Monday, September 26, 2005

Avast, me hearties!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "The Frozen Echo"

Kirsten A. Seaver: The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500. Stanford University Press, 1996. 0804731616. xviii + 407 pp.

The Viking discovery of Greenland and America, and their subsequent colonization of some areas of Greenland, has long been a topic of fascination for me. Perhaps what attracted me most was the fact that their settlements endured for several centuries but then disappeared. Firstly, there is an element of mystery in that, just like in all disappearances: what exactly happened, what went wrong? What was it like for the last survivors; how did the last generations experience the decline of their settlements? And besides, these colonies had managed to survive for several centuries; they weren't like those that fail in within the first few years, nor yet were they like those that actually manage to survive for good: they did decline and disappear eventually, but not so soon. This is what makes it especially curious. And how could contact between Europe and Greenland be so completely lost for several centuries, after there had been plenty of contact during the middle ages? And what would have happened if the Norse colonies in Greenland had endured and prospered, and if they had managed to start colonizing North America as well? As I said, it is a fascinating subject, full of very interesting questions. So it is not surprising that I first noticed this book by Seaver several years ago after doing a bit of searching on Recently I read Jared Diamond's Collapse, where a couple of chapters deal with the decline of Norse Greenland; I found this so intriguing that I decided it was finally time to order Seaver's book and read more about this subject.

Although this book was interesting, reading it was nevertheless a bit of an effort. The author goes into a lot of detail, discusses various historical sources and archaeological finds, points out questions on which the historians have not reached a consensus (and she often presents various points of view, names their supporters, arguments in their favour, etc.), and so on. On the back cover of the book, there is a quote from the Times Literary Supplement: “The clear and precise text, the skillful management of complex themes, [...] make it as easy to read as a novel.” I agree that the text is clear and precise, and handles the complexity of the subject well enough, but I totally disagree that it was as easy to read as a novel. On the contrary, I found much of it fairly dry. I am reminded of Steven Runciman's preface to his Sicilian Vespers: “The canvas is wide; [...] It is also crowded with characters; but a historical canvas is necessarily crowded, and readers who are afraid of crowds should keep to the better-ordered lanes of fiction.” Here in The Frozen Echo the canvas also felt wide and quite crowded, especially with people bearing complicated Icelandic names which all looked alike to me. Fortunately you can usually more or less ignore many of these details and still have a reasonably good idea of what is going on and what is the message of that part of the book.

The first chapter contains some interesting passages about early Norse navigational instruments (pp. 16–19). It also discusses their voyages to America; in addition to those that took place around the year 1000 and were reported in the sagas (pp. 24–7), it is likely that the Norse Greenlanders returned to the American coast in later centuries as well, chiefly to obtain wood (which they would otherwise have to import from Europe at great expense); pp. 28–30. There are even some hints of possible later attempts to settle in America, pp. 33–6. Curious arrangements of walrus jaws and skulls in Norse burial sites: p. 31.

Chapter 2 presents the Greenland society and economy. Though it was a hard life, they were doing reasonably well. Greenland exported luxury items such as white falcons, walrus ivory, nawhal horns, fur (including that of polar bears), as well as more commonplace things such as animal skins and wool (p. 48); on the other hand, it imported iron, as well as luxury items for the wealthy Greenlanders (grain, malt, honey, pitch; p. 47). Their houses were built of turf and stone (due to lack of wood); pp. 49, 51. They raised and ate sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, horses (pp. 54–5) and supplemented their diet with various edible plants (pp. 50–1). They also hunted seals, but lacked harpoons to hunt ringed seals like the Eskimos did (p. 55). It would be surprising if they did not also catch and eat fish, but the evidence is inconclusive (pp. 56–7). Due to their isolation and low population density, both the people and their animals were fairly healthy compared to many other parts of medieval Europe (p. 58). The distance from Europe also protected Greenland from the worst forms of plague: a ship's crew infected with the plague would die before the ship could reach Greenland (p. 89).

Chapter 3 contains much information about the establishment of the Church in Greenland, and the activities of various bishops. From the 13th century onwards, the gaps between episcopal appointments increased, partly because Norway was increasingly indifferent to its Atlantic colonies (the bishop of Gardar in Greenland had to be appointed by the archbishop of Trondheim); p. 69. From the mid-13th century, Greenland came under Norwegian influence (pp. 71, 73, and Greenland trade became a Norwegian monopoly, p. 81). There are some debates about whether the Greenland economy went into a decline after the late 13th century (pp. 81–2); however, Greenland exports such as walrus ivory and gyrfalcons retained their value (pp. 82–3), and navigation to Greenland was more difficult (due to colder climate) but still possible (p. 84). Trade continued throughout the 14th century, and Greenland was not exactly poor (p. 87).

An important 14th-century source of information about Greenland is the report of Ivar Bárdarson, a Norwegian priest who went there in 1341 and stayed for almost twenty years (p. 90, ch. 4). There were two Norse settlements in Greenland: the Western Settlement was slightly to the west and much to the north of the Eastern Settlement (both were in fact in the southwest of Greenland). Because of its location, colder climate, shorter summers, etc., the Western Settlement was smaller and went into decline earlier than the Eastern Settlement. Bárdarson stayed mostly at the Eastern Settlement, but visited the Western one around 1350 and found it deserted (p. 104). Hence many historians assumed that the Western Settlement had been abandoned by then. Hypotheses that fights with Eskimos might have caused the demise of the Norse settlements are now rejected (p. 105; relations with the Eskimos were mostly friendly, pp. 141–3); others have speculated that the people of the Western Settlement decided to emigrate across the Davis Strait and settle in America (pp. 107–9). However, there is evidence that the settlement was not yet abandoned in Bárdarson's time; it is likely that the inhabitants realized that Bárdarson was coming in the capacity of a tax collector, and fled when they saw his ship approach (pp. 109–10). The Greenlanders stopped sending taxes to Norway at some point in the 14th century, but this was probably due to alienation from the Norwegian authorities rather than from extreme poverty (p. 112). An unfortunate consequence was that it also encouraged Norway to lose interest in Greenland.

Chapter 5 discusses the likely end of the Western Settlement. At least some of the farms remained occupied to the late 14th century (p. 113), and the settlement still functioned as a community (communal hunts, p. 119). The last inhabitants did not die there (p. 127); they were “prospering to the last” (p. 128) and eventually emigrated, probably to the Eastern Settlement (p. 114). In this they were encouraged by deteriorating climate and erosion problems (pp. 115–8). In the mid-14th century, they were not yet isolated (e.g. a Scottish (Campbell) coat of arms was found in the Western Settlement, p. 122); indeed there is much evidence for British medieval contacts with Greenland (pp. 123–5). Greenland may have been visited in 1360 by an English Minorite friar, the author of the lost book Inventio fortunatae (both the book and the author “seem to have been genuine enough”, p. 135); pp. 132–6.

From the late 14th century onwards, Greenland was increasingly neglected by Norwegian officialdom; nor were things improved by the union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (p. 144), the centre of which was Denmark while Norway was the least important part. Although titular priests of Gardar continued to be appointed (p. 145), none of them actually went to Greenland after the 1370s (pp. 139–40, 144). The Danish kings had a monopoly over trade with Greenland but didn't send any ships there, so private merchants from Iceland were increasingly tempted to sail to Greenland illegaly, knowing that the long isolation would make Greenlanders desperate for trade and thus willing to pay high prices. To avoid problems with the authorities in Denmark or Norway, traders pretended that they had planned to sail to Iceland but were driven to Greenland by storms (which was in fact not impossible); p. 146–7. There were several such voyages in the 1380s (pp. 147–50), and the last recorded voyage was in 1406–10 (pp. 151–8). Knowledge of and involvement in these lucrative trade routes was somewhat of a jealously guarded secret; thus, unsurprisingly, many of the people involved in these voyages were related by various close kinship ties. There is also evidence that “conditions in the Eastern Settlement were normal and prosperous” and that there was still normal communication with Iceland (p. 156). It is possible that another voyage to Greenland took place ca. 1417–9 (pp. 168–70).

Chapter 7 is about the increasing English presence in the North Atlantic, and the English relations with the Norwegian colonies. The English were primarily motivated by cod fishing (p. 162); advances in naval technology also contributed to the growth of ship traffic in the North Atlantic (pp. 161–2). The English were visiting Iceland since the early 15th century (p. 161), then started exploiting the more abundant fisheries northwest of Iceland, then soon sighted Greenland and since 1430 also visited the Newfoundland banks (pp. 170, 180–1). The English likely also had contacts with the descendants of the last Icelandic visitors to Greenland (p. 164). Bristol was particularly active in North Atlantic fishing and trading (p. 180). Various archaeological finds in Greenland show that there were contacts between the English and the Greenlanders in the 15th century (pp. 171–3; also the late 15th century, pp. 225, 227–34, 236–7); at the same time the Norwegian economy was in decline, and even its contacts with Iceland were weakening (p. 182). The English influence in Iceland grew (p. 186; and often became quite violent, pp. 176–9). Iceland also became quite a rough and lawless place during this time (and poor, p. 194), and its direct contacts with Greenland ceased (pp. 190–2). Only the English were likely to visit Greenland after the mid-15th century (pp. 196–7). Various restrictions concerning the activities of foreigners in Iceland were introduced after 1490 (the Piningsdómur, p. 204). By the late 15th century, the English were familiar with most of the North Atlantic (p. 205), and crossed the Davis Strait (p. 218). Various maps from that time (pp. 209–10, 212–17) show vague entities such as a “Green Isle” and an “Isle of Brasil” in the NW Atlantic. After the 1480, the English started trying to reach these areas by sailing westwards from Britain rather than via Iceland and Greenland (pp. 220–5); but knowledge of this was limited to a small circle of people in Bristol until the Cabot voyages of 1497 (p. 222).

