Challenging the Past National Gallery, London Until 7 March Admission £12, concessions £11
This is an exhibition of contrasts. On one side there are the people viewing the pictures and alongside them the whole apparat of academic commentators and the press, and against these there’s the paintings. The paintings are often jolly squibs, full of colour and life. The people looking at the paintings or commenting on them are frightfully serious and po-faced. Can it be that the solemn, unimaginative Establishment has finally pinned Picasso down and embalmed him here in our National Gallery of traditional painting?
The show is called ‘Challenging the Past’ and the challenge is twofold. First there is the challenge to the belief that Picasso was merely a madman and a publicity-seeker who could have done decent work in oils and miniatures rather than bring on the disaster of Modern Art. The show challenged that belief in its Louvre incarnation by setting old masterworks from which Picasso had taken inspiration alongside the results of his borrowings. That made for a difficult show, and the National’s enforced comparison of the Picassos against small reproductions of the pictures he borrowed from, plus an illuminating film in the exhibition cinema, makes for better viewing all round.
And it makes the art historical point that a whole range of masters had a great influence on Picasso. His numerous borrowings from such artists as Velasquez and Ingres show he really was part of the Great Tradition. In some cases there are direct borrowings, as shown by Picasso’s sketches and notebooks. In others, such as the pictures of women combing their hair, we see a pose which goes back through Degas to Titian, even to the Middle Ages. Amongst all these borrowings, some of the most intriguing are those round, fat fingers found in Picasso’s classical period onwards, which look like a very direct echo of the fingers in the National’s own portrait of Madame Moitessier by Ingres. We can’t be certain whether Picasso knew this painting or how it influenced him, but the curious, splayed banana fingers are as much there in the respectable Ingres as they are in the wild Picasso.
So the exhibition quite effectively challenges the idea that Picasso was some ignorant Goth who destroyed the Grand Tradition. It makes us think about that tradition more carefully, not just with the Ingres but in Picasso’s use of El Greco. How many among the crowds in the National’s wonderful show of El Greco in 2003 knew that the young Picasso was savaged for spending time on so corrupt a modernist as El Greco? Or that the mad, bad Picasso was one of the first to rediscover that great artist?
The second challenge in the title is Picasso’s own challenge to the Grand Tradition; did he set out to be a break with the past, did he spit on the past, or is his work a distinctive but genuine development of it? In religious terms we might put it like this: is Picasso a Vatican II liberal who makes a break with tradition or is he more of a Ratzinger man, criticizing but developing the tradition? The answer to that lies in the extensive use he made of the tradition. Picasso might take the mickey out of the past but very often he does so as a man tangling with equals and competitors. He rubs the veneer off to return to the point of artistic inspiration and in this way his own work becomes the apotheosis of the artist’s sketch. Even when he plays with the planes of space in his cubist work, the intention is to capture how something is seen, how the thingness of an object impresses itself on us. Perhaps this makes him more a Ratzinger than a Kiing.
In fact, Picasso, more than most artists, tried to dominate the tradition. At the same time his frequent changes of style were both the result of his fertile creativity and an attempt to stay one step ahead of advanced taste or the asphyxiation of acclaim to which this show witnesses. He was a competitive, aggressive man, and when in his sixties his drive began to fail, the quality of his work declined and he ceased to be at the forefront of change. This is very clear in the last sets of variations on Old Masters. Those based on Delacroix’s ‘Femmes d’Alger’ are both the earliest and most successful. Those based on Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur rherbe’ and Velasquez’s ‘Las Meni-nas’ are much less interesting, though it is difficult to complain about an artist who includes a dachshund called ‘Lump’ in his work. For those who have to place Picasso, perhaps what is conclusive about his relation to the past is that at a time when leading artists were breaking with the Grand Tradition – with the result that the Tradition hardly features in today’s art teaching – Picasso was obsessively working on the great masters. But, forget all that. Come and look at a show of vibrant, colourful and vigorous paintings. Some of them are genuinely funny. It is by no means clear that they are all great art, in either the sense of yesteryear’s master-works or today’s high ticket fashionable pieces. Take the work as it is, which surely is what Picasso would have wanted. The show is an excellent, small-scale retrospective of a very versatile and lively artist who, like his great peers, revelled in colour and shape and (the female) form.
