The worst dictators were often bibliophiles. The young Lenin read Virgil and other Roman authors in the original Latin. He was also a fan of Jack London. Mussolini at one point was the honorary president of the International Mark Twain Society. Hitler “… had a special fondness for the literature of a land he could not subjugate: England. Hitler preferred Shakespeare to Goethe and he was also fond of tales of far-off lands, such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.”
Mao Zedong’s bedroom was full of books even as his minions in the Cultural Revolution wrought havoc outside. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha enjoyed vampire novels. Fidel Castro loved Ernest Hemingway and reviewed Gabriel García Márquez’s novels before publication. In 2015, the Ayatollah Khameini took to Twitter to praise the works of Mikhail Sholokhov and Alexei Tolstoy, Leo’s less talented, pro-Bolshevik cousin….
What does this mean for our understanding of literature itself? At the very least, the fact that some of history’s worst mass murderers were avid bibliophiles should kill any lingering notion that there is something innately ennobling about the book. Literature is far too ambiguous for that. We take what we want from it and dictators are no different. When Lenin wrote his essay on the religious-vegetarian-pacifist Tolstoy, he focused on the prophet’s “pent-up hatred”. When Mussolini read Dante, he enjoyed the poet’s invective best of all.
It is also striking that all these well-read men preferred mediocrity to masterpieces. Just as their political theories reduced the ambiguities of history to simplistic narratives of good and evil, they were most inspired by crude tales with a moral or political message.
Poe’s poetry was allegedly improved by translation into French. Something similar happens with H.P. Lovecraft. His prose
… is indigestible: so very mannered that sometimes it comes off as a parody. The saving grace comes when Lovecraft’s work is translated into a Romance language. I’ve read Lovecraft in Italian and in Castilian, as with this particular book [El horror de Dunwich], and his prose becomes more elegant and less heavy simply because Romance languages are more parenthetical and better support long-winded periods.
Could a great—or even a readable—Latin poet have possibly emerged in eighteenth-century Guatemala?
If your Latin is in good working order, you might want to take a look into the works of the 18th-century Jesuit Father Rafael Landívar. Vulcanologists might find something of interest there.
An appreciation of Camille Paglia. Yeah, she’s crazy, but she’s interesting crazy.
Holy foolishness: Once upon a time, one found Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue on nearly every reading Catholic’s bookshelf. He wrote the story in 1928, just in time for the Depression. 20 years later he wrote a couple more novels. I might have to track them down, though I expect that some of the writing will make me cringe.2
(Via Amy Welborn.)
- I lasted about five minutes into the first episode of Black Clover and have no desire to explore it further.
- Passages like “reality will surround you, will harden your mind till it is like steel, will crystallize your emotions till they are like diamonds, will stalk and destroy the Dream” remind me unpleasantly of message-ridden postwar science fiction.