Eyes see today, but a wise man’s eyes also see the future.
The Ruhnama Book II
See this. Times Square in New York, a fifty-foot monument in the shape of a book. You walk closer, the gold leaf letters on its cover shining in the dusk. The book turns and starts to open. A man emerges slowly into view, filling one of the pages, his teeth bared in a widening smile; his arms open. The watching crowd becomes animated. They touch one another, point, clap, and momentarily check their surroundings ‑ for this might, after all, be a mirage. Loudspeakers crackle. The man starts to speak in a measured baritone; his voice slooping over the square like a liquid.
I LIKE … I LIKE … I LIKE …
The Leader’s chin rises on the “I”, falls on the “like”, again and again ‑ like one of those nodding dogs fixed to a dashboard. There’s a glitch in playback. The crowd turns anxious. Then something clicks deep inside the machine.
I LIKE … THINKING BIG. I ALWAYS HAVE. TO ME IT’S VERY SIMPLE: IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE THINKING ANYWAY, YOU MIGHT AS WELL THINK BIG.
Science fiction? Not quite. You may not find Donald Trump reading from The Art of the Deal in the central square of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, but you will see Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president of Turkmenistan, talking from inside a giant electronic book. That book is the Ruhnama (meaning Book of Soul), Niyazov’s collected writings on Turkmen civilisation ‑ a mix of poetry, anecdote and spiritual reflection. Starting five thousand years ago at the time of Noah, and ending in today’s post-Soviet “Golden Age”, the book invents Turkmen as a race, and Turkmenistan as a nation with “lions in its fields” and a bright destiny to come. Schoolchildren learn the book by rote; you need to prove your memory of the text to take a driving test; in 2005 it was even blasted into space, to orbit the earth for the next century. Yet what lies hidden is the work needed for the book’s emergence: around 25,000 history books were destroyed to make way for it, according to Riccardo Nicolosi’s essay “Saparmurat Niyazov’s Ruhnama: The Invention of Turkmenistan”, one contribution to the essay collection Tyrants Writing Poetry, a book exploring autocrats as authors, tyrants as storytellers, dictators as bards, barbarians, and baddies ‑ and maybe warning us of possible futures to come.
The book is timely. Tyranny and demagoguery are gaining in strength and sympathy, right-wing parties are gaining ground – hell, even Hitler’s on sale again! – with Mein Kampf released in a new, critical edition in 2016, its sombre grey cover announcing a new, solemn analysis. Andreas Wirsching, director of the Munich institute which published the new edition, claimed its (re)publication would allow us “to re-examine the ominous roots and results of such totalitarian ideologies” within a rising tide of populism. Perhaps he’s right. In the era of fake news, gamed elections, and meta-political nightmares perhaps an intravenous dose of Nazism can act as a vaccine. But I’m not so sure; liberal gains may be outweighed by prestige and publicity gains for the far-right; and both the German government and Germany’s Central Council of Jews opposed the book’s republication.
Popular culture also comes saturated with tyranny, the TV remake of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale making authoritarian horror thinkable, though at times unwatchable. Academics too worry. Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, tells us how to recognise tyranny and resist it: “Make eye contact and small talk with strangers”; “separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
Tyrants Writing Poetry raises questions. Why are we attracted to tyrants? Why do we submit to them? Are we living in a time of tyrants and demagogues now—a tyrant-time? To answer that we first need to look at that other country, the past.
Tyrannies of the twentieth century arrive with books just like drinkers bring booze to a party. Just think of Stalin’s three famous tomes—his life of Lenin, his own biography, his Short Course on the Bolsheviks’ rise; Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mao’s Little Red Book, and the Little Green Books of both Muammar Gaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini. These works fulfilled three functions. First, they formed “the symbolic centre of the totalitarian system”, dictating the regime’s unbreakable doctrines and signalling the flavour of their rule ‑ be it dogmatic, strict, puritanical or just whimsical. Second, they functioned as tools of pedagogy, disseminating across countries and even continents the ideas formulated at the regime’s heart, like butter spread slowly over bread. Third, they painted the ideal types the regime wished to see the populace enact: the party member, the peasant, the proletarian. The past was rubbed out by such acts of bibliophilic cleansing and a new society made; a society in which individuals were little more than spectators at an exhibition.