Greenland, as we saw above, had contacts with the English throughout most of the 15th century. It was still doing well at the time (p. 235), nor was its society overly harmed by the loss of contact with the church (pp. 237–8). The Greenlanders did not suffer from malnutrition, or from degeneration due to inbreeding (pp. 238 9), nor did a sudden catastrophe force them to leave (p. 240). They were still able to produce and distribute food (pp. 241–2). The Little Ice Age was not particularly cold in Greenland (p. 246); however, the Greenlanders were certainly vulnerable to short periods of particularly harsh climate (p. 247; one such might have been caused by a volcanic eruption in the Pacific in 1453, p. 245). They were likely also affected by the loss of the Western Settlement, whence they had formerly sent their ships to Markland (i.e. Canada) to gather timber, and which was a good starting point for their expeditions to the hunting grounds in the North (Norðrseta). Possibly they abandoned the latter expeditions because of the presence of unfriendly Englishmen in the sea near Greenland, or they actually chose to fish for cod instead, so that they could sell it to the English (p. 248). The Greenland contacts with Europeans, which had been strong enough for most of the 15th century, weakened after 1480 (p. 251). Some of the Greenlanders might have taken jobs aboard English ships, which would deprive the Greenland community of the strongest, most vigorous part of its population; the remainder may have been unable to produce enough surplus for trade; and besides, the English eventually started going to the Labrador/Newfoundland area directly, without stopping at Greenland (pp. 251–2).

Chapter 10 presents the first stages of the Age of Discovery in the North Atlantic. The English (particularly the Bristolmen) and the Portuguese (particularly Azoreans) were the most active here. Thus John Cabot sailed from Bristol and reached North America in 1497, bypassing Greenland (pp. 265–73). The Bristolmen involved in these expeditions were substantially the same group of people who had been active in North Atlantic shipping and fishing in the preceding decades (pp. 290–1). Various Azoreans (the Corte Reals, Pedro de Barcelos, João Fernandes) visited Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia around 1500, and also sailed near Greenland (pp. 275–7, 281–3); as a 1502 map shows, the Portuguese were aware of Greenland but not of the Norse settlement (pp. 278–9). It is possible that unrecorded (Portuguese) voyages reached North America before Cabot (p. 280). In fact Portuguese navigational skills were more advanced than those of the English at that time, p. 284. Various associations of Azorean and Bristol venturers were also tried in the first years of the 16th century (pp. 291–302). In some of these ventures, Azoreans might have been seeking to establish permanent shore stations (and perhaps colonies) in North America to support the increasing Portuguese presence in the Newfoundland fisheries (pp. 302–4). Given their association with the Bristolmen, and given the Bristol awareness of Greenland, it is possible that some Greenlanders might have been invited to participate in such a colonization effort (p. 305). Emigration of this sort might be attractive to many Greenlanders, particularly the young, healthy, strong part of the population, while the remainder would slowly die in isolation (note that there was no longer much need for e.g. the English to visit Greenland, as they were now able to go directly to the fisheries near North America); pp. 306–7. Note that there is no evidence that such a colonization effort actually took place, but then it would be very likely to fail anyway, and given the concern with secrecy on part the (Bristol and Azorean) ‘investors’, the lack of written evidence would be unsurprising (pp. 309–11). There is a report that the last Norse Greenlanders were dying out ca. 1540 (p. 307), although some might have survived even into the early 17th century (p. 308).

I must say that reading a book like this really fills me with admiration for the historians and the work they do. How much painstaking work there is behind a book such as this one; how many sources, scattered over so many areas and over such a time span, she had to study; how many persons and events had to be kept in mind; and all this evidence had to be evaluated, compared, unreliable parts weeded out; the whole large pile of facts had to be organized; much creativity was necessary in making sense of the whole thing. It can also be seen, in a book like this, that despite the historians' best efforts, much simply remains unknown; the sources are too patchy or too unreliable; there are many things about which the experts simply disagree, where there are several possible explanations and none can be clearly rejected; where the story cannot be made simple, because we cannot know it clearly enough.

One thing that had me partly amazed and partly annoyed was how the Norwegian and later the Danish kings neglected Greenland (and to a smaller extent even Iceland); they were interested in it as a source of taxes, but the less taxes they got from it, the less interested they were. Would it really have been so difficult to send half a dozen ships from Norway (or Iceland) to Greenland every year? Can the whole of Norway really not have afforded it? Evidently the poverty and economic backwardness of the middle ages was even worse than I thought. If they had kept on sending ships regularly like this (and also supplying priests, administrators and the occasional chronicler), we would, if nothing else, at least have regular and reasonably reliable reports of what had been going on in Greenland. If the Greenland settlements would have proved unviable despite such regular trade contacts, they could be evacuated in an orderly and well-documented manner, leaving no doubts as to their end. But it is also entirely possible that their decline could have been prevented altogether.

The explanation proposed by Seaver at the end of the book, i.e. that the final decline of the Eastern Settlement was due to involvement of many/most of its inhabitants in colonization/exploration of the NW Atlantic, is most intriguing. Of course, as she acknowledges, we have no definite proof of it, but then no clear proof against it either, especially considering that many of the other hypotheses had to be rejected.

Another thing that I found interesting was the emphasis on close relationships between many of the people involved in navigation and exploration. People were loath to divulge their valuable knowledge to outsiders, and often tended to keep it in the family or shared it only with the closest business associates. Thus the sagas about Eirik the Red were written in the 14th and 15th centuries by people who were either descendants and relatives of those involved in the saga, or by people living in the same area and relying on the local lore (p. 164). Similarly tight connections existed among the Bristol merchants (p. 222), and even among the Genoese merchants in Seville who helped finance Columbus' voyage in 1492 (p. 255: “a good example of clannish business interests intertwined with exploration”).

Another thing I appreciated about this book is the complex and nuanced picture it gives us of the early Atlantic exploration. Too often are we inclined to imagine these things in a simplistic way: one fine day Columbus was struck by this brilliant idea of sailing westwards rather than eastwards, and lo! the Age of Discovery sprang into life like Athena out of Zeus's forehead. OK, then we remember that the Portuguese were conducting various voyages throughout the 15th century, had come quite far south along the African coast, etc. But here we see that exploration of the North and Northwest Atlantic also has a rich history. It wasn't simply a matter of a handful of forgotten Viking voyages in AD 1000, to be followed by nothing until the Cabot voyages almost five centuries later. No, here, just like in the Portuguese efforts to circumnavigate Africa, it was a matter of progress by degrees: the English, unhappy with the catch in the North Sea, started visiting Iceland; still wanting more, they began to explore the areas NW of Iceland; soon they sighted Greenland; moving southwest along its coast, they eventually reached the shallow parts of the ocean east of Newfoundland; a bit later they learned how to sail directly across the Atlantic rather than hop to Iceland and Greenland first. Meanwhile they also sailed northwards along the western coast of Greenland and into the Davis Strait. It wasn't a matter of one or two intrepid explorers with a bold vision, but simply a matter of a number of hard-nosed fishermen, businessmen, merchants, making their living, seeking profit, gaining experience, introducing a technological innovation every now and then, and all this time progressing slowly but steadily, step by step, until the North Atlantic became for them as familiar a place as the sea just outside their native harbours. This view is, of course, altogether more humdrum and less heroic than the one focused on an individual famous explorer, and lends itself considerably worse to the production of epic movies with a pompous soundtrack; but it is, nevertheless, closer to the truth, and also more encouraging as it shows that progress comes from the humble efforts of ordinary people rather than from a minority of heroic demigods.

Here are some other interesting bits from the book:

“[F]rom the shark's flesh the Norse prepared the notorious dish hákarl, with which modern Icelanders can stil put tourists to flight.” (P. 248.) I couldn't resist looking it up on the web, and as this web page shows, the notoriety is well deserved. It is basically rotten shark. The meat is buried in gravel for a month or two, and then excavated and left to dry for several more months.

The origin of the name Labrador is quite interesting. It was named after João Fernandes, an Azorean llavrador or landowner (pp. 281, 285–8; originally the word meant just ‘farmer’). The name was initially applied to the southern tip of Greenland; after 1570 it was moved to its present location (p. 288).

The plague struck Iceland in 1402–4. One of its consequences was that wealth was now concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people: pp. 140, 150, 324. “For survivors able to turn a grim situation to advantage, life not only went on, it went very well.”

I learned a curious word on pp. 229–30: “liripipe”. See this page for an explanation (“a dangling extension to the point of a medieval hood”). Such hoods were used in Europe after the mid-14th century, and many were also found in Greenland (p. 229).


