This timely essay, which is also a trenchant exegesis of Henri Michaux’s unfinished poem “The Land of Magic,” witnesses to the fascist forces that subvert reason in the euphemistic “land of magic,” the “land” that was France during the Dreyfus Affair that lasted from 1894 to 1905, as well as the “land” that was France and Germany during World War II. Nurkse asks, “Who knows the anguish of living in a frozen present, in which the context of facts, and the parameters of civic discourse, have been obliterated?” Nurkse’s succinct answer: those who were persecuted by the perpetrators of the “big lie” of their respective fascist eras. This oracular essay, in which Nurkse chronicles the trajectory, as well as the legacy, of “the big lie” of the Dreyfus Affair and Hitler’s Germany, echoes disturbingly today. Nurkse’s implications for those who fail to discern the prophetic irony of Michaux’s poem is that they, too, will freeze “the present” in a stasis of delusion, prevarication, and dehumanization.
A Frozen Present
D. Nurkse on the language of fascism and “The Land of Magic”
The thick white cloud of crazy moths is whirling
around the pale lights and the parapets
spreading a blanket on the earth that snaps
like sugar underfoot…
These are the opening lines of Eugenio Montale’s poem ‘The Hitler Spring,’ composed sometime around 1941, in Jonathan Galassi’s translation. I have a childhood dream-memory of my mother reciting them. My parents met on one of the last boats out of Portugal in 1940 and my youth was riddled with cryptic references to a public nightmare. My mother would tell me about the Big Lie, a lie like a tidal wave, whose sheer velocity you couldn’t counter.
I never got it. Even in translation, Montale’s lines meant nothing to me. Why wasn’t the poet talking about organizing, resistance, guns, strikes? ‘Snaps / like sugar’ – who cares? And the Big Lie – why had anyone fallen for it? My cranky New York 1960s neighbors wouldn’t believe the government if it told you to save money for retirement. I listened indulgently.
Now, at the other end of my life, Montale’s image begins to wriggle alive. Stepping on bugs, killing them accidentally but knowingly – the image is deeply infantilizing. It captures a moment when you might, against your will, identify with a strongman’s power over an atomized population. It channels a profound trivialization of violence, a bogus equivalence. At the same period, Henri Michaux wrote in his poem ‘Ecce Homo,’ men are ‘almost innocent. One lights a cigarette, another lights an oil tanker.’(Translations from Michaux are my own.)
Montale shows you a mad spectacle, the enchantment of the swarm. But suddenly you’re complicit, your footsteps have consequences. Even the ‘sugar’ conveys an insidious, enervating thrill: the saccharine sentimentality that was part of Nazi propaganda? A regression to childhood? Marilyn Hacker captures the addictive adrenaline rush in a recent poem – the ‘sensual frisson’ of ‘dark times’ (‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’).
Rationalists won’t understand the method behind fascist argument. They will tally up contradictions, inconsistencies, blatantly implausible assertions, and smile: no one is that gullible. Next day, they may wake in a post-rational world. Fascist language, like dying, is an art.
The conservative German scholar Ernst Nolte pinpoints its moment of origin to Paris, August 30, 1898. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry has just slashed his wrists in a bowl of water, after confessing his shame. He has been exposed as the forger of classified secret documents incriminating Captain Dreyfus. Henry has brought dishonor on the French army, framed an innocent man.
No one expected this volte-face. The evidence exonerating Dreyfus is ironclad, coming from the heart of the army. Apology and restitution are only the beginning. The moment requires that France examine its Republican mythos – religious tolerance, equality before the law, when were they adulterated? How high does complicity reach in the military and civilian institutions? Why was the general public so willing to believe slander against a Jew?
Progressives hold their heads high, traditionalists are mute. But a third force enters history. Charles Maurras, obscure ideologue of the radical right, waits for the ideal moment in the news cycle and crafts a headline in his sectarian paper: ‘FIRST BLOOD.’ A calculated diatribe on blood sacrifice follows: ‘This blood smokes, and it will cry out until its spilling is avenged…’ It’s a stroke of vicious, mad poetry. Rather than contest the facts, Maurras has appropriated them and eviscerated their context. In Nolte’s words, “…he submitted a reinterpretation of extraordinary scope,” of “far greater and direr significance” than a traditional polemic.
