Friday, 24 October 2014

Why I Hate Small Talk

The 'branks', a traditional punishment for gossiping 

There are few things in my life I detest more than small talk. It's very peculiar, the intensity of my reaction to it. I can feel an enormous urge to SCREAM when I realise that I'm in the presence of one of those conversations. Largely, I manage to avoid active participation, but that makes it worse, for when I'm engaged in talking small, I am at least a little distracted by the act. But, hearing it, being in the company of it, having to listen to people talking about nothing at all, oh, that I despise...

The other day, I decided to pick up my long-neglected copy of Being and Time, and remembering that dear old Heidegger had some things to say on the subject, I decided to have a look at Part 1, Division 1, Section V, Sub-Section 35:  'idle talk' (It's good to see that the Teutonic mentality didn't die with Kant...). Reading through this short and, by Heidegger's standards, pithy section of text, a thought occurred to me: it would be interesting to try and apply Heidegger's ideas about idle talk to social media...

Even better, I could probably spin a blog post out of it!

It is not necessary to summarise the entire passage, or all of Heidegger's theory of language (thank God), but the points I want to draw your attention to are the following: talk, as it is spread from speaker to speaker, looses its ground and develops a kind of momentum all of its own. 'What is spoken about as such spreads in wider circles and takes on a authoritative [sic] character. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted in this gossiping and passing the word along, a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on increases to a complete groundlessness, And this is not limited to vocal gossip, but spreads to what is written as "scribbling".' (1.1.V.35.169, Sein und Zeit) That is, the more the word gets around, the less and less involved it is with the original subject of discourse. Idle talk, then, may perhaps be described as a process of greater and greater abstraction, by which all 'real' content in communication becomes lost.

It gets worse: 'The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its being public, but encourages it. Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without any previous appropriation of the matter.' (Own italics, ibid.) Finally: '...[B]y its very nature, idle talk is a closing off since it omits going back to the foundation of what is being talked about. This closing off is aggravated anew by the fact that idle talk, in which an understanding of what is being talked about is supposedly reached, holds any new questioning and discussion at a distance because it presumes it has understood and in a peculiar way it suppresses them and holds them back.' (Ibid.) (An interesting topic all of its own is one Heidegger's assumption that to understanding is, ultimately, a return to an originary point...)

Doesn't that some up social media ever so nicely?


*

The Internet presents us with a constant stream of facts and images, divorced from the world they occurred in, and packaged up in such a way to stimulate short-term engagement and interest. Consider the plethora of 'listicles' floating around today, offering us an easily digestible and not-too-demanding selection of topics for us to mull over for a few minutes, pass on, share, reblog, and sooner or later forget. It is little wonder that this constant bombardment of information would lead to a shortening of attention spans and disdain for involvement (TL;DR) that requires any particular effort on the part of the user. 

There has always been gossip, there have always been games of Chinese whispers via which information is exchanged and warped and abstracted and ultimately rendered so unattached to its original ground that it bares little, if any, resemblance to its point of origin. The information age, however, has allowed for this to take place which such speed, and with such a global scope, that we ought to be shocked by it, though are perhaps more deadened to it than anything else. Take Cracked's long running series on 'B.S. News Stories That Went Viral.' The link is to the most recent one I can find, but Cracked has been doing these for years now. 

We humans have always put a lot of stock in gossip and rumour, for the pleasure of speculation if nothing else, but consider how the Internet allows such things to have a whole new layer of credence applied to them simply because: they appear in writing, they appear on websites that look professional, they even have pictures. Consider the bizarre spectacle that was Kony 2012 (remember that?), how instantly everyone, your humble blogger included, was swept up by what was, ultimately, nothing more than an unusually well-prepared PR video. By keeping a vague eye on Twitter, on one's Facebook newsfeed, and perhaps a few blogs, one develops the fantasy of having one's finger on the pulse of the world. As if all you need to know about Ferguson, Rotherham and ISIS can be contained within 140 characters. '[Idle talk] feeds on sporadic superficial reading: The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide how much has been drawn from primordial sources with struggle, and how much is just gossip.' (Ibid.)