  • Seaver recently wrote another book, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map. As could already be seen in The Frozen Echo, the study of old maps can yield valuable information about the progress of geographic discovery and of contacts between different parts of the world. The Vinland Map is a map of the world, supposedly from the 1440s, and it shows among other things a bit of the North American coast with a legend mentioning its discovery by Leif Eiriksson around the year 1000. The map, bound together with the ‘Tartar Relation’ (the description of a 13th-century journey to Mongolia), first appeared in the antiquarian book market in 1957 and was eventually bought by Yale University. The Tartar Relation is generally accepted as authentic, but there have been many debates regarding the authenticity of the map; in this book, Seaver presents her arguments that the map is a recent forgery. I haven't read it yet, but judging from the synopsis at amazon it promises to be a very fascinating book. See also pp. 164–5 in The Frozen Echo.
  • R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, George D. Painter: The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. After Yale bought the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, various experts studied it and eventually prepared this book in 1965; it contains photographic reproductions of the map and the manuscript, a translation of the Tartar Relation, and various studies by the three authors. Their conclusion is that the map is genuine. I haven't read this book yet, but it seems interesting enough, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems to have been almost a bestseller in its time, and inexpensive second-hand copies abound on ABE. A second edition was published in 1995, reprinting the old text but adding a few chapters, still upholding the genuineness of the map. The book is somewhat ostentatious — a large, thick hardcover (23 by 30 cm, 4 cm thick, although it's just 400 pages) and is currently listed at amazon for the abominable sum of $85. I got a near fine copy for $22.5 via ABE.
  • As can be seen in The Frozen Echo, cod fishing played a prominent role in medieval European exploration of the Northern Atlantic. The English fishermen and traders were particularly interested in cod. Well, this reminded me that, a few years ago, a book was published under the unlikely title Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and in fact became a bit of a besteller. I'm not terribly fond of fish, and have never eaten cod nor do I see why I should want to, so I have until now been entirely indifferent to that book; indeed my first and probably only thought on hearing the word “cod” is the passage from Burns' The Twa Dogs, describing a Newfoundland dog: “His hair, his size, his mouth, his lugs,/ Shew'd he was nane o' Scotland's dogs;/ But whalpit some place far abroad,/ Whare sailors gang to fish for cod.” Anyway, now, after reading so much about cod fishing and its importance in The Frozen Echo, I find myself curious to learn more about it, and I just might eventually pick up Cod: A Biography as well.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

BOOK: Sven Hedin, "German Diary" (cont.)

[This is part 2 of this post. Part 1 appeared yesterday.]

In a conversation with Goebbels, Hedin says (p. 92): “I have no hatred for Bolshevism and actually no one can contest the right of the Russians to adopt whatever philosophy or ideology they please.” On the one hand, I of course entirely agree that people should be able to adopt whatever system they please. But on the other hand we must admit that, if it turns out that a regime is being maintained against the will of the people, the decent thing to do would be to help them change it rather than to let them keep on suffering and pretend that it's entirely their own responsibility to rid themselves of their tyrants and oppresors.

In fact Hedin has this attitude not only to communism in Russia but also to nazism in Germany. “If the Germans in the days of their power preferred Nazism to any other system, that was their concern and no one else's. If the Soviet Russians regard Bolshevism as the finest of all ideologies and ways of life, then leave them in peace and do not interfere in their internal affairs. To denounce Nazism, as was done during the war, and at the same time send up prayers in our cathedrals for the victory of the Red Army, was illogical.” (P. 109.) But there is much that is silly about this passage. If, for example, one were to feel that more good (or less harm) would proceed from the victory of the Red Army than from that of the Third Reich, it would be quite logical to pray for the former rather than for the latter. No matter how many people died in his gulags, we must admit that Stalin did not fantasize about depopulating and then colonizing entire continents, or about instituting a brutal and caste-like racial hierarchy. Even given the deplorable perversions of the system under Stalin, communism remained an infinitely nobler and more desirable ideology than nazism. But then I've written about this before; there's no use repeating myself now.

But regardless of these quibbles about the relative value of different ideologies, Hedin's comments open up that well-known question of national sovereignty. Should we say that national borders are sacred and inviolable and no matter what unspeakable horrors are being perpetrated on the other side, they are none of our business whatsoever? I don't think so. If one's neighbour is beating his wife, I think one has a moral obligation to help her. Of course he will claim that she likes it, that she wants it, but if her shrieks for help resound through the neighbourhood, we have a moral obligation to look into the matter and ascertain if everything that is being done to her is really being done with her consent and approval. Likewise, if nazism has been set up in Germany, or bolshevism in Soviet Russia, we cannot get away by simply pretending that “the Germans [...] preferred” it that way and that the “Soviet Russians” regard it as the best of all systems: nations consist of individual people, and each individual person has an opinion of his or her own. Some Germans may have preferred nazism to some other system, others not; and if the former have begun to oppress and persecute the latter, and we let them get away with it by saying that it's the Germans' own internal affair and hence none of our business — then we are reprehensible scoundrels, and richly deserve whatever bad things will happen to us once the Germans are done with oppressing each other and dedicate their energies to oppressing us.

Of course it's true that this doctrine has its problems as well; many countries would be all too glad to meddle in the affairs of their neighbours under the pretext that they are righting some wrong that is supposedly being perpetrated there. But this just means that such meddling must be carefully limited and regulated, and shouldn't be permitted to nations acting individually, but only to larger groups of nations among whom a consensus has been reached. We should force the nations of the world to agree on more than just the principle of their inviolability from external interference.

Hedin's attitude to both Tsarist and Soviet Russia is in fact remarkably positive; both have, he says, supported him in his travels (p. 107). But most of all he likes Russia as a country, for its landscape, its culture, its diversity, its sheer scale: “She fascinates by her very grandiose immensity. She impresses by her limitless extent, her distances of thousands of miles from east to west, her poverty, her wealth of Altai gold, her barbarism, her enormous population and her irresistible strength.” (P. 110.) I sometimes feel a bit of a similar sort of fondness for large and grandiose things; but I cannot help at the same time disapproving of this; it seems somehow shallow and simplistic to admire something merely because it is large. It reminds me of how as a child I often used to be fascinated by the British pound for no other reason than that it was the largest unit of currency featured in the exchange rate tables in the daily newspapers. Silly me, I gave no thought to the fact that what matters in a currency isn't the value of its unit but how well it keeps this value, how stable it is.

And you can see right away that he's a geographer: “All this external framework, this impressiveness and beauty still remains and could never be wiped out by the November Revolution of 1917 simply because it is dependent on geographical, meteorological and physical conditions, natural laws that remain untouched by even the most radical political upheavals.” (P. 110.) Incidentally, it's interesting that he refers to it as the “November revolution”. Of course it was November in the Gregorian calendar, but still almost everyone calls it the October revolution. Google finds 9020 hits for “November revolution” and 131000 for “October revolution”.

On Himmler, p. 121: “He had none of the look of a cruel and ruthless despot and might just as well have been an elementary school teacher from some provincial town.” I've often heard such comparisons about Himmler. Perhaps it's because of his glasses. Besides, there does often seem to be a certain pedantic air about him. Hedin and Himmler discussed Schäfer's recent expedition to Tibet (p. 122) and plans for Schäfer's future work (pp. 166–7). Hedin also tried to talk to Himmler about better treatment of Jews and Poles (p. 123), but of course didn't get anywhere with it. These sort of things are one of the more annoying aspects of Hedin and of this book. Here he was dealing with people who thought nothing of waging agressive war, oppressing and murdering people by the millions, etc., etc., and what the heck did Hedin imagine? That he would come, knock at the door, strike up a conversation and oh, by the way, Herr Reichsführer, you really could be treating those Jews and Poles a bit better — and that this would have any effect? How on earth did he expect that these silly personal diplomacy efforts of his could make any difference whatsoever? After the Nazis had shown such dedication to their goals, such utter lack of conscience and scrupulousness, how could he imagine that they would let any odd Swedish explorer persuade them to change their course? There is really, as others have observed about this book, either some incredible naïveté here, or some remarkable arrogance.

During another visit to Himmler, he tried to ask for more lenient treatment of an imprisoned Habsburg Archduke, but Himmler was as immovable as a wall: “There can be no question of treating the great with leniency while the ordinary people are treated with severity.” (P. 168.) This attitude would be in fact commendable — oppressing everybody in the same way is, in my opinion, more decent than oppressing just the poor while treating the rich leniently. But I don't think that Himmler and the SS were anywhere nearly so scrupulously impartial and incorruptible as Himmler would like to make it appear in this conversation.

Here's another silly observation from August 1940 (p. 131): “A few days previously Col. Charles Lindbergh had made a speech describing how on a recent visit to Europe he had found the British too rich and the Germans too poor. The injustice was one of the forces that made for war. There must be a levelling out. He was right: 70 million Britons in Europe and the Dominions owned one quarter of the earth's surface whereas 80 million Germans did not possess a single square mile outside the frontiers of Germany. So that it was not unreasonable of the Germans to demand their African colonies back.” I wonder if it's true that ordinary Britons were significantly better off than ordinary Germans. It's true that James Gerard did mention something like that in the time of the first world war; perhaps the difference was still there in the 1940s. But anyway, to say that 70 million Britons owned one quarter of the earth's surface is patently ridiculous. It makes about as much sense as saying that Bill Gates and me together own a gazillion dollars. Yes we do, but what use is it to me? And what use was the fact that Britain ruled over India and Uganda and Nigeria to some impoverished British farmer, or an overexploited British worker? The colonies were undoubtedly good for the wealthy classes of people, and for those who made their careers in the colonial administration and in the army; but for the bulk of the people, the colonies didn't do anything good except give them the occasional excuse for a bout of flag-waving jingoism. — Anyway, Lindbergh talks about a “leveling out”; not that I disagree — I love leveling out! But I'm surprised that a right-wing person such as Lindbergh didn't realize that this idea is rank communism pure and simple. If he had suggested such a thing ten years later, I'm sure that Sen. McCarthy would start grilling him in no time. :-) But anyhow, the only decent thing to do in that situation would be to require the British to give up their colonies just like the Germans had given up theirs. What bloody business do the Germans have possessing land outsides the frontiers of Germany, or the British outside the frontiers of Britain? Lindberg talks about injustice, but that is like seeing a robber complain about injustice because his colleague had acquired more loot than himself! I suppose we shouldn't be too hard on Hedin, for he was of course a product of his times, and those were times when it was still widely accepted that the developed countries should rule over the rest of the world, and imperialism hadn't yet become the dirty word it is now. But anyway, it is still impressive to see how he completely overlooks the absurdity of the situation in which we are arguing how to divide the colonies between Britain and Germany, while not sparing a single thought to the opinions of the people who actually inhabit the territories that are being divided.

