Blueshirts in Spain

Blueshirts in Spain

In May 1969 Emil Cioran considered writing a book on the Irish, having met an Irishman “qui n’avait que “Almighty God” à la bouche” in conversation. He was normally more interested in the religious preoccupations of other countries, such Russia and Spain. As it happens, a piece of the latter’s history is instructive on the difference between Ireland and the Romania of Cioran’s pre-war dreams.

Early in 1937 the prominent Iron Guard members Ion Moța and Vasile Marin were killed by a shell after volunteering to fight for Franco. Their bodies were transported across Europe by train and greeted in Bucharest by thousands of Greenshirts, as the Iron Guard liked to dress up. They were interred in Bucharest on 13 February, in a mausoleum newly erected by their leader Codreanu. The ceremony was overseen by hundreds of Orthodox priests.

Later in the year the Iron Guard did well in a general election on the back of this big production but, less a month after the solemn show, Codreanu had written to Cioran to thank him for writing The Transfiguration of Romania.

All of us, fighters and writers, are driven… by the might of this Romanian volcano which is about to break its bonds

It is one thing to think such thoughts – a mind is a terrible thing to lose, as Dan Quayle might have put it – but to say them in public or even commit them to paper is rather more serious. In the Thirties, the Irish State had its Blueshirts (the green shirts were already taken) but nothing about them concerns us here except their experience in Spain, also on Franco’s side. It may be only apocryphal that Freud thought the Irish immune to psychoanalysis but it is easier to highlight the lack of seriousness that makes such blood and soil less fertile for fascism (or Marxism).

The comic history of that escapade must be written one day: recruits armed with letters from their doctors saying that the Spanish climate would work miracles for their tubercular lungs; boys going to a dance in Dundalk… and waking up on the Dún Aengus in Galway Bay the next day on their way to fight in Spain; O’Duffy having to inspect a guard of honour without weapons in case they shot him; the money collected to defend God in Spain being diverted to found a political dynasty; and, finally, more men returning from Spain, despite the casualties inflicted on the Brigade by Franco’s Moorish troops, than actually enlisted.

In The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) Breandán Ó hEithir defines the begrudger of the book’s title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling. In that same book Ó hEithir also wrote

One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

A nephew of the novelist Liam O’Flaherty, Ó hEithir (1930-90) was born on Aran and wrote successfully in both Irish and English. Upon his retirement from broadcasting he and his wife got a Paris apartment but, unfortunately, to borrow a line from Beckett’s All That Fall, the poor man didn’t live long to enjoy his ease.

V. S. Pritchett’s memoir Midnight Oil (1971) includes his time in Ireland during the Civil War in 1923 and refers to laughter without mirth, “a guerrilla activity of the mind” that even “rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness” of the north-east. Pritchett describes several surreal incidents elsewhere in the country, after the British had gone, such as a raid on a house of the gentry, nominally for arms.

The servants were hysterical and a parrot imitated them, calling out ‘Glory be to God’… there was a good supply of untouched weapons but girls among the raiders had gone off with his wife’s riding clothes, and one of the men had emptied a jar of ink over the drawing-room carpet. The raiders had found a safe… but could not open it. So they dumped it in the middle of the lake. My host rang up the local military… ‘We’ll send down the Terroriser,’ the officer said. The Terroriser and his men rowed about the large lake very happily. It was a lovely afternoon.

We can but wonder in passing what inspiration Cioran might have got from that parrot. As the Civil War moved away from the capital, Pritchett got on a train from Dublin to Cork. In the midlands there was a long stoppage for the addition of an armoured engine and a troop escort.

…a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. ‘Are we starting?’ someone asked. ‘Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,’ the porter said. The afternoon faded… at Mallow it was dark… we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine-gun fire. (…) But the passengers took it for granted and a bare-footed urchin who took my case said, ‘’Tis only the boys from the hills.’

The Civil War was indeed a grave matter in which a few thousand people died but where does the overriding lack of seriousness come from? Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, has sold two million copies in German. Though written in the Fifties, it still captures some sturdy truths about the Irish character. The most important of these is found where he discusses a commonplace phrase. It could be worse. For Germans, he says, if something bad happens it is always the worst possible eventuality but, for the Irish, even death has something of a bright side. Stirbt man gar, nun, so ist man aller Sorgen ledig (‘If you die, well, your troubles are over’).

