An iconic photograph of the 20c: “Das ist Hitlers Werk”

I was looking through my family’s papers, a few years ago, when I came across a propaganda leaflet from World War 2. It was in German, and would have been produced to be dropped from a plane over Germany, or over German-occupied territory, with the intent of affecting the morale of Wehrmacht personnel. It was headed “Das ist Hitlers Werk,” 

The big, black letters of the title had been placed above a horrific picture. Rather than reproduce it here, I shall provide a link to it in an endnote.* The photograph is probably by Belgian photographer Maurice Anthony, and the subject matter is a dead soldier lying in a trench, most likely during or after the Battle of Ypres in World War 1 – Anthony was from the town of Ypres. The dead man has fallen backwards with one hand flung back as though to shield his face, but both hand and face have been stripped of flesh; his right leg appears to be missing.

The stark caption, as you have probably gathered, translates as “that is Hitler’s work.” There are two ways to interpret the phrase. The first is obvious: it is propaganda, it is using an image in a misleading way, an image that has no connection with the conflict that is ongoing at the time. The second interpretation is more subtle, and has to do with the use in German of the word “Werk;” the phrase could be taken to mean “this is what Hitler is working towards,” “this will be the consequence of what Hitler is doing,” or “this is the world that Hitler wants to re-create.”

The photograph itself has stayed in my own memory since the mid 1960s, when it was used as one of the title images for the TV series The Great War in the 1960s. Of all the iconic images I have shared here, this is the one I would much rather forget. 

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CONTENT WARNING – Graphic imagery. the linked photograph shows a dead body. tinyurl.com/HitlersWerk

Daphne du Maurier: the boy in the box

I am often tempted to think, when I look at someone like Anne Lister or Radclyffe Hall, that the reason they were able to stand out, in difference, in the face of society, was due in no small part to their privileged position. I wonder how many hundreds of working-class people, over the centuries, felt things in themselves that they had no vocabulary to describe or question, no point of reference to navigate from – how many women, for example, married, bore children, and died simply because life had nothing more to offer. When we see a photograph, on the internet or in a book, of someone in a uniform or a dress, and read a bio of how they lived for x-number of years contrary to their observed sex at birth, we forget how exceptional they were, not necessarily in who they were but in their being able to be visible. We never wonder how many other people lived their lives in puzzlement, wondering what was “wrong” with them, and not having anyone to talk to about it. I know, I can remember life before the internet – most of my life has been before the internet – and how difficult it was to find answers to one’s questions about sexuality or gender, even to find anyone to ask.

But privilege is no guarantee of freedom to explore, to act, and whatever a person’s origins, we must grant them their experience. One twentieth-century writer who always fascinated me was Daphne du Maurier. By no means a modernist, she nevertheless managed to conjure up a kind of otherness in her fiction. Her most famous novel was Rebecca; often thought of as some kind of gothic romance, it is in fact a tense psychological story, the ‘action’ of which mostly takes place in the unnamed protagonist’s imagination. Her short stories Don’t Look Now, in which a husband, left behind in Venice when his wife has to dash back to England, imagines that she has returned to the city and is avoiding him – he doesn’t realise he is psychic and is glimpsing scenes that will not happen until after he is brutally murdered – and The Birds, in which flocks of birds terrorise a coastal village, were both made into films, as was Rebecca. She wrote other quirky stories, such as The Blue Lenses and The Chamois, that were full of dread and unease.

It occurred to me the other day, that I had seen countless photographs of her, but in very few was she smiling. Even photographed in the company of her husband Lt. General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, whom she supposedly adored, with whom she had three children, and with whom she enjoyed moving in court circles as Lady Browning, there wasn’t a flicker. She even seemed mournful in the company of her children.

