Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178
Any reader of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is left with a strong impression of the history of the Balkans as a place of violence, bloodshed, and tragedy. Fifty years after the book’s 1941 publication, the region erupted in a new wave of bloodletting that quickly turned into the worst...
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Any reader of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is left with a strong impression of the history of the Balkans as a place of violence, bloodshed, and tragedy. Fifty years after the book’s 1941 publication, the region erupted in a new wave of bloodletting that quickly turned into the worst violence in Europe since World War II. Many in the West, who knew little about one of the most unstable regions in the world, turned to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for an understanding of the roots of the conflict.
The wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s occurred as a result of the demise of communism and the resurfacing of old ethnic enmities. Yugoslavia had been a communist state since the end of World War II. Its leader, Marshal Tito, hoped that under a communist ideology, long-standing conflicts between the various ethnicities in the state would gradually wither away. Only part of this idea was new. As West reported in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, King Alexander I tried in 1929 to abolish the traditional names of the provinces—Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia etc.—renaming them after rivers. He hoped that this would undermine people’s identification with a particular group and lead to a more cohesive state. He was wrong, as was Tito.
After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia was governed by a collective presidency consisting of representatives from each of the republics. But Serb nationalism was soon on the rise. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic became president of Serbia and adopted an extreme nationalist agenda. He called for the creation of a greater Serbia, uniting all Serbs in a single state. (In the 1920s, according to West, King Alexander had also envisioned a greater Serbia, so Milosevic’s idea was not new.)
Serbian nationalism alarmed the other Yugoslav republics, and in 1991 Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. The Serbs attacked Slovenia but were soon forced to withdraw. With Croatia it was a different story. The Yugoslav army launched a major offensive, coordinating its attack with the Serb minority within Croatia. The war was savage. Serbian forces targeted civilians, and the long siege of the medieval city of Dubrovnik resulted in the destruction of many cultural landmarks. This was the same city that West had visited and regarded as ‘‘lovely.’’ Later in 1991, there was a cease-fire that left nearly a third of Croatia under Serb control.
Some of the murderous hostility between Serbs and Croats can be traced to World War II, in which thousands of Serbs perished in Croatian concentration camps. But the hatred goes back even further, as a reading of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon amply demonstrates. It is apparent at the beginning of the book, in the quarrels of Constantine (a Serb) and Valetta (a Croat). And as West and her husband travel in Croatia, they find that many Croats refuse to meet with them because they are traveling with Constantine, who is a representative of the Serbdominated Yugoslavian state.
When West and her husband visit the site of a World War I battlefield in Macedonia, where the Serbs had been victorious, Constantine suggests bringing a thousand Croats there to show them how freedom is won. Dragutin, the Serb chauffeur, laughs and says, ‘‘Yes, yes, show them how liberty is won, and then hang the lot of them.’’ It is the kind of joke that reveals an uncomfortable truth. Later, in Kosovo, West and her husband meet two soldiers guarding a monument, one of whom is a Serb, the other a Croat. Dragutin is surprised to find that the two soldiers get along well. He twists the Croat’s ear and says lightheartedly, ‘‘We’ll kill you all some day.’’ Another revealing joke.
West later finds out that the Croats dislike the Serbs because they regard Serb civilization as inferior to their own. They feel that they belong to the West, while the Serbs are ‘‘Oriental.’’ Needless to say, the Serbs have other ideas about whose civilization is superior.
With the outbreak of war in Bosnia in 1992, the situation in the disintegrating Yugoslavia dramatically worsened. The war began when Bosnia— which was a multi-ethnic republic consisting of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—declared its independence. The subsequent war, which lasted until 1995 and claimed 250,000 lives, was horrific in its savagery. Bosnian Serbs, in alliance with the army of the Serbian republic, pursued a policy of ‘‘ethnic cleansing,’’ in which Serbs drove Muslims from their towns and villages and then claimed the depopulated areas as their own. The Serbs killed thousands of civilians, set up detention camps, and committed mass rape. The most notorious example of mass murder was the overrunning of the Muslim town of Srebrenica in 1995, in which forty thousand people were expelled and up to six thousand men and boys killed. These were the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
As in the 1991 war in Croatia, the 1992 Bosnian war resulted in damage to the country’s cultural heritage. When West visited the Bosnian town of Mostar in the 1930s, she took delight in the medieval Turkish bridge there. The city was even named after the bridge (‘‘Stari most,’’ old bridge), and this is how West describes it:
It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. A slender arch lies between two round towers, its parapet bent in a shallow angle in the centre. To look at it is good; to stand on it is good.
