FEARFUL SYMMETRIES PART 5 Alan Riach browses through the 1940s in his survey of the 20th century in retrospect

TO state the obvious, the 1940s began with the end of the 1930s, but what that means is more than a matter of playing bagatelle with dates. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began, and in 1938, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia portends the internecine fighting in the context of rising fascism.

Then, as Nazism grows its power in the later 1930s and the Second World War lines up Hitler and Mussolini and Franco and sees Stalin in the Soviet Union occupying his – at the time – ambiguous place in the context of western politics, the priorities of the arts and aesthetics might seem devalued or irrelevant.

Not so. Try this: “riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

In the opening paragraph of Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, James Joyce (below) delivers the mellifluous, mesmerising sense of a journey by water, by night, a dream journey through all the languages and archetypes known to him.

The National:

Six hundred pages later, he will return us with the last words of the book to its beginning once again. You can listen to Joyce himself reading the last part of the section where the washerwomen working down by the river are gossiping to each other as night falls and they slowly become indistinguishable from trees, stones, the river itself, until the darkness overtakes them all.

The quality of the recording might be poor by today’s standards but, once heard, the voice is unforgettable. You can listen to him here.

READ MORE: Fearful Symmetries, part 1: The literary symmetries of Oscar Wilde and Charles Darwin

Towards the end of that recording, this is what he says:

Ah, but she was the queer old skeowsha anyhow, Anna Livia, trinkettoes! And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we’re all their gangsters. Hadn’t he seven dams to wive him? And every dam had her seven crutches. And every crutch had its seven hues. And each hue had a differing cry.


Sudds for me and supper for you and the doctor’s bill for Joe John. Befor! Bifur! He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves. But at milkidmass who was the spouse? Then all that was was fair. Tys Elvenland! Teems of times and happy returns.


The seim anew. Ordovico or viricordo. Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan! Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daughters of. Whawk?


Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons.


Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

In a sense, Finnegans Wake marks the end of the Modern Movement. It was published as the Second World War began. Joyce said he was thinking of writing another book, about the sea. One is curious but also relieved that it didn’t happen.

READ MORE: Fearful Symmetries, Part 2: How literature fared in one of Europe's most horrific decades

Joyce’s massive intellectual authority and his love of the magic of language are undeniable. Tom Stoppard is wonderfully accurate in his play, Travesties, when he has Joyce answer the question, ‘What did you do in the Great War, Mr Joyce?”, with the reply, “I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?” But perhaps that kind of detachment was less possible in the Second World War.

SHOSTAKOVICH, in his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, both written during the war, immediately engages senses of horror and energy but underneath this there is a longing, not simply for victory, but for peace.

Listen to the fearful opening of the third movement of the Eighth Symphony and you’ll see what I mean. And the ending of that symphony says more about the tentative nature of what peace might be achieved than anything words can do.

In his memoirs, Shostakovich said these symphonies expressed his grief, not only at the carnage of the war itself but also for those who had died in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.

There is a curious parallel here. In Len Deighton’s novel Winter, there’s a remarkable description of the way an entire society changes, not overnight, not under the direction of an individual whose decrees must be obeyed, but in a multitude of small ways, social acts and habits of reflex, things people take for granted.

One of the characters, holding on to democratic and humane ideas, is increasingly appalled as he sees his friends and family gradually overtaken by the social changes that seemed to saturate the overwhelm Hitler’s Germany.

It’s this, I think, that Shostakovich depicts in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, where a sweetly rising violin is interrupted playfully, almost childishly, by a short, sharp, drumroll announcing a whimsical little tune that might have been played on a tin whistle in a nursery by a wee boy with a liking for the strict rhythm of the march.

You need to listen to it again so that you’ll recognise this. What happens over the next few minutes is a chilling transformation: what might have sounded playful, hopeful, even progressive, becomes brutal, insistent, dogmatised.

The theme is recognisably the same but it is frighteningly changed. It becomes a mad, repetitive, malevolent sound, as if a children’s fairground had been taken over by gangsters, is the key theme of social degeneration, in Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, and elsewhere.

No society is exempt from this capacity for self-destruction, and it’s easy to think of ways in which the same story can be told in microcosm, whether in terms of racism in America or Europe, or in local terms with the anti-education, anti-intellectual rhetoric of so much of New Zealand’s so-called “senior management”.

The man for this season is Bertolt Brecht (below).

The National:

In the epilogue to his play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in which Hitler is depicted as a small-time Chicago hoodlum staging a takeover of the city’s greengrocery trade, Brecht warns all of us “who come later” to beware of the dangers of complacency and silence: “Beware of what you now know”, he says,

... learn how to see and not to gape,

To act instead of talking all day long.

The world was almost won by such an ape!

The nations put him where his kind belong.

But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape –

The womb he crawled from is still going strong.

Some would argue that Brecht was the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Some would go further and point out that he was also a great poet. Like all the great poets, he reminds us that every decade, every generation, needs sceptical people who ask difficult questions and won’t be fobbed off by the easy answers that management expect to get away with. In “The Doubter” he writes:

Whenever we seemed

To have found the answer to a question

One of us untied the string of the old rolled-up

Chinese scroll on the wall, so that it fell down and

Revealed to us the man on the bench who

Doubted so much.

