Getting our facts straight

London Review of Books, v35 n4, 21 February 2013

When we come to make judgments of some import and with real relevance to sensitive topics, it is no good to be suggestive: we must get our facts straight. This is the message many of the contributors to the LRB this issue got across in this number at some point or other. It was brought home especially in the pieces—surprising in number—that featured a lot of coverage, as it were, of bodies and body-related details, a sensitive topic that can either be treated suggestively or precisely. Not only did this number contain the much-talked-of article on “Royal Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, but also an article on the Profumo affair by David Runciman, and a short book on Hitler’s health (of both mind and body) by Richard J. Evans. Other articles however also hit home this point like Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s review of two books on the Spanish Civil War. It is with these that we are most impressed by the truth of the statement. In the articles on the body, it turns out, there is something to be said also for being slightly insinuating in these matters: not that sleaze should be courted; it is just that getting facts straight sometimes can be the same thing as hedging one’s bets, and even frankness, coupled with accuracy, can come off worse than a wink wink and a nudge nudge. But in trying to show how mythmaking takes place—weighing and measuring the scale of its difference from reality rather than trying to hug close to the contours of the literal, rallying facts to the task of finding the scope of illusoriness rather than disillusioning–facts might support judgment better than the most interesting speculations.

Mantel’s article displays the cruel sort of irony at work best: talking about facts with a subject well defined, but an aim somewhat unclear, only makes them sound suggestive anyway. The British press’ furore over Mantel calling Kate Middleton “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished,” was ridiculous, particularly because the comment was offered up in a generous spirit, as most incisive British cultural criticism is currently (Ian Crouch comes to similar conclusions in an post for the New Yorker). It is as if the big media outlets were in fact jealous that here was a genuine form of insight into a real problem, impossible for their organizations, to actually manufacture themselves, and so whittled down the thing into a sound-byte that could be made manageable in their own semi-conscious intellectual debates (and I speak as someone who admires them usually, being exposed most of the time to the genuine intelligence-destroying efforts of American news). But then again there was something provoking, as it were, in what was being said, and not really in a provocative or interesting way—not deserving of this response, but not entirely meant to merely state the case in a rather rebellious or defiant way either, that would have gotten the point across in a better way.

The worst of it all was the “discussion” itself that was then put together, and which was the version of the controversy that was sent around the world. Detached from their context, the words could then be put back into their context by impartial commentators. Then both sides could be acknowledged, and we could be skeptical of Mantel anyway with the satisfaction that we were being accepting too, pluralist, generous in our interpretation. Incidentally the media didn’t say what was the real subject of the article, of course, because that would probably require looking beyond the words themselves and telling you something about the real nature of the article—though the BBC at least made some gestures in this direction: namely that Mantel was writing about the strangeness of Royal existence in general, of the experience of being someone whose flesh and blood is on show even when you didn’t care to be on show, and what you do, as a subject of the crown, or of any crown, with this strange lump of flesh you venerate even when you don’t entirely want to. But they did tell you instead that the words, the offending culprits, were last seen in a general area of a discussion of female royalty in the past and present, Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn, and the current Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Diana—with whom Middleton was being compared. Now you could consider yourself informed. Now you would be being judicious in your eventual condemnation. The whole could be compared to the part, and you don’t need to speculate much more about whether the whole you got was really in truth the whole story.

In fact, they didn’t even really go to the article. Another odd fact was that the press referred to the talk Mantel gave for the LRB. It was as if they were trying to arrest the words before they got to be part of an argument of some sort, or at least some kind of considered reflection. One initially heard of it as if Mantel was just tossing off some opinion, like some politician slipping up on a morning show, not being witty and thinking about the thing. Granted, the talk seems to have been emphasized as the first real utterance of the thing (though the LRB has been great at making articles available before the print issue is out), but this makes things all the more suspicious, and seem more like another event in that power struggle between print and TV media (initiated, remember, by the TV newsmongers, not the print journalists), utterly pointless now that TV is itself being eclipsed by the appearance of electronic media. But as an example of another way the event could have been treated, there was the LRB itself. They nicely gestured to its media situation, printing the text right there on the front page, generously quoting. “Antoinette as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.” And then they stuck this on the cover smack dab in the middle of a wonderful little watercolor of a glass jug. It’s as if the little words have been poured in there for you to pick up if you want, take outside, pour in some glasses and sip in the sun—and they also give you a place to put the jug back where it belongs, when you’re done. They lead you into the article, and lead the article back out into the larger media situation. How different than the atmosphere of crisis that is the standard non-print media way of dealing with controversy!

The whole situation stems though around that irony alluded to earlier. Mantel is playing with fire, in trying to be factual about anything royal, in trying at all to place Middleton in some canon of women’s bodies, and especially in trying to make this itself her point about the nature of the royal body, which is what the article goes on to argue. Even when you know the Queen is just some woman there in a nice dress, even when she looks at you from five feet away, stares into your face, you still can’t get away from the fact that she is a royal, that what looks at you are royal eyes. Even when you avoid her, as her friends do at the event in which this happened, you are avoiding something, and that thing is not just another person, but royalty. Similarly, saying things frankly and forthrightly and basically factually about the Kate Middleton’s body, rather than oohing and aahing over her, participating in the mystique of royalty, is more likely to get you yourself pilloried than praised. This is the supreme fact of all.