One thing that surprised me in this book is how we hear, over and over again, that Hitler's chief goal in the first years of the war (before he began the attack on the Soviet Union) was to stop the British influence over continental Europe: “I must have the continent. [...] England's control over the mainland of Europe has had its day. It is over now.” (Hitler on p. 43.) “Yet he [Hitler before the war] had on certain occasions cast jibes at Britain's eternal efforts to Balkanise Europe” (p. 47). What a ridiculous complaint. Why single out Britain for criticism here? It's not like they were the first to realize that “divide and conquer” is a good idea. Nobody wants their rivals to be united and strong. “It is not our intention to crush any Power—merely to exclude England from the continent of Europe” (minister Rust on p. 119). “He [Hitler in a Reichstag speech, 19 July 1940] demanded unrestricted freedom of movement on the European continent and the return of the African colonies. But England refused.” (p. 129). “[A] German official told me that [...] Hitler [...] was willing to have peace on condition that Britain abandoned her suzarainty [sic] over Europe” and returned the former German colonies (p. 135). “England believes that she can treat Europe like another Balkans, but she is wrong. [...] They have treated Germany and Europe as though they were Balkan countries.” (Hitler on p. 179.) All of these statements sound like ridiculous paranoia — actually they border on complete lunacy. I have never yet heard of this supposed tremendous influence of Britain on continental Europe during the interwar period. And if anybody's quest for influence on the continent justifies the use of words such as “control” and “suzerainty”, it is surely not Britain's but that of Nazi Germany.

Another silly thing about the Nazis is their obsession with the press in foreign countries, particularly with what the press is saying about Germany. I guess they were thinking that, since they had total control over their own press and used it to its maximum potential to brainwash their own population, every other country must necessarily be the same, and thus listening to the tone of the newspaper reports is equivalent to discussing that country's foreign policy with its diplomats and statesmen. Anyway, this is just silly. The first thing they would do upon meeting somebody from this or that small country is to start whining that the press of that country has lately been attacking Germany, yadda yadda yadda. Examples of this may be found on pp. 42, 55, 96, 140, 158, 170, 180, 197, 244.

In a few passages Hedin gives his thoughts on the German plans for the future. He was sure that Germany did not intend to attack the U.S.; “No, Hitler's object was, in the main, to weld all Europe into one block against England. He began where Napoleon ended.” (P. 135.) Various Nazi officials told him that in the German post-war Europe, there would be a customs union (pp. 139, 141, 204), the freedom of the press would be limited (p. 140), but there would be no pressure on e.g. Sweden to adopt National Socialism (which Hedin often worried about: pp. 141, 158). In a conversation with von Weizsäcker, Hedin describes his own exceedingly starry-eyed hopes for the post-war period, including: “ ‘[...] the peace and balance of the world will be firmer and more enduring if all the peoples of the world [...] are content and safe from tyranny. [...]’ Weizsäcker: ‘Yes, you are right. That is my opinion too.’ ” Well, maybe they were just being diplomatic to each other.

One of the main reasons for Hedin's continual visits to various German functionaries was to find out their opinions and intentions regarding Sweden, and to use whatever influence he imagined he had to encourage them to respect its neutrality. During the war between Russia and Finland he also tried to encourage the Germans to support Finland in some way, but of course those were the days of the Russo-German non-aggression pact, so the Germans refused to do anything. Anyway, in some of these conversations Hedin comes across as exceedingly sycophantic, particularly when asking questions alog the lines of: what will be the role assigned to Sweden in the new order of the Nazi-dominated post-war Europe? Here is Hedin on p. 157, again talking to von Weizsäcker: “Sweden is the oldest Kingdom in Europe and Sweden has never been conquered. The Swedes are the purest Germans in Europe. Our national individuality, our national character and our respect for the law, are all qualities which should constitute useful assets in a New Europe, and ought to be held up as an example to other countries.” Yuck. The damned authoritarian more-German-than-the-Germans-themselves racist prick. He repeats more or less the same things in a conversation with Hitler on pp. 180–1 (dripping with unctuousness: “What part, Herr Reichskanzler, do you consider that Sweden and Finland would play in the restoration and reordering of Europe?”), and concludes on p. 182: “The Swedes with their great past are a proud, patriotic and self-reliant people. Our workers maintain that they are democrats, but in actual fact adn without suspecting it themselves they are all of them aristocrats. I am sure that the future will be bright and happy for both our nations.” (Way to go! Encourage the workers to be selfish and self-reliant individualists, which will make sure they won't form unions and will thus be more easily exploited by the capitalists! Aristocrats my ass. The damned anti-democratic old fool.) He also discusses Sweden's post-war fate with Ribbentrop: “Permit me, Herr Reichsminister, to question you once more with regard to what you believe will be the part allotted to my own country in the proposed reorganization of Europe. For my own part I do not believe for a moment that Germany will exercise any pressure after the war, or interfere in any way with our ancient freedom and national individuality.” (Pp. 196–7.) He has another similar conversation with Ribbentrop's press chief, a certain Dr Schmidt (p. 221).

A nice pun from pp. 142–3: “Some humorous gentleman told us the story of how Reich Chancellor von Bülow had once been invited to a teachers' meeting. As he entered the hall he had said: ‘Ich habe Säle gesehen voller als dieser und auch leerer als dieser, aber ich habe niemals einen Saal voller Lehrer gesehen’.”

The story of the demise of the Justus Perthes Geographical Institute in Gotha at the end of the war, told on p. 163, is also quite interesting. Hedin's atlas of Central Asia was being prepared for publication there; he tells on pp. 164–5 of the subsequent efforts to have it published elsewhere. According to Meyer and Brysac (ch. 21, pp. 527–8): “With Hedin's cooperation, the [U.S.] Army Map Service incorporated the Swede's findings in its regular series of maps at a scale of one to one million. Subsequent satellite photos taken for NASA confirmed the essential accuracy of Hedin's maps”. According to an entry in the LOC catalogue, the atlas was eventually published in Stockholm in 1966.

From a conversation with one Steengracht from the German foreign ministry in 1940 (p. 201): “He wondered whether it might not be possible for me to go and see Hitler a little more often, as the effect it had on him was as though a window had been opened and he were able to breathe air from a world with which he never otherwise came into contact.

I don't want to appear too critical of Hedin; many of his efforts were quite well-intentioned and some also achieved good results. It is possible that his talks with Ribbentrop had some influence in dissuading the Germans from closing the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm after they had occupied Norway in 1940 (p. 202). He also joined in the appeals to the Germans to pardon several Norwegians whom they had sentenced to death and various prison sentences because of espionage (pp. 204–17). He was also involved in efforts “to try to save unfortunate Jews from being transported to Poland, or to help Germans, Swedes or Norwegians who in our opinion had been unjustly sent to concentration camps.” (P. 219; although the last sentence has the unfortunate implication that he felt that sending people to concentration camps can be just in at least some cases.) He also put in a good word for his German publisher, Brockhaus, when the company was threatened with restrictions due to shortages in 1942 (see pp. 237, where the subsequent fate of the Brockhaus publishing house is also described; it apparently managed to survive both the war and the post-war occupation reasonably well). He also helped two English prisoners of war in Germany, who had become acquainted with his niece through the Oxford movement (pp. 147–8).

In April 1941 (p. 218) “[a]n interesting piece of news was that the Danish Minister in Washington, Herr Kauffman [...] had handed over control of Greenland to the U.S.A. but that the Copenhagen Government had refused to ratify this.” Well, I guess this is not surprising; Denmark was under German occupation and the Germans would probably be outraged to see Denmark support their enemies the Americans in this way. But still it's a bit curious that just a simple ambassador can supposedly hand over control of a part of his country's territory. Even Hitler, when he wanted to gobble up what had been left of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, at least had the decorum to browbeat the president and the prime minister rather than just an ambassador... I guess the Danes did it this way to try satisfying both sides: the Americans would get to use Greenland for their military purposes, while the Danish government could have the excuse that the transfer was arranged by their ambassador and that they don't support it (but they knew quite well that nobody could expect them to do anything concrete about it — they were occupied by Germany after all).

Curiously, at some point in April 1941 the Germans suggested to him that he visit the U.S. and try persuading the American leaders to stay out of the war. Sensibly enough, he refused. “They must have had pretty exaggerated ideas of my capabilities.” (P. 220.)

“On 9th October [1941] came the Press Chief's, Dietrich's, unfortunate conference for the foreign Press in which he declared that Russia was beaten, the Russian Army lost, her reserves beyond the Urals inadequate;” (p. 227) — surely one of the greatest examples ever of counting one's chickens before they are hatched.

It's interesting that the Japanese are often referred to as “Japs” (e.g. on pp. 228, 230, 235). I always thought that “Japs” is a rather derogatory term, and I wouldn't expect a writer with axis sympathies to use it. Otherwise Hedin doesn't express any prejudice or contempt towards the Japanese. Perhaps the “Japs” are just a translator's quirk.

In June 1942, the Germans informed him that they intended to establish an institute for the exploration of Central Asia, and that it would bear Hedin's name. Hedin suggested that it should be named after some German explorer instead, but was told that his refusal might be “misunderstood” and would offend various important institutions and personages (such as Himmler), so he gave in (p. 233). See Hale's book, pp. 462–3, for more details about the background of this and about Schäfer's efforts to obtain Hedin's approval; and see chapters 14–16 in Hale's book for more about the activities of the institute, some of which were fairly unsavoury (e.g. pp. 479, 511, 518). See also Meyer and Brysac, ch. 21, p. 525.

