It has all the rudiments of farce. Yet there are few laughs here. For when these rudiments are reordered by magic - when reshaped by Estelle’s Square of Power - they produce a finely tuned domestic drama; the comedic mishaps becoming the ironies of man’s complex moral fate; where intentions, pushed out of shape by omnipresent circumstance, turn into their opposites; good producing bad, evil giving birth to saintly self-sacrifice.
Appearances deceive. How apt! for a comedy that isn’t one. The problem of appearances peculiarly acute in occupied territory during war; all Germans enemies to these islanders. Nevertheless, these soldiers have their uses; the warm hand of a kraut down one's knickers better than the cold fingers of hunger tickling and grabbing an empty stomach. But the Germans… What do they feel? Do they like these women, do they love them? And when they do… Always there must be doubts: a kiss: the sign of affection or a symbol of hate? Oh, it is so difficult to tell. Von Pfunz is lucky. Everyone dislikes him.
Von Pfunz is an ugly, coarse and stupid officer; the epitome of the Austrian peasant. We remember Thomas Bernhard and those wonderful, those extraordinary, monologues in Extinction; one long helpless rant against the inertia of an agrarian race. With no shared language, their sensibility fashioned out of different material, coarse linen against top quality silk, the relationship between Jeanne and Von Pfunz is one of pure utility - sex in return for an officer’s rations. Both know the rules of the game, although Jeanne is repulsed by this man’s personality; his foolishness, his lack of class.To degrade oneself so for a joint of beef? Prostitution, no longer camouflaged by liking and animal attraction, is revealed for what it is, and Jeanne cannot decide what to do…
Jeanne is a virtuoso in these games. Pretending to be nice she vilifies and humiliates Von Pfunz, who cannot understand her jibes and denunciations. In an excess of enthusiasm, and a desire to exert her power, to revenge herself on these invading krauts, she reveals many secrets - her feelings towards him, her incestuous relationship with her son, an affair with the previous officer, the black market, Lily’s true identity. Intoxicated by her own freedom she talks about the Nazis, the hierarchy of fanatics and lay followers… Von Pfunz stops her by speaking fluent idiomatic English.1
It is farce experienced as a tragedy; our eyes filling with tears when Jeanne tells Lily she has betrayed her; her sorrow revealing a sensitive and empathetic character behind this persona armoured with cynicism.
In Guernsey all appearances are unreliable.
Lily is called a cockney; in fact she is a Jew. Estelle and Mrs Lake fall in love with an Englishman who has floated ashore from a wreck; but his fluency in English has fooled them - Gabriel is a Nazi. War, by reducing the contact between enemies and injecting it with abstract notions and suffusing it with negative passions, encourages a belief in appearances, which only increases their falsity; for to rely solely on the surface of things is to miss the rich meanings that lie underneath; it inevitably misleads.
Von Pfunz feels these falsehoods deeply. A sensitive man, Von Pfunz is a poet who copes with war’s ugliness by transforming it into pretty images.
Masts tower against the sea-wall’s grey
like a charred forest in the red of dawn,
black as slag. Where dead water turns
towards warehouses rotted with decay.
Returning tides beat with a muffled shock
along the quay. The city’s nightfall slime
drifts like a skin of white upon the stream
to brush against the steamer in the dock.
Dust, fruit, paper clot and drift and spread
where pipes spill scourings from the city’s swamp.
A white ball-dress comes now, in bloated pomp
a bare throat and a face as white as lead.
The body wallows up, inflates the dress
as if it were a white ship in the wind.
The lifeless eyes stare up, enormous, blind,
into a sky of cloud-pink rosiness.
The lilac water gently rocks and swells,
the wake stirred by the water-rats, who man
the white ship. Now it drifts serenely on,
writhing with grey snouts and with sable pelts.
In bliss the dead girl rides the outward draw
of wind and tide, her swollen belly heaving,
big, hollowed out, all that the rats are leaving.
It murmurs like a grotto as they gnaw.