The anonymity of discussions that take place entirely online have creates a peculiar, universal pseudo-authority. The result of this is that, although real 'grounded' discourse is still more-or-less impossible, the matter never becomes 'closed', but continues almost constantly, in that every opinion on every matter can be aired with equal, apparent legitimacy. A constant stream of groundless chatter ensues, a thousand empty words competing without ever approaching the topic in truth. Admittedly, this democratic aspect allows us to mobilise and challenge the occasional outright falsehood we come across, but it will always be drowned out by yet more noise. Indeed, considering the vast majority of all communication over cyberspace is essentially written, the old philosopher's fears about the devilish nature of writing renews itself and finds new targets.

*

Like I said, this isn't really new as such. Kierkegaard had a great deal of contempt for the press of his own day, but the ubiquitousness and sophistication of online idle talk is remarkable. As ever, the new toy that we have here, the Internet, is neither good, bad, nor neutral, but something in between. It cannot be accurately described as having no intrinsic evaluative content to it because of the obvious power that it has, power that can be (forgive me for sounding trite) wielded for good or evil. And, simply observing that we've always engaged in idle talk like this is not enough to dismiss it from moral discussion. Prohibitions of gossiping are found in the Abrahamic religions, interestingly, and it is significant that such idle talk is often accompanied by a sense of guilt. We know that there is something lacking when we only, say, use Wikipedia as a reference. Though, to do just that and quote from the article on 'listicle': 'It has also been suggested that the word evokes "popsicle", emphasising the fun but "not too nutritious" nature of the listicle.'

Finally, I am aware of the obvious irony of moaning about online chatter while contributing to it (as if quoting a bit of Heidegger proves any real authority on my part, as if I don't engage in idle talk)- but, it's my blog, and I'll moan if I want to. 


Monday, 20 October 2014

Reports on the Reactosphere #4: Neoreaction and White Nationalism

I stole the idea for this Report from here

Today, I want to talk about what, exactly, is NRx's 'deal' with race. In particular, with its relationship with the European New Right and White Nationalism. This is probably going to end up going over territory I've passed over before, but seeing that race is probably the biggest issue that most of us will have with Neoreaction, it deserves special attention.

NRx, it has been often observed, is principally tripartite in its structure, it's major currents being Ethno-Nationalist, Techno-Commercialist and Theonomist (religious-traditionalist). Coupled with this is the 'biorealism' of Human Biodiversity (HBD) which is, at best, an honest attempt to question perceived contradictions and inaccuracies about our current understanding of heredity and ethnicity, and at worst an excuse to reaffirm already held racial prejudices. Although within the scope of Neoreaction, both its Inner and Outer territories, it's Monarchists and Neocameralists, we do fine people we could literally call 'white nationalists,' that wouldn't necessarily make them White Nationalists.

The Outer territory, being essentially Atlantean/Moldbuggian has less time for romanticised, neo-Fascist racial-nationalism, and is far more concerned with a kind of eugenicistic selectiveness when it comes to questions like 'Who can live in Shanghai, Inc,?'. It is, therefore, inclusive in a meritocratic sense, though it is a meritocracy that goes all the way down to the worth of your genes... The Inner territory believes that the clock can be turned back, and a mythical Volksgemeinschaft restored under a benevolent King (or some other, appropriate, regional variant); it insists on racial exclusiveness that is not necessarily informed by HBD in anything more than a superficial sense.

As Land puts it:
'...HBD-orientation is associated with cosmopolitan spirit of scientific neutrality, meritocratic elitism, and a suspicion of the deleterious consequences of inbreeding, often accompanied by a tendency to philosemitism and sinophilia. Racial solidarity does not follow necessarily from biorealism, but requires an extraneous political impulse.' [Own italics]

That extraneous political impulse is, of course, the essential populism of nationalist movements, its appeals to the people or the Volk. NRx is defiantly and, arguably, definitionally anti-populist, being inherently elitist, hierarchical, aristocratic etc. in its outlook. This problematises any and all attempts to conflate it with any any and all varieties of nationalism that aren't of a defiantly traditionalist flavour. This is something that those who are racial nationalists realise:

'In my opinion, the main concern of neoreaction is taking away power from the masses and placing it in the hands of an elite few, who are also the most intelligent members of society. You could call it a “geekocracy.”'