Hedin talks to several notable Germans (Funk, p. 236; Weizsäcker, p. 243; Keitel, pp. 246–7) about the methods used by the German civil authorities in occupied Norway; they all agree that their policy is mistaken and hurts German interests by arousing hatred towards Germany, but think that it is too late to change anything, particularly as Hitler refuses to change his mind (pp. 236).

In the autumn of 1941, he was trying to publish a book about the U.S., and negotiations for an American edition were under way with the Hearst company. The problem arose of how to get the manuscript to America quickly enough to allow the book to be published before the U.S. entered the war. Hedin proposed to send the entire 30000-word book as a telegram, even at his own expense if necessary. However, Hearst advised against this, and eventually the war broke out before the book could be published in the U.S. (P. 249.) It was published in Germany as Amerika im Kampfe der Kontinente. The Library of Congress catalogue also mentions French, Dutch and Swedish editions (all from 1943–4), but no English ones.

Hedin ends the book by quoting a sentence from a letter that Hitler had sent him regarding Hedin's book about America: “This war will go down in history as President Roosevelt's war” (p. 252). Hedin doesn't seem to disagree or disapprove of this. But this looks like another of these supremely silly opinions that this book is so full of. Firstly, the sentence cannot be taken as referring to the war in the Pacific, because the U.S. was attacked there and had no choice about entering the war or not. Thus it can only refer to the war in Europe. But this war was started by Germany in 1939; or maybe the German propagandists of that time would say that it was started by Poland (shame on her for refusing to bow down to all the unreasonable German demands), or by Britain and France (shame on them for actually standing by their promise to help Poland), but even they couldn't say that the war was caused or encouraged by America. In fact Roosevelt sent letters to both the Germans and the Poles in August 1939, urging them to pursue a peaceful solution, but of course nothing came of this as the Germans didn't want a reasonable and peacefully negotiated solution. Thus (and surely even Hitler would have to agree with this) the only war that Roosevelt can be said to have started while being at least theoretically able to avoid it is the war against Germany, into which the U.S. entered in December 1941. But even here the initiative was on Hitler's side. In the spring of 1941, he himself had proposed to the Japanese foreign minister that “Germany would intervene immediately in case of a conflict Japan–America, for the strength of the three Pact powers was their common action.” (Ian Kershaw, Nemesis, ch. 8, sec. V, p. 364). On 11 December, he entered into an agreement with the Japanese that neither side would conclude a separate peace with the U.S.; thus, by attacking the U.S., Germany could make sure to keep Japan involved in the war (ibid., ch. 9, sec. VI, pp. 444–5). Germany declared war on the U.S. the very same day (ibid., p. 446); besides, Hitler could hardly contain himself: he had ordered the U-boats into attack as early as December 8 (ibid., p. 445). “Certain, as he had been for many months, that Roosevelt was just looking for the chance to intervene in the European conflict, Hitler thought that his declaration was merely anticipating the inevitable and, in any case, formalizing what was in effect already the situation” (ibid., p. 446).

The text occasionally contains footnotes with translations of various short German phrases and sentences. The strange thing is that, particularly near the beginning of the book, these footnotes are not always set at the bottom of the page; on p. 6 there is a ‘footnote’ right between the lines of a paragraph of normal text, immediately below the footnote reference; on the next page there is a normal footnote at the bottom of the page; and then on p. 11 the footnote appears at the end of the paragraph that contains the footnote reference.

The book contains quite a few typos, e.g. “Batlic” (p. 76), “suzarainty” (p. 135), “is would have been better” (p. 137), “jouurneys” (p. 163).

Incidentally, it's interesting how often the name of the publisher, “Euphorion”, is misspelt “Euphorian” (in Hale's bibliography, p. 563; and in Anne de Courcy's Diana Mosley, pp. 291, 294, 410; as well as in the description of the eBay auction where I bought the book). I guess it's because “Euphorion” doesn't have any obvious meaning (although it sounds plausible enough to me; like a kind of Greek personal name), while “Euphorian” seems to be an ordinary enough adjective derived from “euphoria”. Anyway, if you look at the publisher's logo on the dust jacket and the title page, it's quite clear that “Euphorion” is the correct spelling. Incidentally, a bit of searching on ABE shows that the name is not at all so uncommon; there seems to exist at the present time a publisher named Euphorion in Frankfurt, and there was also one in Berlin in the 1920s. The latter one seems particularly interesting; they apparently published many fancy artsy bibliophile-type books on the subject of arts and belles lettres. This is one of the rare occasions when I'm glad that I don't understand German well enough: at least I won't lust after their books.


  • Hedin's Germany and the World Peace (London: Hutchinson, 1937), mentioned here on pp. 14–15, 24, etc., looks like it might be interesting for much the same reasons as the German Diary. Unfortunately it seems to be just as scarce.
  • Another Hedin's book: Chiang Kaishek, Marshal of China (1939). P. 33.
  • Henry Fielding Hall's books about Burma, esp. The Soul of a People (1898). (Pp. 117–8.)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

BOOK: Sven Hedin, "German Diary"

[Note: this post is rather longish, so I'll split it into two parts. This is part 1. Part 2 appears tomorrow.]

Sven Hedin's German Diary, 1935–1942. Translated by Joan Bulman. Dublin: Euphorion Books, 1951. viii + 252 pp.

Hedin was a famous Swedish geographer who made some pioneering journeys and expeditions to Central Asia in the early 20th century. I first heard of him in Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, a very fine book about the history of the exploration of Central Asia and the rivalries between the western imperialist powers in that area (particularly Britain and Russia). The book has a whole chapter about Hedin (ch. 13); he was apparently a splendid geographer and cartographer, but not necessarily a very nice person: he was ambitious to the point of ruthlessness, and did not spare the lives of his camels or indeed of his native companions (e.g. during the crossing of the Taklamakan desert; Tournament of Shadows pp. 322–3). The British praised him for his achievements, but he later fell out with them because of a quarrel, mostly due to his unwillingness to admit that some aspects of his achievements were not strictly speaking “firsts” as they had already been done before by British explorers (pp. 335, 338). “Excommunicated by the British, Sven Hedin found ever more fervent devotées in Germany” (p. 343). After his death in 1952, a British geographer wrote: “By temperament Hedin was a Nazi, to whom exploration was a Kampf, a struggle not only against the forces of nature but also on paper, against rival explorers. It is not surprising that he espoused in turn the causes of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler.” (P. 311.) Meyer and Brysac compare Hedin's attitude to the Nietzschean Superman (pp. 327, 330). “He expressed no regrets or apologies for his wartime activities, and in his German Diaries approvingly quotes a final letter from Hitler seconding Hedin's view that ‘This war will go down in history as President Roosevelt's war’ ” (p. 527). The notes on p. 604 mention this book again in a list of Hedin's works, and state that it was published in Dublin in 1951.

For some reason, I am always a bit curious about these slightly unsavoury fellow travellers of nazism and fascism. (Another example is Curzio Malaparte, whose books I also hope to read at some point. And D'Annunzio too, I guess.) There is a moderate sort of notoriety about them, which invariably excites my curiosity. In the case of the German Diary, another thing that made me curious is the fact that it was published in Dublin. My experience with English-language books is that, when you read the list of books cited in the bibliography section at the end of a book, they are usually all published either in London or in New York (indeed sometimes the authors go so far as to say at the beginning of a bibliography that all the books cited have been published in London unless noted otherwise). But here we have a Swedish author's book published, not long after the war, in obscure Dublin, in neutral Ireland rather than in one of the allied countries who had won the war. (We are used to thinking of WW2 as an all-encompassing event, and we sometimes forget that throughout the entire war there existed quite a few neutral countries who had more or less normal diplomatic relations with both sides; which led to some curious and fascinating situations, such as this one mentioned in the Wikipedia: “Following the suicide of Adolf Hitler, de Valera, following diplomatic protocol, controversially offered condolences to the German ambassador.”) There's a whiff of notoriety right there. It isn't quite as exciting as if it had been published in Buenos Aires, but it's right next to it. (In fact, it turns out that a German translation of this book had in fact been published in Buenos Aires; Dürer-Verlag, 1949, 283 pp.) I also noticed that the book isn't terribly common; I'm not saying that it's a big rarity but if you try searching for it on ABE you are as likely as not to get zero hits. Because of all this I decided to buy and read the book as soon as a suitable opportunity would present itself.

Meyer and Brysac don't mention the name of the publisher, Euphorion Books, but I probably found it soon afterwards on the web (see e.g. Daniel C. Waugh's Hedin bibliography; or in Hale's book, which mentions the publisher in its bibliography on p. 563; see below). Later, when reading Mary Lovell's biography of the Mitford sisters, I noticed that Euphorion Books was the publishing house set up after the WW2 by Oswald and Diana Mosley, mostly because British publishers refused to publish Oswald's books as he had been the leader of British Fascists before the war. “Eventually they produced a list, which included reprints of classic works as well as Mosley's books.” (Lovell, p. 416). The Mitfords are another thing about which I am mildly curious (see my post about Diana's autobiography, Life of Contrasts; the latter also mentions Euphorion Books, see ch. 19), so this connection to them was another motivation for me to be interested in Hedin's German Diary. Given the Mosleys' right-wing and pro-German opinions, it isn't surprising that they were interested in publishing this book.