She drifts into the ocean. Neptune hails
her from a wreck as the sea gulps her down
and she falls fathoms into depths of green
to rest her fill in the plump kraken’s coils.
(The Dead Girl in the Water, by Georg Heym)
Because he is a German Von Pfunz must have a theory to justify his poetic practice. Von Pfunz arguing that poetry creates purity, and so reveals Truth, conceived as a sort of Platonic ideal. Like most artists Von Pfunz uses a conventional framework of ideas to give meaning to his images; in this case the stereotypical Nazi concept minus its racial connotations. For Von Pfunz purity is an act taken to its extreme, which reveals its essence. Using such reasoning the death camps, by creating the worse imaginable fate for human beings, become sublime; for they have created the lowest, therefore the purest, form of human degradation. Gabriel challenges him: so evil is purity? Von Pfunz prevaricates: I don’t like the word evil. Oh dear!… Von Pfunz is a weak man. His ideas the tastefully patterned wallpaper he puts up to hide a blooded stained wall. His poems do not embody the horrible truths of war. Quite the reverse. They are a vehicle to carry him away from the ugly reality, his own experiences on the Eastern front. Von Pfunz is no Nietzsche. Like a typical Nazi he has only a superficial view of this great thinker’s ideas; the Free Spirit, the Free European, turning the world into art not to cover up its baseness, but to reveal and overcome it; to redeem it with genius, which is always honourable and just.2 The Free Spirit is aristocrat and poet, moralist and aesthete; a strong man, a wise man, a man of honour who cannot be mean and evil. Of course such an idea is highly abstract, very complicated, and relies on an empathetic acquaintance with the ancient Greeks; it is way beyond most of us; certainly Von Pfunz, who is clever, but, alas, little else.3 A man like Von Pfunz will understand Nietzsche’s words; however, he will not feel them, and is therefore incapable of embodying them with intuitive insight, the source of authentic creative effort.4 For such a man Nietzsche’s words are merely linguistic signs, to be arranged and rearranged on the pages of an exercise book; a semantic design, a game of language only. Certain to get this philosopher wrong, to mistake the ideas for the life behind them, Von Pfunz uses our modern day Zarathustra to camouflage his own weaknesses; dressing up Nazi brutality in the pretty frocks of his sentimental verse. Talking about The Truth Von Pfunz is merely telling lies to himself; no wonder it has become an obsession.
Such an obsession will make his stay in Guernsey hard; falsehood the dialect of the occupied. Von Pfunz has a fine antenna for a lie, as we have seen with Jeanne; but it doesn't help him much; for it’s not the truth that he really desires, he wants to make friends with the Lascalles family, he needs human contact - even within his camp he is an outsider, a loner; an oddball.5 He is to be disappointed. In his typical German way Von Pfunz turns what in essence is a feeling - a mental atmosphere - into an abstract concept; a metamorphosis that is itself alienating, especially for a conventional English woman. Desperate to connect with the attractive, sensuous, the erotically charged Jeanne, Von Pfunz turns her off with his over-rationalising mind; his quintessential German mentality.
Let’s talk about appearances. They get in the way. They erect road blocks on the avenue of understanding, encouraging the lies, extending the ignorance; forcing us to wear our national uniforms. Understanding, ultimately, relies on a shared sympathy, genuine feelings of liking, love and trust that like water seeping through the topsoil penetrates below the skin. Von Pfunz is a German soldier in a time of war. It is hard to get around that.6
Estelle is a child, and so easily succumbs to the power of appearances. She steals a book thinking it contains secret codes - because it is written in German! They are Von Pfunz’s poems. Estelle is oppressed by a world she doesn't understand; nicely symbolised by her Square of Power, personal magic a substitute for her ignorance; a sentimental remedy for the brutal ways of Cause and Effect, their propensity to delight in unintended consequences. Indeed, it is Estelle’s obsession with appearances, and her inability to distinguish them from the underlying truth, that destroys the possibility of a rapprochement between Von Pfunz and the Lascalles family, one that would keep them all safe. Poor Estelle, you are always doing stupid things to antagonise the enemy: pretending to be a ghost in their HQ and urinating into Von Pfunz’s boot are two examples of your foolish behaviour. They do no good. When she refuses to return the book Estelle goes too far, and risks destroying the whole household; Jeanne forced to commit murder to save Lily’s life.