Although sympathetic towards it, NRx's Inner current does not want what is generally understood to be nationalism, even if they do want to create an ethnically homogeneous community, because of its tradition of opposition to central authority, privilege, aristocracy and so forth. Being essentially populist, nationalism almost always has some variety of egalitarian and anti-capitalist rhetoric to it, though only for those of the Volk. There simply is no room for either of those notions within Neoreaction. Although NRx wouldn't be likely to have any problem with the creation of racially exclusive zones on a local level in a mythical, post-Cathedral future (assuming that they've been right all along and the Great Collapse does occur...), and would probably be enthusiastic, even encouraging of efforts to bring about something like this right now, simply to undermine the Cathedral, it would largely only be as a tool towards the greater, general collapse on notions of human fungibility and essential equality.

Even with this being said, for the Outer territory of NRx, support for renewed interest in race as something beyond social construction might very well be off-set if heads in the wrong direction and results in something bad for business. Hence concerns about the resurgent extreme Right in Europe; to quote Land again: 'When [White Nationalists] speak of a ‘World Brotherhood of Europeans’ it strikes most neoreactionaries (I suspect) as scarcely less comical than an appeal for universal human brotherhood, since it blithely encompasses the most vicious and ineliminable antagonisms in the world.'

Wrapping this up towards a conclusion: White Nationalism may be useful for NRx, but it seems doubtful that they would ever put their intellectual weight behind it for fear of replacing one notion of fungibility (all humans) with another (humans belonging to ethnotype x). This being said, it is almost impossible to justify many sweeping claims about NRx, and if Land's long prophesied schism does occur, it might be a different matter- but, then, we'd have to redefine what we understand NRx to be in the first place.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The (harrowing, frightening) Aesthetics of Nature

Fun fact, this is a watered down and heavily re-written version of an essay I submitted at university! As such, I am drawing heavily from the lectures of Dr Tom Greaves, and the work of the philosopher R.W. Hepburn. All the Nietzsche is from The Birth of Tragedy. Further, the tone may be a bit uneven, as some of this was written before I found my 'blog-voice.'



I also promise to never use the expression 'blog-voice' again.


I am very lucky.

Literally half-an-hour from my house
I live very close to the South Downs, an extensive and deeply beautiful landscape of hills, fields, little towns, rivers and less picturesque signs of modernity (i.e. pylons and antennae). I enjoy the view literally daily, and go walking on it as often as possible, at least weekly. As such, I do not think that it is bold of me to say that I have cultivated a taste for the aesthetic of nature. This does not translate into a knowledge of it in a scientific or geographical sense (the only trees I can confidently identify are 'silver birch' and 'weeping willow'), but I do certainly appreciate the view, the feeling of the wind, the way the landscape changes over the year. This comes from frequent exposure and contemplation, and is not, in that respect, different from learning to appreciate, for example, an unfamiliar genre of music.

But, the aesthetic of nature is very different from the aesthetic of a painting in an art gallery- not 'better,' of course, merely different. How so? In several ways, the most important being that there is a clear line of demarcation between the piece of art (painting, sculpture etc.) on display, and the spectator observing and (hopefully) enjoying it. Now, there's no reason why art cannot play around with this boundary, challenge it, render it ambiguous or even obsolete entirely, but it is still present in a way that it isn't when we consider the spectator in nature. When I go for a walk on the Downs, I am a part of the environment I am enjoying; my passage through changes it in a literal sense, and also in a more philosophical sense in that my passage through the landscape allows it reveal itself to me in ways that would remain otherwise hidden. Which is a grand way of saying: my presence allows the landscape to show itself as a landscape, my experiencing of it allows it be something experienced and interacted with. This is a constantly changing flow as I pass through it, the view changes, the experiencing shifting as I, say, depart from my usual pathway and climb up a hill I've never been up before.