The German Diary is also mentioned in Christopher Hale's Himmler's Crusade (ch. 13, pp. 456–9), which I read just a few days after Lovell's biography of the Mitfords. Hale's book is about the curious 1938 SS-sponsored German expedition to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer (also mentioned by Meyer and Brysac, ch. 21), and about the subsequent careers of the scientists who had participated in it: some of them got involved in SS Ahnenerbe “research”, which could range from relatively harmless pet projects and theories of the sort that regularly occurred to Himmler's mind (see e.g. pp. 479, 488–9 in Hale's book; for some more examples of that sort, see my post about Speer's Slave State), to highly unethical anthropological research on concentration camp inmates and their corpses (pp. 464–5, 516). I remember that the book fascinated me and I read it quite quickly over the course of a few days — too quickly, apparently, for I soon forgot more or less everything that I had read in it and retained only an exceedingly dim memory of the contents of the book. It wouldn't be a bad idea to read it again, this time more carefully. Anyway, in relation to Hedin's German Diary, Hale mentions his sycophantic attitude to the German leaders (“Hedin was sympathetic to the Nazi New Order while making the odd protest or three. Most of the time, though, he was a sycophant”, p. 456), and his gullibility such as when the German authorities offered him the use of a car and unlimited fuel so as to be independent in his research for his planned “unbiased” book about Germany (p. 458).

Anyway, Sven Hedin and his German Diary never quite slid out of my memory afterwards, and occasionally I would try searching for the book on ABE and eBay. A few weeks ago an eBay search proved successful, an auction for the book was just in progress and I ended up winning it for the not unreasonable price of £19. There weren't any copies listed on ABE at that time, but now as I write this I see two copies there, both in more or less very good condition, just like mine, but both much more expensive ($85 and $111, though the latter admittedly includes a signature of Hugh Trevor-Roper, who is said to have thought it a “naive little book”). Of course, the prices you see on ABE are often too high because the lower-priced copies will get bought quickly and you are not as likely to notice them when you do your search. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy with the price at which I got my copy, and I think it shows that a book doesn't have to be expensive just because it is scarce — low supply won't lead to a high price if the demand is also low.

It isn't really a terribly exciting book, but it's readable enough anyway; you can read it in a single day, and it contains many interesting passages.

Hedin certainly doesn't hide his admiration for German culture and history, e.g. when describing his tour of Germany in 1935 (p. 4). On several occasions he explicitly refers to himself as a “Germanophil” (this curious spelling is used throughout the book; e.g. on p. 207). This is not to say that he is completely uncritical of everything about Germany, especial after the Nazis' rise to power. Thus on pp. 8–9 he complains that the Nazis neglected scientific research, except insofar as it seemed immediately useful to them. He also deplores the amount of money wasted on flowers to lay on graves: “In actual fact the Third Reich at the height of its glory used flowers on a scale of magnificence never known before.” (P. 9.) In his 1937 book, Germany and the World Peace, he included a few complaints about the persecution of the Jews and of the church (p. 14), and he refused to modify or remove the passages in question even though this meant that the book could not be published in Germany; see p. 15 and the protracted correspondence with Walter Funk, a state secretary at the German propaganda ministry on the following pages. (Funk's reasoning on pp. 11–2 struck me as particularly curious in an amusing sort of way, because it goes somehow along the lines of ‘well, you know, it just so happens that we are an authoritarian country, and as you know, in authoritarian countries one can't allow the state ideology to be questioned or debated in public, so, well, uh, I guess we can't really publish your book here, can we?’ — as if the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime was the most natural and reasonable thing in the world, something for which no arguments or apologies need to be given, simply a matter of fact which can be used as an axiom to derive further conclusions, such as the impossibility of publishing a book such as Hedin's.) Funk later went on to become minister of economics and president of the Reichsbank, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials. Hedin's comment on this is (p. 24): “I learn with sorrow and disgust that he, in common with other ‘war criminals’, is now repining under inhuman conditions in Spandau prison.” I'm always a bit uncomfortable about these war crimes trials; on the one hand, because it's the victors trying the defeated; on the other hand, because it seems that only the leaders were being held responsible for the crimes, like some kind of scapegoats, although the crimes (e.g. exploitation of Jews and foreigners as slave labor, which I guess is probably what Funk was called to answer for because of his important positions in the Nazi economy) had in fact benefited a much wider segment of German society. I doubt, however, that the conditions in Spandau can fairly be regarded as inhuman; from the description in Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer, I got the impression that the conditions really were a bit unnecessarily harsh, but then again perhaps not that much worse than other prisons in Western countries at that time, and certainly a great deal better than the conditions that many prisoners under the Nazi regime had to endure.

The tone of Hedin's correspondence with the Nazi bigwigs does seem a bit sycophantic at times; it's all Herr Reichskanzler here and geehrter Herr Staatssekretär there etc. etc., but then I guess that to a considerable extent these were simply normal forms of address in such circles at that time. After all, the Germans address him in similarly respectful terms (“Hochgeehrter Herr Sven Hedin!”, Hitler on p. 16). And he could be quite insistent when he wanted to; after one of Hedin's conversations with Hitler (pp. 176–82), a minister named Dr. Meissner, who had also been present during the conversation, commented: “No one has ever gone so far before in contradicting and arguing with the Führer and I was surprised that you obstinacy only amused him instead of, as I had feared, irritating him to the point of frenzy.” (P. 185.)

Hedin published a lot of books aimed at the general public, and many of them were quite successful (especially in Germany). He used the profits from these books to finance the publication of his scientific works when he couldn't get funding from other sources; pp. 14, 26, 84–5.

On p. 29 Hedin quotes Hitler's remarks, made in conversation with a Briton, Lord Londonderry, in 1936, about the great strength of the Soviet Union and its immunity from attack; “Five years later Hitler was to have the opportunity of putting to the test the truth of the statements he had made to Lord Londonderry, and it is strange that he did not himself take heed of his own warning.” Similarly, on p. 178 Hitler emphasizes that “a war on two fronts is inevitably fatal for Germany”, as he learned from WW1; which makes it “all the more surprising that only six months later Hitler should have broken the Russo-German Pact and launched a war on Russia” (p. 185). I admit that it does all seem a bit confusing. When they were beginning their attack on the Soviet Union, the Nazis would often claim that it would fall apart at the first kick like a house of cards. Perhaps neither of these two claims was entirely sincere (i.e. they neither quite believed in 1936 that Russia was unassailable, nor in 1941 that it would fall apart like a house of cards); or perhaps Hitler felt he had grown that much stronger since 1936, or (as Ian Kershaw often suggests in his recent biography of Hitler) his decision to attack was due to his “gambler's instinct”. Another motivation for his attack on the Soviet Union was that he felt that waiting will only make the task more difficult because the Soviets were rearming at the time; besides they might attack Germany first rather than wait to be attacked.

“How different everything might have been if only Lord Londonderry's views had found a hearing both in London and in Berlin—agreement between Great Britain and Germany!” (Pp. 30–1.) I guess it's statements like these that lead to Hedin's book being described as naive. How could such an agreement be possible, when the ambitions of the two countries were so irreconcilably different? Although Hitler claimed he would leave Britain and her empire alone, he wanted to make Germany the dominant power on the European continent. As the British well knew, it would be very hard for them to defend themselves against such a strengthened Germany if Hitler later decided to break his promises (as he had broken so many others before). Besides, a system like his relied on expansion and would probably produce a war sooner or later unless everyone everywhere gave in to his demands. And every concession from his opponents he regarded as a sign of weakness and upped his demands accordingly. Were they supposed to give him a free hand in central and eastern Europe, as he insisted so many times? How could there be agreement with a person like that?

Here's a very politically incorrect statement from p. 33: “A defeated Germany meant in my opinion the opening of the floodgates of the unnumbered hordes of limitless Asia and consequently the downfall of Western culture.” Note that this is from 1939, so the defeat would come from Britain rather than from Russia. I guess it's an illustration of how powerful the fear of communism, of Stalin, of the growing strength of the Soviet Union was at that time among many people in Western Europe, but it still seems bizarre to me that someone should think Nazi Germany to be a lesser evil. The silly concerns about the imminent downfall of Western culture (oh you inconsistent social Darwinists! if it's so weak, why not just let it die?), and the contemptuous reference to “the unnumbered hordes” of Asia, also seem to betray that smug mixture of racism and imperialism which enabled the Victorian gentlemen to think of themselves as the pinnacle of all creation; I'm not entirely surprised that the sentiment had not yet died out completely by the mid-20th century (and Hedin was quote old by then anyway; his formative years had been in the late 19th century), but I would naively imagine that after all his travels in Asia, Hedin would have a more considerate and humane attitude towards its inhabitants. I guess he was a hard geographer after all; his interest during his journey had been in the topography of the land, the layout of the rivers and the altitudes of the mountains, rather than in the people that inhabited it.

Anyway, he made another similar comment regarding the consequences of a German defeat in the summer of 1941, when it was becoming clear that the U.S. would probably enter the war: “Neither did one need to be a prophet to realise that such a development [i.e. the U.S. entry into war] would be fatal to Germany and so for Europe as a whole.” (P. 248.) I'm completely and utterly baffled. What on earth is the reasoning that can lead to such a comment? If he had at least explained how he reached this conclusion — but he doesn't. First of all, as it turned out, such a development was fatal for the Nazi regime in Germany, not for Germany as such; but even if we leave this quibble aside, assuming that Germany had been defeated in the war and somehow turned into a weak and insignificant country, why would this be fatal for Europe as a whole? When the heck did Europe's well-being and that of Germany become one and the same thing? For many areas of Europe, what would have been fatal for them is not Germany's defeat but its victory. Maybe this claim of Hedin's is again based on the assumption after Germany's defeat and weakening, the Soviet Union would be able to occupy or in some other way dominate a large part of Europe. But even here the situation would not necessarily be simply fatal for Europe as a whole. It is unlikely that the Soviet influence would get any further than it in fact did get after the WW2; and it wasn't fatal even for the Soviet-influenced eastern part of Europe; it merely slowed down the economic progress of those areas. As for Western Europe, it actually benefited immensely from the neighbourhood of a powerful communist block: the Western capitalists were willing to improve the lot of their working classes and permit the introduction of a welfare state so as to prevent the people from being attracted to communism. We see how things are changing for the worse in much of Western Europe now that the fear of communism is no longer keeping the greed of the capitalists in check.