Appearances are dangerous. We must treat them with caution. Jeanne has to learn this sad truth, while Lily knows it instinctively; and Gabriel…losing his memory he has no choice but to be sceptical of everything he sees and hears; it makes him a wise and humane man.
Die Leiche wälzt sich ganz heraus. Es bläht
Das Kleid sich wie ein weißes Schiff im Wind.
Die toten Augen starren groß un blind
Zum Himmel, der voll rosa Wolken steht.
The Truth. The Appearance of Things. Two ways of looking at the world that are mistaken; human relations far too complex for such simple ways of thinking about them.7 To act upon such facile notions is to produce farce; Von Pfunz pretending to be a fool to illicit that confession from Jeanne; Jeanne telling the truth only because she thinks it will be misunderstood; Lily falling in love with a SS officer, because the first words are English; Von Pfunz talking about truth because it disturbs him; Estelle endangering Lily’s life by not returning a book of poems… The consequences of these simplistic beliefs cannot be evaded, and we feel them deeply; a farce transformed into a serious drama because the action doesn't stay on the surface, isn't monopolised by etiquette, but cuts into the sinews of these characters’ being, to touch the emotions that determine their difficult lives. Feelings. Sympathies. Understanding. Love. These are the important things in life, but they are invisible to the insensitive - to the hostile - eye.8
Von Pfunz likes the truth. Time and again he connives at Jeanne’s lies. Yes. It is a fact. He loves her. Towards the end of the play Von Pfunz makes a confession. For a moment Jeanne appears ready to reciprocate his feelings. It is not to be, this obsession with the appearance of things has ruined all chances of a sympathetic union.
When Estelle stole his poems she destroyed part of Von Pfunz’s soul; his reaction setting off a series of events that inevitably leads to a tragedy. Poor Estelle, in your ignorant stubbornness, in your attachment to signs which you mistake for meanings, you create an insane prejudice, and so will kill the person you love; by driving Von Pfunz mad, forcing him to threaten the family. But he likes Jeanne and Estelle. He cannot hurt them. His solution is simple: he will find a scapegoat; it is Lily. Even though Estelle now gives the book back, she is too late; his dormant anti-Semitism aroused, Von Pfunz cannot control it, and he demands that Lily publicly identify herself as a Jew.
A child lives in a world of appearances. Believing these to be true she constructs a fantasy out of them, one that quickly loses touch with the real world. The child doesn't know this; Estelle building her baroque castle, its deadly cannons pea-shooters… Harmless in times of peace, such fantasies are injurious during a war. Estelle is playing a silly game, which she has mistaken for real life; her error to have terrible consequences. Innocence. It is one kind of extremism. The innocent child, misled by appearances, is unable to recognise the humanity in all men and women, whose lives involve constant compromises, a moral muddling through; a perpetual weaving between inside and outside; the balancing of roles against feelings, where expediency is mixed in with truth, the saint the sinner always.9 It is the paradox of the child’s vision - the good Us versus the bad Them - that is a copy of the Nazi’s horrible fairy tale. Evil and innocence: brother and sister.
Innocence has its own truth. Believing completely in appearances a child invests all her feelings into the fictions she invents out of them. It is why Von Pfunz likes his tormentor - Estelle’s hate is genuine. But: Estelle’s Truth is based upon a wild error, her fantasies making her to do unforgivably stupid things, which, because they are stupid, cause harm and are therefore bad. Truth is far more complex than a child or this poet can ever know. There are many truths, nearly all of them ambiguous.
Estelle draws the magic square. Mrs Lake warns her that the magic will run out of the corners… Estelle, because she doesn't understand the world, is unable to get below the surface of life, will always do the wrong thing. Her ideas are actually quite disgusting.10 Helping to save Gabriel she imagines him a godlike hero who will kill all the Germans on Guernsey. It is a foolish and self-defeating wish. But such is her fanaticism. Although fanatics too can be heroes - believing he is going to kill Gabriel she stabs Von Pfunz. Silly silly child: he was only trying to get a doctor. Innocence. How deadly it is.
