of the electron, in which there are points of departure and arrival but no connecting route, proved a source of fascination and perplexity. Physicists, exploring these systems, concluded that human life appeared asymmetric or going in one direction only, from present to future. Disconcertingly, some scientist were to posit a ‘block universe’ whose initial Big Bang expands then re-contracts into a Big Crunch.

This induces a state of affairs like the Day of Judgement and would have made a suitably lurid backcloth for one of Thomas Muntzer’s or John of Leyden’s apocalyptic sermons. For history will start to wind backwards as radiation converges on stars; apples compose themselves on compost heaps and spring back into trees; humans step out of graves, pink flesh forming on their rotting skeletons, and grow into adolescents and toddlers.

 What intrigued scientists disconcerted others. Although the microworld composes us, few people feel they actually live in it, preferring to perceive wives or friends as solid forms rather than collusions of waves or particles. Many of us cannot even imagine the sun as flaming ball of gas or the moon as a chunk of rock. Amid the hecticity of existence, we perceive the celestial bodies as phenomena that calm and reassure. Every morning the sun rises to warm our day; the moon comes out at night to soothe our dreams. In a turbulent and ever-changing world, these Newtonian certainties provide a crumb of confort.


Dancing Sun

However, anyone present at the strange event that took place at the Cova da Iria, a natural amphitheatre at Fatima, Portugal, during the summer of 1917, might have to review fixed ideas concerning the orderliness of solar behaviour. For what was seen – or thought to have been seen – had all the eeriness and unpredictability of the subatomic realm, all the qualities of the medieval millennial cults discussed earlier, for it channelled celestial sensation and divine transmission.

Two years previously, four children had been tending  sheep in the vicinity when they saw a white figure hovering in the air.  It had no feet or hands and was “like someone wrapped in a sheet.” The same four children saw this apparition twice again during the course of that summer. Later the ghostly form was identified as the Blessed Virgin who promised to appear to the children and communicate a vital message to mankind at the time and date specified. News of these visions spread. The children’s parents and the community became vociferously involved. After heated debate, the children were questioned by the religious authorities and kept in confinement for lying. But popular outcry procured their release and, on 13 October 1917, they went to their regular place to perform their devotions. By now the affair had become a matter of national standing - an estimated crowd of 70,000 had gathered in hope of seeing a miracle.

The weather was dull, dark and rainy and the children, accompanied by their parents, had to push through a mass of umbrellas to reach the holm-oak where the Lady was scheduled to appear.  They knelt and prayed and passed into a trance. The Virgin appeared to them (unseen by others) and told them that, “Men must correct their faults and ask pardon for their sins, in order that they no longer offend our Lord, who is already much offended.”  Then she wished the children goodbye and left.

So far, this account has been subjective, limited to the children's interior perceptions.  But at this point, something different began to happen - something witnessed by the thousands assembled which has been described as a solar miracle, a heavenly sign, a dire warning. No commentator can be certain of what it was, but to summarise the various eye-witness reports, the sun described a series of circles in the sky or ‘danced’. One of witness - a scientist from Colombra University – reported:

“The sun's disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl.  Then, suddenly, one heard a clamour, a cry of anguish breaking from all the people.  The sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible.”

Was it terrible? Was the sun dancing or was it purely a mental construct? When the brain ‘assembles’ reality out of millions of tiny electrical impulses, there is always a strong subjective component that is dictated by the emotional configuration of the percipient. Hence some classify Fatima as mass hallucination, others as religious revelation. At all events, the crowd’s heightened state of awareness may have ‘fabulised’ the commonplace, for some present claimed they saw nothing unusual.


Angel of Mons

Spanish Catholics who witnessed the ‘miracle’ at Fatima had less need for hovering angels or intervention through a supernatural agency than the British troops on the western front. The squaddies’ patron was St George - traditionally his spectral presence had appeared at testing moments on the battlefield. At Antioch in 1098, a heavenly army was reported to have rescued a band of crusaders from engulfing hordes of Saracens; the host included the saints George, Demetrius and Mercury, who, with a fluttering of banners and crunching of hooves, charged down the hillside and revived the Christians' flagging morale.

Nearly a thousand years later, The London Evening News featured a story by Arthur Machen entitled The Bowmen which has become part of the ‘mythos’ of the First World War, telling how the English army, under harrowing conditions and in the face of heavy odds, was rescued by the bowmen of Agincourt who miraculously appear and dispatch with their arrows ten thousand German soldiers.