VAN DYCK AND BRITAIN
Until 17 May Admission £12.20
Sir Anthony van Dyck may seem the quintessential English portrait painter. He redefined English portraiture and influenced succeeding generations. To say, as the opening sentence of the catalogue does, that his ‘shadow looms large over portraiture in Britain and that ‘his impact is overwhelming’ puts this exhibition in context. But, of course, van Dyck was not English (only by our adoption of him) and he was in England only a short time, about eight years in total. He was Flemish by birth (Antwerp, 1599), a pupil, ‘the best’ of Peter Paul Rubens, and he brought a European influence and sensibility to these shores until his death in 1641.
If he is most famous for his portraits of King Charles I, his family and his court, that represents only a fragment, the tip of the iceberg of his achievements. He also painted biblical subjects and, as was commonplace in Renaissance art, mythological subjects and themes. These aspects of his career are represented here, as is his influence by the inclusion of portraits by several who came after him.
King Charles was the most sensitively aware and passionately committed collector of art of English monarchs. He had an artistic eye and appreciation that is well attested. His acquisition of the superlative collection of the Duke of Mantua was not a job-lot but a considered purchase. He knew a good painter when he saw one, and such was van Dyck. His contribution to the iconography of Charles I was without equal. His graphic quasi-deification of the king underlined, defined and proclaimed the Divine Right of Kings that sustained Charles’ conception of himself and of his
office. There is a rich representation of royal portraits. In King Charles, van Dyck did not have a naturally authoritative figure. He was very short, a little under five feet in height, slight and physically undistinguished. But he had sensitive features, deep, doleful eyes and hair and beard that gave him some gravitas and a degree of sensuousness.
The great equestrian portrait of the King, ‘Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine’, dominates. In a depiction which owes vast amounts to a similar study of Charles V by Titian but which is highly individual and original, King Charles enters through a classical arch against a blue but heavily clouded swirling sky. The arch is draped in a rich green silk with its folds and swags superlatively realized: the influence of Rubens is clear. At his side is de St Antoine in red, holding the King’s helmet and looking up at him with a slightly quizzical, anxious expression. The King sits impassively, instinctively majestic, astride the horse on an ornate red and gold filigree saddlecloth. He wears precisely articulated armour with the Garter sash and holds a baton. The white horse, head slightly lowered to the left, seems to move sedately and steadily. Its musculature is perfectly realized, almost tangible. To the left is the Royal Coat of Arms surmounted by an enormous crown. This is majesty and kingly power and authority. The composition was appropriated by Oliver Cromwell for his portrait by Pierre Lombart in 1655.
There are also wonderful paintings of figures from the Caroline Court. William Laud’s most famous image is not the least of this section’s accomplishments. Laud was not unduly sympathetic to van Dyke, regarding him as an extravagance, and this portrait captures a sense of Laud’s choleric severity and his austere personality. The catalogue captures the sitter and the artists response well: ‘Short of stature and red-faced, intellectual but intractable, quick-tempered and socially awkward… [Laud] seems to have little cared for [the courts] aesthetic graces. Van Dyck nevertheless has created a compelling image, the focus of which is Lauds commanding and authoritative stare.’
There are many other good things. He painted many court portraits as well as self-portraits and of Margaret Lemon his mistress. In many of these highly accomplished works, there is a sumptuous and easy elegance. The sitters possess a relaxed authority, albeit understated and implied. It was here that his influence on succeeding generations was most notable. That is not to say there is not some psychological insight and an understanding of character as well as social position. Although he may be ever associated with the portraiture of the Cavaliers, many of his sitters sided with the Parliamentarians when the Civil War came.