Future generations will have to take West’s word for it, because this beautiful old bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian war.
The merciless conflict also devastated Sarajevo, the scene of another cataclysmic event from earlier days, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which is described so vividly in West’s pages. In 1992 the Bosnian Serbs laid siege to this splendid multi-ethnic and tolerant city, where for generations Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived together in peace, and where over fifty years earlier a delighted Rebecca had watched snow fall on the roof of a mosque in a cold early spring.
The siege went on for over three years. Roads in and out of Sarajevo were blockaded; the airport was closed. The 400,000 residents were short of food, medicine, water, and electricity, and many were killed by mortar attacks made by Serb gunners from the hills surrounding the city. In 1994 shelling killed sixty-eight and wounded two hundred in the Sarajevo marketplace.
As the war in Bosnia drew to a close, thanks to a U.S.-brokered peace agreement signed in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, another act in the long-running drama of ethnic antagonism in Croatia was being played out. The Croats launched a successful offensive to regain territory they had lost to the Serbs in 1991. Over 100,000 terrified Serbs, many of whom had lived in Croatia for generations, were pelted with bricks and verbal abuse as they streamed across the Croatian border into Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia or into Serbia.
Before the decade was out, the Serbian republic had entered upon yet another war. This war was over control of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. In post-World War II Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito had granted Kosovo autonomy. This meant that Kosovo, which was populated largely by Muslim ethnic Albanians, was allowed to manage its own affairs. But after Tito’s death and the rise of Serbian nationalism, Serbs in Kosovo began to complain of ill-treatment by the ethnic Albanians, who made up 90 percent of the population. In 1989 Serbian president Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy and arrested many ethnic Albanian leaders.
During the 1990s Serbia ruled Kosovo as a police state, in which ethnic Albanians were treated as second-class citizens. The province was important to Serbs because they saw it as the birthplace of their great medieval culture that was destroyed after the victory of the Muslim Turks in the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Any reader of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon will be aware of the place that Kosovo has in the hearts of Serbs. West reported that tens of thousands of Serb pilgrims traveled to the battle- field site every year on St. Vitus’s Day, the anniversary of the battle. The defeat is commemorated in Serbian folk-poetry, and West confidently tells her husband that an experiment during World War I showed that 90 percent of the patients in a Serbian military hospital knew the poems and songs about the ancient battle.
West also provides insight into the deep-rooted enmity between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Dragutin, who with his earthy vitality and fierce passions is the embodiment of the Serbian peasant, speaks the following piece of wisdom when he and West and her husband encounter an Albanian man in Kosovo: ‘‘This one must be something of a villain, since he is an Albanian. The Albanians . . . being brigands and renouncers of Christ, are great villains.’’ For their part, the Albanians in Kosovo appear to be equally good haters. An Albanian cab driver and his friend tell West that they hate Serbs. West reports that they told her they ‘‘would thoroughly enjoy another war if only it would give them the chance of shooting a lot of Serbs.’’ By way of explanation of this hatred, the Albanians say that the Serbs ill-treated them after World War I and took their land. Since the Balkan animosities have been passed down from one generation to the next, anyone reading this passage could hardly be surprised at what happened sixty years later in Kosovo.
Matters came to a head in 1998 with the formation of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which advocated violence in pursuit of its goal of an independent Kosovo state. The Serb police responded with attacks on ethnic Albanian villages, in which many civilians were killed. Then another round of ‘‘ethnic cleansing’’ began, as the Serbs attempted to drive the Muslims out of the province. In the spring of 1999, thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced to flee their homes, threatened at gunpoint by Serb paramilitary forces. Some were herded onto crowded trains that transported them to open fields near the Kosovo border. Others were forced to march on foot in long columns, flanked by masked Serb gunmen who threatened to shoot them if they moved out of line. Many of the refugees’ homes were then burned. The aim of the Serbs appeared to be to empty Kosovo of Albanians and repopulate it with Serbs.
