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Theater of Cruelty
Ian Buruma
NYRB, 2014

Theater of CrueltyA sympathetic book reviewer has all the virtues of a chat-show host, a seasoned professor, and an expensive lawyer. Likewise, a skeptical reviewer can mock those virtues, turn the court against an author, dust them. Ian Buruma is a practiced hand at all of the above, but in his latest collection, Theater of Cruelty, his most frequently favored role is that of the good-natured but dogged investigator, and these essays are police procedures in which the quarry is truth itself. Investigator Buruma pins the authors’ arguments and evidence to the wall, and then starts asking questions, which lead to more questions, which lead, inevitably, to the really big questions. In a review of some new Holocaust books he asks “What are the chances, in certain conditions, of me behaving atrociously?” On a book about the Nazi auteur Leni Riefenstahl, “Can fascist or Nazi art ever be good art?”

Though the essays collected here span a wide, almost frenzied array of subjects (the many afterlives of Anne Frank, David Bowie’s fashion choices, the Chinese affection for amusement parks, the firebombing of Germany), The Second World War, both in Europe and in the Pacific, soon looms into view as the largest body exerting gravity over all these separate worlds. What about certain cultures made this war inevitable? How did we behave ourselves in fighting it? And how do we choose to remember it? How much of who we are now can be traced to the choices our governments made, or didn’t make, in the immediate postwar atmosphere?

Buruma also writes about art, much of it crude and revolting. Buruma’s admiration for a given artist tends to stand in inverse relation to how likely you are to find their pictures hanging in the tea room of bed & breakfast: Max Beckmann’s fauvist allegories of decadence, George Grosz’s bloodthirsty skeletons, Robert Crumb’s grotesque amazon women and the horny little parasitic males who lust after them are all particular favorites. “Some cope with their fears by looking away,” Buruma writes in his introduction. “My own tendency is the opposite: when I see a big rat slithering along the rails in the New York subway, I cannot keep my eyes off it.” When that spectacle is a human being, he’s even more intrigued: What made Japanese intellectuals dive into the crazed nationalism of the ‘30s, only to emerge from it ten years later (if they survived it) dry as a bone? What caused bright university students raised on Mill and Chekhov and Soseki to strap themselves into

a human torpedo loaded with three thousand pounds of TNT, or into the cockpit of a flying bomb, and crash into a ship at six hundred miles per hour, if one is lucky, or suffocate slowly inside a tight steel coffin if the target has been missed.

Japanese Kamikazi fighters one day before their flight, May 26, 1945.

Japanese Kamikaze fighters on the day before their fatal flight, May 26, 1945.

On the second question, the essay “Suicide for the Empire,” a review of Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, provides a sort of answer, by inviting us into a broader empathy with those young patriots, many of whom earnestly believed they were acting rationally to protect an ancient and artful culture from the capital vices of an avaricious and mob-ruled West. We learn, once more, that “cultural sophistication, alas, is no prophylactic against the allure of terrible ideas.” Japan’s entry into modernity coupled with its refusal to accept representative government was one contributing factor, as was their paradoxical post-Meiji fascination with German legalism. Those stumbling blocks, meeting a proud and deeply insular culture, produced “an authoritarian, militarist state, whose highest authorities became almost impossible to challenge because their decisions were wrapped in the priestly mantle of divine kingship.” One pledged one’s loyalty to the emperor, and wrote one’s will in French or German, then listened to one last chamber quartet and climbed into the cockpit.

Buruma gives a wide berth to words like evil because they tend to shut down investigations rather than deepen them. Indeed, even in our own civilized and peaceful lives, “a man can be a perfectly decent human being and still harbor all kinds of feelings and thoughts that would not pass scrutiny.” But what Buruma rarely acknowledges is that there are cases where this simply doesn’t suffice as an explanation for acts of horror. In his essay “Fascinating Narcissism: Leni Riefensthal,” he inspects all of her films one by one and, in the end, determines that although not all of her work can technically be described as fascist, a basic flaw that persists through it all (and persists too in her pathologically cruel treatment of colleagues and suitors) is her lack of humanism, or humanity. Yes, this is true, of course, but isn’t there a simpler way of saying so? She and her mentor, Adolph Hitler, like their coevals Stalin and Mao, were, simply put, unashamed sociopaths; they were people who, in a healthier cultural atmosphere, would have been more secretive about their dark urges, but who, when rewarded for their behavior, indulged those appetites. It was cultural, and biographical, yes, but it was biological too. And understanding this in full is necessary to understanding the trauma that resulted.

