“I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head perhaps a trifle too large.”
In 1944, with World War II in the background, the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist composed The Dwarf (Dvärgen), which Alexandra Dick translated for the English-speaking world in 1945. Known for slim, allegorical novels, and simple, direct language, often reading like a fairy tale, Lagerkvist created one of the most evil and compelling characters in world literature: Piccoline the dwarf. Lagerkvist’s Dwarf is his warning about any -ism, any ideology.
A Swede commenting on political power should give pause. Sweden, though it has maintained neutrality since 1815, exhibited what could only be called schizophrenic behavior, for and against both sides of the conflict in World War II. For instance, Sweden allowed the Wehrmacht to use the country’s railways to invade Norway and Finland, yet provided refuge to nearly all of Denmark’s expelled Jews, some Norwegian Jews, and collaborated with Allied air forces by granting then airbase space. Sweden harbored a teeming Nazi movement (remember the first book of the Millennium trilogy?) and yet had heroes like Raoul Wallenberg. Lagerkvist may have been writing The Dwarf with a sense of guilt.
Piccoline states at the start of the novel that he is not human; he is a dwarf, an older tribe of life in our world, born misshapen and old at birth. He is a physical aberration, outside of Nature. For an additional touch, Lagerkvist’s dwarf is a redhead. Redheads, more often than not, have had a bad reputation in history and literature, associated with Judaism, with Barbarossa, Elizabeth I, Judas, Lenin, Malcolm X, Mordred, and Napoleon. Piccoline is not a Diane Arbus oddity. He is a terrifying figure.
Lagerkvist situates the story at an Italian court, in the Renaissance period. The author turned to that period in history because it had created the nascent modern political state and offered a model for political leadership: the Prince. The Church was still active but declining in prestige and influence. Both Eliot and D.H. Lawrence would agree on this point. Secularism was on the rise. The Machiavellian prince had become the model of a good leader because he inspired fear and because he was respected for his gifts of deception and manipulation. Piccoline is the prince’s right-hand man.
Piccoline lives to serve his prince. The head of State must maintain power. Piccoline is, in essence, a capable bureaucrat, a predecessor of the efficient bureaucrats of the Holocaust. The prince denies culpability and the few times that Piccoline is thought excessive he is punished, but never executed: the prince knows better. Piccoline is too good at what he does, serving the prince’s purposes. He’ll go away, spend some time in chains, but then he’ll return, more poisonous and more spiteful than ever. If Piccoline is evil and the prince employs his service often, then isn’t the prince evil? Aren’t evil acts a political necessity? The Dwarf is a series of journal entries into which the reader is led and, as the Dwarf himself might be pleased to know, sadist that he is, entertained by unthinkable and unspeakable acts of terror and mayhem.
The reader eats it all up, page after page of a sociopath’s adventures. We are bourgeois, consumers of mass culture, including its literature. Lagerkvist is illustrating Hermann Broch‘s idea of mass psychosis. We have become consumers of graven images and ideas. Hatred consumes Piccoline and we consume him for entertainment. ‘Consumer’ is an awful word. It is a horrible concept. ‘Consumer’ equates the human being to a biblical plague, like grasshoppers in the Pharaoh’s fields. We accept “consumers” in business language and popular culture without so much as raising an eyebrow. ‘Consumption’ is seen as a positive value. Marketing is the pseudoscience of human desire.
We like Evil. Lagerkvist shows that the State and Individual are capable of evil. We condone and justify “necessary murder.” Evil fascinates us in literature and movies. We might say that we like to see Good triumph at the end, but the truth is, Evil is far more engaging and entertaining. ‘Beauté du Diable,’ as the French would say. Evil is erotic, fantasy, and wish fulfillment. Eliot and modernists would have diagnosed this aesthetic as corrupt and pathological. Vampires and werewolves, for instance, were frightening because they were undead, incapable of final rest. We have made vampires and werewolves dynastic; we’ve made them misunderstood creatures, full of wisdom, intriguing to us day-walkers. The bald and bat-eared Nosferatu of 1922 is the great-great grandfather of Joss Whedon’s Angel and Spike.
Good is banal and boring; Evil, dark and enticing. Dante’s Inferno is far more interesting than Paradiso; and that is what is wrong about ‘modern culture.’ Walt Whitman, the precursor to modernist poetry, is bold and bombastic, until he starts talking about death. Emily Dickinson, otherwise a cipher, has our ears and rivets us when she talks about Death. French literature is stuffy and tedious, until Baudelaire shows the reader that Paris is a necropolis, full of decay and decadence. We like Evil. We like serial killers and the pathology of a mind utterly unhinged. We want to hear what Hannibal Lechter says, as long as he is behind glass. Does Art reflect reality and culture? Is this our interior space?
Quite simply, the concept of the undead in popular culture is metaphorical. We are the undead. We are the automatons, the electronic sheep, the sleepwalkers whose sole purpose is to be brand-loyal consumers once we leave the multiplex. Art (often unconsciously) tells us that the king is naked. We laugh, find a momentary recognition of reality, but we end up dismissing it as entertainment, as fiction. The Matrix informs us that we have been sleeping inside a cocoon. We come out of the theater and return to the cocoon. No awakening. No enlightenment. There was a reason why George Romero ended Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a mall.