This time the West, which had failed to stop the carnage of the Bosnian war, decided to act. In March 1999, after talks between NATO and the Serbs broke down, NATO bombs began to fall on Serbia, including heavy raids on Belgrade, the capital city. It was the first time since World War II that bombs had fallen on a European capital.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the NATO bombing, it must have reminded elderly residents of Belgrade of other terrible nights, fifty-eight years earlier, when the Nazis unleashed ferocious attacks on the city from the air. West describes these attacks, not long after they happened, in the closing pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
Eight hundred planes flew low over the city and methodically destroyed the Palace, the university, the hospitals, the churches, the schools, and most of the dwelling-houses. Twenty-four thousand corpses were taken away to the cemeteries and many others lie buried under the ruins.
As the NATO bombs continued to fall in 1999, it was widely reported that the Serbs felt they were once more being victimized by the great powers, as they had been so many times in their long history. It was difficult for Serbs to comprehend that most in the West saw them as the aggressors in the conflict with the ethnic Albanians, as well as in the earlier wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The prototype of this Serbian attitude appears in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in the form of the Serb Constantine, who complains in Bosnia that ‘‘nobody outside Yugoslavia understands us,’’ and later offers the opinion that ‘‘most foreign books about us [the Serbs] are insolently wrong.’’
Finally capitulating after over two months of NATO bombardment, the Serbs surrendered control of Kosovo, which they regarded as an integral part of the Serbian state, to NATO. Milosevic, the instigator of the Serbian nationalism that brought disaster on the whole country, was ousted from power a year later, in 2000. In 2001 he was handed over to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands. Milosevic, along with four of his aides, was accused of deporting 740,000 ethnic Albanian civilians from Kosovo and of murdering 340 Albanians identified before May 24, 1999, when the indictment against him was confirmed by a judge.
Milosevic’s trial may supply some measure of closure to a horrific series of events, but it will take many years before the memory of the grotesque violence that went under the name of ‘‘ethnic cleansing’’ fades. As West wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, ‘‘It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk.’’
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4568
Few literary masterpieces of the twentieth century have been so highly acclaimed and so roundly neglected as Rebecca West’s tour de force, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. When Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was first published in 1941, West’s contemporaries reacted with a mixture of praise and confusion. Most reviewers seconded Clifton Fadiman, who in 1941 saw this work both as West’s ‘‘magnum opus’’ and ‘‘also [as] one of the great books of our time’’. Even those who judged West’s accomplishments more severely were forced to admit that ‘‘. . . Rebecca West’s book is a magnifi- cent piece of writing’’. It was when critics grew frustrated by their failure to find an anchor with which to secure Black Lamb and Grey Falcon—a literary genre of sufficient dimensions against which West’s achievements could be measured—that confusion and at times hostility were in evidence. Stoyan Pribichevich, for example, concluded his review by criticizing West for attempting to do too much, for stepping out of generic bounds: ‘‘Had Miss West thrown out of her manuscript much of the history and all of the politics, her book would have come out half as long. It would have been not only one of the most colorful pictures of Yugoslavia, but one of the most beautiful books written in recent years’’. Although the subtitle of this ‘‘odd masterpiece’’ is ‘‘A Journey through Yugoslavia,’’ West had little intention of composing an innocuous travelogue filled with ‘‘beautiful’’ and ‘‘colorful’’ pictures, as more perspicacious critics recognized. Indeed, concerning questions of genre, West’s critics can agree on only one point: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon ‘‘is more than a travel book’’. As Victoria Glendinning recently argued in her memorial essay on West, the ‘‘temperamental diversity’’ which characterizes Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as well as Rebecca West’s life work is probably responsible for keeping from West the ‘‘popular fame’’ that should be her due: ‘‘She was a major stylist, a major critical intelligence, a major commentator on public events and sexual politics, and a radical moralist’’. She was, Glendinning asserts, ‘‘the most interesting woman of this century in England’’.