Wounded but still alive, Von Pfunz poses Jeanne an impossible dilemma - she must choose between Lily or Estelle. She makes a fateful choice. She kills her tormentor and places the knife in the unconscious Gabriel’s hand. Only appearances - only lies - can save this family.
Will Gabriel accept Jeanne’s story?
Gabriel is a German aristocrat. An SS officer. A Free spirit. An authentic angel. What! Is it possible to be all these things? Yes! For he has lost his memory, has no identity, and retains only the acutely sensitive mind of the thinker and artist. Such a mind, with its fine filter of taste, is impervious to the coarse fictions that Lily creates about his identity; naturally it keeps out Mrs Lake’s belief that he a mad local from the town - he knows his name is not Gabriel, that he is too refined to be a bank clerk. Lily knows this too; she knows he is an SS officer, a German hero of the highest rank. And yet that identity no longer has any force, its meaning lost because completely detached from Gabriel’s present persona, which floats free from the concrete details, the particular Nazi content, of his past life. Released from his former character, Gabriel has escaped the tyranny of appearances to become pure soul, one that is rich and cultivated and wise.11 Little wonder he falls in love with the attractive Lily, who dreams of flight from a loveless marriage (Jeanne’s son is a bore).
Gabriel is a secondhand canvas over which each member of the family paints their own portrait; each one reflecting their particular desires: a boy for Mrs Lake; a lover for Lily; an Arthurian knight for Estelle; and Jeanne… We are not sure - son, lover, husband; or is it a myth that she needs?
Because they all love him, his soul responds in kind. We must quote Henry Green.
He put his arm through Julia’s and pressed his elbow tight against it and this to her was as though he knew everything and that he was sorry for anything he might have done and that anyway it was all right. It was like sugar and water fed to plants in a last emergency and was what she had been ordered.12
Gabriel does not believe Jeanne’s fiction. His intuition tells him that he didn’t kill Von Pfunz, even though he wasn’t conscious at the time. Nevertheless, the headaches, the discovery of the knife that Estelle put in his pocket, together with Lily’s conviction that he is an SS officer, produce an intimation that he has done terrible things…in the past. He therefore makes a heroic decision. Gabriel willingly accepts responsibility for a murder he did not commit, and sacrifices himself to save this family he hardly knows. A Free Spirit runs across the beach, and vanishes.
It was a brief visit from Heaven. An angel bringing grace into these people’s lives; proving to Estelle that magic is real; giving Lily her dream of flight (the love for which she yearned); and resurrecting the mother in Mrs Lake; and for Jeanne…?
“You are Gabriel Lascalles.”
Jeanne has given birth to a new son, whom she sends out to die.13 Gabriel has ceased to be a German. He has been born again, but not quite as an Englishman. No. It is as an angelic presence that he is now experienced, and shall be remembered. It is these few days that have made him so. It is the magic of the situation,14 creating wonderful things - God’s grace; an epiphany - out of nothing.15
Appearances have collapsed. Love is revealed, and grows and spreads, and climbs up the ruined walls, bursting out into the roofless sky. The origin of this love - its nutritious soil - is a mistake; for had the boat-wrecked survivor first uttered “Wo bist ich?” there would have been no heavenly visitation. Appearances deceive, they put barriers in the way of understanding and sympathy. But this is only one side of the argument. Deception can also be a good thing, clearing a space where new realities are made out of fictions that have their own (emotional) truth. Although this is a different kind of fiction from the fantasies of Estelle; Gabriel a work of literature, whose new identity fits his soul like a bespoke suit. That fine mind, with its cultivated sensibility, needed the right set of circumstances to bring out its brilliance.16
With its many twists and reversals17 this play should be a farce. It is not. Gabriel is too serious for that; it expresses a truth that Von Pfunz intuits but does not fully grasp, because he makes it too abstract, too intellectual. And what is this truth? Only by feeling can we touch the important, the invisible, things of life. They seep into us; we feel the pain, the fright, the anger, the sorrow, the love of all these people; we touch the complexity of the world; intuit its absurdity, its foolishness; ponder the sad ironies born out of an indifferent and ruthless contingency; always there is a hint of melancholy where there is truth.