I, he said to us

Am the doubter ...

... Who are you? To whom

Do you speak? Who finds what you say useful?

And, by the way: Is it sobering?

Can it be read in the morning?

Is it also linked to what is already there?

... Is everything verifiable?

By experience?

... But above all

Always above all else: how does one act

If one believes what you say?

Above all: how does one act?

IN the sixth section of a poem called “1940”, Brecht gives the lie to the cynics and philistines whose corruption and competitiveness attack the value of learning in every generation:

My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?

What for, I’m inclined to say. That two bits of bread are more than one You’ll notice anyway.

My young son asks me: Should I learn French?

What for, I’m inclined to say. That empire is going under.

Just rub your hand across your belly and groan And you’ll be understood all right.

My young son asks me: Should I learn history?

What for, I’m inclined to say. Learn to stick your head in the ground Then maybe you’ll come through.

Yes, learn mathematics, I tell him Learn French, learn history!

This is the human voice in the inhuman war. With difficulty, it is counting the cost. With difficulty, it is finding new ground for hope.

READ MORE: Fearful Symmetries, Part 3: The great decade of the Modernist movement

From another part of the world, the poet Sorley MacLean was to see combat in the desert war and at El Alamein. He, too, struggled to find hope and discovered it in a permanent image drawn from the earth of his native place.

The mountain range called the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye provides him with a symbol of permanent protest, Alpine serrations black on the horizon, a kind of Celtic duende, forever rising “on the other side”:

Beyond the lochs of the blood of the children of men,

beyond the frailty of plain and the labour of the mountain,

beyond poverty, consumption, fever, agony,

beyond hardship, wrong, tyranny, distress,

beyond misery, despair, hatred, treachery,

beyond guilt and defilement; watchful, heroic,

the Cuillin is seen rising on the other side of sorrow.

Maybe that sense of defiant hope is what lies behind Prokofiev’s sheer determination not to be beaten in the “Precipitato” of the 7th piano sonata. The intensity of Prokofiev’s music, from 1942, sometimes called the “Stalingrad Sonata”, has something of the same force as MacLean’s great poem.

But the end of the war in Europe was not resolved in the sort of peace Prokofiev and Shostakovich and Brecht and MacLean had hoped for. In a sense, the war was frozen. The bomb had brought it to a close with an unprecedented massacre of civilians opened the dark door to the nuclear age.

Brecht rewrote parts of his play Galileo to take into account the effects of the scientist renouncing his discoveries in the light of the new application of physics in the warfare strategy of 1945.

This was the era of alienation all right. It was the era of Albert Camus’s The Outsider, of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy: “Hell?”, he wrote famously: “Hell is other people”. It’s the era of George Orwell’s 1984 when the Big Brother watching over you was almost unimaginable as a one-eyed machine in the corner of almost every family’s living room. Who said it could never happen?

It’s the era of FR Leavis fighting a rearguard action by attempting to define The Great Tradition in English literature, though even Leavis notes that the tradition doesn’t show much sign of developing past DH Lawrence. And yet it’s also the era when social reform and reconstitution were being seriously undertaken, and not only in Europe. It’s from this time that New Zealand’s reputation as an advanced and progressive society dates. Humane ideals were ratified in law.

The discomforting effect of the questions doubters always ask was to help bring about new and more hopeful societies in a number of Commonwealth countries beginning, sometimes painfully, to surface in the ebb-tide of British imperialism.

In New Zealand, the debates and controversies surrounding the idea of nationalism throughout the 1930s and 1940s were leading to literary as well as political achievements. Charles Brasch, whose magazine Landfill first appeared in 1949, Allen Curnow, James K Baxter, John Mulgan: these writers were engaged in something new, yet something inevitably bound up with the past, something emergent.

Brasch, in his Anglophonic yet distinctive way, captures the sense of possibility mingling with detachment:

Remindingly beside the quays the white

Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay

The godwits vanish towards another summer.

Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring

Shadow of departure; distance looks our way ...

“Remindingly” seems a strange word but it’s perfectly apt. Everything emergent needs a capacity to remind itself of what it is emerging from, a sense of the values it wishes to hold on to and pass forward, what should be kept in the new configuration.

If the Modern Movement had so much to do with the shock of the new, the world after Hiroshima depends on a sense of what makes human beings of us all.

Richard Strauss died in 1949. His Oboe Concerto, completed in the immediate aftermath of the war, when he was 82 years old, speaks of exactly this kind of continuity.

READ MORE: Fearful Symmetries, Part 4: Dark clouds, bright talents: The complex story of the 1930s

Its occasion was lucky: an American soldier stationed near Strauss’s home in Bavaria became known to him as the principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The old German composer wrote the concerto for the young Allied serviceman, John de Lancey.

This has none of the horror of war. Deeper than the disruption of the era that was ending, this speaks of an elemental sense of succession, a human scale of values, delivering to the future what the past might have destroyed. It speaks of the act of giving.