Naturally, the art piece in the gallery still needs an observer there to render it an object of observation, but there is still that boundary between observer and observed that is rendered essentially obsolete in the experience of the natural landscape. What us more, it is clear where the 'art' stops and the 'gallery' (or museum or whatever) begins, where the object of aesthetic contemplation is present and where it is not. Again, this is something that art can (and I imagine does) challenge, but this is also something that is very different in the experience of nature. It is not clear where the aesthetic object begins and ends when we are considering nature. Hepburn observes that a passing train whistle cannot become a part of the symphony it intrudes on, but it certainly can become part of the experience we are having of the natural landscape, and add to our experience of it.

*
R.W. Hepburn suggests that the primary way we experience the aesthetic of nature is as a relationship with a perceived unity. Hepburn gives us four examples of this experiential unity: 
  1. Movement from the isolated particular to greater, contextual unity. Consider- you are observing a tree. You allow your gaze to wander down the tree trunk to its roots, and then you consider the soil, the grass, the insect life moving about and then the other trees moving up from it. You comprehension of the single tree is cast into a new light by the realisation that it is not solitary, but rather is on the outskirts of a forest. You might object that it would be a funny kind of walker who doesn't notice that they are approaching a forest, but that is not the point. The point that they did not notice its significance. The nature of this mode of unity is the realisation not of the unity of the subject with the object, but rather the recognition that the 'isolated particular' appears in a context of unity with other things, and that it is not isolated at all: it occurs within a web of other things, without which it could not be as it is.
  2. The second form, that of the ‘humanising’ or ‘spiritualising’ of nature is only noted, and not discussed, by Hepburn. I will thus follow his lead and leave this form of unity to one side, and merely use it as a stepping stone to a third form, the more distinct and definite form of ‘humanising’ nature which he discusses at length. 
  3. The ‘humanising’ of nature blends with the ‘naturising’ of the human. That is, it is the breakdown of strong distinctions between human qualities and ‘natural’ qualities. One example that Hepburn gives is the ‘reading into’ nature of our emotional vocabulary- describing a solitary tree on a hill as ‘lonely,’ for instance. We feel, oddly, a kind of empathy with the object of our aesthetic contemplation. Hepburn goes on to say that we notice similarities between the patterns on a leaf and our own blood vessels; in this mode of unifying experience, we begin to realise that the boundaries between us and the natural scene are not as definitive as they first appeared to be. We feel ourselves transformed by the experience.
  4. The fourth form of unity is rather odd; it is the experience of the cessation of conflict with nature. One no longer stands against nature, but rather with and within nature. We are reconciled with nature in its otherness. 
It should go without saying that these 'modes' are not intended to be read as definitive and distinct from one another, the blur together and mesh with one another. Rather, these are intended to be read as broad currents found within the aesthetic contemplation of nature. Now, I don't think Hepburn intends this list to be read as exhaustive, he is merely attempting to delineate grounds for conversation and experience. As such, I am going to propose I am going to propose a further 'mode' of unity- the loss of 'self' in the face of nature.

*
I dub this, 'the traumatic feeling of unity.'

The following is a recount of an aesthetic experience I have had myself: I was walking along the coast, going along a concrete esplanade beneath a cliff. It was night time, no one else was around and no direct light was illuminating my journey, only the ambient glow of street lights and traffic from the main road above me. The sea seemed more like an abyss or void than a large occupied space, and a strong wind was blowing in from it. I have a feeling I might have been listening to Joy Division.

Quite suddenly, only half-aware of what I was doing, I felt the need to stop and raise my arms up. I simply wanted to feel the wind rushing over me, to feel part of it, but more than that: I wanted to have my sense of self obliterated in the force of the wind; I wanted to be lost to it and to be defeated by it. I felt subordinated to the force of it and lost in it. I had what one might describe to be an experience of unity with the wind, but a unity which I can only liken to the Dionysian experience of Nietzsche. It was not happy, nor was it comfortable. The only aesthetic analogies I can draw are comparisons with being lost in particularly potent forms of music.