Without a doubt Yugoslavia was for West the most interesting country of this century in Europe. Indeed, much as the reader of West’s masterpiece is stunned when first confronting this ‘‘epic testament’’, so the writer herself was initially overwhelmed when she first toured Yugoslavia in the spring of 1936; for the country so inspired her that the very next year she returned at Easter with her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, in order that he too might experience life in a ‘‘land where everything was comprehensible’’. West’s second pilgrimage to the Balkans begins in a train. On the long ride across Europe that carries the couple to their destination, West cannot keep from singing Yugoslavia’s praises one night just after Andrews has climbed into bed; yet despite her enthusiasm for her subject West soon discovers that her ‘‘husband had gone to sleep’’. The image of man asleep, of a nation asleep, is one of the central motifs of this work, for this image relates both to Yugoslavia’s past—to the legend of Prince Lazar and his dream of the grey falcon—and to West’s rhetorical purpose, which was not so much to ‘‘justify’’ her belief in this strangely ‘‘comprehensible’’ land, a land which by 1941 had already been devastated by Hitler’s forces, but rather to persuade her own people through Yugoslavia’s example that they must strive to stave off the sleep of death which would both induce and follow Nazi conquest. As her two-volume epic dramatizes, the sleep of the conquered can last for centuries. In the case of the Slavs, the sleep that resulted from Turkish conquest endured five hundred years, from the Battle of Kossovo in 1389 to the nineteenth century, when some of the Slavs at last freed themselves from the Ottoman Empire to form the independent nations of Serbia and Bulgaria.
The powers that work towards the annihilation of self and of state, however, come also from within; and as a student of Freud, West was well aware of the conflicting tendencies toward Eros and Thanatos that divide the human psyche. Before her travels through Yugoslavia, West admits, ‘‘Violence was all [she] . . . knew of the Balkans; all [she] knew of the South Slavs’’; yet despite West’s acknowledgeB ment that ‘‘‘Yugoslavia [was] always telling [her] about one death or another,’’’ it was here, she believed, that the Westerner ‘‘should come . . . to learn to live’’. Considering West’s concerns, it is not surprising that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is both a joyous celebration of life and a scathing indictment of our ‘‘infatuation with sacri- fice’’, in particular, of mankind’s propensity toward self-sacrifice. West had inveighed against such self-sacrifice ever since her early years as a radical reporter when in numerous articles for The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Clarion, she exhorted her fellow suffragists to be fighters, not martyrs. More than thirty years later when she was writing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s concerns for humanity’s masochistic inclinations had broadened to embrace both men and women, both the British and the Slavs.
Of the Slavs whom West knows and loves, it is her friend Constantine, ‘‘a true poet’’ who ‘‘knows all about things he knows nothing about’’, who most clearly embodies the Slavic Lebensfreude West celebrates, as well as the ‘‘compulsion to suicide’’ she decries. As chief character in West’s travels, Constantine is both hero and victim, Churchill and Chamberlain. In his failure to control his inclinations toward self-sacrifice, Constantine is also symbol, for the martyring impulse to which he abandons himself is symptomatic of that same malaise that West sees operating in the whole of Europe in the late 1930s as country after country capitulates to Hitler and Mussolini. By painstakingly depicting Constantine’s slow ‘‘dying’’, West warns her readers of the consequences that follow when men as well as nations choose to obey the Sirens’ call. The Siren to whom Constantine listens is his Germanborn wife, a woman whose ‘‘blond, blind will’’ both unmans her husband and spoils West’s second pilgrimage to Yugoslavia.