Maurras transposed the controversy to a breathlessly immediate perpetual present. He isn’t asking you to believe anything. He’s trapping you inside an emotional universe: the historic self-sacrifice of soldiers for the sake of civilians who carp about rights and civil liberties; and yes, the sacrifice of Jesus nailed to the cross; and yes, the “first blood” as the blood libel, the legendary medieval sacrifice of children by the Jews.
Maurras has infantilized both the audience pondering the headline, and the dead officer himself, who is now a child offered up on the altar. He destroys the evidentiary sequence. He’s invited you into the eternal Now of betrayal and redemption.
Does anyone believe this bilge? And yet, there’s nothing to believe or disbelieve. You’re in the world Orwell sketched in the phrase “the purpose of the war is not to be won […] it is to be continuous.” You’re just supposed to shiver. Optimally you feel a little tinge of anger at the crucifixion of Christ. But if you feel a paralyzing rage – the urge to punch a nose instantly – or terminal disgust at the course this polemic has taken, that’s fine too. Your legal breakthrough has after all fizzled.
A bonus from the Fascist perspective: it’s virtually impossible to counterattack without going ad hominem, calling Maurras a racist, an anti-Semite, perhaps (one would be tempted) a lunatic. But then you’re the one who has willingly transposed the polemic away from the firm ground of deeds and back to hypothetical personal characteristics, and you’re attacking a French Catholic when your goal is to win them over.
We can name a few of the categories that Maurras creates: for starters, nihilistic authenticity. You appeal to reason, that slim reed, but my touchstones are immutable, blood, guts, mama, the good earth. My followers know I press those buttons like an accordionist. I’m up front in my fraudulence. Folded into that category is public intimacy. Hitler advised his millions of readers to tell the biggest lies imaginable. Those followers felt: our leader hides nothing from us. The critic who refutes such crazy fabulism appears as a literal-minded pedant, and it doesn’t harm the Fascist if the truth is established as the agenda of his enemies: the anti-fascist’s position becomes inauthentic.
I had a taste of totalitarian language while teaching poetry at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, one of the world’s largest jails. On a Monday a guard would wave me in and offer coffee. Tuesday, a guard would send me home. Wednesday, the guard would want me searched. Always the same guard. I smirked at the absurdity, then realized the work that went into creating such chaos. The totalitarian law is ‘because I say so.’ The authorities had to tie themselves in knots never to establish a precedent you could appeal to. There was no history. Everything in jail happened in a frozen present, and in code. “Would you hang up if someone took your peanut butter,” a young inmate asked me, meaning “would you kill yourself if someone raped you?” Solitary confinement was ‘the why-me pen.” You were not supposed to know why you were there. If you did, you were being treated according to a law even your jailers might have to obey. Hannah Arendt claims the first stage of totalitarianism is “the annihilation of the juridical person,” and makes the interesting observation that to do this you need an innocent person.
Who knows the anguish of living in a frozen present, in which the context of facts, and the parameters of civic discourse, have been obliterated?
Henri Michaux’s “The Land of Magic” is a thirty-odd page prose poem with the plot of a road movie or Candide. It was published in Vichy France, under censorship that deleted a caustic reference to Hitler, in 1941, the year in which Montale’s “The Hitler Spring” was being composed. The speaker is a tourist visiting a strange country ruled by magicians (“magi” might be more accurate). Michaux wrote the poem as a registered alien in Le Lavandou, in Vichy France, having left Nazi-occupied Paris. The genre is ostensibly fantasy. I’d like to look at a few of the customs the protagonist encounters. They tend to be deliriously pragmatic and savage, paradigms of the experience of living under Fascism. One of the most telling is “the removal of the horizon.”