It was in those photographs with her children, taken at Menabilly, the stately house in Cornwall of which she was the tenant from 1943 to 1969, I was struck by how masculine she looked despite her long hair. She seemed to dress habitually in a tweed suit, slightly too big for her as though it had been tailored for a male figure. I knew that she had come to prefer being there to accompanying Boy to London, to prefer spending long periods without him. That was an experience she drew on for her best-known stage play, The Years Between, in which someone who believes herself to be a war widow for many years, is shocked to find that her husband is alive, having spent those years as an agent in enemy territory. We may think we recognise dysphoria when we hear about it, but how it must have puzzled and distressed someone who had no reference point for it.

Author and journalist Lisa Hilton had this to say, when writing a preface to du Maurier’s novel Mary Anne:

The compatibility of writing and femininity was always a treacherous issue for du Maurier herself, who often said that she wished she had been born a boy, a wish her father Gerald confessed to sharing in a poem he wrote for her as a child. Daphne felt ambivalent about her roles as a woman and a writer, an ambivalence that was reinforced in later life by her sexual feelings for Ellen and Gertrude. The first time she met Ellen, Daphne confessed that she felt “a boy of eighteen again with her nervous hands and a beating heart.” “Again” is the telling word. As a child, Daphne had apparently convinced herself that she was a boy, and her biographer Margaret Forster comments on the devastating psychological consequences of puberty on this belief.[1]

“Ellen” and “Gertrude” in the above passage are the wife of du Maurier’s American publisher Nelson Doubleday and the actress Gertrude Lawrence.[2] The web site moviediva(dot)com, in a review of the movie version of the novel Frenchman’s Creek, in which the female protagonist dresses as a cabin boy on a pirate ship, says “Daphne was shy and imaginative and felt as a child that she was really a boy, a conviction dashed by puberty. Attracted to both boys and girls she loathed the idea of being ‘Venetian’ family code for lesbian. But, she wouldn’t be Venetian, if she were really a boy.”[3] She referred to herself as “the boy in a box,” creating an alter ego for herself with the name Eric Avon. But later “she ‘put the boy in a box’ as she would say, and decided to do the conventional thing and get married. Unsurprisingly marriage and motherhood did not suit her.”[4]

One of the few photographs I have seen of Daphne du Maurier smiling, is the one that accompanies this article. She is sitting back in a chair with a book on her lap; she is not reading, but rather her gaze is distant. She is dressed in what appears to be an officer’s tunic from the Napoleonic Wars, a gesture of flamboyant transmasculinity.[5] After her death in 1989, some early poems of hers were found behind a framed photograph of herself in a swimming costume, posing like the “Spirit of Ecstasy” on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce. Her willingness to find some way – in her writing if nowhere else – to confront convention, can be seen in the one titled “The Happy Prostitute,” in which she challenged the idea of a sex worker as “tired and old, selling myself with sorrow, just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain,” and spoke instead of her happiness.[6] The other, an untitled poem, expressed loneliness, and a longing for the carefree days of her youth, which were “bliss.” Despite everything, she did have a sense of what it was to be happy, or to have been happy.

Daphne du Maurier, like the countless unknowns, survived only by making compromises to live in gender-normative society. Sometimes I find my mind drawn to seeing her as the protagonist of The Blue Lenses, who looks in the mirror only to see herself as a frightened doe; at other times I see the would-be dashing soldier at Salamanca or Waterloo, and I honour the vigour and variety of her writing. Beyond the cabin-boy episode in Frenchman’s Creek, there is little in her writing to tell of transmasculinity. In the frightened doe in The Blue Lenses, or the unnamed girl thrust into decaying aristocracy in Rebecca, or the self-haunted husband in Don’t Look Now there is however a wonderful sense of being the “other,” the exception. The boy might have stayed hidden in his box, but that offspring of genius did not.

 

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[1] Lisa Hilton, Introduction to: Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne (Virago, 2004). vii-viii.

