Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Last Survivor

So, I saw a news item this week that the last survivor of the Abe Lincoln Brigade has died at the advanced age of a hundred. The Spanish Civil War is remembered as a nasty one, which is saying something in the context of a century filled with horrific wars, but it's good to remember that it inspired a good deal of idealism too, albeit idealism that for the most part came to a nasty end.*

The war itself has largely slipped out of public memory -- there was nothing at all about it in the high school history books I was taught from back in the 70s, and precious little in college.**  My own knowledge of it is piecemeal, from its effects on various twentieth century figures: from reading Orwell's HOMAGE TO CATALONIA (the classic account of what it was like to fight in defense of the Spanish Republic), Quentin Bell's biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf (whose nephew, Quentin's own brother, died there), Auden (who was briefly there as an observer),  Norman Bethune (who invented the battlefield blood transfusion there), Evelyn Waugh (who sympathized with Franco but advocated a hands off approach), and most notably the despicable Roy Campbell, who enthusiastically supported Franco's coup and the fascist state Franco succeeded in installing in power. The war fits in memorably in the final scene of Sir Peter Jackson's  FORGOTTEN SILVER: the subject of his documentary ends his life on a Spanish battlefield while filming the war.

It even briefly intrudes into Inklings studies in the exchange between CSL and Campbell, with Tolkien's sympathies very much with Campbell: the one case I can think of where I think Lewis was right and Tolkien was wrong.

Here's the link:


current reading: just finished HOMER'S ODYSSEY by Gwen Cooper (the story of a blind cat); just begun TESSA VERNEY WHEELER biography by L. C. Carr (2012)
current audiobook: DODGER by Sir Terry Pratchett.

*Oddly enough, I found out years ago while doing some reading up on South Africa that something similar had happened several decades earlier. It's forgotten today that volunteers from America and elsewhere (including czarist Russia!) came and fought for the Boers, so unpopular was the British land-grab officially known as the Second Boer War. A truly forgotten piece of history, like our invasion of Russia in 1919 or our having lost the War of 1812.

**for example, how many people hearing Billy Joel's "Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway" (from his collection of early pieces, SONGS IN THE ATTIC) understood what he was talking about when he sang

"They burned the churches up in Harlem
Like in the Spanish civil war"


N.E. Brigand said...

I understand there was also a smaller "George Washington" brigade in addition to the "Abraham Lincoln" group.

Those Billy Joel lyrics would seem to explain why Tolkien supported Franco's side. His late beloved guardian was a Spanish priest, and Tolkien heard reports that the Republican side's opposition to Catholicism extended to the burning of churches and the murder of clergy.

Paul W said...

I'm no expert on Campbell, but 'despicable' seems extremely harsh and inaccurate, based on the Wikipedia entry. [] It's just Wikipedia though, and maybe there are things I am unaware of. As a lapsed Catholic myself I have to admit I was more inclined to take Tolkien's side in that exchange then Lewis', overall.

And, absolutely, there were no clean hands in the Spanish Civil War. Lewis' line, "who cares
Which kind of shirt the murdering Party wears?" is certainly spot on. Spain seemed destined in the '30s to Franco or a Spanish Stalin.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear N.E.B.
Yes, I don't think there's any doubt that when Tolkien heard about the events in Spain, he would very much have identified with the people like Father Francis, whom he once called "a second father to me" or words to that effect. So it would have been immediately visceral and personal. And we know in fact that Campbell told him stories about murdered monks during their meeting.

Orwell, by the way, goes out of his way to affirm that the Republicans considered The Church the enemy, and says he never saw a church that wasn't either burned out or used as a privy. A nasty business all round.

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul W.
I'm sorry if 'despicable' is offensive, but I can't think of any other word that sums up Campbell so well. He was a misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic*, racist, pathological liar and bully who liked to hit people. In his defense some thought he had great personal charm, some admired his talent, and some argued that he had diminished responsibility for his actions because of his alcoholism. But still, not a nice man.

--John R.

* (not just a supporter of Franco but an admirer of Hitler)

** (he spoke out against the previous century's abolition of slavery)

Paul W said...

Well, like I said, all I have to go off of is Wikipedia. It seems to tell a different story, exactly the opposite about Campbell admiring Hitler, for example. Is it completely wrong? His homophobia seems tied to his wife having an affair with the Vita. Which may not be admirable but is hardly horrific. Aside from punching a Communist poet, there seems to be no mention of his liking to hit people.

I'm prepared to accept the Wikipedia article is incredibly off and biased, but superficially it looks balanced and reasonably well cited.

I'm generally impressed by how even handed you are with people about whom it is easy to leap to judgement (Charles Williams, for example). I'm just very interested in why you see this guy so firmly as despicable.

Murilegus rex said...

Even during the Civil War, it was entirely within the realm of possibility to be a Catholic, and a conservative one, without taking Franco's side. One shining example is Georges Bernanos, who covered the Francoist atrocities in Majorca in his Diary of My Times. In fact, among those murdered by the Francoists for being loyal to the Republic, there was quite a number of monks and nuns (notably not beatified by the Pope, as the religious victims of Republican violence were).

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul W.
Yes, I went and skimmed the Wikipedia entry, and it does indeed present Campbell in a generally positive light. An even stronger attempt at rehabilitation can be found in Joseph Pearce's (highly selective) biography of Campbell, which I haven't read but which wd be a good place to go for those wanting to explore the issue.

I did a lot of research on Campbell years ago for a piece I was writing called "Gatecrasher at the Inklings" which unfortunately I never completed. One of the key things I realized is that Campbell literally re-wrote his life story over time to improve his image. For example, in his first autobiography, published in the mid-1930s, he expressed his fondness for Hitler. But in his second autobiography, published in the 1950s, he not only criticizes Hitler but removes any mention of ever having felt otherwise.

Homophobia: all I can say here is that this is my conclusion, based on what I've read of his invective against the Bloomsbury group.

As for hitting people, the attack on Spender is one of several recounted in the biographies and autobiographies. But I think we can all agree that attacking poets onstage is a bad thing, even if they had once been communists.

And thanks for the comment about Charles Williams. I have strong opinions there, obviously, but tried hard to be fair. Whereas in Campbell's case I think his lifetime fondness for personal ad hominem attacks entitles him to less restraint. Maybe that's why I judge him more harshly than I do Ezra Pound, who did far worse things during the War but in my view really did suffer from diminished capacity due to his mental illness.

Incidently, the main question I'd wanted to find the answer to in my Campbell researches was whether or not Lewis already knew Campbell when they encountered each other at the Tuesday Inklings: unfortunately I never was able to find the answer, though my suspicion is that they did not.

--John R.

Paul W said...

Okay, that all makes sense. Of course, he would not be the only British right-wing thinker to have to back-track on Hitler!

It's my own bias, I readily admit, but I wish British and American Left wing intellectuals were more firm in their condemnations of Communism generally and Stalin, Mao, et all, specifically. There has been a double-standard there, but you clearly are not subscribing to it.

John D. Rateliff said...

Yes, Lewis's lines do sum up things better than I could: as in pretty much all wars, there were dreadful things done by both sides. And this was a civil war, which are always brutal, made worse in this case by Hitler's intervening on Franco's behalf and Stalin on the Republic's.

Orwell's account is pretty good on his ultimate revulsion: his own unit being purged when the Stalinists took over. Every man in it was shot, executed by what had been another faction of their same side. Orwell himself only escaped because he's been gravely wounded (shot through the neck, I think) shortly before and was in a hospital not expected to survive.

--John R.