Tyrannical texts, however constructed, have a sameness and circularity about them. Gazing backwards to look forward, they fix the past to an image or feeling, as if to pin a butterfly to a board. All contingencies, errors or alternative explanations are erased, omitted ‑ or turned to dust, often along with their creators. Stalin’s biography of Lenin is one example, described by Evgeny Dobrenko as “a ready-made … a history without a past” in which the life, and genius, of Lenin leads inexorably to the rule, and genius, of Stalin. There’s no doubt in such one-way speculations; nor any speculation at all. History here is a logic loop of historiographic leaps and swerves, a needle carving out tautologies in prose, a mere groove.
Texts house the tiny myths and the big myths. Take a Hitler myth: that he was bullied by left-wing trade unionists on a Vienna building site (he never worked while in Vienna); a Stalin myth: that he was Lenin’s intellectual equal and chosen successor; a Mussolini myth: that he could rid Italy of corruption and drenare la palude, meaning “drain the swamp” (the phrase might sound familiar). Though these might seem unimportant at first, tiny myths link to the big myths. Think of Niyazov’s tales of brave Turkmen stretching back thousands of years in the Ruhnama. Think of Hitler’s idea of Germania and the thousand-year Reich; think of Mussolini’s idea of romanità or “romanness”, tracing a line back from fascist Italy to Ancient Rome. But then why are myths so useful, and even fundamental, to such regimes? Heiner Lohmann answers this question in his essay “A Poor Despot Descends to Hell: On the Writing and Thinking Styles of Muammar al-Gaddafi” by writing that
myths are not discursive theories. They do not help in clarifying arguments but instead in forming identities. They thus resemble religious beliefs in their irrefutability. They cannot be wrong; at most, they are deemed inadequate or inappropriate.
Myths cement the leader in power and demolish any arguments against his rule (and it’s usually his rather than her, tyrannies tending to be male-led affairs); they bring forth and naturalise an identity as fixed as the North Star, drawing minds into orbit round an idea.
Dictators and demagogues also aim to create new forms of experience, and this requires new ideas, and fresh perspectives. In 1908, Italian poet Filippo Marinetti crashed his Fiat car into a ditch. This sparked his notion of Futurism, a movement that would “sing about the love of danger, about the use of energy and recklessness as a common, daily practice”; by 1910 he was already imagining a future humanoid, half-machine, half-man and “built for constant speed, [which] will quite naturally be cruel, omniscient, and warlike”. Marinetti’s Futurist Political Party, founded in 1918, soon merged with Mussolini’s National Fascist Party; and he co-wrote the Fascist Manifesto, published in 1919 in Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia (“The People of Italy”). Another poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose high-pitched voice was once described as “almost bi-sexual, since its virility alternated with feminine sweetness”, also fed many ideas and practices into the emerging fascist movement: violence as a cleansing force, the glorification of the heroic self, the use of emotive, public rituals to unite a population, fiery balcony speeches, and black-shirted gangs of thugs to beat up the opposition. He led the March on Fiume in 1919 (today’s Rijeka in Croatia), then a hotbed of Italian irredentism, where he was named the first Duce; like Jordan Peterson, today’s go-to right-wing intellectual, he believed in an aristocratic division of the world into masters and slaves; that men needed to assert themselves in order to redeem the spiritual promise of the nation state. In other words: Men – toughen up!
It’s just as well Mussolini had an aesthetic movement behind him – because his writing could be terrible. Richard James Boon Bosworth’s essay “Poetry and Tyranny: The Case of Benito Mussolini” gives a few lines from the Duce’s Il mio diario di guerra (1915-17) as proof:
A night of torment. This morning either fog or snow. We worked intensely. The war of the agricultural labourer. The spade matters as much as the rifle.
And just to show that Mussolini never shied from hyperbole, read this snapshot from his bodice-ripping novel The Cardinal’s Mistress, first published in serial form in 1909:
Behind the curtains stood the servants of the Cardinal. They seemed moved. Among them the guilty one perhaps began to feel his heart lacerated by the vipers of remorse.