The Bowmen was a success and reprinted several times.  To the intensely nationalistic fantasy, Machen later added an introduction wherein he surmised that his story had inspired the crop of reports of the "angel" seen at Mons.  He was surprised when another author, Howard Begbie, produced a book 'On the Side of the Angels' which criticised Machen for his "amazing effrontery", pointing out that an extraordinary range of visions - angels, knights, saints, bowmen and ghostly riders - had been seen before Machen devised his tale; he had merely picked up an actual event out of the air. 

The “angel” version of the story first appeared in a church newspaper, May 1915.  According to the testimony of an army officer, while his company was retreating and the German cavalry about to cut them down, they turned to face the enemy, "expecting nothing but instant death when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels..."  The heavenly hosts halted the advance of the Germans and allowed the British time to reach their fort.

“If an angel appeared to Abraham under an oak,” commented Norman Douglas in Late Harvest, “there is obviously no reason why an angel should not appear unto Lance-Corporal Richard Snooks, of the 69th Punjab Pushers, somewhere in France. But it surely does not resound to the credit of our troops - in fact, it is a distinctly ignominious confession to make - that the battle of Mons might have been lost but for the intervention of…a handful of angels, armed with bows and arrows…to supplement the efforts of the English soldiers utilising all the most modern appliances of artillery.”

Twenty years after the incident at Mons, another example of mob hysteria took place when Orson Welles adapted for radio H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. The drama was first broadcast on Halloween in 1938 at a time when the world was in a state of political unease. Hitler had invaded Austria and the Japanese were marching on China. This may account for the sensational impact the play achieved. It was cunningly presented as a series of bulletins and interviews - these became increasingly hysterical as the depredations of the Martians spread and intensified throughout the USA. Hundreds of thousands of listeners, who had not heard the introductory disclaimer, were thrown into an appalling panic.  Residents of New Jersey fled their homes and made for the hills; there were reports of suicides; telephones lines and highways were blocked for hours; and people ran screaming through the streets. Naturally Orson Welles quickly established a ‘reputation’ as a producer.


‘Dark Dove with Flickering Tongue’

The War of the Worlds was transformed into actuality less than a year later. Germany had invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany. After the opening moves, in which motorised Panzer divisions mowed down Polish cavalry, destroyed railway communication and demolished an airforce, surrender came swiftly and the German offensive heightened with attacks on Holland, Belgium and France. 

When Nazi bombers began patrolling the sky, pounding British cities, an awareness came into being of the distant enemy, the faceless man huddled in a cockpit who wreaks appalling damage yet never meets his victims face to face. “As I write,” George Orwell opened one of his essays, “highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

          The raids of were intended to terrify and break the spirit, as surely as the Allied reprisals that devastated the Ruhr, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden. By undermining civilian morale and replacing historic squares and avenues with cratered moonscapes, they spread a web of tension and unease over the land.

          The raids made doodles in the sky, weird loops and aerial tracks, abstract, fascinating, yet remote from the destruction they signalled. At night the buildings of London were transformed into lunar palaces of ivory and bone. During the blitz the atmosphere was electrifying, almost surreal in its blend of appalling destructiveness and pyrotechnic vitality. William Sansom recalled the darkness shrivelling back “in the yellow flash of gunfire, in the whitish-green hiss of incendiaries, in the copper-red reflection of the fires, in the yellow flare of the burning gas main, in the red explosion of the bomb… These were the lights – but there were also dark streets, where suddenly a house of blackness collapsed with a roar, shifting down heavily like some bricked elephant lumbering to its knees, thickening the darkness with poisonous clouds of dust, shrouding the moment after its fall with a fearful empty silence, broken only by small sounds, the whispering of broken water pipes, slight shiftings of debris, moans and little cries of the injured…”

Hordes of terrified, fleeing cats shrieked and leapt among the smouldering debris, trying to seek shelter underneath the rubble, trying to recover a lair that had been irretrievably lost. Walls would crash like stage scenery, exposing the innards and plumbing arrangements, a structural anatomy lesson. People’s privates lives and intimate belongings were thrown open like a peepshow:


They say that women, in a bombing-raid,

Retire to sleep in brand-new underwear

Lest they be tumbled out of door, displayed

In shabby garment to the public stare.


You’ve often seen a house, sliced like a cheese,

Displaying its poor secrets – peeling walls

And warping cupboards. Of such tragedies

It is the petty scale that most appals.