As a poet of some note and a politician of some notoriety, the voluble Constantine is well-equipped to guide the Britishers through the country he loves, a country for which he ‘‘fought in the Great War very gallantly’’. A polyglot and a polymath, the seemingly irrepressible Constantine is eager to show off his country’s beauties: ‘‘He talks incessantly,’’ West reveals, and ‘‘Nearly all his talk is good . . .’’ The extraordinary aura surrounding this dynamo is well indicated by the fictional name West gives him. The imperial Constantine, it seems, is exceptional in every respect, not least of which in his religious make-up, for Constantine is not only a Serb, that is, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he is also a Jew. As West describes him, ‘‘Of all human beings I have ever met he is the most like Heine: and since Heine was the most Jewish of writers it follows that Constantine is Jew as well as Serb. . . He is by adoption only, yet quite completely, a Serb’’. In the presence of Gerda, however, this exuberant personality begins to erode, and as West records the progress of Constantine’s disintegration, she works to establish the chief propositions of the complex argument she will unfold in her epilogue; for Constantine’s spiritual and physical decline is no isolated phenomenon. The sickness that saps his strength relates both to the cultural and political differences that weaken his country and to one of the principal tenets that, West claims, unites western civilization— the Doctrine of Atonement. As heir to this tradition, the ‘‘Slav Jew with a German wife’’ begins to crumble when he misguidedly lets himself fall victim to the ‘‘age-old hatred of the Slav’’ and of the Jew that in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon finds its most ardent disciple in the person of Gerda.
From entrance to exit, Constantine’s wife is singularly ‘‘disagreeable’’. Even West’s first glimpse of Gerda in the Belgrade train station suggests something of this: ‘‘among the dark hurrying people she stood as if drawing contentment from her own character, from her advantageous difference’’. As a ‘‘true German’’, Gerda is firmly convinced she is one of the ‘‘elect’’, and for this reason she feels herself well-qualified to deliver pronouncements about matters and cultures she understands not at all; but unlike her poet husband, Gerda ‘‘knows [nothing] about things [she] knows nothing about’’. Most of her decrees concern Yugoslavia, for when Gerda discovers West’s love for the country, she resolves to dispel any notion the writer holds that the nation possesses qualities of value. Shortly after being introduced to the British couple, Gerda criticizes West’s ‘‘‘liking for the Serbs’’’ with characteristic tact, ‘‘‘But it is stupid to be like that . . . you cannot like people who are stupid’’’. For Gerda, the ranks of the ‘‘stupid’’ are legion. Slavs, gypsies, Marxists, and Jews—all are stupid and therefore worthy of contempt because their values run counter to those of ‘‘Hitler’s Germany’’. As West later explains to her husband, for true believers like Gerda, ‘‘‘Religion and death are not so important as being a German, nothing must exist except Germanity’’’.
Gerda’s ‘‘contempt for everything Slav and non-German’’ ruthlessly manifests itself in two visits the travellers make to war cemeteries on the same day. The first stop on their agenda, the German memorial at Bitolj, is criticized by West as being ‘‘one of the most monstrous indecencies that has ever been perpetuated.’’ Ostensibly built to honor the German soldiers who died during the First World War, this fortress-like structure ‘‘is the only war cemetery [West has] ever seen that is offensive. . .’’ West has good cause to dread this outing: ‘‘There could be nothing more disagreeable than to accompany Gerda on a visit to this unfortunate symbol of her race. . .’’ Not surprisingly, the excursion is a disaster, for Gerda’s insulting behavior finally causes the amazingly patient Andrews to crack. Pressed by Gerda to explain why the Bitolj memorial is displeasing, Andrews truthfully but rudely responds: ‘‘‘I don’t like it because it pays no sort of respect to the individuals who are buried in it and because it is a tactless reminder of the past to an invaded people.’’’ Gerda’s melodramatic outburst stuns everyone: ‘‘‘Now he has insulted my people! He has insulted my whole people! . . . [T]hink of it, here I am, far from my home, and he insults my blood, the German blood!’’’. Constantine’s response to this ugly scene is equally disturbing, for he mimes his wife’s illogic by explaining Gerda’s behavior through the lie of race hatred: ‘‘‘The Germans are all like this. They are a terrible people’’’.
Shortly after this explosion, West and Andrews become suspicious when Constantine returns from comforting Gerda with a ‘‘beaming’’ countenance and a message that his ‘‘‘very sweet [wife] . . . wills that we all go now to the French war cemetery’’’. The couple’s suspicions are justified, for Gerda’s peace-offering is tainted with venom. West is in fact particularly reluctant to visit this second memorial in Gerda’s company, for this site has always struck the writer as being ‘‘one of the most affecting places in the world’’: ‘‘It lies out on the plains among the flat fields edged with willows and poplars, and it is a forest of flimsy little wooden crosses painted red, white and blue, each with a name or number, and each with its rose tree’’. Predictably, the ‘‘very sweet’’ Gerda sees this memorial differently, through the distorted lens of ‘‘Germanity’’—‘‘‘[T]hink of all these people dying for a lot of Slavs’’’—and even as she utters this remark, Gerda denies not only the heroism of the French and the humanity of the Slavs, but also her own husband’s dignity and selfworth. Gerda’s hatred knows no bounds; to it she will sacrifice Constantine.
