Garsh, Olive! On deluded visions from Popeye to Trump, Furtwangler’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th for the Nazis; and other attempted “triumphs of the will”.

One of the odd features of getting older is that things start happening to your body. “Popeye elbow” is a soft swelling on the elbow that looks like a golf ball – or one of Popeye’s elbows – that doesn’t hurt and you can get away with not noticing until people around you say “Argh! What’s happened to your elbow?!”

Popeye was one of those cartoons that always had the same essential plot. Like Whacky Races or Scooby Do or, come to think of it, all of them. Briefly summarised in the words of a US Civil War General whose name I’ve forgotten who said – “Little guy’ll always beat a big guy, if the little guy’s in the right and keeps a comin’“. Which – in the case of the US Civil War – is underlined by the way the Confederate little guys lost even though they kept a comin’ in the worst of bad causes. In the case of Popeye, Bluto might have said “I’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling spinach.”

Leafy Vegetable in a can as superpower.

When I was six, I took everything literally and on faith – from stories in Sunday school to TV cartoons. I assumed that if a can of spinach would work for Popeye, it would work for me. Eating this miracle stuff would turn my sparrows kneecap biceps into surging powerhouses with tanks and battleships running through them to the accompaniment of some of Sousa’s brasher marches played at a tempo brisk enough to clear a playground full of bullies. I thought of it as a kind of personal nuclear deterrent.

It was not easy to come by in Thurrock in 1960. Eventually my parents found some small tins in a dubious looking shop in Southend Road. Not big round tins like Popeye’s, but small flat things that might have contained sardines in a previous life and could have been leftover iron rations from the Korean war. It was, of course, disgusting. And had no effect on my sparrows kneecap biceps, nor make me impervious in the playground.

The same brash Sousa marches – designed to make you feel invincible AND happy – were much in evidence in the online films of last Saturday’s pro-Trump protests in Huntingdon Beach in California. This was not huge – a few hundred – but had the wild celebratory air to it of people trying to convince themselves they had won. Denial as collective delirium; or possibly collective delirium as a condition of denial. People gathered at an intersection to cheer each other as gigantic SUVs festooned with the stars and stripes drove up and down like they were cruising the strip in a Beach Boys song.

They believe what they have to believe to make the reality around them bearable. They probably believe that they would have won if it wasn’t for those meddling Venezuelan voting machines – the latest straw to be grasped in Rudi Giuliani’s increasingly comic attempts to fool enough of the people enough of the time to bluff a different reality into being. Its interesting to note that the same machines were in use in 2016 in the same states without anyone batting an eyelid, and were adopted because they are so accurate and fraud proof – an ironic comment on the continual US claims that Venezuelan elections are always fraudulent because they keep returning Socialists to power. A gaslighter has to have some power to bluff with. Without it, he is left with the minority of the people you can fool all of the time. But there are a lot of them.

The Trumpist slogan – “can 70 million be wrong?” would skewer them on a paradox if they were self aware enough to think it through. The legitimacy of Trump’s vote is taken for granted and banked – the fraudulence of the other side equally taken for granted and discounted, so the possible counter slogan “…if 80 million say so” does not register with them. Although the momentum on their own side is smaller than that of the Democrats, that momentum is real and likely to sustain them into the bumpy period ahead.

The USA will remain in crisis. The delusions that stoke it will become even wilder, as the unbearable reality of a loss of global primacy sinks in subconsciously.

Something similar was on show in Wilhelm Furtwangler’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to celebrate Hitler’s Birthday in Berlin on 9th April 1942, with Goebbels and other top Nazi’s in attendance. This was the subject of a recent Radio 3 programme “Is this the most dangerous piece of music ever written?” (1)

April 1942 was a point at which the Third Reich was at the peak of its power, but it must have been apparent to anyone – with any realistic sense of the balance of forces – that the only way from there was down. The Soviet Union had not succumbed to Blitzkreig and, after Pearl Harbour, Nazi Germany was also at war with the United States. Hitler’s fantasy, that the Soviet Union could be defeated almost as quickly as France, died with thousands of his troops in the frozen mud before Moscow in December 1941 and – as Vasily Grossman notes in his extraordinary novel Stalingrad – the upcoming Nazi summer offensive would only be on the southern sector of the Eastern Front, not the whole front – North, South and Centre at the same time – as they’d been able to manage the previous year. They were already weaker. But still strong enough to harbour delusions.

Furtwangler’s performance of the Ninth encapsulates this moment. The only word to describe its tempo and volume is demonic. Schiller’s hymn to humanity is turned into a thunderous shriek of ubermensch triumph – made manic by an awareness of impending disaster. The fierce urgency of then.

Furtwangler – who stayed in Nazi Germany as a significant cultural figure, but never joined the Party – has been defended with the argument that he created this ferocious performance as a piece of shocking satire or grubage; the contrast with the universalist, humane orthodoxy of what the Ninth is meant to represent designed to generate a realisation of how far the Nazis were outside it. The problem here is that the Nazis knew very well what they were and gloried in it. Goebbels, a man used to generating social force from false narrative and wedded to the notion of “triumph of the will” thought the performance was wonderful.

This difficulty with cultural satire being taken straight is also illustrated by the fate of Johnny Speight’s character Alf Garnett. The central character in Speight’s situation comedy “‘Til Death do us Part”, Garnett was an unreconstructed bigot. set up as a figure to be mocked. But much of the audience not only identified with him, but saw his tirades as a vindication of their own world view. Someone was thinking what they were thinking; and they were on the telly.

Warren Mitchell, the Jewish actor who played Garnett – brilliantly, all seething frustration and choleric rage leavened by pathos – earned a crust in the seventies with a one man show called “The Thoughts of Chairman Alf”, in which he would put on his battered raincoat, pork pie hat and West Ham scarf and monologue in front of audiences all over the country who had turned up, at least in part, to see themselves reflected on stage; then went out and voted for the National Front. What that must have done to his soul I can’t imagine.

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04tq2s9

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