The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia by William Pfaff Simon and Schuster 368 pages, $27.95
illiam Pfaff hates the sin but loves the sinner. In The Bullet’s Song he condemns twentieth-century Europe’s grim history of violence carried out under utopian premises, but his attention and his sympathies go to those caught in the crossfire. The book portrays a series of eminent Europeans torn between their romantic ideals and the evidence of reality. It’s easy to say of such people—pre-Stalin-era Communists for example—that their hearts were in the right place. Pfaff is here to tell us that their heads and hearts were in the wrong place, fatally blinded by their belief that history was theirs for the making. He takes for his subject “the inner history of the modern crisis—its moral history, so to speak,” writing about men whose political ideologies and adult selves were forged in tandem, among them T.E. Lawrence, André Malraux, and Arthur Koestler. Two broad intellectual shifts shaped the ethos of Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century, Pfaff argues: the demise of “chivalry”—a code of conduct and conception of warfare rendered obsolete by the first world war—and the spread of utopian ideals, visions of earthly transcendence that took hold as if to console for that war’s huge losses. Accordingly he divides his book into two parts, a first group of portraits that reflects the theme of chivalry and its decline, and a second that traces the use, abuse, and abandonment of utopian yearnings. It is a curiously formed book: an extended essay consisting of seven mini-biographies and briefer discussions of five other figures, the entire thing composed of newspaper-column-length sections. (Pfaff is a political columnist for The International Herald Tribune and other papers, as well as the author of previous books on foreign policy and politics.) This format sometimes makes for a choppy read, though the prose itself is lucid. The Bullet’s Song gives the impression of having been a labor of love, the result of years of reading about its subjects. If the effort to rope his interests into a unified argument forces Pfaff to an overly broad conclusion, there is compensation in the lives themselves: in addition to Lawrence, Malraux, and Koestler, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Ernst Jünger, Willi Münzenberg, and Vladimir Peniakoff all get their own chapters, while Benito Mussolini, Filippo Marinetti, Che Guevara, Charles de Foucauld, and Simone Weil are also discussed. Pfaff allows that he is himself a recovering romantic, who first encountered T.E. Lawrence when, as an adolescent in the Columbus, Georgia public library, he pulled Seven Pillars of Wisdom down off of a shelf. As he recounts, Lawrence was a British graduate student and novice archeologist before reinventing himself during World War I and in subsequent memoirs as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence later came to regret that self-styling, and even tried enlisting in the army under other names. He glamorized a limited form of liberation for the Arabs he led to fight against the Turks during World War I, a liberation that didn’t come to pass in any form after the war was over, when European nations sought to advance their own interests in north Africa. Weaned on medieval romances, epic poetry, and tales of the Crusades, Lawrence cultivated a heroic ideal that could not be sustained in the postwar political climate. What became of the soldier-hero in the twentieth century? Pfaff’s second profile, of German officer Jünger, offers one answer. During World War I Jünger strove toward a personal chivalry, an ideal of battlefield heroism prizing self-sacrifice for the national cause, despite the war’s seeming purposelessness. But later on, as German national sentiment helped National Socialism gain power, Jünger became disenchanted, wrote an anti-Hitler novel, joined a resistance group in Paris, and after WWII spent the rest of his life writing mostly apolitical books and studying zoology. A veteran himself, Pfaff admires soldiers for their willingness to risk their own lives. He regrets the decline of the chivalric ideal of the warrior (as opposed to the professional soldier) and of monastic orders, asserting that both are forms of unreasonable moral sacrifice that benefit society. (Perhaps, like his boyhood hero Lawrence, Pfaff is at heart a medievalist.) He is approving of war but deplores the romantic-aesthetic view of violence, the belief that through violence a society could be transformed. U.S. justifications for the war in Iraq, such as liberating the people and installing democracy, are shrivelled descendants of that sort of thinking, Pfaff believes. Untenable as the utopian aspirations of the last century now seem, the stories of flamboyant utopians are often good ones. Gabriele D’Annunzio, an Italian poet, fiction writer, bon vivant and self-promoter served as a torpedo-boat commander in World War I; and after the war he advocated passionately for the Italians’ right to retain the port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) on the Dalmatian coast—a city renowned for its beautiful girls, extraordinary pastries, and all-night parties. At the Versailles conference the Allies granted Fiume to the new Yugoslavia, but in 1919 a rebellion in Fiume suspended the transfer. D’Annunzio set out with a convoy of soldiers to assume command of the city. (At the same time, well-dressed women persuaded a group of Italian sailors with kisses to remain in Fiume, and their ship, the Dante Alighieri, became one of the first ships in independent Fiume’s navy.) Bacchanalia ensued; Woodrow Wilson was very annoyed. The city existed as its own political entity for sixteen months, with an experimental constitution and an elected assembly. Fiume achieved universal suffrage and aspired to classlessness, but D’Annunzio’s governing style, according to Pfaff, was a precursor to Fascism: “his romantic commitment to war and violence as forces that could set people free contributed to the swindle the Italian people subsequently were offered by Mussolini when he told them that conquest and empire would make Italy great again.” Repeatedly, Pfaff identifies utopian aspirations as having been parties to heinous crimes. It would be difficult to consider the history of twentieth century Europe and conclude otherwise; but it’s also a tricky thing to indict an idea, or in this case an entire category of ideas, on the basis that people have been led to deny reality and commit awful crimes and wage wars in its name. You could indict any political ideology on the same grounds—and in the end this is what Pfaff comes close to doing. Utopian thought, he writes, denies the tragic aspect of life: “that history is a struggle by humans against their limitations, in which their dignity is found in the struggle, itself without a resolution in historical time.” But so does the liberal faith in progress, according to Pfaff. The lesson of the twentieth century, he says, is that the “rational case for progressive expectation” has collapsed. Civilizations may progress in areas such as human rights, but such progress is reversible, and countered by disaster and decline elsewhere on the planet. The human condition itself does not improve. Pfaff pronounces these things swiftly, proposing that we abandon our naïve faith in progress, follow Aristotle’s injunction to cultivate virtue, and “look for solutions within, rather than without, in experienced reality rather than imagination about the future.” But doesn’t any search for “solutions” depend on some conception of a better future? Pfaff’s conclusions are too vague and quickly delivered to carry as much weight as he wants them to, at least with this reader. But insofar as they are motivated by a wish for a realistic, anti-ideological, humbled approach to politics, even the unrepentant progressives among us may be very sympathetic. Karen Olsson is a former Observer editor. Her first novel will be published by Farrar, Straus&Giroux later this year.