That being said, it was very important that this was not an experience of the Dionysian ecstasy of music, it was one born out of experiencing nature. The abyss of the ocean was not rationally reminding me or forming a symbolic image of the mystery of existence, rather it was that very mystery. The power and force of the wind did not stimulate me on an intellectual level to consider the 'frailty of my humanity before the forces of nature,' it was the very fact of my frailty made clear to me. Interestingly, a similar note to this can be found in Heidegger, where when discussing the nature of the work of art, he puts it that ‘[the statue of a god] is not a portrait whose purpose is to make it easier to realize how the god looks; rather, it is a work that lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.’ ['The Origin of the Work of Art'] Further, we see in this more of Hepburn’s ideas of the ‘reading in to’ nature, but rather than this being the usage of natural phenomena as a kind of symbol or stand-in for human emotions, it is the very manifestation of those emotions, manifesting in that I am no longer distinct from nature. In that, I felt both a kind of ‘cease-fire’, a ‘letting be’ of nature, but more than that I felt myself swamped and lost in it. As I felt the weight of the wind I felt the illusory barriers between myself as a subject and nature as an object dissolve. This was not a case of the humanising of nature, it was nature transforming my sense of self specifically qua my relationship with nature at that very instant. More than that also, my feeling of myself as a self was lost in it, I felt that kind of ‘mystical oneness’ with nature Nietzsche comments on and Hepburn suggests, but it bore far more of the violence and trauma of the Dionysian than of Hepburn’s gentle considerations of the idyllic scene. I felt baffled, confused, even frightened by it. I felt reason breakdown before the experience of pure sensation, I felt the loss of the principium individuationis. Hepburn does not speak of these things, but they are important aspects of the feeling of unity with nature, and the message ought to be clear: the feeling of unity with nature does not come without cost. Indeed, Nietzsche speaks of the Apollinian as being ‘the inevitable products of a glance into the terrible depths of nature: light-patches, we might say, to heal the gaze seared by terrible night.’

This isn't to deny that it can be beautiful...



It's just to say that beauty can be haunting, even disturbing...


Friday, 10 October 2014

Thoughts on Emoticons

Circa 1880s
Let's hear it for the 'melancholy' emoticon!


This might come to the surprise of the reader (unless you're one of the poor unfortunates who I call a 'friend'), giving the generally pessimistic spirit of this blog, but I am actually very fond of emoticons. I'd never dare use them on here (I'm not hbd chick), simply as a matter of aesthetic taste. I like this to look a little 'proper,' but that's just me. I do, however, make consistent use of them in texts, FB messages and so forth, because, ultimately, they're very good at doing what they set out to do. Namely, convey emotions in script.

Of course, the modern emoticon (I am thinking of FB messenger here) is more than a mere construction of appropriated punctuation, it instead has been abstracted out further into becoming simple images and glyphs. The happy face, the sad face, the winking face, the out-sticked tongue, and so on. Now, I'm one of those wreckers of civilisation who is more likely to have a conversation with a friend online than in person, and the obvious problem of the absence of body language and facial expressions is a major factor in all forms of non-personal communication, but especially in the rolling conversations that we have online these days. This is not, I feel, as much a problem with the dying art of letter writing, as this act typically demands greater attention from the writer, over a longer period of time. As such, the writer is, perhaps, more likely to ensure that they are doing all they can to convey the normally unspoken emotional nuances of communication in a deliberate, written form, for the intended interpretation of the recipient. 

But one cannot do that on Facebook! Typically, in conversation with someone online, it is not dissimilar to a spoken conversation in that it is free-flowing, the words and sentences forming themselves without much conscious volition on my part. The problem therein is the lack of any of the cues that we normally receive from body language, from the face. The emoticon steps in here. 