When people told me about the removed horizon, about magicians who
could take away your horizon and nothing else, leaving everything else
visible, I thought it was an expression, a purely verbal joke. One day in my
presence a magician removed the horizon all around me […] The sudden
suppression of the horizon (I was close to the sea whose immense expanse I
had enjoyed a second earlier, and the sands of the beach) caused me such
anguish that I couldn’t take a step. Immediately I admitted to him that I was
convinced, and everything, everything…
Convinced of what? Why the confession? As with Maurras, no real proposition has been advanced – the magician’s goal was to confound, to humiliate, to decontextualize. Michaux enacts the infantilization of the process. The speaker’s vague repeated babbling syntax occurs nowhere else in the poem. He has no idea what he’s agreeing to. Authority has manifested itself in a way that’s at once stunningly personal and stunningly impersonal. ‘What’s most interesting in that country can’t be seen.’ The magicians, expert classifiers, have invented seven types of fog (not counting naturally occurring varieties). “The fog would be enough to drive you mad. That total absence of landmarks […] you see a leaf, a paw, a snout, but there’s no way to identify the shrub or the animal.” Hannah Arendt speaks of civilians under totalitarianism no longer able to believe in their own experience.
Michaux foresees an age when the media insinuate themselves into your environment and become a force in themselves, over-communicating, robbing you of interiority. The great cities of the Land of Magic are unlivable. “I heard nothing but recriminations.” ‘Someone tried to phone you. Someone is trying to reach you on the telephone (or should I say: telecommunicate?). They called you back. What does it mean? Why haven’t you answered?’ Endless messages appear, addressed to the narrator, on random walls, “all in capitals, underlined three times” and the magicians don’t tolerate it if he doesn’t keep abreast of them, can’t follow them, fails to understand. “So nauseating!” the narrator says, turning his anger against himself. “I left for the countryside, ashamed, envious, mean-spirited.”
A “wrongdoer” (‘criminal’ might imply too balanced a legal system) has his face magically removed. He disappears from the poem, which notes that his blood forms a blob left out for all to see. The punished self must vanish, but the evidence of the application of power must dominate public space. “In the center of an absolutely empty stadium” a suspect is interrogated. A question echoes endlessly until the detainee confesses. You think of Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his Guantanamo Diaries describing year-long interrogations consisting of a few repeated questions excerpted from his emails, that bore even the interrogator to the edge of madness. Again, Michaux is dramatizing the systematic destruction of context, sequence, all the elements of narrative.
“The Land of Magic” is not hospitable to the angst of the relativist, the snowflake: “most people, as far as anyone can tell, spend the bulk of their time gnawing at their own double. In the Land of Magic, that’s not authorized. They’re in for severe punishment. Let them reform themselves immediately.”
The leitmotif of this strangely familiar country is the enforced purity of the tribe. Immigration is taboo. The coasts are guarded by “a belt of buoys.” Each contains a dead body “to warn of the approach of strangers.” Michaux captures the totalitarian world of mad instrumentality. Whose dead bodies are these? Is this just a gratuitous display of violence – even the dead can be enrolled in the ruling project? A project in which power can’t help but manifest itself constantly, in every detail? A mystified parody of a defense strategy? Or a perverted modern twist on an archaic tribal ritual (the idea belongs to the poet Marc Kaminsky) – the sacrifice of a virgin in the process of building a bridge or monument?
When poor neighbors, the Hassais, wish to visit, the magicians repel them with cultivated drone-waves that unfurl perfectly naturally before pouncing on their victims. This is the ‘who-me’ side of totalitarianism: a power great enough to abolish all traces of its agency, but narcissistic enough to make sure you know who decreed your undoing.
Endless variations on climate warfare – the drone-waves, the artificial storms and fires – suggest a world being consumed by its virtual double. Perhaps Michaux dreamed his way into the mind of John von Neumann, the genius of the nuclear arms race, who ten years later would be writing about the advantages of manipulating weather to destroy your enemies.
Michaux points out that the terror of the fake waves is compounded by the expectation of sea monsters or dragons. But in fact the magic of this realm tends towards the banal, the technological, even on a metaphysical level. The heartland is defended by a thought dam: only the meditations of a few Hindu and Muslim mystics, the visions of a few Christian saints, and the last thoughts of a handful of the dying, have enough momentum to get past it.
The “stomach province” literally digests immigrants who are “apparently not actually invaders, just tribal people from the mountains.” As they dissolve, their acrid sweat attracts the acidic juices of the intestine heartland. Immigrants asked to assimilate or go home may find this passage intriguing.