Van Dyck died before Charles raised his standard and there is not much apprehension of a coming conflict. Only really in retrospect can we see Lauds severity, Wentworth’s grim determination, Charles’ wistful melancholy as the embodiment of the ancient regime in its final hours. It may be argued that van Dyck flattered his sitters and that this led some later portraiture to be blandly elegant, blank faces, lovely clothes. Certainly it was not an age of ruthless realism and psychological exposure but there is in his pictures more than just pretty dresses and accurate armour. Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, wears a stunning blue silk dress with ivory and gold lining all of which catches the light beautifully but the eyes are alert, and there is a slight amused knowingness about the mouth. Philip Herbert, Fourth Earl of Pembroke, wears a gold doublet, shimmering gently, with the Garter Star irradiating on his cloak, but his expression is guarded and stern and slightly threatening, hinting at the reputation he had for violent behaviour. Perhaps this gives some flavour of what can be enjoyed in this fascinating exhibition. Of the artists represented to illustrate van Dyck’s influence, perhaps the most striking portrait is that of the Earl of Dalhousie. This is a brilliant study in whites and creams, with a flashing red tie. It is ‘aristocratic hauteur’ at its best with a bohemian edge.
The catalogue (edited by Karen Hearn, £29.99, pbk) is sumptuous, as triumphant an achievement as the exhibition.
God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision
SPCK, 244pp, pbk
978 0 281 06090 0, £10.99
Among the many different readers of New Directions, it’s a fair bet there are those for whom controversies about altars are meat and drink, and those for whom controversies about the doctrine of Justification are meat and drink. Not too many will feel at home dining at both tables. Certainly for this reader ‘Justification was moving into new territory in the way some of its intended readers might find Gamber on the eastward-facing position a little alien. It is a book written by a Protestant for Protestants. The bishop is staking a claim to be an inheritor of the true Reformed Faith.
A glance at the distinguished academics who have written a blurb for the book not only tells you quite a lot about what is inside, but makes it clear that this is serious stuff. Within traditional Protestantism the neo-Reform, a US-based group, looks to bring Christians back to Paul’s doctrine of Justification as expounded by Martin Luther and John Calvin (though the emphasis is more on Luther than Calvin). Surprisingly, at least for this English outsider, the Bishop of Durham is in the frame as Public Enemy Number One. If this sounds melodramatic, a brief glance at some of the relevant blogs and websites shows the Reformed Tradition has lost none of Luther’s intemperance and skill at invective. The bishop wisely notes that there should be a protocol for Christian blogging.
But not all of Bishop Wright’s opponents are crass, and the book is written as a reply by the bishop to someone with whom he can hold a civilized conversation, John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, author of The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. In this response to a response – you can almost smell the odium theologicum of sixteenth-century pamphlet wars – Wright sets out where he thinks the controversy is, and why the divide between conservatives and post-conservatives is misleading. As he sees it, the post-conservatives are too heterogeneous to form a single group. And he gives a list of just some of the colleagues with whom he has serious disagreements. There follows a section on how to read Paul. The bishop emphasizes how we need continually to return to Paul’s actual words rather than be ruled by the progressively distorting tradition which Wright believes has replaced Paul. This is a good section, clearly written, and it emphasizes the priority of Jesus to Paul. It would be interesting to have more on the implications of writing from within the Body of Christ.
There then follows an analysis of key passages in Paul’s letters which we are assured will return again in part four of the bishop’s pro-—’ jected five-part history of the origins of Christianity. This third section requires to be read with the Greek text. If there are Justification anoraks, this might be their Seventh Heaven. Unfortunately many readers will only check up on this detailed exegesis when they have to, especially if the end result is one they feel comfortable with.
And here we have perhaps stumbled upon a real crisis in traditional Protestantism. Will readers be comfortable when many of the bishop’s comments about Justification could easily come from a Catholic? Not only does he say that not every Christian is or should be enthused by the idea of imputed righteousness, he places Justification within the wider context of Sanctification, itself part and parcel of man’s work to give glory to God.