Here is the claustrophobia of reality, whose metaphor is a war-trapped island.
Here is the claustrophobia of reality, whose metaphor is a war-trapped island.
These characters are trying to be free - from the bodies that imprison them. Appearances. Yes, appearances, they are like Germans occupying Guernsey.
1. We are reminded of the second part of Extinction, when the narrator returns home, and we discover that his self-proclaimed aristocratic virtues, that includes a rapport with the estate's staff, are illusions - he has always been weak and alienated man.
2. For a brilliant expression of this view see the last scene in Chimes at Midnight, where Henry V softens his cruel rejection of Falstaff with wise justice - he allows him to live, despite the urging of his council that the interloper die.
3. Olga in Die Zweite Heimat: “Aw, Alex, you are just clever.”
4. To quote myself.
Nietzsche. We go to him not so much for his thoughts, marvellous as they often are, but to think. We light the kindling and look at the sparks; dance amongst the wild flames.
5. This could be the artist in him. Or it could have other causes… see later.
6. For a penetrating study of prejudice against the Germans and its paradoxical effects watch Frieda (and read my Civilised Bigotry).
7. When we think of truth too often we conceive of it as an abstract concept. This will not do in ordinary living.
Wrong about so many things (see my Dusty Answer) Gilbert Ryle had one absolutely right idea - we can only truly understand our activities by doing them (The Concept of Mind). To do is to know. This has important implications for social analysis: the outsider will always be at a disadvantage - by not actually doing the activity she will lack the feel of it; miss the nuances of human interaction, the resistance of things, the obduracy of people, the stubbornness of ideas that makes social change so difficult, so slow, until, suddenly, everything changes quickly and radically, the once powerful ideas redundant (almost) overnight. It is the problem of academics.*1 Only those with intuitive sympathy and imagination can really grasp an historical character or an epoch.
Although always criticising Deleuze and Guattari (my last piece, Improvised…) I do concur with their attack against binary ways of thinking; their rhizome a metaphor for more diffuse and pluralistic ways of conceiving the world. However, D&G seem unaware of the artificial nature of knowledge, which is of a qualitatively different kind from life, from nature. Knowledge always to be set against that life, that nature. With time, with that peculiar activity called science, the gap closes to such an extent that nature and knowledge share a one-to-one correspondence, although always there is a difference in kind.*2 In essence, the search to understand the world will always involve processes of thought that are binary - the single thinking mind against the polymorphous material of existence. D&G were amateurs in philosophy; innocent of the complexities of epistemology, they confused knowledge with reality, the rational faculty with natural processes. Instead of thinking about David Hume, that great discover of the strangeness of reason, they merely talked about him; their talk ill-informed and daft.
*1. Wonderfully displayed in the short Oxford History of the Eighteenth Century, where the (unsympathetic) authors talk in a woolly abstract way about power, leading to the conclusion that the cluster of ideas that order a society is a form of oppression, and of the poor mostly.†1 Contrast with the amazing analysis of Henry Green, in Pack My Bag, were he distinguishes between manners and discipline, the former both constraining and engendering power in poor and rich alike.†2
Again, on another occasion on this round to find what each cottager had chosen for her present, I knocked at one house where, for some rare cause - a disgrace I believe, not one of us had knocked in years. I had been told not to call there and had mistaken the cottage. I was brilliantly received and when the preliminaries were done at last and I put the question, was told I had made a mistake plainly but in such a way I left feeling the lady had not condescended but had put me in my place, back where at the moment through no fault of hers my family belonged, that is, not on terms with her own.