Science-fiction images in this text are ruthlessly pragmatic. Beef is cloned from the organs of the calf. Apples, figs, the white meat of chickens, are grown in labs. Apple trees and fig trees are finished “except as ornaments for instructional purposes, for the spontaneity of nature” – a bitter line that makes the reader think of farms where workers go broke on land whose value is determined by speculators.
There’s a moment of snark – perhaps a middle finger to Heidegger – in Michaux’s observation that these disembodied pseudo-populist technocrats characterize themselves as a Civilization of the Soil: “It’s an old custom to suck on the earth as on a teat before speaking. What you might lose in fluency you gain in deliberation, in humility, in a je ne sais quoi at once grandiose and apposite.”
Hannah Arendt speaks of the inventiveness of the Vichy bureaucracy when it comes to creating categories and hierarchies, rivalling even their Nazi masters, whose most familiar emblems include the yellow star and the pink triangle. In the Land of Magic, “a costume has been designed for those who wish to pronounce the letter R. They also have a costume for pronouncing the letter Vstts.”
There is always rigidity, ossification; the poem offers a torque in time. The rulers can stop water from flowing, let it stand on a table in the shape of the jar that held it. The hand of a thief will magically turn to stone. The present doesn’t change; a crowd in the public square, screaming at unheard-of news, is a hold-over from many years back.
As identity determined by externals hardens to a carapace, personal identity becomes labile. “Even important people, public personalities, have asked me in moments of sincerity, unmasking their fear – “is it really me? Do you see anything… anything strange in me?” so afraid are they of being possessed by another or ordered about like mannequins by their stronger colleagues.”
The magician’s hunting techniques also rely on “branding,” on stigmatization, and illuminate the fascist obsession with defacing cemeteries. The magician’s practice is to “wound the collective soul of lions,” which is accomplished by defilement. “By secret ways, they gain ascendancy over the spirits of dead lions” where they wait to be reborn, humiliating and degrading them until they are found “rummaging in domestic garbage dump.” A cameo describes a young hunter who identifies with the lion devouring him, and reproaches rescuers for preventing the lion from eating a fool. An observer of twentieth-century politics may recognize the dynamic.
The reader will note a discrepancy between those latter two incidents involving lions, and there are in fact inconsistencies and overlaps throughout the text. Perhaps they are not a flaw. They reinforce its eerie, deadpan voice, its exploration of inauthenticity. The text itself has no horizon, no north, no south, like Instagram or a campaign promise. When the speaker is castrated while bathing, towards the end of the poem, the crime is buried inside a paragraph, never mentioned again, and the perpetrator is an abstract pronoun. The poem can barely contain the silence it generates. Violence abolishes past and future. “I came out of the river,” the narrator says, “as if I had never been a man.”
Michaux’s protagonist is in fact passive to the point of zombification. We aren’t in the world Brecht tried so hard to conjure into being in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. “The Land of Magic” is profoundly vulnerable to the blatant fascination of evil. Perhaps the poet feels that’s the only way to be true to his times. George Seferis in his journals quotes Michaux’s view that the writer’s job is to unmask malice, not thwart it.
Yet in the year that follows – the year of Montale’s “The Hitler Spring” – Michaux will be closer to Resistance writers, though he will never lose his distrust of rhetoric or adhesion. In “La Marche dans le Tunnel,” published in 1943, the spectator stance will be gone, and there will be no mediation when the poet speaks openly of the camps and anti-Semitism. There’s a certain aesthetic loss perhaps, a sacrifice of doubleness, but the authorial voice is no longer encoding itself.
The monumental latter poem will remain unfinished, perhaps because there can be no adequate form for its content: “hatred had the look of hygiene […] the world was all flag.” “Everything is Tribe! Tribe!” “They have sewn our brothers into the skins of pigs.” There’s a haunting simultaneity of shattering events and stasis. The poem evokes a great wave always about to rise. The blockage of time can be achingly literal: “the year was a wall […].”
The shift from the rapt irony of “The Land of Magic” to a more direct address may be of interest to poets in America and Europe in the days to come.