It is both right and proper to note that that wider context for Justification is to be found in the first Protestant confessions, though they also stated that Justification is the key doctrine and touchstone for Christianity. It is that central role given to Justification which Wright reckons is a mistake, since it places man and his salvation at the centre rather than God and the glory man gives to God.
He is surely correct to argue that over time the doctrine of Justification has distorted the balance of Protestant dogmatics. A look through the literature of the Alpha Course, that benchmark of contemporary Protestantism, has little about giving glory to God – praise songs don’t really count -but a lot about what I must do to be saved.
It is not part of the book’s agenda, but it would be fascinating to know Wright’s views on the recent ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.’ That document argues that the central conflict between the two Churches should be replaced by an agreed consensus on the key features of Justification. The stakes are high, for if Luther misread Paul, as Wright suggests, and if Rome and the Lutheran Churches fell out over a mutual misunderstanding, was the Reformation really worth it? I suspect Wright will say it was to give birth to John Calvin and provide the freedom for the individual to return ad fontes to Scripture.
Yet, as Wright argues, that freedom has been lost in traditional Protestantism. He believes the classic catechisms of the Reformation have usurped the authority of Scripture. One consequence of this he gives is the NIV Bible. Even in its latest revision this has consistently imposed a wrong translation upon Paul because it sees him through the prism of the Reformation.
Criticism of the NIV might be enough to raise questions about the bishop’s Protestant credentials, though throughout the book he does balance criticisms of the Protestant tradition with equal criticisms of the Catholic, especially St Augustine. The most entertaining of these criticisms is directed at Peter Lombard for his development of the scholastic technique. This, Wright reckons, gave a bad example to Protestant writers and lacked pastoral merit. Here the bishop stands in the tradition of such saints as the two great Francises, Assisi and Xavier, both critics of excessive scholarship. What they would have thought of the pastoral value of the bishop’s earlier 738-page text on the Resurrection we cannot know. The bishop at least is gracious enough to see there may be some contradiction when he recalls how his family dubbed his own doctoral thesis the ‘Oxford Book of Footnotes.’
Recommended for those who wish to understand God’s work in Christ and lovers of altars.
A WILD CONSTRAINT
The Case for Chastity Jenny Taylor
Continuum, 166pp, pbk 978 0 826487 12 4, £14.99
It is hard to decide quite what to make of this book, which, although in many respects deeply unsatisfactory, nevertheless contains a number of important insights. Jenny Taylor’s A Wild Constraint oscillates between being a reactionary diatribe, and a somewhat more radical Christian manifesto on the theology of sexuality. The book does not live up to its claim to be ‘the case for chastity’, as the author consistently fails to recognize that chastity is an ethic applicable to all states of life, and is not equivalent to celibacy: whereas the former is an obligation of all Christians, the latter is a specialized vocation, or a discipline taken up in order to fulfil certain works. Chastity cannot be boiled down to sexual abstinence, as this is only one among many expressions of the personal integrity to which chastity calls us.
As an author, Taylor is at her best when evaluating prevailing social attitudes and trends – her recognition of the problems to which chastity is (part of) the answer is sharp and well articulated: for example, she argues that ‘[we] must recast our bodies in terms of charity and community, rather than the distorted secular form of fulfilment that is self-gratification.’ A central theme of A Wild Constraint is the social dimension and implications of individual sexuality, and this is carefully developed and powerfully stated.