Here's another ridiculous statement on the theme of anti-communist paranoia: “On 28th June [1941] I wrote in my diary: ‘If the Anglo-Saxons win, then Europe will be turned into a desert and Stalin will get his great chance’—two predictions which came true.” (P. 223.) Europe was still quite far from being a desert, and besides the amount of ruin depends not so much on who won the war but on how tenaciously it was fought. And the fact that Stalin got his chance is still vastly better than that Hitler would have got his chance.

On pp. 37–8 there is an interesting quote from Hedin's conversation with Göring in October 1939, where Göring explains the likely fate of the smaller countries during the war (“I fear that the neutrals will go under”).

Here's another fine contribution to the growing genre of quotations expressing contempt of the Italian military forces. In a conversation with Hedin in November 1939, a certain Dr Goerdeler “quoted General Gamelin's words: ‘If Italy comes in on the side of Germany, I shall need an army corps at the frontier; if she remains neutral I shall need two, and if she goes against Germany I must have three army corps.” (P. 58.)

There are several passages where people comment on Hedin's health and vigour despite his relatively advanced age (he was born in 1865, and was thus about 70–75 years old in the period discussed in this book): Ribbentrop on p. 63, Hitler on pp. 73–4. Hedin mostly attributes his health to his “healthy open-air life” (p. 63) during his many journeys in Asia. With Hitler they quickly get into a hilarious discussion on the diet of the Tibetans (Hitler on p. 74: “Yes, yoghourt, sour milk is the best of all foods, healthy and good to eat. Anyone who has made yoghourt his staple diet for twenty years will be strong as a bear and live longer than other people.”).

Hitler observes on p. 76: “In these days a single bomber can destroy a battleship. For the cost of one battleship we can build 600 aircraft.” This is quite correct; battleships had still played an important part in the first world war, but during the second it finally became clear that they had become obsolete, particularly because were too vulnerable to aerial attack. During the second half of the war, plans for new and still larger battleships were scrapped or redesigned into aircraft carriers. It's strange how it always takes a new war for such things to be realized, and once they are realized they seem so blindingly obvious. How come nobody noticed e.g. ten years before the war that battleships would be too vulnerable and that aircraft carriers were the way to go?

There's a description of the luxury of Göring's mansion, the Carinhall, on p. 83.

Apparently there had been an increase of reading during the war, and a corresponding increase in the sales of books (including Hedin's, p. 84). “There was plenty of money about and people were unable to spend it on luxury goods, amusements, clothes or foreign travel. In addition the extremely strict blackout regulations made it difficult to go out after dark. People had to stay at home, and reading was their only pastime.” (P. 85.)

On p. 85 he also mentions how many famous people, heads of state, monarchs, etc. he had corresponded with: “All told the collection numbers more than 130 historically famous names.” Too bad that this correspondence didn't get published.

[End of part 1 of this post. Continue to part 2.]

Sunday, September 11, 2005

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "De Profundis"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 2: De Profundis. ‘Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis’. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2005. 0198119623. vi + 345 pp.

In the last months of his imprisonment, Wilde was working on a long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, his former friend and lover. He was also working on a literary essay, something similar to what we now usually know as De Profundis. The two texts had much in common, and the result was an 80-page manuscript which is partly one thing and partly the other, and a few things are actually written several times in different places of the manuscript. Wilde sent it to Robert Ross, his friend and literary executor, instructing him to make two copies and send the manuscript to Douglas. In fact it seems that Ross kept the manuscript and sent one of the copies to Douglas; anyhow, Douglas presumably destroyed it without reading very much of it. In 1905, a few years after Wilde's death, Ross tried to extract from the text those parts which were apparently intended by Wilde to become an essay to be published rather than being merely a private letter; the result became known as De Profundis (the title was supplied by Ross). Ross published a further somewhat extended version in 1908. A version of the full manuscript was published by Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland in 1949, and the manuscript itself in Hart-Davis's edition of Wilde's letters in 1962. The present book contains both De Profundis from the 1905 and 1908 editions and the full text of the manuscript, which is more than twice as long.

The editor's introduction is mostly concerned with the complicated textual history of the various manuscripts, typescripts and published versions of this text. Although I am not really interested in textual criticism, I cannot help admiring the large amount of effort and sometimes almost detective work that has been devoted to it by the editor. The editorial notes at the end of the book are also marvellously detailed, explaining all sorts of references to people, events, literary and biblical allusions, etc.

A footnote on p. 27 tells the fascinating story of the first U.S. edition of the full text of the letter. In the course of a libel suit in 1913, Douglas managed to get ahold of the manuscript and intended to publish it in America with his comments. (Presumably he couldn't publish it in Britain because Ross, as Wilde's literary executor, held the copyright to it and had already published parts of it as De Profundis in 1905.) According to the U.S. copyright law at the time, you had to publish a book in America and offer it for sale to the public there in order to obtain copyright for it. Thus, to prevent Douglas from publishing the manuscript in the U.S., Ross had to publish it there first. At the same time, he didn't really want the full manuscript to be seen by the public. He found an American publisher willing to publish the manuscript in a great hurry, in an edition of 16 copies, fifteen of which were sent back to England and one of which was actually offered for sale in a bookshop, for the fabulous sum of $500 (and was in fact soon bought by an unknown buyer). According to the inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500 in 1913 dollars is equivalent to $9823 in 2005 dollars! (However, another version of the story is that there was an edition of 15 copies, and one was deposited at the Library of Congress. This probably makes more sense, as I guess that such a deposit would have been necessary to obtain U.S. copyright for the book. See p. 28.)

I think it's really a pity that Wilde didn't keep on writing after De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, when these two works make it abundantly clear that his talent hasn't waned during his imprisonment. Here in De Profundis we still find the same beautiful language, elegant without being complicated, as in his earlier work; we still find Wilde's old sense of humour, his ability to contrast things in his wonderful epigrams and aphorisms; and in addition to all that, his thoughts have been enriched and transformed by the sad and bitter experiences of his trial and imprisonment. It's really sad that he didn't write anything else afterwards. I wonder what the reason is. It's true that De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are both in some sense works about his prison experience; perhaps, when the time came to turn to some entirely new matter, he couldn't think of anything to write about. Or perhaps, having experienced all those things, he didn't see any point in trying to write about them any more; this reminds me of Thomas Aquinas, who stopped writing his great Summa Theologica after he had a mystical experience which, as he said, made all that he had written so far seem like just so much straw. Anyway, I guess I should read one of Wilde's biographies at some point; maybe I'll find there some explanation why Wilde did not take up writing again.

As mentioned above, De Profundis is basically a subset of the full letter to Douglas (the title “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis” stems from Wilde's half-joking suggestion that it should be named after its first words, like a papal bull; see p. 310). The letter is more than twice as long as De Profundis and the extra material mostly deals with the relationship between Wilde and Douglas. I found most of this very interesting and if I had to choose between reading just one of these two texts, I think the letter would be preferable to De Profundis. On the other hand, for someone interested only in Wilde's work but not his life, De Profundis might be preferable.

One of the main subjects of Wilde's complaints to Douglas is the latter's parasitism (see pp. 206–7). In the years of their relationship, Wilde had been making considerable amounts of money (mostly from the theatre; p. 206), while Douglas was just a student with a moderate allowance from his father (moderate by aristocratic standards: £350 a year is mentioned on p. 207, while p. 223 says that £3 a week would have been the income of a well-off middle-class family), and even this was withdrawn when Douglas refused his father's demands to stop seeing Wilde (p. 207). Thus, it is to some extent reasonable that Wilde should be contributing most of the money in their relationship, but if Wilde's accusations in the letter are true, Douglas was in fact extremely profligate, selfish and ungracious, spending large amounts of money on extravagant dinners and gambling (a day with Douglas would end up costing Wilde up to £20; p. 41), and expecting Wilde to pay his bills without so much as a thank-you (p. 41–42). He spent so much time in Wilde's company that the latter found it impossible to continue his literary work (pp. 39–40); nor was conversation with Douglas as interesting for Wilde as it would have been to speak with some talented artist or intellectual (which Douglas wasn't); p. 46. When Douglas fell ill with the flu, Wilde cared for him, but then getting the flu himself, Douglas (who had meanwhile recovered) refused to help him (pp. 52–55). Over and over again, Douglas quarrelled with Wilde and made scenes, and subsequently sent telegrams and letters asking to make up, knowing that Wilde wouldn't be able to bring himself to say no. It was sometimes said that Wilde had an influence over Douglas, but in reality Douglas had an influence over Wilde (p. 139). If all these accusations are really true, Douglas must have been a really horrible person; it's a tragedy that Wilde was so intoxicated with him that he didn't firmly cut contacts with him as soon as he saw Douglas's selfish and extravagant behaviour. But it's hard to tell exactly how much truth there is in these accusations. The editorial notes quote many passages from Douglas's memoirs where Douglas denies Wilde's claims; I don't see any obvious way to decide whom to believe.

Wilde also mentions the disagreements between himself and Douglas regarding the latter's translation of Wilde's Salome; pp. 39, 46.

On p. 50, Wilde says that Douglas at some point sent him a 10- or 11-page telegram. This is amazing. Is it even possible to send such a long telegram? And how much must it have cost? And think of the poor telegraphist who had to type it all in Morse (or was some other technology used for telegrams at that time?). Of course, Douglas denies the accusation (p. 214).

