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High on Guilt

Aden, Arabie

by Paul Nizan, with a Foreword by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Joan Pinkham
Monthly Review Press, 159 pp., $6.00

Confessions of a Disloyal European

by Jan Myrdal
Pantheon, 201 pp., $4.95

One of the Germans who was there talked about the Evangelical scenes which took place at the London School of Economics in June, when student revolutionaries from the continent burst into the place and set up court. The British students milled around and asked what they must do to be saved. Some wanted action, wanted to storm a newspaper building, quoted Che on the revolutionary’s duty to make revolution. Others said plaintively that there was nothing to revolt against. “There was this nice guy who got up and said that in English society it all went so smoothly and there was no police provocation and not much fascist behavior and liberalism sort of worked, and you know he was more or less crying, and said: ‘I must have an answer: what shall we do?’ ”

The Berliners—especially—gave them an answer. They told the English students to go away and study, to read Marx and Luxemburg, to do their homework on their own society and their own universities until they had understood in what monstrous wise learning was being enslaved by being made instrumental, by enforced isolation in the ivory tower. When they had understood that there was a link between the Professor buried in Latin literature and the Vietnam war, then their organizations would begin to form on the basis of a common analysis. Then, as a third stage, they would be able to apply this analysis instantly to “actual problems as they arise. As we did when we marched on the Axel-Springer-Haus the night Rudi Dutschke was shot. After months and years of study and agitation and enlightenment, everybody was able at once to draw the same conclusion from the shooting and to act.”

Thus the Berliners—Nestors among the student rebels of Europe—sagely indicate the path of salvation between emotional extremes. There should be no incoherent self-pity because one cannot act: perhaps, on a closer look, one can, and if not one should stop whining. Nor should there be frenetic action for the sake of action (merely the other side of the coin). No extravagance. No auto-intoxication on guilt. No heroes. Don’t mourn for me, boys—the prostrate Dutschke might have muttered—analyze!

These two books of young rebellion are a far cry from that austerity. They are short but profuse. They both smell like subjective therapy products: Nizan (about twenty-one when he wrote Aden, Arabie) must have felt that he had got a weight off his mind and onto the minds of the bourgeoisie. Jan Myrdal may have hoped for some absolution. This is only relevant because it is often obtrusive. Both books, but especially Nizan’s, are under-cooked, unpruned, and self-indulgent.

AFTER NIZAN had written this book, he spent twelve years in the French Communist Party. He departed in anger, in 1939, to be killed a year later by a stray bullet at Dunkirk where he was working as a liaison officer and interpreter with the British. The Party spent much time and energy trying to bury Nizan’s talents and character under a dungheap of abuse, from which they are only now beginning to emerge. This helps to explain the exuberant fondness of Sartre’s Preface to this edition of Aden, Arabie, republished some eight years ago in France. The Preface, all of forty-six pages long, is not one of Sartre’s better essays. There is much rhapsodizing over the various violences of youth, a subject on which both Sartre and Mlle. de Beauvoir become increasingly misty-eyed as time goes by. More interesting are the main sections on Nizan himself, based largely on Sartre’s surmise that the character of Antoine Bloyé (central figure in the novel of that name) is Nizan’s father. This father had been a railroad worker and then became an engineer, a bourgeois. A solitude, a gathering fear of death drove him to rise from his bed and set out on long night walks in the streets. “Marxism revealed to him his father’s secret: Antoine Bloyé’s solitude came from his betrayal.”

This fear of betrayal, by surrender to the bourgeoisie, is identified by Sartre as central to Paul Nizan, the son. “…As the son of a worker who had become a bourgeois, he wondered what he really was: a bourgeois or a worker. There is no doubt that his chief preoccupation was this civil war inside him…. But an engineering diploma had sufficed to plunge his childhood into solitude, to impose on his entire family an irreversible metamorphosis. Never did he cross the line again. He betrayed the bourgeosie without going over to the enemy camp….”

Aden, Arabie is a crescendo of antibourgeois invective, sometimes fine invective. It is not a travel book in any conventional sense. The young Nizan stalked out of the Ecole Normale in Paris, out of France, out of Europe—and found Europe again waiting for him in Arabia. The only difference was that this Europe was horribly naked.

He pours contempt on the traditional hopes of travel. A Pandora’s box of illusions, “Asia the hero of wisdom and America the hero of power; Africa and the South Pacific…over flowing reservoirs of poetry.” These were mere compensation-dreams: “other continents supplied a few of the imaginary worlds into which [the people of Europe] withdrew at night to forget the truth about their purgatory….” And what was the reality? Nizan musters all his twenty-one years of rancor into a vision of the modern Marquesa islands: “missionaries—so kind to the lepers—and tall, soft, syphilitic girls, Greek traders with bad teeth and alcoholic NCO’s who used to dream of spending their retirement as policemen in Saigon.”

He sees the face of imperialism: the fat white men snoring on their verandahs in the afternoon, the compartments and the pyramids of colonial society in Aden. Yet there is no question of seeking out the oppressed. “There were the Indians, the Arabs, the impenetrable Blacks. I could not afford to spend ten years settling down among them and getting to know them…it is the masters of men whom one must fight and overthrow. Time enough to make fine friends when the war is over.” An impressive display of “analysis” triumphing over sentimentality? Also an example of what Sartre meant when he commented that Nizan “never crossed the line again. He betrayed the bourgeoisie without going over to the enemy camp….”