Mussolini never suffered the vipers of editing, that’s for sure. Later, he turned to ghost-writers to produce much of his literary work.
And yet bizarre aesthetic schemes exist outside Europe too. If you were permitted to go to Pyongyang, there you might be taken to see the body of Kim Il-sung (1912-1994). Long dead in the earthly realm ‑ embalmed in a transparent coffin for all to see ‑ spiritually he still exists. On April 15th the whole nation celebrates his birthday with the “Day of the Sun” festival, involving ceremonies with thousands of citizens parading, dancing, and holding up large coloured cards; a phenomenon which the German critic Siegfried Kracauer, writing of the Weimar Republic, called the “Mass Ornament”, whose goal was “to train the broadest mass of people in order to create a pattern of undreamed-of dimensions”. Furthermore, as well as being father to the nation, Kim Il-sung provided the ideological and aesthetic foundation, the seed, on which this embalmed nation still depends.
Juche, or self-reliance, is the central ideology, which makes perfect sense for a country whose southern borders are patrolled by US troops, its northern frontier dominated by mountains. But from under the umbrella of Juche comes “seed theory”, a theory of aesthetics explored in Suk-Young Kim’s essay “Dead Father’s Living Body: Kim Il-sung’s Seed Theory and North Korean Arts”.
What is “seed theory”? Seed theory is an aesthetic theory developed by Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il. In his 1973 treatise “On the Art of the Cinema” – consisting of simple, declarative sentences, vapid generalities such as “Where there are people, there is life”, and countless repetitions of party doctrine – this theory is circled around, but never defined: “The seed is the basis which blends the ideological and artistic qualities of a literary work, and the decisive factor in assuring its value.” But the importance of a good seed is stressed repeatedly:
The seed provides the writer with the basic impulse for creative work … The writer can only be fired with creative zeal and develop his artistic vision to the full when he has chosen a good seed … A writer must always concentrate on the quest for the right seed.
Yet despite the importance of the seed and the fact it “must always be new and have its own unique features”, the seed must also conform to party policy, which is, after all, the dictator’s policy: “A seed must conform to the requirements of Party policy and also be capable of being expressed artistically,” meaning that artistic production becomes a trick of trying to fit an artistic rabbit into an ever-shrinking political hat.
Kim Jong-il officially came to power in 1994 but had been unofficially ruling the country for a while. Although he lacked his father’s charisma, he thought of himself more as an aesthete, and he saw the potential of films as propaganda. Wanting to transform the North Korean film industry into a powerhouse capable of winning international awards, he famously kidnapped two of South Korea’s biggest celebrities – actress Choi Eun-hee and her film director husband Shin Sang-ok – and forced them, for several years, to make films praising his regime. However, as the 2016 documentary The Lovers and the Despot shows, the two abducted stars secretly recorded many of their conversations and phone calls with him, revealing his eagerness to project a positive image of his one-party, one-man state. In one phone call Kim Jong-il asks filmmaker Shin to improve the poor quality of North Korean films, adding “There’s nothing new about them.” He then continues, without a hint of irony: “People here are so closed-minded.”
But back to poetry. In contrast to the closed minds of North Korea, the essay “‘Nothing Is Forbidden in My Faith’: The Metamorphoses of Radovan Karadžić” explores how an ideological space was opened up in which new understandings of belonging, or not-belonging, were produced and then normalised. Here Slavoj Žižek suggests that the object responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia was a “poetic-military complex”, a kind of thought-machinery in which “ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams”. And we can see this machinery in prototype if we look the poems of former psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić, such as his 1971 “Sarajevo”:
The town burns like a piece of incense
In the smoke rumbles our consciousness
Empty suits slide down the town
Red is the stone that dies, built into a house. The Plague!
Of course, in the seventies such imagery could be explained away as poetic licence, but by 1990, Karadžić’s tone is devoid of all nuance, as in “The Morning Hand-Grenade”.
And I hurl a morning hand-grenade
Armed with the laughter
Of a lonely man
With a dark character.