What I find interesting here is the desire to humanise the otherwise faceless nature of online communication, by including these odd little stand-ins for real human presence. One might say that it is suggestive of the essential poverty of the online conversation, but I feel differently. It, instead, is a reinforcement of the importance of the face-to-face in human relationships, in that we have added this peculiar little construct to this new medium of conversation. It adds a dimension of authenticity to the words pouring out of the screen. Curious that's called 'Facebook,' isn't it?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Kindly Ones: In Review


Spoiler alert and content warning: it is, literally, a 1,000 page (well, 975 page, plus a lengthy glossary) novel about the Nazis.

It took me a while to read The Kindly Ones. After reading the first 200 or so pages in a few days, I got a little daunted by the sheer scale of the thing, and escaped into the comforting world of less crushing fiction for a couple of months (Neuromancer by William Gibson, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which I'll be writing about in due course, The Children of Men by P.D. James and Accelerando by Charles Stross, all of which are brilliant and worth your time reading). I dragged myself back to Littell's edifice after finishing Accelerando and picked up where I left off, demolishing it in about a fortnight (I finished it two days before writing this).

Now, I am left with the unenviable, though admittedly self-imposed, task of trying to figure out exactly what to say about the bloody thing. I want to say that a novel that deals with the mentality of genocide and Nazism isn't a pleasant read, but Littell's lucid and deliberate style of writing gave the book a ghostly, harrowing beauty. His descriptions of a Europe ripping itself apart, of the ancient geology of the Caucasus, of the protagonist's, (eventual Obersturmbannf├╝rher) Dr Maximilien Aue, longing not for death but for un-birth, are evocative, delicate, harsh and moving. I understand that it looses something in the translation from the original French, but being embarrassingly mono-linguistic, I'm probably not going to be able to experience it in its original form any time soon. Regardless, what we have here is certainly a masterpiece of modern literature, though it has some inevitable flaws that are hard, though not entirely impossible, to dismiss.

The novel is presented as the memoirs of Maximilien Aue, a doctor of law and an officer in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the 'Security Service,' the wing of the SS tasked with intelligence gathering. He is blisteringly intelligent, cultured, witty, at least bisexual, if not outright homosexual, with a notable exception we will come to later, the speaker of several languages and bearer of a knowledge of classical music and literature that I'd give my front-teeth for. He is also a dedicated National-Socialist. He isn't some street-thug lacking direction, who is impressed with uniforms and discipline, he is an intellectual Nazi, he believes in National-Socialism, he theorises about it, he reflects on its doctrines, on the relationship between races, the nature of racial hierarchy, the need for 'extreme measures' to be taken against malicious elements for the sake of Volk and Reich. He doesn't oversee mass-executions of Jews because he has fallen into Zimbardo's trap of uniforms and role-playing, he does it because he believes it ought to be done. He justifies his actions not be appealing to the hollow excuse of 'following orders,' but because he believes, genuinely believes, that what happened had to happen. He admits that, if possible, he'd rather not have had to arrange and deal with the systematic extermination of entire ethno-cultural groups, but he is doing his duty to the Volk and the Heimat.

One of the most disturbing sequences in the novel is a discussion that lasts pages and pages and pages about the fate of the Bergjuden, the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, mostly in Azerbaijan and Dagestan. There is disagreement between the Wehrmacht and the SS about how to deal with them, as it is unclear whether or not they are ethnically Jewish, or if they are Caucasians who converted to Judaism but remained ethnically homogeneous with their non-Judaic neighbours. The SS, being more ideologically motivated than the Wehrmacht, are pushing for them to be treated like any other Jewish group, and exterminated. The Wehrmacht are resistant to this, not because of any particular feeling of sympathy towards the Bergjuden, but for simple Realpolitick: deploying against the Bergjuden would cause hostility from the other groups in the region, leading to support for the partisans. The horrible absurdity of this extended sequence is, of course, that these, for the most part, intelligent, rational and cultured individuals are having protracted discussion on the topics of history, linguistics and ethnography for the purpose of deciding whether or not to commit a genocide. The moral enormity of the question is ignored, utterly ignored, and treated with the same attitude that they would deploy when discussing troop movements or supply issues.