The impact of trauma has always been one of Buruma’s great themes—trauma that we mete out and that we suffer—and in books like Year Zero: A History of 1945 and The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and in Japan, he’s explored the way the memory and physical remains of war can mutate the whole of a society. In his essay, “Obsessions in Tokyo,” he describes with regret how the consumerist ideology embraced during the American occupation of Japan eventually neutered the most expressive and most avant of that country’s artists, and also the audience for that art. In his essay about Allied firebombing, “The Destruction of Germany,” Buruma explains that “one reason men of Churchill’s generation thought of such desperate measures, apart from their desperate situation, was the traumatic legacy of World War I.”

With the passing of the postwar world, Buruma fears that its dream of internationalism will pass as well. He is a committed internationalist and anti-tribalist, and much of Theater of Cruelty is a condemnation of insularity, of the kind caused by fetishizing one’s own religion or ethnicity but also by an excess of state control. In “Asiaworld” he laments the way in which the Chinese government has pacified the political and internationalist longing of its citizens by making economic growth conditional upon political silence. What results is a wealthier culture, but a lifeless one:

The big cities of China are […] technocratic, affluent, but politically, as well as intellectually, sterile. It hardly needs to be pointed out that foreign businessmen are happy with this state of affairs. Dealing with corrupt officials may be tiresome, but that can be left to middlemen. And blessed is the absence of awkward trade unions, opposition parties, political dissent, and other messy manifestations of more open societies.

One of the ways China ensures the docility of its populace, of course, is by playing into their patriotism by cultivating resentment of the Japanese. The horrors of Nanking are not studied and mourned thoughtfully inside China, but instead, properly manipulated, become one source of the central government’s bullying power.

Buruma dislikes this, and sees it as part of a disturbing global pattern. In several of the essays here, he voices his adamancy that to use the trauma of generations past in order to think of ourselves, perpetually, as victims, robs us of empathy for our former oppressors and our own potential victims. Burma describes the pseudoreligion of victimhood as a cult of kitsch and death. Diversity is to the good, and one must of course study and absorb the meaning of past atrocities, but

It becomes problematic when a cultural, ethnic, religious, or national community bases its communal identity almost entirely on the sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood. For that way lies historical myopia and, in extreme circumstances, vendetta.

In his essay “Virtual Violence,” Buruma looks with coldness on the curatorial philosophy of artist Murakami Takashi because “to explain contemporary Japanese culture entirely through the prism of postwar trauma is much too glib.” Indeed, in Japan, “a feeling of impotence goes back much further than General MacArthur’s occupation. It might have something to do with the traditional constraints that have been a constant feature of Japanese society.”

This attachment to past wrongs becomes most acute when coupled with the idea that tribal identity is at least as important as individual identity:

I think the tendency to identify authenticity in communal suffering actually impedes understanding among people. Feelings can only be expressed, not discussed or argued about. This cannot result in mutual understanding but only in mute acceptance of whatever people wish to say about themselves, or in violent confrontation. The same is true of political discourse. Ideology has caused a great deal of suffering, to be sure, particularly in political systems where ideologies were imposed by force. But without any ideology political debate becomes incoherent, and politicians appeal to sentiments instead of ideas. And this can easily result in authoritarianism, for again, you cannot argue with feelings.