The theological understanding of human sexuality is, in many places in this book, rendered in terms that are simultaneously orthodox and refreshing – these include the prophetic character of Christ’s own celibate life, and a moving, if brief, section on chaste friendships as developed in the Western monastic heritage: in friendship, the ‘soul in the body [is] already complete in the contemplation of Christ in the other.’ Towards the end of the book is a splendid meditation on contemplation as aided by sexual discipline: here, Taylor seems to appreciate that chastity is not the preserve of the unmarried – rather, it is, in the words of the medieval Cloud of Unknowing, to become spiritually balanced, so that the life of the soul is ‘restful… free… calm… patient… humble… self-forgetful… [and] grateful’
But, alas, these come amid some other disappointing material. At times Taylor resorts to unhelpful language to describe the exercise of discipline in human relationships: “No’ is the most exciting word in the English language,’ she says, a line worthy of the most fatuous American-evangelical campaign to preserve white teenage girls from the dangers of the real world (i.e. black teenage boys). Chastity is, in contrast, a resounding ‘yes’ to life – acknowledging, rather than avoiding, the fact of human sexuality. Indeed, it is a major failing of titles on this subject written in this vein that chastity (celibacy) is seen as a denial of the sexual side of an individual (in her introduction, Taylor says that she ‘turned [her] back on sex’), whereas the avoidance of sexual activity is not a negation of sexuality: the celibate is no less a sexual being than anybody else. The author is not sufficiently careful to keep unnecessary personal details from emerging in the book, describing at unappealing length what it means for some women to have ‘inherited our mothers’ anger.’ The incongruity of these parts is heightened by the otherwise professional tone that Taylor adopts, particularly in detailing the sociological history of human sexuality.
This is not a theological title, but it would however have benefited from a more specifically christological interpretation of sexuality and chastity. It is instead a largely conservative tract, unlikely to lead many to the life described therein: it is much more an assault on prevailing social trends than it is a positive commendation of the single life. Nevertheless, where the author does offer positive contributions to the debate, they are often exciting and also sensible ideas.
As well as being a reaction against what is wrong in society, A Wild Constraint also suggests some important revisions, e.g. of Cartesian individualism, and of urban atomization and anonymization. It is, furthermore, very readable, with a good amount of anecdotal material, and an amusing style which is at times enjoyably risqué, especially in the sections on Foucault and Freud.
A Wild Constraint will not change your life. But it may give pause for thought, and it is certain to make an otherwise uneventful train journey pass more speedily.
ERNEST CHARLES SHEARMAN (1859-1939) An Anglo-Catholic Architect: an Illustrated Introduction to His Life and Work John Salmon Members £16.50; non-members £20.00
ONE PART OF LONDON Aspects of Anglo-Catholicism in Camden Michael Farrer Members £12.00; non-members £15.00
THE TWENTY-ONE An Anglo-Catholic Rebellion in London, 1929 Michael Yelton
Members £12.00; non-members £15.00
Anglo-Catholic History Society, available from Mr G. B. Skelly, 24 Cloudesley Square, London N1 0HN (prices include inland postage and packing)
This trinity of books signifies the continuing work of the Anglo-Catholic History Society to publish vignettes of defining events in the history of the Catholic Revival and of its personalities and combatants. It has, once again, fulfilled its task with a high degree of success.
John Salmons photographic expertise is known and admired and he has produced a rich selection of pictures of his own in this admirable volume. The illustrations are very good indeed and they have reproduced well in black and white, some rather dramatic and compelling.
Ernest Charles Shearman was born in 1859 and was articled to Charles Barry (the son of Sir Charles Barry who designed the present Houses of Parliament). He studied under that great architect Norman Shaw, and worked for some years in Buenos Aires, but made his mark on the landscape of Anglo-Catholicism with six churches. He designed St Matthew, Wimbledon; St Silas, Kentish Town; St Barnabas, Pit-shanger Lane; St Gabriel, Noel Road, Acton; St Barnabas, Temple Fortune; St Francis of Assisi, Isleworth, and did lesser work on many other churches. His completed churches exemplify the affectionate term Anglo-Catholic pile!
