The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Came across this while flicking through Claude and Madeleine by Edward Marriott:

'The pace of the German invasion [of France] rendered it mythical. "Reality was so strange," recalled the novelist Jean Dutourd, "that it became almost indistiguishable from fiction."'

Leaving aside the question of how the German invasion became mythical quite so quickly - does he mean fantastic? (I recently saw a blurb for a book which said it had been "ripped from oblivion", oblivion being apparently rather less absolute than it used to be. Enough) - this chimed with something Leonardo Sciascia wrote about the Moro affair. I can't find the quote, but it's something along very similar lines - either that the role of the writer had been usurped by reality, or that the drama had already been realised once in fiction and was now being repeated. Either way, a sense of things being misaligned, disjointed, unreal.

I felt like this on seeing the original version of The Manchurian Candidate a couple of years ago. It's a very, very queasy feeling, watching it and knowing that Kennedy would be shot the year after its release. What on earth had the filmakers tapped into? What was in the air?


The Moro Affair is a tricky read and seems to obscure as much as it makes clear - but then the real events seem to have been rather like that, too. Fortunately Sciascia's report to the Italian Parliament (he was a Deputy at that point) is reprinted at the end of the book, and is written more simply. The introduction, by Neil Belton, includes this:

'When the Red Brigades seized Moro and killed his five bodyguards, their continued existence was a surprise to most Italians. In 1976, they seemed to have been mopped up by the police. The mysteriously renewed efficiency of this ultra-left band gives Sciascia pause for thought. In Italy nothing works, yet "the Red Brigades function to perfection". In this respect, they are like the Mafia, about which Sciascia knew a lot. He suggests that the real function of the Red Brigades, mad as they are, might be to shift power around the places where it already resides. (He had already explored this theme in his novel Equal Danger, published in 1971.)'

As with much of Sciascia, I read this line about shifting power around the places where it already resides, admire the beauty of the phrase and nod sagely while stroking my non-existent goatee, and then common sense or native stupidity (a useful quality) kicks in and I think, but what does it mean? Why? For whose benefit? Equal Danger is elegant but confusing, frustrating, and impossible to solve - it's more an exploration of a theme, or a condition, rather than a mystery which procedes rationally and logically to a tidy conclusion.

Nevertheless, I remember when the Uffizi was bombed in 1993 there was a similar sense in the new reports of an absence of rationale. Fingers were pointed and blame apportioned, but without much conviction. One thing was certain: everything was abruptly less certain. The bombing seemed to be unattached, to have come out of nowhere, for no reason.

One is tempted to set the monkey mind to work constructing elaborate theories, but I think it's best to proceed slowly from fundamentals and demand a high level of evidential support, sources quoted, credentials established and so forth. If not, one finds oneself turning into David Icke or, worse, Oliver Stone.

However, one of those fundamentals is that when people are fearful, those in power become more powerful. Ain't that familiar? The really horrible thought is that it was as true in 1933, when the Reichstag burned down, as it is now.


At 9 April 2006 at 20:17 , Blogger Joe said...

Perhaps it doesn't mean anything truly concrete but expresses a more nebulous notion, one of those instances where you kind of understand what the writer means but only tenously. Humans tend to require a solid, almost-narrative based explanation of cause and events, which may be why some events are difficult to explain in book or in the press, because there may be no simple, rational reason for it or narrative to be applied. Of course, that is even scarier than the event.

As for the mythologising of the French Blitzkrieg, as Guderian and others taught the French and British that this wasn't WWI anymore, I think it was mythologised so quickly for several reasons. To begin with, in a time of severe stress such as war events and emotions become more compressed. Also given the preceding phoney war (or Sitzkrieg as it was sometimes dubbed)the sudden shock of the rapid, mobile form of modern warfare must have been even more of a surprise.

I imagine there is also a desperate need on the individual and national level for some way of explaining such events, hence the huge French army being so rapidly defeated had to have some form of larger than life explanation. A similar rapid mythologising of events follows right on from the Fall of France in the way the British adopted the heroic defeat of Dunkirk and the 'little boats'. I'm sure Mr Barthes would have something far cleverer (and wordier) to say on the subject.

At 9 April 2006 at 23:55 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

But would we understand it?

Fair do's on yr 2nd and 3rd paras, and the 2nd half of your 1st para relates nicely to Sciascia, Moro and my memory of the reportage on the Uffizi bombing.

But the 1st half of your 1st para (Rumsfeld has nothing on me) is, to me, another way of saying "sloppy writing". I take on board the notion that all language is suggestive rather than absolute - metaphor, not statement, to quote Garner yet again - but that to me is an incentive to be more careful about how it's used.

In the light of your comment I've re-read that first sentence by Marriott several times, trying to see if the fault is in my reading or his writing, and I still think he should have qualified it: "gave it a mythical aspect", "as if it was drawn from myth", or "had a mythic force about it" I'd have been able to go along with, but "rendered it mythical" seems just too cocksure. I think I see what he's trying to say, which is what you allude to in paras #2 and #3. But the way he's written it, it suggests that the invasion of France became mythical not quickly, but immediately, while it was going on, which is drivel even if we decide not to apply a strict dictionary-derived definition of "mythical".

Today we shall be alliterating, mostly.

PS " a time of severe stress such as war events and emotions become more compressed" - and therefore people are much more likely to draw on fundamental paradigms in order to deal with those events and emotions, such as are found in myth, yep, yep, with you. Also, all of a sudden you're dealing with life and death, good and evil, crime and justice, and so on, all the stuff of myth (and Greek tragedy).

At 17 April 2006 at 14:45 , Blogger Yvonne said...

The bit about "shifting power around the places where it already resides" reminded me of Michel Foucault - the idea that power is almost like a substance, an underground river, or a commodity - and who else would you trade that commodity with than other members of the elite? It also reminds me of a short story by Will Self, called I think "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" which suggests that there's only so much madness in the world, so when you repress it in one section of the population, it pops up again in another.

Unless someone unpacks what they mean by "myth" and "mythical" it can be very difficult to pin down. It would be interesting to know how quickly the myth emerged of plucky little Blighty resisting the might of the Hun all alone in the night.

At 18 April 2006 at 21:30 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

That's a very interesting notion, and a good point. You certainly wouldn't want to spread it around too much, or extend it to the plebs, for fear it would become less, um, potent.

"Mythical" certainly seems as if it's acquired more popular interpretations than dictionary definitions - though perhaps that's true of most words. You were right to insist on the distinction between "mythical" and "mythological", which my lazy eye had missed.

One might gain an idea of the rapid emergence, creation and use of contemporary "myth" during WWII by examining the films and accounts of film-making of the time (films rather than books, I think - they're more direct, and appeal, in general, to the gut rather than the head), "In Which We Serve" being an example.

Incidentally, I saw a C4 programme a while back on how Mountbatten had deliberately encouraged this use of his experiences in order to help cover up his incompetence, a pattern which the makers claimed would be repeated throughout his life.


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