Nizan decides that there is no wisdom in landscapes (the “country” around Aden and Djibouti alike resembles what we would now recognize as the aftermath of repeated nuclear detonations, but Nizan was spared that comparison), and decides to come back to Europe—or rather, at Europe. “Among all the enemies of man, none was more familiar to me than France: it was France that, within the limits of my strength, I could hurt the most…. Europe is not a corpse, it is a tree trunk that has put out adventitious roots all around it, like a banyan tree. We must attack the trunk first: everyone is dying in the shade of its leaves.” The book ends with an oath of hate. It is to be war in every waking instant against the bourgeois.

You will have to refuse them a glass of water when they are dying: they pay notaries and priests to attend them in death…I will no longer be afraid to hate. I will no longer be ashamed to be fanatic. I owe them the worst: they all but destroyed me. My hatred will be increased by anger at knowing that hatred is a diminution of Being, that it is a state born of poverty. Spinoza says that hate and repentance are the two enemies of mankind: at least I will not know repentance.

It is not hard to see the fear of treachery which pervades this book: both the fear of being betrayed and the fear of betraying. Throughout his voyage to Arabia, Nizan beats off sense-impressions and allurements before they can touch him, with a hysterical vigilance. He is a sentry firing at every night bush moving in the wind, in case it proves to be harmless before it has been destroyed. He fears appreciation, which appears to him as the foe of action. It has been said that Aden, Arabie makes a good text for the European student rebels of today, but this fear of betrayal is not a matter which troubles them. Their determination to resist “integration” into the repressive mechanism of bourgeois society is equally strong, but there is less guilt. The sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie in Paris and Berlin are out to overcome their segregation from the working class, but they realize that it is the middle-class university itself with its tension between social privilege and authoritarian frame-work which provoked their revolution. They do not consider their class origins as original sin, nor—enraptured with Marxist ideas about the unity of theory and practice—do they consider that their parents’ dilemma as intellectuals between understanding and action is a real one. They will think “engaged” thoughts, and analyze themselves into the streets when the moment is ripe.

SUCH COCKSURENESS is very far from the confessions of Jan Myrdal. His book seems at first to be a succession of disconnected anecdotes, each involving the ability of human beings to deceive themselves or to ignore their own past. Gradually the reader becomes aware of a structure: very discreetly, Myrdal the novelist is at work weaving recollection, allusion, repetition into a coherent work of art. Seen at first from a distance through a casual note, then steadily nearer, there approaches the central incident of the suicide of a young girl. A killed herself in Myrdal’s apartment, which she had borrowed. Myrdal had been granted a moment of intuition that she might take her own life. Yet when she telephoned to invite him and his wife out to a restaurant, he declined although he knew that she wished to talk about herself. He did not want contact. “I might often doubt that what I do is of value…but the work achieves its value only so long as I—the tool of my work—am not lured away.”

He has betrayed her, because he is an artist in the Western tradition. A mass of associations surrounds this idea: he gazes at a Timurid tile in his collection of projection slides, and the pattern is also the pattern on his linoleum on which A. fell and vomited blood as she died. At the place in the hallway where A. was standing when he last saw her, there once hung a grey woman’s coat with a blue envelope in the pocket: Myrdal drew it out and read that he had been betrayed. When he went, holding the letter, into the living-room, he was to betray himself in the scene which followed, “knowing the whole time both how I was going to react and the consequences of my reactions.”

The Confessions are a search for a reason to act, a loud and often self-pitying lament on the cold-heartedness of the creative intellectual. Myrdal delivers to his confessors a portrait of himself as a child (fat, crew-cut, and delinquent), as a vagrant boy hitching the length of winter Sweden without money or purpose, as a lover who colonizes a select circle of girls with his crab-lice, as a young writer crushed and rejected by a society which considers him the black sheep of his colossally prestigious family. It would be hard to discern in this extravagance the resolute and perceptive man who wrote Report from a Chinese Village, and it is interesting that while in the Report’s Foreword he talks about his peasant ancestors in Dalecarlia with pride, in the Confessions he discounts them: the tight kinship net “no longer has any social function. It is just the heavy corpse of a dead peasant society…they line up in row upon row back to mediaeval times, all of them poor, most of them sullen and sour….”

Myrdal sees the Protestant north of Europe very much as a Scotsman might see it: the liberalism and social-democracy without, the frozen cruelty within (telling criticisms of the English here), and the small white rose of love crushed under the heels of those who seek it. The death of A. “is in reality the story of the Western intellectual. As I betrayed A., so have we always betrayed. Because the unconscious one does not betray. He walks secure through life. But we who are a part of the tradition—the European—and who carry on the tradition we have betrayed with awareness, insight and consciousness, we have carefully analyzed all the wars before they were declared. But we did not stop them.” Nizan with his headlong flight toward action, Myrdal with his ulcerating conviction of impotence through the intellectual’s original sin, both reflect a Europe which after 1914 lost confidence in its ability to command its own fate through its own wisdom. There are signs now—slight, but startling in their resonance—that this confidence is beginning to return.

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