The sacrifice would prove less unsettling to witness if Constantine did not voluntarily prepare himself for the slaughter; yet as such episodes amply attest, the ‘‘Slav Jew with a German wife’’ is ‘‘willing to cast away his self-respect, and indeed all he care[s] for, art and philosophy and his country’s life’’ solely in order ‘‘to win the good opinion’’ of a woman who scorns everything he values. Not surprisingly, Constantine’s compromising defense of Gerda takes its toll on his own mental and physical health, as well as on his relations with West and Andrews. Spiritually the patriot is maimed by his wife’s hatred of the Slav and her unswerving veneration of Nazi Germany; yet because Constantine wishes to ‘‘uphold Gerda in her attack on the world, and . . . in her contempt for him’’, he painfully assumes her many prejudices as his own. The paradox of his position becomes particularly clear when Constantine allows himself to fall sway to Gerda’s anti-Semitic influence.
Constantine’s capitulation to Gerda’s ‘‘strange strength’’, however, is no new cultural or historical phenomenon; nor is it peculiar to the Jew. This is in fact the chief lesson that West learns in her journey through Yugoslavia as she comes to understand the far-reaching hegemony of an entity that she summarily labels ‘‘Central Europe.’’ Over and over again in her Balkan travels, West is reminded that the influence of Central Europe—and of its various empires—is ‘‘corrupt’’, and its principal legacy ‘‘a profound malady’’ which effectively cripples its former victims long after they seem to have won their freedom. This lesson is most dramatically impressed upon West when, toward the conclusion of her vacation, she finds herself being interviewed by a Slav university student who deliberately poses before the writer as Viennese.
West is ‘‘appalled’’ that she has been chosen as a subject for research, and she at once tries to steer the student to a different topic: ‘‘I explained that I was a writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose: that the bulk of my writing was scattered through American and British periodicals; that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me. . .’’ Undaunted, the university student queries West about influences on her writing. After mentioning several American and British authors whom she admires, West discerns that the young woman is more interested in the continental tradition that has helped shape her work. The student, however, is dismayed by West’s many references to the French: ‘‘‘[S]urely all these people put together do not equal Goethe?’’’.
At this point the writer discovers that ‘‘the golden-haired girl’’ is not Viennese but actually a Croat. Although revolted by the deception, West recognizes that the student’s embarrassed and ignorant attitude towards her heritage is symptomatic of that same ‘‘malady’’ that affects even Slav patriots like Constantine. Empire has wreaked its ‘‘corrupting’’ influence over the nation as a whole:
It cut off this girl from pride in her own race, which would have been a pity had her race had much less to be proud of than the superb achievement of defending European civilization from extinction by the Turks. It cut her off from enlightenment by that French culture which has the advantage over all others of having begun earlier, branching straight from the Roman stem, and having developed most continuously. What it offered her instead was sparse, was recent. It might fairly be defined as Frederick the Great and Goethe. . . It had left this girl flimsy as a jerry-built house with no foundation deeper than the nineteenth century, when loyalty to her Slav blood and adherence to the main current of European culture would have made her heiress to the immense fortune left by the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. Not only Constantine, but this girl and her family, and many others like them, had made this curious choice.
Despite West’s claim that her literary purpose is never ‘‘[self-]disclosure’’, her account of this interview is revealing; for as West’s political and literary allegiances become increasingly manifest, the reader is allowed to glean precisely why West names Constantine’s wife ‘‘Gerda’’. Although previous passages have suggested West’s general distaste for German literature and her more specific disregard for Goethe’s achievements, this exchange makes these views explicit.