It also struck Böll that whenever something bad happened, humour and imagination deserted the Germans but it was right at that moment that they got going in Ireland. Mention of what he calls the twin sister of ‘It could be worse’ (i.e. ‘I shouldn’t worry’) then allows him to explain how these phrases express a fundamental recognition that it could be – and has been – bloody well worse.

und das bei einem Volk, das allen Grund hätte, weder bei Tag noch bei Nacht auch nur eine Minute ohne Sorge zu sein: vor hundert Jahren, als die große Hungersnot kam, Mißernten einige Jahre hindurch, diese große nationale Katastrophe, die nicht nur unmittelbar verheerend wirkte, sondern deren Schock sich durch die Generationen bis auf heute vererbt hat

‘…and that too from a people who would have every reason to be at most a minute without worry, day or night: a hundred years ago, when the great famine came, crop failures for several years, this great national catastrophe, that not only had an immediate devastating effect, but whose shock has been passed down through the generations to this day…’

What Böll grasped, the Irish have not lost, despite having more money and less religion than in the Fifties. Hence there has lately been the notable public response in Ireland to an appeal for financial help by Native American tribes stricken by the virus. This money is in return for a few Choctaw dollars sent over in the 1840s.

Furthermore, just before the onset of the pandemic, a public outcry of the what-the-f*ck variety forced the minority Dublin government to scrap a planned memorial service for the colonial police. It is one thing to think such thoughts but to say them in public or even commit them to speeches is rather more serious.

PS … here’s another passage from Paddy Lindsay’s memoirs (see top)

Ceaușescu’s Last Call

Ceaușescu’s Last Call

Tyrants are like scientists. They are always experimenting to see how far they can go. They always advance until the very end, until everything falls apart.

  • Emil Cioran, Newsweek, 4 December 1989

Seventeen days later Nicolae Ceaușescu made the balcony speech. It all starts to go wrong at 01:13. In YouTube clips of this final address, the Romanian comments are most inspired by the “Alo, alo, alo…” but only to make mobile phone jokes.

Life goes on.

What stands out now from those events in Romania is the pivotal, accidental death of Vasile Milea. Earlier in the month, Newsweek had also quoted the Romanian philosopher Cioran on suicide.

Before Christianity, suicide was considered a noble civic act.

Instead, a noble civic accident occurred on the morning of 22 December. Ceaușescu’s hesitant defence minister was already in a tight spot for sending soldiers to Timișoara without ammunition to fight what the boss called Ungurii și huliganii (Hungarians and hooligans).

It seems Milea decided to wing himself to get off the pitch but, by actually dying of the shot, led to a murder rumour instead. That caused the army rank-and-file to change sides. Looking over their shoulders, the senior officers now had no reason to stop them.

Just past noon the royal couple fled by helicopter from the rooftop of the Central Committee building, seconds ahead of the first demonstrators to reach the roof. The crowd below was meanwhile singing, like at a football match.

Olé, olé, olé. Ceaușescu nu mai e.

(‘Ceaușescu’s no more.’)

Three days later Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were executed by firing squad.

Emil Cioran

Emil Cioran

He who has never envied the vegetable has missed the human drama.

The Fall of Time, E. M. Cioran, 1964

Born in western Transylvania in 1911, Cioran spent most of his adult life bumming and scratching a living in Paris in a manner that at first recalls Orwell’s Inside the Whale litany of Americans hanging out there in the Twenties. That was when the city was

invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sightseers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.

Nonetheless he more closely matches a reference to the Thirties later in the same passage, namely that

fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

Best known for similarly enjoyable titles – On the Heights of Despair, A Short History of Decay, The Temptation to Exist and The Trouble with Being Born – and a far-right period that came far earlier in his existence than in pop performer Morrissey’s career, Cioran moved to Paris in 1937. Thereafter he left both his native country and native language behind. At home he had already written On the Heights of Despair (1934). The title came from one of the stock phrases used in suicide obituaries in Bucharest.

Having wangled a scholarship to Berlin in 1933, he also penned some pro-Nazi tracts and letters that he regretted never living down but in the Thirties he most fumed at being Romanian, if nothing else because he felt his country to be insignificant, as if that was a bad thing in human history. Wallowing in self-loathing and power-worship, at that time he even prefigured the megalomania of Ceauşescu by imagining a Romania with the population of China and the “destiny” of France.