Buruma is an internationalist by birth and by temperament. The child of Dutch and British parents, one nominally Christian, the other nominally Jewish, he majored in the Chinese language at school, and later lived for six years in Japan. As a result, he is usually most interesting on his Asian subjects, perhaps also because they are so challenging. One wishes his excellent essay on his fellow sinologist and belle-lettrist Simon Leys had been included in this volume. Though not as playful as Leys or as epigrammatic, Buruma is every bit as sharp-minded. In praising Anne Frank, in his essay “The Afterlife of Anne Frank,” Buruma writes, “about the hard questions in life, then, Anne felt ambivalent. That was a mark of her intelligence.” Buruma knows that “thinking for oneself can be a lonely business,” particularly in wartime, but it is nonetheless obligatory. One must resist easy comparisons, be wary of categorizations, and always be ready to acknowledge that “something may be true even if it is believed by the wrong people.”

He writes with great sympathy about Anne Frank’s father Otto, who shied away from depicting Anne (as one Broadway producer had wanted to do) as a uniquely Jewish symbol, pledging instead to use her suffering, and his own, to tell the story of suffering people everywhere. To Frank, “any form of Jewish essentialism, any attempt by Jews or Gentiles to once again single him out and put him in a unique category, would have been abhorrent.” Buruma also writes approvingly of Hélène Berr, another diarist who fell victim to the Nazis, but one who didn’t think of herself, in her words, “as a member of a separate human group.” The real horror of the Nazis, he reminds us, is that “it didn’t matter how Jewish or un-Jewish you were, appeared, or wanted to be, they would get you anyway.” While some have employed this truth as argument for creating an exclusionary culture, Buruma feels differently. His own mother was Jewish, but he does not practice, nor particularly identify as culturally Jewish. To him, it’s just more tribalism.

There are moments of fine writing in this collection (“From the cockpit of an RAF Lancaster bomber, the approach to a major German city at night in 1943 must have been a bit like entering a brightly lit room stark naked—a moment of total vulnerability.”) but Buruma is not one to cut a dash—he’s more ruminative. And if his prose can at times lack the spark and flash of, say a Christopher Hitchens, this is partially because Buruma’s very measured turn of mind is that of a scholar and not a warrior. We have too many warriors in the world as it is. This makes Buruma an excellent critic of Hitchens and one of the most pleasurable essays in the collection, “The Believer,” is exactly the sort of denunciation one would expect a Buruma to level at a Hitchens. “The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into [Hitchens’] particular moral universe,” and his work is thereby flawed. Buruma was not a supporter of the war in Iraq, but it is not the mere fact that Hitchens felt otherwise (and was, at least according to Hitchens, instrumental to that invasion’s inception), but, “it is in the denunciation of those who failed to share his enthusiasm for armed force that Hitchens sounds a little unhinged.” The man’s trouble was not that he took sides so readily but that, once a cause was adopted, “doubt would never get a look in.”

Ian Buruma, by Malijn Doomernik

Ian Buruma, by Malijn Doomernik

Fine art, too, is a product—to Buruma’s mind—not of a fixed ideology either of the savage or the refined (though this can make for excellent popular art) but of thoughtful admixture. In the paintings of Max Beckmann, a painter he greatly admires, “what is extraordinary is the combination of improvisation and discipline, spontaneity and precision.” This harmony enables an art in which “meaning is multilayered and the feelings expressed are always complex: horror and fascination, spirituality and earthiness, engagement in the world and detachment from it.”

Though reviews of catalogs and exhibitions inspired a number of these essays, much of the content of that art is political, providing Buruma with the opportunity to stretch his wings and, as all good critics should, to pontificate. While not all of his observations are infallible (“Beckmann’s women always look seductive”— They bloody well do not.) his attachment to representative politics, human rights, canny creations of art, and the virtues of intellectual cosmopolitanism make Theater of Cruelty a constantly stimulating read. All good essay collections are arguments for, and illustrations of, the virtues of intelligence. Theater of Cruelty is no exception.

John Cotter is author of Under the Small Lights, a novel. His essay “Losing Music” appeared in the June 2014 issue of Open Letters Monthly. He is Executive Editor of the site and lives in Denver, CO.