†1. If you must use Foucault treat him with caution; use him critically. For a rich study of the popular mind see Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe; a useful corrective to these thin ideas about power and oppression.
†2. See my A Broken Fairy Tale.
*2. And then there is art, which recreates nature in itself to become a form of life.
8. Reinhard, in Die Zweite Heimat, says that all the important things in life are invisible. He is almost right.
9. Truth in human affairs is never simple. Always we must think of the consequences of our actions; which depend not on the correctness of our analysis (which we should never take for granted) but on the nature of the situation, which is fluid, largely incomprehensible, and relies on the improvising skills of the protagonists; such improvisation depending upon habit, custom, quick thinking and much feeling; so that mistakes are ubiquitous.
For the paradoxical effects of justice in an injustice society watch Quentin Skinner’s marvellous lecture How Machiavelli was Machiavelli?
10. A friend makes the point that Von Pfunz wants to come to his island to escape the war and live a civilised existence. This is true. The conclusion thus follows: these Germans are different from those soldiers exterminating Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union. Estelle is therefore seeking to murder ordinary, decent men. And she is using a psychopath - an SS officer - to do this. These are the horrors innocence can produce.
Although in play full of ironies we wonder if here is another one… Von Pfunz is shunned by his colleagues. Is it because he is a true believer? A Nazi who willingly killed Jews because he did actually think they are a corrupt race? Is Guernsey a retreat from the horrors of own thoughts? Is that why he stopped Jeanne’s monologue: he couldn’t bear to hear criticism of his fanatical character? No zealot likes listening to someone call them a crank.
11. We can compare Gabriel with Innstetten in Effi Briest. Both serve an ideal embodied in society; this service giving them meaning and honour. However, the nature of that society has changed; Fontane’s Prussia a civilised place, Nazi Germany a brutal prison; its belief system inventing ideals that are actually forms of barbarism.
Innstetten’s mistake is to sacrifice individual people to an abstract idea, so destroying his own humanity. For the honourable Nazi the ideal itself is the problem - it doesn't elevate, it demeans.
12. Party Going.
13. Does it suggest she wants a motherly love uncorrupted by sex?
14. All history should be, I suggest, a history of problem situations (Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Biography. My emphasis).
Whilst I agree with Popper that the focus of historical enquiry should be the situation, I think he looks at situations too rationally - thus in another context he talks about the logic of the situation. While there may be a logic to events, their determining causes are essentially irrational, metaphysical and emotional (see the footnotes in Painful Time). Of course, this doesn't mean we cannot explain them rationally and logically, the study of history different from history itself (as Popper himself recognises in an interview with Ernst Gombrich). History will always have more order than the subject it studies.
The revisionist history of the past forty years has sought, by reacting against the too simple narratives, the too abstract theoretical conceptions, of its predecessors, to collapse the distinction between history and life; reducing historical study to the description of a mass of discrete events and individual people.*1 In doing so it has followed the intellectual trend of the 20th century, whose great flourishing was in the 1960s; when arcane ideas about authenticity and primitivism reached a mass audience, to produce a cultural shift in the wider society. Like Deleuze and Guattari the revisionists confuse knowledge with life, and so replace understanding which information, which accumulates like garbage on an unswept street.*2
*1. For how easy it is to continually divide up a subject area, and so miss the larger whole of which the individual details form part, see the wise words of Peter Burke in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe; a book strong on both detail and analysis.
*2. For an acute analysis of the displacement of knowledge by information see Olivier Roy’s Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways.
15. Though at many removes, this last scene suggests a theme common to the novels of this period - war brings happiness into women’s lives (see my Painful Time and Sneaking in…).
16. It is the great liberal vision, that has influenced so much of progressive thought in the last four centuries - change the environment for the better and we will make better people.
But reverse the scenario: Gabriel an English aristocrat washed ashore on a German island - a decent chap is turned into a pathological killer. It is one of Noam Chomsky’s many achievements to recognise the dangers, the moral ugliness, in this classic liberal view (see particularly his review of B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity in For Reasons of State).
17. And the too great a gap between inside and outside, identity and soul.