The first interaction between two men recorded in the Bible involves a murder. In the earliest classic of English literature, one of the murderer’s descendants has his arm ripped from its socket by a young warrior who celebrates his gruesome victory by drinking himself blotto; the next day, our hero wakes up (not hungover, apparently) and kills his opponent’s mother.
Not my cup of tea, Beowulf, or, perhaps, yours. But this is what literature was like until the 18th century or so, when the stakes were lowered and people began writing about inheritances, bishoprics and low-key adultery. Ian Buruma is interested in the other, older kind of story because, as he puts it in the introduction to this wonderful collection of his essays, ‘I am fascinated by what makes the human species behave so atrociously.’
Buruma, who studied Chinese literature at a Dutch university before reporting on Japanese politics for a British newspaper and, eventually, settling down at an American college, seems to have been everywhere and read and seen everything. It shows in Theater of Cruelty, which gathers together 28 pieces from the New York Reviewof Books. Few critics could have written with authority, much less with interest, about half of these topics: Harry Kessler’s diaries, the films of Leni Riefenstahl and Werner Herzog and Clint Eastwood, the Nanking massacre, avant-garde sculpture, kamikazes, the Palestinian economy.
Reading through these essays reminded me of why, as a teenager, I liked the NYRB. Why finish school when here was an education in itself, complete with all the clever titbits one could need in a lifetime of highbrow lunches? ‘Re-reading The Trial, eh? You know Alan Bennett wrote a great play about Kafka. Two actually. In his diaries he tells a great story about the time.…’ It also reminded me that a lot of what ends up in the magazine could have done with some trimming. Buruma writes well, though, even when his subject is bizarre, unpleasant or both. Ushio Shinohara’s Mishima-inspired neo-Dadaist canvases from the mid-1950s, for example, aren’t the sort of thing I’d want hanging in my living room. But the man, I want to read about. Shinohara, he says,
would literally attack the canvas in public performances, like a boxer or a sword fighter, or throw balls of paint about. Compared to Shinohara’s ‘boxing art’, the American action painters of the period were rather tame (and usually better painters, too).
The best thing here is Buruma’s account of the theatrical history of Anne Frank’s Diary. The story is too complicated to recount in detail, but it involves, among other things, a disaffected playwright who went so far as to accuse Anne’s father Otto of collaboration, even suggesting that Simon Wiesenthal investigate his conduct at Auschwitz. (Wiesenthal declined.) The idea that this modest, beautiful book could be the occasion for so much viciousness and bad faith is enough to make anyone take a dim view of human nature. Buruma, though, manages a bit of optimism, and praises Otto for his ‘perhaps naive, but nonetheless admirable, wish to put his own grief to a more universal purpose’ by publishing the diary and allowing it to be adapted.
Thank goodness for the lighter fare. Buruma is also excellent on Mike Leigh’s England (‘tiger-skin-patterned wallpaper, dolls of Spanish dancers on beside tables, male hands groping a large bottom wrapped in pink chiffon’), Christopher Hitchens, and David Bowie — whom he recalls seeing in the early 1970s, ‘not yet world-famous, his dyed red hair flopping, dancing away keenly on his long skinny legs’. He lost me only once, in praising Robert Crumb’s disgusting cartoons, which ought to be the province of psychiatrists rather than critics.
Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, likes writing medium-length books about enormous subjects: The Story of Pain, What It Means to Be Human, Fear: A Cultural History, and now Wounding the World, a treatise on the social effects of military violence. Disagreeing with a writer’s premise is always a nasty business, but I can be pretty confident that she won’t kill me. Bourke is a pacifist who believes that war has insinuated itself into every aspect of American and British culture. Her thesis is that our legislatures, presses, schools and churches together form a sinuous continuum with our militaries: old men reading military history and young men killing each other over Xboxes and no one caring that our defence budgets are becoming ever more engorged.
But ‘armed conflicts between nations are not inevitable’, Bourke says. Soldiers should lay down their arms; families of the dead should complain about war films, or at least insist that they be made only by people like Oliver Stone; more songs in the vein of ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Imagine’ should be composed; radical feminists should join forces with Ayn Randians and demand that we cease being two nations of ‘armed philanthropists’. This is not ‘utopian’, she insists, because ‘disobedience and defiance are what it means to be human’, which is true, I suppose, if a bit narrow.
Still, Bourke is a charming writer. I found myself nodding along with her whenever my guard was down. Her research is very wide, and some of her facts and anecdotes are hard to argue with. Using images from Transformers in recruiting posters meant for teenagers does seem to be in very poor taste. Most of us would probably wish to be informed if our employers planned on selling discarded bits of our skin to a defence agency, which the Salisbury Health Care Trust did without the knowledge of its patients from 1995 to 2001. She is also admirably clear-eyed about the sexes, pooh-poohing feminists who pretend that girls are just as likely as boys to take an interest in shoot-’em-up games.
Bernard Shaw, that fountain of sanity, said: ‘If you don’t begin to be a revolutionist at the age of 20 then at 50 you will be an impossible old fossil.’ I like to think that in old age I might do the opposite and become a pacifist and a vegetarian. In fact, drinking gourmet coffee and chatting about nice things with Professor Bourke is what I imagine heaven will be like.
Bourke’s naivety and Buruma’s curious lack of an index notwithstanding, these are two worthwhile, intelligent books about violence; which, I’m afraid, will be with us until the trumpets blow.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
'Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film and the Shadows of War', £15.99 and 'Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War-Play Invade Our Lives', £17 are available from the Spectator Bookshop. Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10