But one could be forgiven for disagreeing with Mantel over precisely this point, and saying that it all comes down to the fact that the body in general isn’t a fact. Or a mere fact. And royal bodies least of all. This last caveat is another way of making her point, yes, but it also makes another, and opens up things into a discussion about the purpose and nature of royalty itself. This of course has been so often discussed in so many different ways that we are no doubt thankful that Mantel does something different. And yet looking at it this way, we see she also does something that seeks to get around this discussion, and pays for it.

If they are perhaps facts, but also something else, or perhaps (to put it another way) aren’t mere facts, then what are our bodies? They are things that mean more to us than mere facts do, things experienced and lived and hated and enjoyed. They are even things of beauty, things we take pleasure in and things we admire. It is the challenge to this last point that makes what she says most controversial, in fact. That royal bodies can be a bit awkward is one thing, that ones that look beautiful are ultimately not—this seems too much. And this is what is being claimed in the statement that Middleton has “a perfect plastic smile.” Mantel wants to say that the strange feeling we have towards royalty itself is really just a feeling about the royal body: that in royalty it is the blood that we also find beautiful. But for evidence of this she quotes only another royal: “When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height.’” (“Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners,” Mantel nicely adds.) And in the end this is why “designed by committee” perhaps is the thing people most can’t countenance, that challenges what they feel most of all: the committee here seems not to be just the royals themselves—this is what indeed Mantel wants to get at—but (we can’t help hearing it) the British people in general. Every time we think she is beautiful, and we reflect on her perfectly turned limbs, we are complicit in some way in some fantasy.

And the conscience of Britain and the world (including those in the press, who are humans too after all) duly rebels and says that this is indeed just what it is to live with bodies that are beautiful. And it fails, with much justification, to see the political potential in troubling the links between what we find beautiful in the body and what the body is, by trying to strip the thing down or take it apart into facts and fantasises. Mantel wants to say that, “the story of Henry and his wives is peculiar to its time and place, but also timeless and universally understood; it is highly political and also highly personal.” This should mean indeed that the story is about something we all live and experience, rich things, things that can’t be reduced or felt to be reduced to accident. But this is exactly what she doesn’t feel she can affirm: “It is about body parts, about what slots in where, and when: are they body parts fit for purpose? Or are they diseased?” It is an odd thing if what is timeless is also only what is highly personal in a bodily way, if all our fictions are really, literally, just rather inspired bits of navel-gazing. One has the feeling that what is indeed really revolting in Kate Middleton is that she seems to be explicitly everything this type of view is designed to prevent: where we are supposed to take pleasure, not in beauty but in our assemblage, there is Kate who is beautiful precisely by being an assemblage, designed by committee to boot.

And yet there is something, more than something, to Mantel’s view. There is something to the fact that it seems to emerge from a certain consciousness that, rightly, refuses to be judged merely by this accident of sex, indeed secretly sympathizes with the bodies of others (Mantel wonderfully describes how she could hear the clunk of irons being dropped by housewives across Britain on their ironing boards when they saw suddenly Diana in her wedding dress), and seeks to speak across time in a community that is bound together in some way by no more universal bonds than those made up by such accidents. For that consciousness, it may indeed be that that fiction is for getting at something like a fact. “It’s no surprise that so much fiction constellates around the subject of Henry and his wives,” Mantel goes on. “Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.” Why this fiction is not just history itself, inspired history, though, is not quite clear. Again the conversation has to be taken out of this area where bodies are facts, and facts only bodies, and the desire to stay in this arena, while pinpointing something crucial, also seems to want to only suggest addressing consequences it might have in fact explicitly addressed.

*

A brilliant review by Gideon Lewis-Kraus takes this relation of fact and fiction more straightforwardly—at least at first. Reviewing two books (by Richard Baxell and David Boyd Haycock) on the Spanish Civil War, he carefully discriminates between what is a hard clear happening and what is a story. But he acknowledges that facts are sometimes so important, so saturated with importance, with heroism, with consequence, with detail, that they become something like myths. And this upsets the whole scheme of things.

It is, first and foremost, a perspective that gives some dignity to the events concerned, and is fundamentally wary of anything that would treat the Spanish Civil War disrespectfully as something like just another story—even though he readily admits that the facts, taken together, make up a story we have heard for quite a while now: that is, one of disillusionment. “That was Orwell’s model and it hasn’t been superseded.” The fact that the facts conform to this storyline doesn’t at all mean the story must therefore be changed; there is nothing wrong in conserving this story as such; no suspicion is brought upon the thing just because it isn’t something that lends itself to being retold in the newest language, the most up-to-date form possible. In this, Lewis-Kraus’ article might be contrasted with a recent review of the American Civil War in the February 15thTimes Literary Supplement by Masur Richard (“Civil Strife”) that begins by saying, basically, that the problem with writing about the Civil War is that it is hard to tell any new story about it—as if indeed not to say anything new was a problem, as if newness was a virtue in itself, as if sheer production was the point of inquiry into history. Lewis-Kraus has none of this, even though essentially we know the stories to be told. “There were two different sorts of demoralization,” two different versions of the same story, he says: “the spiritual sort felt by those, like Orwell, who saw the revolutionary cause undermined by Moscow; and the military sort felt by those, again like Orwell, who saw right away that the Republican side was irremediably ill-equipped.” Richard Baxell tells the second story, he says, and does so with painstaking detail.

