gall and gumption

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, Batshit German Lady

Rebecca West and her wealthy and extremely affable are traveling over what seems to be every square inch of the country that, in the mid 1930s when they took this tour, had just become Yugoslavia. We have now lived, of course, to see it no longer be Yugoslavia. One of the sad things about reading it, which the book does not make explicit, is the realization that in a matter of a few years from the time of this narrative, the region will see slaughter that will make all the centuries of slaughter that went before there look like a picnic. You meet these wonderful characters and you wonder if they survived it and think, well, probably not. Too too creepy sad.

The comic relief (and mercifully there is some) is provided by the wife of West's friend Constantine, who is also their companion, their host and their guide. Constantine is a Serb nationalist and poet with some sort of official standing (one of his jobs is official censor), and he is a splendid guy, a motor-mouth with an endless fund of stories, loves to chat chat chat, knows everybody and everybody loves him, he's so sympathetic, he's a cherub. He's married to Gerda, who is this German woman. And she is AWFUL. I mean, she should have entered the AWFUL Olympics for Germany. She insists on going with them on this two-week trip far into the country. When Rebecca West hears that Gerda is coming along, this tough journalist and fighter for women's rights actually breaks into tears. Because Gerda hates her and hates her husband and can't stop showing it, she is just seething with it, flushed with it, it comes ripping out of her at every opportunity. She hates all the Slavs, too, and the gypsies, and, of course, the Jews. She drives West's wonderful husband to utter the only rough words he utters to anyone on all their travels, and he, of course, is racked with remorse, which makes no impression on Gerda at all. She is just spectacularly appalling. I have to fight the impulse to skip ahead in each chapter to the Gerda part.

So comes the end of the two weeks of touring Macedonian towns and villages and Gerda finally departs. West's husband, over the course of the following day, indulges in some thinking out loud about Gerda, which West summarizes in a passage in the book that is so radical that after reading it I was simply unable to go on -- and there are some 500 or so pages left! It's hard for me to imagine anything that will beat it in what follows. It's so prophetic and important that I feel compelled to put that passage here, just so you can think about it, in small installments. Of course it will be much better if you read the book and get to the Great Gerda Aria by accumulating all the wonderful experiences that get you there, and I hope you do. But in the meantime I'll fill this space with some bits.

"Gerda has no sense of process. That is what is the matter with Gerda. She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it. She wants to enjoy the position of a wife without going to the trouble of making a real marriage, without admiring her husband for his good qualities, without practising loyal discretion regarding his bad qualities, without respecting those of his gods which are not hers. She wants to enjoy motherhood without taking care of her children, without training them in good manners or giving them a calm atmosphere. She wants to be our friend, to be so close to us in friendship that we will ask her to travel about the country with us, but she does not make the slightest effort to like us, or even to conceal that she dislikes us. She is angry when you are paid such little respect as comes your way because you are a well-known writer, she feels it ought to come to her also, though she has never written any books. She is angry because we have some money. She feels that it might just as well belong to her. That our possession of this money has something to do with my work in the City and my family's work in Burma never occurs to her. For her the money might as easily have been attached to her as to us by a movement as simple as that which pastes a label on a trunk. As she has no sense of what goes to bring people love, or friendship, or distinction, or wealth, it seems to her that the whole world is enjoying undeserved benefits, and in a universe where all is arbitraray it might just as well happen that the injustice was pushed a little further and that all of these benefits were taken from other people, leaving them nothing, and transferred to her, giving her everything. Given the premise that the universe is purely arbitrary, that there is no causality at work anywhere, there is nothing absurd in that proposal.

"That is the conqueror's point of view. It was the Turks' point of view in all their aggressive periods. Everybody who is not Gerda is to Gerda 'a dog of an infidel,' to be treated without mercy. If she could get hold of our money by killing us, and would not be punished for it, I think she would do it, not out of cruelty, but out of blankness. Since she denies the reality of process, she would only envisage our death, which would be a great convenience to her, and not our dying, which would be a great inconvenience to us. She has shut herself off from the possibility of feeling mercy, since pain is a process and not a result. This will give her a great advantage in any conflict with more sensitive people, and indeed it is not her only advantage. Her nature gives her a firm foundation for her life that many a better woman lacks. Constantine is not less but more devoted as a husband because she is a bad wife to him. All his humility says, 'If she thinks so little of me, is there perhaps some lack in me?' All his affection says, 'Since she is so desperately hungry, what can I give her?' And, needless to say, her children are devoted to her. It is the impulse of children to do whatever their parents do not. If their parents bend to them, they turn away; if their parents turn away, they bend to them.

"In her wider relationships also she is very happy. To begin with, nobody who is not like Gerda can believe how bad Gerda is. We did not at the beginning; and if we told people the story of what Gerda has been to us on this trip in anything like the concentrated terms in which one usually tells a story we should see a doubt pass over their faces. 'They must have been tactless with her,' 'They cannot have made her properly welcome,' is what they would think to themselves. That she invited herself to be our guest and then continuously insulted us is not a proposition acceptable to the mind, which rightly sees that there is no hope for humanity if it can bring itself to behave like that. If we established the truth of our story they would grasp at excuses for her, would plead that she was an alien in a strange land, that her experience as a young girl in the war had made her neurotic, that she had been given an inferiority complex by the Treaty of Versailles.

"These things may be true; but it is also true that to recognize them is dangerous. It weakens the resistance that should be made against Gerda. Foir there is no way to be safe from her except to treat her as if she were, finally and exclusively, a threat to existence...."

And he's just getting warmed up, do remember that. More in the next posting. You won't be sorry to read the whole thing.