[2] Wikipedia reports that the children of both du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence objected to the suggestion that there was anything but friendship between the two women. Lawrence’s biographer, Richard Aldrich, went into detail about their friendship but made no mention of anything more intimate. However, Lisa Hilton is not alone in referring to du Maurier’s attraction to Lawrence being, at least, a catalyst for her feelings about her gender, quoting above from Margaret Forster. The issue being openly discussed, and its being referred to in du Maurier’s own words, this hardly counts as an “outing.”

[3] “Frenchman’s Creek,” moviediva, 2015, tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMoviediva

[4] ibid.

[5] Picture credit: The British Library. I am reminded of the young Stephen Gordon, in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, who enjoyed dressing as Admiral Nelson.

[6] Sebastian Murphy-Bates. “Two Never-before-seen Poems by Novelist Daphne du Maurier…” The Mail Online(2019). tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMail.

Jazz icons – iconic photography

Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat Club, NY, 1948, by Herman Leonard.

As much as this is a study of Ella Fitzgerald at the height of her scat-singing career, it is also a study of Duke Ellington. The singer dominates the photograph, but mainly as a dark block in the left-hand quarter. The full light of the scene is on the face, hands, collar, and cuffs of the man at the table – he is the centre of the composition, albeit offset, and he draws the eye. Because his musical milieu is big-band jazz, and probably for racial reasons too, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is under-acknowledged as one of the great 20c composers of music in the USA. His compositional skills were outstanding. Yet here he sits, this musical genius, utterly enrapt, utterly delighted by the singer’s vocal flexibility and improvisatory skills. One can only imagine what he is hearing and how it is interacting with his own musical sensibilities.

Who else is at the table? Well, I certainly recognise, behind Ellington’s left shoulder, Benny Goodman, “The King of Swing” who, during the era of segregation, led one of the first racially integrated jazz groups. If I cared to, I could do some detective work. But I think I had much rather retain my first impression of this picture…

Q is for Quinn

Marc Quinn’s seven sculptures that make up Emotional Detox (1995) occupy a white space. To walk amongst them is to encounter a Pompeii of torture, each body rendered not in volcanic residue but in the material of Roman curses, common lead. We intrude on physical pain, on torsos hacked from their lower halves, on hands hacked from their arms in the act of clawing their owner’s face, on heads detached and hastily placed back on (the right? the wrong?) neck and shoulders, where they threaten to topple. 

They are casts from the artist’s own body, assembled deliberately flawed, seven to suggest the Deadly Sins – but if we stop before one and speculate “Is this Lust? Avarice?” it is because we want to divert our mind from the agony portrayed, put it to one side while we intellectualise. Far more honest to lose ourselves in the horror of coming back from an addiction that grips both the psyche and the body, to lose ourselves in each great pain that reminds us of, and calls up from the black well of memory, the ranks of pains great and small that we have been prey to. These pains could be natural, and thus forgiven, faced stoically, but for the fact that there are rectangular holes carved into the torsos. There is a four-square deliberation here! If there is catharsis here too, it is the fact that there seems to be no shame in the pain, it is not hidden, it is displayed in awful, blunt, beautiful candour. 

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Images from marcquinn.com

Treating W.G. Sebald to some Phenomenology

W.G. Sebald

It was in July of last year that I posted about how it felt to have an article accepted by an academic journal. It wasn’t until this week – two major re-writes and a long wait later – that the article actually saw the light of day. I didn’t hear from the Journal itself but rather by email from Dr. Uwe Schütte of Aston University, whom I have to thank very sincerely for his advice all the way through this process. He sent me this link to the abstract.

The title of my article is “A walker’s approach [. . .] is a phenomenological one”: W.G. Sebald and the Instant, in which I use the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard and others as a tool for appreciating Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz. In the article I have actually coined some new terms to use in phenomenology. This wasn’t actually planned, but I ended up needing them once I set off down a particular track.