Douglas and his father (the Marquess of Queensberry) hated each other. Douglas used to enrage his father with telegrams, until the latter forbade any further telegrams to be delivered to him. But this did not stop Douglas, who (Wilde writes) “saw the immense opportunities afforded by the open postcard, and availed [himself] of them to the full” (p. 68). :-) Indeed Douglas seems to have relished the opportunity to enrage his father still further by persisting in his relationship with Wilde; and it was Douglas who encouraged Wilde to sue Queensberry, and later when Queensberry sued back Douglas persuaded Wilde to remain in Britain to “brazen it out” rather than escape abroad (as other Wilde's friends recommended); see p. 44. Wilde describes the sad results of this policy: in the eyes of the public, Queensberry became a hero and Wilde a criminal and an outcast: “your father will always live among the kind pure-minded parents of Sunday school literature; your place is with the infant Samuel; and in the lowest mire of Malebolge I sit between Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade.” (P. 44.)

Some of the epigrams in the epistle are classic Wilde. “The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right.” (P. 67.) “In art, good intentions are not of the smallest value. All bad art is the result of good intentions.” (P. 133.) “[T]he artist, like art itself, is of his very essence quite useless” (p. 139). And in a letter to Ross (p. 320) he writes, recommending him to have the manuscript copied by a typist: “I assure you that the type-writing machine, when played with expression, is not more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation. Indeed many, among those most devoted to domesticity, prefer it.” In a later letter he says: “unluckily I suffer from headaches when I read my Greek and Roman poets” (p. 321). Even in his religious enthusiasm he frequently employs the same contrast-based structure as in his epigrams: “The world had always loved the saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God. Christ, through some divine instinct in him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man.” (P. 122.)

As for De Profundis itself, I think the most interesting message in it is that Wilde tried to see his ordeals, the trial, the imprisonment, and all the suffering connected to that, as something that enriched his life: “Sorrow [...] is my new world. I used to live entirely for pleasure.” (P. 104.) “I remember [...] that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world [...]. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.” (P. 108.) “I don't regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. [...] But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also.” (P. 109.)

This is in a way an admirable attitude, but I can't help wondering how one is supposed to persist in it, and why it should be even desirable to adopt it. There is a reason why people shun the unpleasant things on the dark side of the garden: because they don't feel good. And most of the time they don't feel good because they actually aren't good for us, and the fact that they don't feel good has evolved because this was a successful mechanism for making people avoid these things. Yes, in a technical sense I suppose one's life is fuller if one has felt sorrows and pain in addition to pleasure; but why should such fulness be desirable? There is nothing ennobling about suffering. In fact Peter Kropotkin suggested that Wilde's new attitude of humility may have been the reason why he ended “so miserably after his release” (p. 272).

I'm not quite sure what to make of Wilde's new attitude towards religion. The text seems somewhat confused on this point. On the one hand he extols Christ, religion, suffering, etc. at great length, and on the other hand he says on p. 98 that religion does not help him and talks about agnosticism and a “Confraternity of the Fatherless”. But then he never seems to have been terribly constant in his religious feelings; in his poems you can see periods of fascination with catholicism, and then periods of fascination with paganism, and in both cases one gets the impression that he was really swayed by artistic and aesthetic considerations rather than religious ones.

As an example of his new-found religious fervor in De Profundis, here is this curious paragraph from p. 116: “To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ's own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante's Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael's frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul's Cathedral, and Pope's poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.” Is he quite serious? Heck, this reminds me of the way I sometimes write myself when I really just want to state an opinion but at the same time wish, for some reason, to tart it up as if it were an argument; sometimes you just want to state a dogma or a preference but want to pretend that it really has more justification than that, and that it was really derived from some reasons. And this paragraph of Wilde's here, when you look at it closely, is there really any sense in it? What's so dreary about the renaissance? All those love poems by Petrarch, based on nothing but dead rules, no spirit? Even Pope — not that I see how it's reasonable to consider him part of the renaissance — but surely his Rape of the Lock is such a splendidly hilarious poem, full of playful humour, how could you say that it's all form and no spirit in it? If you throw Petrarch and Racine and Pope all into the same bag and generalize from that, surely the results cannot be anything other than silly. Nor do I quite see how it's reasonable to refer to the first group of works are representatives of some sort of “Christ's own renaissance”. What (besides their religious associations) do these things even have in common? And if they are part of some sort of renaissance, what is the thing that is being reborn and what was its last previous occurrence? And is it even reasonable to say that religious art has been interrupted by the renaissance? I think if it had still afforded people enough room in which to express themselves, they would have been happy to keep on working within its framework; if religious art had retained its vigour and energy, the renaissance wouldn't have been able to interrupt it. But if art has to flit around religion all the time, it cannot help but become dull and pedantic and repetitive eventually. It is the fate of religious art all over the world. People wouldn't have taken up the renaissance with such energy if it hadn't been really opening up marvellous new vistas for them; not just in art but in other walks of life as well. But then I suppose there's no use making such a fuss about that paragraph of Wilde's anyway. He is simply stating a preference; he is simply trying to say: “right now I prefer religious art to that of the renaissance or the later periods, and I prefer it for the simple reason that it is religious whereas that of later periods isn't”. And there's nothing wrong with that; there's no reason to argue about matters of taste. But it's silly to try to pretend that there's any sense in it, any reason to it, when it's really just a matter of preference.

Wilde's Christianity has a strong aesthetic, artistic, individualistic tinge to it. “Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives.” (P. 122.) “Indeed, that is the charm about Christ, when all is said: he is just like a work of art.” (P. 123.)

Here is a nice sentence from p. 146, presaging the chaos theory: “By the displacement of an atom a world may be shaken.”

Of course I cannot help adding a few small-minded pedantic complaints about this book. I wouldn't be doing this if the book had cost me £15 or perhaps even £20 or £30, but at £80 I reserve the right to complain about every single little error, no matter how trivial. (OK, OK, I didn't really pay £80 for this book; after much shopping around on the web I entered Barnes and Noble's membership programme and was then able to get the book for $126, which is about £70 at current exchange rates. This is still an unholy sum of money to pay for a single book.) Anyway, the complaint is that, apparently, when they were first typesetting the book, if a reference to some other page appears in the text, they couldn't yet know which page it would be, so they inserted a placeholder such as “p. 000” instead. I guess the idea was to make a second pass after the text had been set, and replace those “000”s with the correct page numbers. In a few cases, however, they forgot to do this; see pp. 223, 236, 279, 301. Shame on you, OUP!

Another minor complaint is that the editor shows, in his notes, a ridiculous amount of deference to officialdom. Thus judges are always referred to as “Mr Justice Smith” rather than simply “Jack Smith” or even just “Smith” (see e.g. p. 220; and on p. 289 we even have a “Mr Registrar”). I have a very poor opinion of judges. How could anybody but an arrogant, pompous, vain person presume to pass judgement on others? Anybody with at least a moderate degree of self-criticism would realize that it is wrong to judge others when it is obvious that you are not much better than them and when you obviously wouldn't be willing to let them judge you. Nobody is innocent; let him who has never sinned throw the first stone. And how could anybody but a bad person become a judge, when he must clearly know that as a judge his duty would be to apply the laws, and most laws are unjust and were written by bad people with the sole purpose of allowing other bad people to exploit the laws for their own benefits? Strutting around in their wigs and robes, earning abominable sums of money, expecting to be addressed as “your honour” and having the people stand at attention when they enter the courtroom — all of this shows that judges are bad, arrogant people with a lamentable and chronic case of god-complex. They have about as much to do with justice as the studs in the porn movies have to do with love. To refer to them as “Mr Justice So-and-so” is simply to cave in to some horrible medieval prejudice that has no place in a modern society of equal and self-respecting people.

The following is just a curiosity and not really a complaint: on p. 204, the editor's notes mention that 7s. 6d. (the price of a dinner at Willis's, a fashionable restaurant) is equivalent to 37½p. It's a remarkable example of the thoroughness of these editorial notes and of how little knowledge they assume on the part of the reader — the reader isn't even expected to be familiar with pre-decimal British currency! Admittedly, of course, I wonder how useful this piece of information really is; to get a feeling for how much 7s. 6d. was worth at that time, it would be better to compare it with prices of various things at that time, or with typical wages and salaries at that time, rather than having to convert this to 37½p of decimal currency and then presumably looking up some price index table to determine how much inflation there has been since then and what would be the equivalent sum in present-day pounds. According to this page, the price of an ounce of fine gold at that time was £4.4s.11½d., or $20.67. This suggests that during the years of the gold standard, the exchange rate was £1 = $4.866, so that the £0.375 for the fancy dinner at Willis's would be equivalent to $1.82 in 1893 dollars, or (according to the inflation calculator) $37.46 in 2005 dollars, or £20.64 at present-day exchange rates. I'm not really up to date on these things, but I think that nowadays at a fancy London restaurant, even a single dish might well cost more than £20, not to mention an entire dinner. Which just goes to show that it's difficult to compare prices across long time periods, and saying that the cost of something a hundred years ago was equivalent to 37½p decimal currency isn't all that helpful.

In conclusion, what should I say about this book? De Profundis is a great and beautiful essay, the letter to Douglas contains lots of interesting additional material, and the editor's notes at the end of the book are marvellous and extremely exhaustive. Whether all of this is enough to justify the high price of the book will, I guess, depend on the judgment of each reader. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I wouldn't have bought it at this price if it wasn't for my silly obsession with wanting to have a suitably pedantic edition of Wilde's collected works.