In 1936, in his final attempt at a real job, Cioran had a brief stint as a philosophy teacher in the city of Braşov in Transylvania. His classes were anarchic and, when he resigned, the principal drank himself into a heap in celebration. Incidentally, the key clue that Dracula was written by an Irishman lies in the fact that the co-operation of every working-class person in the book has to be solicited with booze.

Cioran then got to Paris on another scholarship. He was meant to attend classes at the Sorbonne and write a doctoral thesis but he knew that all he needed to live securely in France was a student ID card, which gave him access to cheap food. At forty he was still enrolled at the Sorbonne, for the cafeteria, but then a law was passed which dislodged any loafers older than twenty-seven.

Cioran then had to do some odd jobs but more importantly he had during the war charmed a life partner in Simone Boué, who was a blonde, a teacher and a breadwinner. Furthermore, some of his better-off Romanian compatriots, such as Ionesco, would help him out now and then. He also tapped Beckett, who eventually put a little distance between them but not, it appears, over the tapping. It was more due to Cioran’s residual philosophic right-wingery that saw one form of government as bad as another.

Cioran at any rate proved socially flexible, befriending anyone who would offer him a free lunch. Whenever he got the chance, for example, the irreligious Romanian would turn up at the Romanian Orthodox Church if any loaves and fishes were going. With this being France, he was also known for entertaining philosophical old ladies at the dinner party table.

Still, with one early exception, he rejected all the prizes that the French literary establishment threw at him. Cioran relished the successful publication of Précis de décomposition (‘A Short History of Decay’) in 1949 for at least three reasons. It came after years as a silent, peripheral, foreign figure in the Flore, in a country where, he told his parents in a letter, ‘prestige is everything’ (hence the peacockery). It was also the country where Camus, who died showing off in a sports car, had dismissed the manuscript as the work of someone who was poorly educated, which, at least about the English and the Irish, Cioran certainly was.

When public success truly arrived, in the Eighties, he entertained few journalists and always kept a low profile. The first I heard of him was in a rare interview – which in fact reads like answers to written questions – that he gave to Newsweek in early December 1989, just before the revolution at home. It is full of wise or memorable observations, such as

Romanian people are the most sceptical in the world… because they have been broken by history… In Romania there isn’t enough milk for babies. The infant mortality rate is so high that when a child is born, the parents wait several weeks before registering it, just to see… Otherwise, it just isn’t worth the bother. The Romanian people have gone past despair. They are totally occupied with the question, what will we find to eat today?

Tyrants are like scientists. They are always experimenting to see how far they can go. They always advance until the very end, until everything falls apart.

Samuel Beckett is a completely un-Balkan sort of person… a real phenomenon because… he has never been marked by intellectual fashions. It’s not so much what he says as his sheer presence. When you are with him, you know he is somebody. He has remained a foreigner, uncontaminated.

Mystics, true believers, don’t take a world tour to Asia to see what people are worshipping over there. (…) Religion isn’t a sort of balance sheet, after all. If he [Mircea Eliade] were really religious, he would never have written a history of religions.

Nietzsche started to write aphorisms when he began to go mad. I write them out of fatigue. (…) If I affirm something and if you like it, fine. If you don’t, too bad. (…) I am the reverse of a professor because I hate explaining things.

Without Bach, God would be a third-rate character. Bach’s music is the only thing that gives you the feeling that the universe isn’t a total failure.

My sole, last passion is the Argentine tango.

While still lucid, he later confessed he thought he had lived his life well. I’ve pretended it has been a failure but it hasn’t. In the early Nineties, however, Cioran fell victim to dementia and he died in 1995. Severely affected by arthritis, Simone Boué drowned off the coast of the Vendée in 1997 but it remains somewhat unclear if her death was a suicide.

There are numerous blackly funny moments in his books that are otherwise studiously old-fashioned in their despair but my favourite lies in The Trouble with Being Born, where Cioran tells the story of someone writing a memoir of his childhood in a Romanian village. The writer assures an old neighbour that he won’t be left out but this promise earns an unexpected response.

I know I’m worth nothing but all the same I didn’t think I’d fallen so low as to be talked about in a book.