I used my university’s library search facility to find the full article. It didn’t seem to be searchable by my own name, but the journal Monatshefte was, and once I had got that far, locating the new issue and then my article was easy. I noticed some typographical errors and glitches with hyperlinks, which rather took the shine off. Nothing major, though, and now I’m looking forward to receiving hard copy – the proofs I’ve already read through were error-free, as far as I could see.

Who knows whether I will manage to have another article published while I’m studying for my PhD. I’m not ruling it out, but on the other hand getting the thesis done is the main task. Just over a year has gone by since I started at St Andrews, probably the most unlikely PhD candidate ever, or at least that’s how it feels. I now have an article and two conference papers under my belt.

Meanwhile the world is suddenly a very different place. As Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic World, “Change is like death. You don’t know what it looks like until you’re standing at the gates.”

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The life of a shoe

Look; the water has swirled around the relic stones, shells; left sand as its mark inside the subtle shape, speaking of a tide beyond my calculation…

There can be no doubt – can there? – that I experience life as a series of phenomena, each one with its resonances and repercussions, each one sparking ripples and bubbles of memory and imagination, some of which fade or pop, others of which sweep and float onward, as phenomena in their own right. 

So when I come across the remnant of an old shoe at low-tide mark on the West Sands, what grips me is my own seeing, my own understanding, my own curiosity about who might have worn it, why it was discarded, where the other one might be. Already I have cursed it with a name – “shoe” – and have defined it by a purpose it no longer has, fitted it to an unknown foot that walked away long since. I have made it less real than its former wearer, and than that wearer’s naked footprints that the tide has washed away.

And yet, I am told by a friend when I bother to listen to him, things do not cease to exist when we discard them. What ceases to exist is only our narrow definition of them, and that only ceases because we plant ourselves at the centre of everything. 

This shoe that I found may no longer fit a foot, but it has ineffable context in its own right. It shapes the whole landscape of this Scottish strand, because it exists in relation to it, and thus to all things touched by the strand – seawater and dunes – and onward to the whole of what is. It is important, it is vital, it is defining. In being less than the purposeful object which was fashioned and named, it is now somehow so much more. 

If my definition is now worthless – and it was only ever a metaphor in the first place – then we are no longer looking at a meaningful world, but at the possibility of infinite meaningful worlds…

Solitude, Consent, Brilliance

Today I dressed in my rain gear and set out from the student residence where I stay. I decided to go a back way from there to town, my goal being the West Sands. So I wandered along paved footpaths I had never set foot on before, past university buildings old and new that I had never seen before, in a general direction I was guessing at, navigating by a kind of urban dead reckoning. My route brought me out onto a street where the occasional urgent motor car buzzed past. “Where does this lead, I wonder?” I thought. When I had gone along this street for about one hundred and fifty metres, I suddenly realised I was actually on a street I walk along almost daily. Coming to it from an unexpected angle, on a journey of discovery, had made it so magically unfamiliar, that recognition was a similarly magical transformation. 

It was a moment of intense joy – I can’t say why. But it struck me that moments like this are to be prized, treasured, stored in the memory to be brought out again in the future and brightened by imagination filing in the gaps. My advice to my readers is to look for things like this in your life. No matter what age you are, these brilliant moments are of such value. We live in tough times, and we need these occurrences of beauty. I hope they never cease to happen to me.

The tide was out on the West Sands, so it was a long walk to where the waves broke on the shore. The few figures on the beach – no, I did not ask for their consent to be photographed (see my last post) – only seemed to enhance the loneliness. I walked all the way to Out Head along the line of breaking waves, scattering flocks of oystercatchers as I went, and back along high tide mark.

I was lonely, I got soaked to the skin, and I didn’t care about either of those facts. It was a peaceful, natural kind of loneliness, so later when I bumped into two lovely friends in town, the natural loneliness and the serendipitous company enhanced each other.

A grey day like today seemed to cry out for black & white photography…

… taken on my old Nokia mobile phone.