But it was the Allies rather than the Germans who were responsible for the greatest explosion of all. Ironically the event was received in the vibrant way that liberals had once greeted the storming of the Bastille. “This is the greatest thing in history,” announced President Truman after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb, made from uranium-235, was called ‘Little Boy’ and was conveyed by a B-29 Superfortress bomber called Enola Gay. Deposited from the height of 31,000 feet, it killed some 80,000 people in the initial fireball and blast-wave. On 9 August a second bomb – a plutonium A-bomb – fell on Nagasaki, killing around the same number. Within five years, half a million people had died of radiation burns and the accompanying sickness. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender the day after the second bomb. Truman told an audience at Columbia University that deploying the atom bomb had been no “great problem” because it had achieved peace in the long run.

          To the people who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ferocity and instantaneousness of the blasts had appalling consequences. In the duration of a flash their cities had been reduced to ashes, bricks, powder. Those surviving had little sense of identity or orientation. The context of their being had been violated. Locked in a zombie twilight, like lost souls in Dante’s Inferno, they copied the rhythm of movement but could not configure the reality that had betrayed them. “When asked whence they had come,” reported M. Hachiya in Hiroshima Diary (1955), “they pointed to the city and said ‘that way’; and when asked where they were going, they pointed away from the city and said ‘this way’. They were so broken and confused they moved and behaved like automatons. Their reaction had astonished outsiders who…could not grasp the fact that they were witnessing the exodus of a people who walked in the realm of dream… A spiritless people had forsaken a destroyed city.”

          If the effects were catastrophic and sickening, to the detached onlooker the actual spectacle of the blast was thrilling to look upon.  “The lighting effects beggared description,” reported Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, on the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, 16 July 1945. “The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, grey and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was the beauty the great poets dream about…”



Behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the awesome toll of the death camps, public executions and massacres, the millions who died from enforced starvation and epidemics, loom two pre-eminent dictators, Hitler and Stalin, beside whose exploits the depredations of Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible seem relatively mild

In a memorable passage, C.G. Jung talked about the archetypes or atavistic images that shape human behaviour. He compared them to river beds or old water course in which deep gullies have been cut. They are the pre-ordained routes of nations, shaped by passions that control and direct the collective. Sometimes they dry up, are left abandoned, but when the energies of the nation-state are aroused or thwarted, the pressure builds and finally locates these ancient channels. Obstacles are smashed aside as the flood rolls forward. The individual is a mere branch, a leaf, drawn along by the unstoppable, seething mass.

          The analogy was used in Jung’s essay Wotan (1936) in which he tried to dignify the Nazis in terms of fire, festival and comradeship, but Adolf Hitler was more cynically aware of the turbid unconscious forces he was arousing. “All great movements,” he noted in Mein Kampf, “are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses.”

One imagines that men like Hitler and Stalin generate nightmares in others rather than reel and sweat before self-induced phantasms. But this is not so - for power, to a great extent, is illusory and time can bring about dramatic reversals. One moment Mussolini is the bellowing Duce; a year later, mutilated and hung up by his heels alongside his mistress, he is a drab sack of flesh and bone. Any dictator possessed of cunning and ruthlessness knows his power is a form of leasehold. In a world of shadows and shifting allegiances, there need only arise another as ruthless and devious as he.

So being a tyrant does not preclude a nervous disposition. If anything, one has to be additionally aware, for the greater the toll of victims, the greater the harvest of vengeance and reprisal. Hence a dictator often finds himself extending the circle of killing, for the only way to preserve himself is either to eliminate all living resistance or generate so much terror that nobody dare oppose him.

Even so, in still of the of the night, clad in pyjamas and a suit of skin, the dictator may feel unprotected. Is there such a thing as a proper ally or friend when so many fear one? Even the friends one has are only friends because they dare not be enemies. And yet a dictator must sleep after a day of torrential oratory and official receptions. The euphoric force of Hitler’s speechmaking would not have been possible without a concomitant exhaustion - when all that frothing invective cooled to room temperature and silence gathered around a small baggy-suited man with a neat moustache and weak, soulful eyes.