They are mighty, solid, brick, broad, apsidal churches which stand with a massive authority in the townscape. Internally, they are the quintessence of ecclesiological principles of the time. Large and spacious sanctuary, with the altar visible from all parts of the building, broad and generous nave and aisles, side chapels, nooks and crannies, soaring, solid arches bring all together in a fitting unity of conception and execution. There are also invariably charming details to be found both internally and externally, but the overall impression is of a confident assertion of the church rooted in the midst of a people.
There is a good outline biography and the photographs of the buildings are generously supplemented with pictures of family groups, portraits and processions, plans, sketches and doodles which all contribute to a sympathetic portrait. Shearman is buried in Magdalen Hill Cemetery in Winchester in plot U2/84. Although instructions for a headstone with an inscription were left, the grave is unmarked. Perhaps the provision of a proper memorial could be a cause taken up by the Society.
Michael Farrer s history cum memoir of Anglo-Catholicism in Camden has charm and interest. It is precisely the sort of thing the Society should be doing. His mixture of personal comment, anecdote and witness with the historical narrative gives his book a particular flavour and piquant significance, that of the participant in events as well as a keen observer, and his acquaintance with several of the great figures of the Movement gives his narrative added lustre. Mr Farrer knows the nuance of the world he describes.
He makes a good case for Camden as a microcosm of Anglo-Catholic history. (Like him I prefer the generic title Anglo-Catholic, despite its limitations.) Christ Church, Albany Street embraced Tractarian principles from the first in 1837. The Park Village Community was founded in 1845 and later with the Devonport Sisters migrated to Ascot Priory. St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square was built in 1849 on Tractarian ecclesiological principles. St Albans, Holborn was for long the centre of ritual and ceremonial dispute and saw the ministry of two of the greatest Anglo-Catholic priests, Alexander Heriot Mackonochie and Arthur Henry Stanton. St Marys, Primrose Hill saw the development of a distinct aesthetic and St Mary’s, Somers Town epitomized the practical implementation of a Catholic social gospel under Fr Basil Jellicoe who founded the St Pancras Housing Trust.
The brief but significant incident that is the focus of Michael Yelton’s latest contribution to Anglo-Catholic history came in the wake of the rejection of the 1928 Prayer Book. Although it failed in the House of Commons mainly through Evangelical opposition, there had been considerable opposition from Anglo-Catholics who saw that in its specific provisions Benediction (or Devotions) would be outlawed. The bishops authorized the use of the book, even without parliamentary sanction, and, as Mr Yelton suggests, the diocese of London may have been a test case for the bishops’ attempt to ban Benediction, and impose greater restrictions of the Reservation of the Sacrament.
The attempt failed partly because of the opposition of large numbers of London clergy, some of whom simply ignored the Directions, some of whom made slight adjustments to ceremonial to conform (Fr Keet had his server swing the thurible from side to side rather than towards the Sacrament: a vignette that encapsulates a steely frivolity that marked much Anglo-Catholic defiance, a mischievous quality that has not entirely been lost). The Twenty-One were the incumbents who publicly rejected the Bishop of London’s attempt and this book chronicles their defiance which amounted to two lengthy letters from them to the Bishop, one long letter from him and one short one where he effectively capitulated.
Bishop Winnington-Ingram’s failure was bound up with his own delightful temperament. He did not have the reserves of steel of his Anglo-Catholic incumbents. He was charming, a deeply good and attractive person, a spectacularly incompetent administrator, no intellectual, and he liked and admired his Anglo-Catholic clergy. The Public Worship Regulation Act failed and this rather half-hearted attempt also failed ‘to put down ritualism’.
It is good that the exchange of letters, long out of print, is now recovered. Mr Yelton also includes brief biographical details of the Twenty-One, as well as highly perceptive commentary. He places this small incident within its wider context. The pamphlet is splendidly, indeed lavishly illustrated. It is in part a record of lost churches as many of those at the heart of this controversy are no longer centres of Anglo-Catholic worship and many succumbed to bombs or redundancies.
