Daniel Kalder: The Nervous Breakdown Self-Interview
So, I hear you’ve written another book.
That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.
How did you manage to read so many execrable books without becoming a gibbering wreck?
I paced myself.
What inspired you?
I lived in and around Russia for a decade, arriving about five years after the collapse of the USSR. Here was a society which had been devastated by the ideas contained in terrible books, and yet many people still held the written word in high regard. I thought this phenomenon worthy of investigation. During this period I also acquired a copy of Saddam Hussein’s romance novel Zabiba and the King. After reading the passage on man-bear love in northern Iraq I started to develop a serious obsession with dictator literature. Shortly afterward I discovered the Rukhnama, a truly awful confection of lies and gibberish that the Turkmen despot Turkmenbashi was foisting on his people. I visited the country at the hallucinatory height of his dictatorship and could see the giant glow-in-the-dark monument to The Rukhnama from my hotel window at night…
Yes, but what possessed you?
We tend to get very sentimental about books and reading, but literacy has a dark side, too. Dictator literature throws that dark side into particularly sharp relief.
After The Bible the most widely circulated book in history is not a classic, nor even something modestly entertaining like a Dan Brown novel, but rather Quotations of Chairman Mao. Mao, of course, was a narcissistic tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions and the Quotations is a tedious grab-bag of citations ripped from their original context. Yet he was revered as a man-god and Western intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre disgraced themselves with their support for him.
Today, however, Quotations of Chairman Mao is largely a curio for tourists, while many other formerly sacred dictator texts have almost disappeared completely. This forgetting or trivializing of disastrous books disturbed me, so I wrote a few articles on the phenomenon for The Guardian. Way led on to way, and it was impossible to come back.
Why do so many dictators write books?
A more accurate question would be: Why have so many writers become dictators?
I see what you did there.
The Infernal Library is about the writers who were not only successful at seizing power but who managed to hold onto it. Usually these individuals—the likes of Lenin or Stalin, for instance—were also ruthless when it came to dishing out violence. The pen is mightiest when it works in unison with the sword.
There were numerous other authors in the 20th century whose intellectual vanity meant that they equated their ability to manipulate narratives and arguments on paper with a profound knowledge of the workings of history and society; and they also believed that this skill qualified them to steer the destinies of nations. Many of them suffered terrible fates. If life was longer—say, 200 years longer—I might write about them, too. But it isn’t, and I don’t have the time or patience to read the diabolical prose of also-rans.
I noticed that many dictators wrote their major works before they were in power.
Well, resentful intellectuals are a dangerous class of people generally and many dictators were resentful intellectuals long before they acquired personality cults, while others at least imagined themselves to be clever people. The ideas of the 20th century revolutionaries who later became dictators were usually absurd on their face, and a cover for messianic delusions and a will to power. Marxism was nakedly millenarian and pseudoscientific, Nazism was rabidly murderous and grotesque, and so on. The most egregious nonsense can be very seductive when dressed up in a salvation narrative and intelligent, articulate people are very good at rationalization. My book shows that intellectuals were often early adopters of these terrible ideas which they rehearsed in books before imposing them on everybody else through violence.
Who was the best dictator-author?
By “best” I take it you mean “least awful.” Mao has his boosters even today, but I think this is largely a case of half-clever people adopting contrarian positions as a sign of faux sophistication to set them apart from the hoi polloi. Certainly he could throw out a good slogan from time to time, but being the Don Draper of communist sloganeering is a minor triumph at best and his poetry is tedious. Mussolini on the other hand was a journalist and editor by trade and at times he wrote well. Consider, for instance, this powerful passage from his war diary:
There is one of our men missing, a Bersagliere of the motorcycle corps. He lies with this head still stretched forward as if he was going to attack. Near him is his musket with the bayonet raised. He lies there alone. Why does no one bury him? In order to allow his family to keep the illusion that he is “missing”? Perhaps.
I also enjoyed one or two of Gaddafi’s short stories, especially The Suicide of the Astronaut, in which he explains why space travel is an utter waste of time.
And the worst?
Hitler was awful and Mein Kampf is every bit as vile as you might expect it to be. But even Hitler knew that he wasn’t very good: He is reported to have said to an associate “Ich bin kein Schriftsteller,” (“I am not a writer.”) The Kim dynasty is diabolical; even by the low standards of the dictator tradition they stand out for stupendously stultifying and mendacious death-prose. One visitor to North Korea in the late 80s suggested that the point of their propaganda was not to persuade or deceive but to humiliate, as it forced the masses to profess obvious falsehoods. I think there’s a lot to that.
I just had a brilliant idea. Given that a lot of dictators wrote their main works before they came to power, could the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to extremists texts enable us to develop an early warning system to sniff out tyrants before they become dangerous?
Our current president is an author. Have you read his book, The Art of the Deal?
No, but recently I received a copy of The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, which synthesizes his Tweets, speeches and off-the-cuff utterances into discreet poetic fragments. It’s fair to say that he is a worse poet than any dictator of the 20th century (and many of them wrote poetry, including Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Stalin and Salazar, the Portuguese dictator).
What do you want humans to take away from your book?
One thing that was driven home to me repeatedly as I researched The Infernal Library was just how quickly terrible books containing ludicrous ideas can move from the fringes to the center and become holy writ.
For instance, the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was so poorly attended you could just about have squeezed all of them into a Honda Odyssey. Within 20 years an offshoot (the Bolsheviks) had staged a coup and were running the largest country on earth, where the unlucky inhabitants were obliged to study their works of “theory” and profess them to be works of genius.
I would like my readers to be as alarmed by this phenomenon as I am, and to reflect upon the fragility of civilization, and how quickly millions of people can find themselves living in a nightmare world of lies, repression and state violence. Now I don’t think we’re on the verge of total collapse and that we’ll all one day be forced to read The Art of the Deal, but I do note that today we voluntarily give a handful of billionaires much deeper access to our inner lives than the likes of Stalin ever had. The possibilities for surveillance, control and coercion are immense. Who is to say what will be done with this power in the future?
Let’s end on a note of uplift.
It takes more than bad prose and messianic delusions to create a dictatorship, and when this happened in the 20th century it was in tandem with war, and economic and societal collapse. We are far from those conditions at present, even though things could be a lot better. The freedoms and rights we enjoy are things of immense value. Let’s remember to enjoy—and defend—them.
One last question: What is to be done?
Daniel Kalder, thank you very much.
From The Nervous Breakdown 3/2018