It isn’t so clear that he thinks this a great idea. But it is better than the alternative. The alternative is what he says Boyd Haycock does, which is narrate none of these stories, really, and tells tall tales about writers in Spain. Lewis-Kraus dwells a lot on Hemingway here, and the tales Boyd Haycock relates about him—though there is a distinct feeling that he is emphasizing some that is not emphasized in the original book. “Hemingway so liked the ringside seat at the corrida that he was keen to get to Madrid for a ringside seat at an actual war,” we hear, along with many other similar characterizations of his rather despicable attitude towards the whole thing (though Lewis-Kraus quotes a wonderful bit from Boyd Haycock that is also pretty biting: “He sat himself down behind the bullet-proof shield of a machine-gun and loosed off a whole belt of ammunition in the general direction of the enemy. This provoked a mortar bombardment for which he did not stay.”)

It is hard though to tell exactly where Boyd Haycock goes wrong for Lewis-Kraus, but it seems to be in the fact that he relates too many of these sorts of attitudes that are fundamentally out of touch with the actual happenings in the war. This is because, it seems, the war itself was generally a strange experience for outsiders, and while some tried genuinely to overcome this distance, even while they saw in various ways that they could not, others like Hemingway didn’t try at all. There is an eerie emotional similarity between the attitudes towards the war that Lewis-Krauss finds typical of many outsiders to the conflict, and certain dissociative attitudes a post-ironic generation experiences today, as it becomes fed up with postmodern reflexivity or whatnot and yet can’t move past it back to anything genuine. He relates Baxell’s story of how John Cornford, Marxist intellectual, gets wounded: “One day a volunteer was reading de Quincey on the Lake Poets when he heard an ‘appalling crash’ and saw Cornford bleeding from a head wound. They’d been hit by a Republican anti-aircraft shell. Cornford’s head was wrapped in a turban-like bandage, which led someone to remark that he ‘looked the complete wounded hero, very romantic and all that.’” The strangeness is in the way that the deflationary language of the twenties and thirties is used here, and should bring us closer to the reality of the thing. Avoiding “romantic” Edwardian bombast in the manner Herbert Read recommended in his book on style (and in the manner that Orwell himself, in his own way, practiced) should bring us closer to the plain facts. Here it only brings us closer to how far we are from the thing that is going on. The point though is that all of this language is serious in intention at least, even about it’s irony—while a Hemingway isn’t even that, and shoots off short sentences without caring what he is aiming at or what the consequences are.

And this seems to mirror the difference between the two writers, for Lewis-Krauss. He moves between them, transitions from one to the other, with this very interesting reflection:

With the larger story clear, writers have turned to the detail. Baell draws painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men. It’s beyond history; it’s myth. … David Boyd Haycock’s I Am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went to Fight Fascism is a good example of where this Civil War mythology tends to wind up. He replaces Baxell’s careful scholarship with broad-brush sentimentality.” Facts that gain the density of myths, eventually become ripe for mythmaking. And so in a way combating our myths with facts is good, but sometimes it is better simply to distinguish between what is history worthy of myth from something like a mythology-to intervene at the point at which facts themselves become a little too dense: something that involves an imaginative respect for facts, not literal-mindedness.

It may be that this genealogical sort of method is just the only tack when so much has been said—as in the case of the Spanish-Civil war—about disillusionment. In a way, Mantel’s problem is not just that we are not yet disillusioned enough about the Royal body, but that we can’t ever really be disillusioned about it. She essentially is trying to make such a point throughout the piece. But her tone, peppery and interesting at most points about this, has an undercurrent of world-weary acceptance of this situation, a tired sound that doesn’t see how it could be otherwise, which masks itself as disdain for the press, that culprit The Media: “Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant.” The problem is that the press is never going to be smart enough to see through the glamour and glitz; or, actually, that even though it sees through it, it cynically keeps up the practices that shore up the myth. It knows it doesn’t have to, but it keeps it up anyway.

It is a bit harsh to call this acceptance, however, when it is also simply a plea to have some humanity; a frustration with the fact that the only place this is possible is, strangely enough, in her fiction. This is an immensely healthy feeling, coming from a writer of fiction in a postmodern age—a recognition that while fiction can do much, it can’t really do enough. It is a refusal of that strange postmodern feeling that would make fiction into reality—a strange backwards literalism, that ends up making an argument against fiction more than making an argument for it. And it is too the commitment of a historical novelist: a commitment to the fact that past things need to be made to live again for us to get some sense of what they are.