It may be suggested that dusting off these old disputes, what some see as the minutiae of Anglo-Catholicism (how much white cuff is it proper to display from the cassock sleeve?), is listening to dying echoes sounding in forlorn and empty corridors. But history has an integrity and a justification in and of itself. If, however, you want history that is ‘relevant’ to today, it is here. Listen to the voices of the past and you hear the voices of today.
William Davage is Priest Librarian at Pusey House, Oxford
THE GLAMOUR OF EVIL
There is a question in the Rite of Baptism which asks the candidate if he or she rejects the glamour of evil. It is an oddly disconcerting phrase but one that has a perennial relevance and not least in our own day. So much of the teaching of history in our schools, so reports tell us, centres on Hitler and all his works and his fascination cannot be denied. He succeeded in fatally fascinating Germany for too long. On the scale of mass murderers he may have been beaten by Josef Stalin, that failed seminarian and ruthless despot, and there seems to be an incipient movement to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation, not least in Russia. The apparent collapse, or at least lapse into greed, of western capitalism may have something to do with this disturbing trend.
It can also be seen in the recent obsession with the anniversary of Castro’s triumph in Cuba. In January the BBC World Service lived up to the Corporation’s deserved reputation for being staffed by bleeding-heart liberal fellow-travellers by devoting an inordinate amount of time (in the early hours after Radio 4 has closed down with the National Anthem -how long will that last?) to this revolution. It was a revolution in the perfect sense of the replacement of one useless dictator with another. And, at about the same time, there was a film (part 1) about that ghastly, wicked, promiscuous, cruel, dangerous Che Guevara. Is he still the pin-up poster on the walls of pint-sized pinkos and the great unwashed? What a sick joke he was.
Before that highly informative, literate and picturesque ‘blog’ mass information ceased to be, there was some intelligent speculation, in the light of that ghastly SSPX bishop’s ruminations about the holocaust (beware the amateur, credulous historian), about what made Hitler what he was. The conclusion was that he was the result of evil active in the world and its successful seduction of an individual. However deeply unhistorical that conclusion may be, it has something profoundly true to say about the human condition that historians should ignore at their peril.
However, if we think that books are, or were important, can we learn anything about the formation of an individual’s character or opinions from the books that he or she read? Again, we must proceed with caution. There was an incident some years ago when a distinguished judge of the American Supreme Court died and at his funeral extracts which he had marked in a book, written by one of his former clerks, found on his bedside table, were read out. It turned out that he had marked passages with which he disagreed and thought were nonsense.
A book has recently been published about Hitler’s library (Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life by Timothy W Ryback, Bodley Head, £18.99), which seeks to show how Hitler’s reading habits formed him. That it does not do so, because it cannot do so, is not to say that this is not a thoroughly interesting and worthwhile book.
Hitler’s library is said to have contained some 16,000 volumes but when the Allies converged on a bombed and ruined Berlin most of it was seized by the Soviets, taken to Moscow and never seen again. The remainder found its way to the United States; some books were sold but others are now in the Library of Congress. Of those books Mr Ryback has considered a relatively small percentage.
Sadly for his thesis most are not annotated, several are presentation copies and others remain with pages uncut, so it is difficult to say which have been read and which, if any, have been read with profit. Those he can clearly be shown to have read do not really help to tell what formed him. A book on the architecture of Berlin, a book of poems by an anti-Semitic poet, the life of Field Marshal von Schlieffen (the originator of the plan employed at the outbreak of World War I that was nearly successful) and others really tell us little. They seem not to have originated any thoughts in Hitler’s mind. It was quite fertile enough and formed before he read most of them. He used them, no doubt, to bolster and support views that he already held. Most of us tend to read books that reflect our views, not to say prejudices.
There are plenty of books in Hitler’s library on race and one on poison gas. Did he put two and two together and come up with six million (and possibly more) deaths in the most egregious and wanton example of man’s capacity for undiluted evil? Who can tell? Perhaps we should look at the books on our own shelves and try to work out what they say about us: we might be surprised, and unpleasantly surprised by the answers. Happy browsing.