Literature has had numerous demons. Authors, for artistic purposes, have demonized feminine sexuality, skin color, ethnicity: Catholics as Papists, Jews, Italians, and Poles, but sexuality can be suppressed and ethnicity, hidden. Changing skin color is difficult, but not impossible. A dwarf is undeniable. Not all dwarfs are evil, though. Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is clinically insane, but not evil. Ursula Hegi’s Trudi Montag in Stones from the River is difficult, but heroic. George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is cagey and wily, but he is by necessity. Lagerkvist’s Piccoline is evil. He knows it and takes delight in it. In The Dwarf, evil rests in chains; not vanquished, but waiting, like Milton’s Satan, or the Titans in classical mythology. Patient, seething Piccoline waits to serve again, knowing that his prince will need him.
Nietzsche, when he studied Greek drama, had seen two strains in western culture: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Classical authors emphasized Apollo’s power to enlighten and blind others. Apollo is a sadist. Hence, Eliot’s quote from the Cumaean Sibyl. Apollo had granted her wish for immortality, but because she had failed to ask for eternal youth he let her age. Her wish is to die. For Eliot, the Sibyl is Europe personified; she is the mind of Europe. She is western culture. For Lagerkvist, the dwarf is Europe, the allegorical darker half of its culture and reality.
The ancient Greeks associated Apollo’s name with the verb απόλλυμι, apóllymi, ‘to destroy.’ The mechanized, organized, and systematic violence of the twentieth century is Apollonian, not Dionysian or Chthonic. Dionysus is planned and organized destruction. When the statues of Apollo became Jesus — statues from antiquity were often recycled — the prototype image of Jesus is that of light conquering darkness. Paleochristian art imagery celebrated Christ triumphant and not the sorrowful and crucified Christ. Think of the Christ Pantocrator in the paleochristian churches. Dionysus would become the Devil. In the pagan view Good and Evil can switch and blend into each other like the Tao symbol, while Christianity has Good and Evil eternally fixed and antagonistic. For the pagan’s cyclical and fluid mind, day always comes after night; and in the Christian mind, linear and dogmatic, evil is absolute, rigid in its negativity.
The literary post-modernists, after the war, relaxed the aesthetics somewhat. They exchanged Eliot’s dense obscurity for simplicity, direct communication: William Carlos Williams’s poetry. They pitched Art to the middle-class. But the ideology is still there. Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is challenging. So much depends on how it is read because of its syntax, its lack of implied ‘that’ and ‘ought.’ Samuel Beckett the postmodernist dramatist would, like Eliot, be accused of ‘elitism’ and ‘pessimism’ — his old lady in Rockaby says, ‘fuck life’ — yet Beckett insists upon conveying brief moments of helpless compassion in his plays. The early postmodernists did not have compassion. The later postmodernists would have seen the ideology machine grind away in the rhetoric of the Cold War, the conservative Reagan and Thatcher years, and subsequent neoconservatism of George Bush.
What is not often discussed is that many of the early modernists rescinded their earlier views. They repented. T.S. Eliot, later in life, would recant nearly all of his earlier positions. His last essays speak against deliberate evasiveness and obfuscation, against classicism. Eliot would turn, like the postmodernists, to writing for the bourgeoisie. No longer capable of composing poetry, he chose to write drama. Throughout World War II, T.S. Eliot would attend daily Mass at a church near Kensington, often at 6am. He did this every day for the rest of his life. Eliot, like his peers, had wanted violence in the Thirties, had lived through the First World War, but was incapable of comprehending the magnitude of the Holocaust. Robert Graves would dismiss the Thirties as the “long weekend.” Ezra Pound would be silent throughout the Sixties. Scholars refer to this period of Pound’s life as penance for his wartime behavior. When T.S. Eliot was prepared as a witness for the defense at D.H. Lawrence’s obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was anticipated that Eliot’s earlier words about Lawrence would be used against him, for he [Eliot] had called Lawrence “a sick man” in his “modern heretics” essay. Eliot was prepared to state on behalf of Lawrence’s defense that he was also a sick man then. Eliot revisited his earlier self in the 1961 essay To Criticize the Critic.
Modernism had become the negation of Renaissance ideals; it had become another ideology, which in every manifestation requires, has required, “necessary murder.” The Dwarf, the incarnation of Ideology, is still alive, not because human nature needs him, but rather because Power and the Reality we have conspired to create find him necessary.
In Part I, I quickly showed that intellectuals are often as bad at dealing with reality as they are good at their Art. To provide an obvious example: look at Karl Marx. His insights on social structures were the work of true genius, but the praxis he derives from them was disastrous. Heidegger had had a short flirtation with Nazism and for a moment he had really thought that they were sent by the Gods to save the world from the scientific-technological despair into which he saw it falling, yet he would write an essay called Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten, “at this point only a God can save us.” Heidegger saw ‘despair’ in the glorified rise of rationalism and technology, which he saw as inhuman.
In Part II, I provide a literary creation that I thought had represented the logical outcome of the call for violence. In the final section, Part III, I will return to the politically incorrect idea that we live in a dual universe and no one thing can exist without its opposite. There is day because there is night. There is light because there is darkness. There is peace because there is war. There is love because there is hatred. The position I will take is heretical and pagan: modern consumerist culture, with all its imagery, is the new violence; it is the triumph of nihilism, and the artist must take a stand or remain complicit with a machinery of death.