Hermann Rauschning, quoting a close contact, wrote of the times Hitler would awake in the night, screaming and in convulsions: “He calls for help, and appears to be half-paralysed. He is seized with panic that makes him tremble until the bed shakes. He utters confused and unintelligible sounds, gasping, as if on the point of suffocation.” During one such fit, he was seen standing in his room, swaying and crying out, “It’s he, it’s he, he’s come for me!” Perspiring and white-lipped, he let out a string of meaningless sounds, gibbered scraps of sentences and relapsed into silence. He was given a drink and suddenly screamed: “There! There! Over in the corner! He is there!”

In old age, Stalin, too, was prey to phobias and dreads. Ever-suspicious and fearful of betrayal, his mood darkened after his seventieth birthday. Chain-smoking, doodling wolves on scraps of paper, oppressed by paranoias and delusions, he would travel on his private train protected by a vast entourage – guards were posted every 100 yards along the track. An insomniac, he demanded his cronies kept him company throughout the night. Nikita Khrushchev confessed how he came to dread these regular summonses. Not only were they required to watch Westerns with Stalin and appear suitably entertained, they had to consume immense dinners and drink throughout the small hours  – in fact, Beria ordered that he be served coloured water until Stalin discovered his ploy.

As a milder form of sadism, the dictator might exert comic humiliations on his guests. “Once Stalin made me dance the Gopak, squat down on my haunches and kick out my heels,” Kruschchev recalled. When Stalin orders one to dance, one dances – or later trips a measure before a firing squad! Finally, after a three-day orgy of drinking, smoking and eating, he died of a massive stroke. During the course of that long expiry, Beria poured scorn and contempt on his old master, but whenever there was a stirring of the eye or limb, or a minute sign of recovery, he would shrivel and become the craven, humble servant again. Stalin took three and a half days to expire and a period of national mourning was declared.

That was Stalin in decline. His mind had blurred - not even the cynical pleasure derived from execution of others roused him from depression. Just as Caliban did not care to see his face in a mirror, Stalin, who once had thought of becoming an Orthodox priest, did not care to see Hamlet performed in Russia. It was not a banned play – but putting it on might incur a dangerous disapproval. With its nest of fetid conspiracies and poisoned rapiers, the court of Elsinore might strike eerily concordant chimes to those living in his regime.

Hamlet fascinated the Russians because it posed the question: Knowing all this, what is to be done? Its deals at inordinate length with procrastination and doubts – quandaries dear to the Russian soul. The great Russian director Meyerhold longed to stage Hamlet but Stalin had his theatre closed down in 1938. Two years later, the ‘raven’ called, and Meyerhold’s beautiful wife, Zinaida, was stabbed through the body seventeen times and then knifed in the eyes, while he was kicked, maimed and forced to drink his own urine. Afterwards the head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, moved his 16-year old mistress into the empty Meyerhold flat.

Stalin himself had a talent for dark comedy. In exploiting fear to the utmost, he sometimes touched a nerve of insane ebullience. He would look over his ‘lists’ of people that caused a vague disquiet in his imagination, check a name, savour it, stand poised with his nib above the paper, remarking to his malevolent dwarf-henchman, Yezhov, who was later to be dispatched by his master - “No, we won’t touch the wife of Mayakovsky.” He hovered his nib over the poet, Boris Pasternak, paused and pronounced benignly, “Let this cloud-dweller be.” Reassuringly he told the historian Yuri Steklov that he was safe, patting him on the back, only a few hours before the ‘raven’ came for him in the night.

In his biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, D. M. Thomas tells us how once Stalin called the head of the music bureaucracy, saying how he “greatly enjoyed” the broadcast of Yudina, the celebrated pianist, playing the Mozart Concerto No. 23 – might he have a recording? Unfortunately no copy had been made. Shaking, the producer summoned the pianist, orchestra and conductor, herded them into a recording studio and, knees knocking, ordered them to play the piece. The first conductor collapsed out of sheer terror; his replacement turned out to be equally petrified, and a third conductor had to be called to complete the performance. Only Yudina herself remained equable and unperturbed. The recording was completed and a single copy rushed off to the dictator.

Shortly after, Yudina received a gift from Stalin of twenty thousand roubles. She replied with a brief note: “I thank you Josif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive you your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

Stalin had killed men for cracking jokes at inopportune moments, for tiny suspicious actions, for showing the minutest stirrings of individuality, and here was this outspoken female donating his gift to a church and offering prayers for his soul. Thomas commented: “Surprisingly nothing bad happened to Yudina. Stalin may have thought she acted so crazily she must be a holy fool, and therefore to be left well alone. He was also capable of admiring courage. Let her go on playing for him, praying for him.”


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