You might think that a novel that deals with the Holocaust from the perspective of its perpetrators, not its victims, would stray into either gratuitousness or clumsy edification, but Littell manages to avoid both these things. The first part of the novel deals extensively with the extermination of Jews and other 'undesirables' by the Einsatzgruppen in occupied Eastern Europe and Russia, and he deals with these scenes skilfully. His descriptions are not lurid, they are honest, stark, almost clinical, almost casual. He is not blind to the effect that the extermination had on its perpetrators. The grinding hideousness of carrying out such a task weighs heavily on Aue, even if he does view it as an unpleasant, though necessary, duty. This is not to say that the novel doesn't lapse into gratuitousness in other places...

Aue...is a pervert. There is little getting around that. As a child, he had an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una. Una, seemingly, has 'gotten over' it and has dismissed it as childish 'fooling around,' an ultimately innocent exploration of burgeoning sexuality. Maximilien, however, is still deeply sexually entranced by, and at least apparently in love with his sister. There are not exactly frequent, but certainly memorably...detailed descriptions of both memory and fantasy of this relationship which probably weren't always needed. It isn't that I object to it as a sub-plot, Littell is knowingly drawing on classical mythology's obsession with incest, but it didn't always feel necessary to have every single lavish description of illicit sex and inventive onanism that we are treated to. This being said, the whole novel is essentially a confession by Aue of his deeds and thoughts, so it does make sense that he would put a great deal of detail into assessing a relationship he views as the only really meaningful one of his life, but, without giving too much away: Jonathan, we didn't need to know what Max did with the sausage...

And then there's the shit. There is a lot of shit in this novel. Literal shit. Excrement. Scatology seems to be an obsession of Aue's, to such an enormous extent that I suspect that Littell intends Aue to be read as an archetypal 'anal retentive' case, in the Freudian sense. One must wonder how much this adds to the novel, though it does, I admit, grant it a realism one rarely comes across in media dealing with the war: I can't, off the top of my head, think of any war films which mention that the mixture of terror and malnourishment that fighting on the front lines entails leads to chronic diarrhoea (not to say that there aren't any, somewhere). The omnipresence of shit in the novel is truly extraordinary and unpleasant, which I imagine was Littell's point.

A final criticism of this otherwise outstanding novel: the extended coma-fantasy. Following what we learn later was a severe head wound, Aue leads the reader on a merry romp through the territories of Magical Realism, including an encounter with a French dirigible captained by the inexplicable Dr Sardine. The incest, the shit, I can cope with, I can just about justify, but I can think of no reason why this is in the novel at all. It was irritating and distracting and I was very glad when it ended. Maybe I'm missing something, but I suspect I'm not...

Ultimately, though, the novel is extraordinary.

I am not sure if I can justifiably recommend that you, dear reader, invest the time and energy that tackling such a beast of a novel requires (allow me to repeat myself: it is 1,000 pages of the Nazis), but it is certainly a bleak testament to Littell's ability as a writer, and as a historian. Reading this, one learns a lot about how bafflingly badly organised a great deal of the Third Reich was, especially thanks to the glossary at the back. Through the mouthpiece of Aue, we not only learn how Nazi Germany works, but we get a glimpse, more than a glimpse, in fact, of how someone who is clearly anything but stupid can come to believe in National-Socialism. He demonstrates how, if one grants it its initial assumptions (racial hierarchy, Volksgemeinschaft, the F├╝rherprinzip, the threat of Weltjudentum and other lies), one could come to think of an ideology as factually and morally bankrupt as Nazism as reasonable.

What Littell has done is explore a world-view that is utterly divorced from that of today. He has shown how one can come to believe in such things, and justify such outrages against humanity, and he has done it with a skilled hand, an eye for detail and astonishing ability to weave in moments of extreme beauty. A dark, haunting marvel of letters I won't forget in a hurry.