Yet it’s when he uses Hegel’s idea of the “silent weaving of the spirit” that Žižek’s analysis comes to life, connecting it to the Yugoslav context by describing “the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise.” And it would be foolish not to imagine we aren’t going through something similar now ‑ a slow turning of the spirit towards, if not tyranny, then something like very much like it.
Recall that “fake news” and mythology were key drivers in taking Yugoslavia to the precipice of conflict ‑ and over the edge; fake news that intensified when Slobodan Milošević took control of the media, sacking journalists and replacing them with his own people. In 1988, it was reported that radioactive waste was being dumped in Serb villages by local Croat authorities ‑ allegations that were unproven, and untrue. In 1989 Milošević gave his infamous speech at Kosovo Polje, site of the mythic Battle of Kosovo, saying: “Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet.” And by March 1992 relations between Serbs and Croats had become so toxic that they now divided into separate militias, shooting at one other in a stand-off in the Serb-majority village of Pakrac, western Slavonia, watched over by the Yugoslav army. On this occasion both sides backed down and there were no casualties, the militias still made up of locals aware of the consequences of inter-communal violence. That is, there were no casualties except the truth; Radio Belgrade reported that six Serbs had been killed, continuing the chain of misinformation that led to deadlier mobilisations, war, and genocide.
So are we living in a tyrant-time right now? Well, go online, go on Twitter, Facebook or Reddit and you’ll find a thousand Karadžićs armed with word-weapons, with morning hand-grenades; only now they have the technological means to deploy them, as well as the time, and the inclination.
Go to many Italian cities and you’ll find houses organised by a movement called CasaPound Italia (CPI). Labelling themselves as “third-millennium fascists”, since 2003 and their occupation of a building in the centre of Rome they’ve expounded their own brand of neo-fascism: an anti-immigrant, nativist politics combined with perspectives normally seen on the left: an emphasis on social help for the poor, and a critique of capitalist globalisation (seen by them as creating flows of migrants which delegitimise the nation state). Performing the same ideological triangulation as fascists did in the 1930s – outright nationalism allied to solutions to the “social question” (then, as now, a question of economic humiliation caused by economic chaos and austerity) – inevitably, ideas turn into deeds. In 2011, CasaPound member Gianluca Casseri killed two Senegalese street sellers in a shooting spree in Florence, injuring three other people before turning the gun on himself. In February 2018, a far-right militant with links to CasaPound shot and injured six African migrants in the town of Macerata. The group is now entering party politics, fielding candidates at local and national elections, but like other far-right organisations it’s undoubtedly fulfilled its purpose: shifting politics to the right.
The name CasaPound is directly inspired by poet Ezra Pound, whose most famous exhortation was the modernist cry “Make It New!” Pound was also a fascist himself, a paranoid believer in a world-wide conspiracy of Jewish usury, and a supporter of Mussolini, giving pro-fascist radio broadcasts during World War II. Pound had founded the poetic school of Imagism, imploring poets to cut out ornament and reduce expression to “direct treatment of the thing”; perhaps it’s now easier to see how such artistic compression might be misused, how aesthetic events have political echoes.
Demagogues and dictators all work for the closing of gaps. Promising to reduce the emotional disturbance people feel during economic hardship, they reduce every ambiguity to a nationalist haiku – you’re American, you’re German, you’re French –their speeches and texts promising a new life and change. Ultimately, Tyrants Writing Poetry warns that tyrant-time forces us onto a terrain, because the war in tyranny’s antechamber will be fought not at the extremes but increasingly, in the spaces carved out by the right in society’s centre. And whether we like it or not, the journey to the future rests on the torque applied to an economics by which the vast gulfs of inequality are removed, on the willingness to forge a politics of togetherness which includes rather than exiles; and perhaps just a willingness to take a few steps outside ‑ and turning, talk to a stranger, or even a friend.
Because nothing was ever gained by forcing the gates of thinking minds to close, or by installing a guard post in the head, or the heart.
Paul Walsh is a teacher, writer, and precarious worker. His first book is due out this year with Punctum Books. Find him on Twitter: @josipa74