Holding that Goethe’s art is intellectually bankrupt, West is ‘‘grieved’’ to learn that the ‘‘Viennese’’ student cannot even read French: ‘‘[I]t seemed to me that any one of [the French writers I had mentioned—Montaigne, Racine, Voltaire, Hugo, Proust] had as much to say as Goethe, whose philosophy, indeed, boils down to the opinion, ‘Ain’t Nature grand?’’’. For West, the German writer’s reputation is as overinflated as Gerda’s confident belief in her ‘‘advantageous difference,’’ and thus it is natural that West gives the most vocal proponent of ‘‘Germanity’’ she meets during her travels the name of the writer who epitomizes a cultural heritage she regards as shallow. Signifi- cantly, West regards the student’s veneration of Goethe and German literature not simply as a question of aesthetics, but rather as a matter of life and death. As she sums up her reaction to this exasperating encounter: ‘‘Nothing is less true than that men are greedy. Some prefer poverty to wealth, and some even go so far as to prefer death to life. That I was to learn when I returned to England’’.
West begins to understand mankind’s infatuation with death, however, long before her arrival in England. Indeed, at no moment during her stay in Yugoslavia is this celebration of death rendered more graphic to the traveller than when she witnesses the ancient ‘‘rite of the Sheep’s Field’’. West has no idea what to expect when she ventures into the countryside on St. George’s eve in order to watch the annual fertility rites that take place around a ‘‘flat-topped rock’’. The sight which greets West as she approaches this ‘‘uneven’’ monument is ‘‘abominable’’: the rock was ‘‘red-brown and gleaming, for it was entirely covered with . . . blood. . . [A]s we came nearer . . . we had to pick our way among a number of bleeding cocks’ heads’’. West is further repulsed when she sees a gypsy sacrifice a black lamb on this rock in a ritual gesture that she condemns as ‘‘purely shameful’’: ‘‘It was a huge and dirty lie. . . Women do not get children by adding to the normal act of copulation the slaughter of a lamb, the breaking of a jar, the decapitation of a cock . . .’’
West’s response to this gratuitous slaughter is complicated by her recognition that she too is acquainted with this rock: ‘‘I knew this rock well. I had lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretense that pain is the price of any good thing. Here it could be seen how the meaning of the Crucifixion had been hidden from us, though it was written clear’’. Perceiving that this ‘‘hidden’’ doctrine, the ‘‘theory of the Atonement’’, is the ‘‘theological ruse’’ upon which Christianity is based, West argues that such bloody logic ‘‘flouts reason at all points, for it is not possible that a just God should forgive people who are wicked because another person who was good endured agony by being nailed to a cross’’. As West further analyzes the influence of this unwritten creed upon western culture, she strives to show how it is that marriages of love and hate, Constantines and Gerdas, are possible. The Doctrine of Atonement, she reasons, points its legatees in opposing directions: ‘‘We are continually told to range ourselves with both the crucified and the crucifiers, with innocence and guilt, with kind love and cruel hate’’. Given this conflicting instruction, it should scarcely shock that many are lured to the cross, or that the Jewish Constantine, Christian ‘‘by adoption’’, ‘‘bare[s] his throat to Gerda’s knife’’ in a sacrifice suggestive both of the slaughter of the black lamb and of the crucifixion of the agnus dei.
Importantly, West relates Constantine’s ‘‘selfdedication to death’’ not only to Christian doctrine, but also to a pivotal episode in Serbian history, the 1389 Battle of Kossovo in which the Slavs were conquered by the Turks. Slav legend has pictured this defeat as ‘‘holy’’ and ‘‘honourable’’. In a long poem recounting the battle, the Serb leader Prince Lazar is said to have been visited by a divine messenger who appeared to him in the form of a grey falcon. This emissary, however, was ‘‘no falcon, no grey bird, / But . . . the Saint Elijah’’, who asked the czar whether he sought a ‘‘heavenly’’ or an ‘‘earthly kingdom’’. According to West, Lazar chose wrongly, for no ‘‘man can procure his own salvation by refusing to save millions of people from miserable slavery’’. When West visits the scene of this battle, she reflects at some length upon the ‘‘disagreeable’’ truth embodied in the legend of the grey falcon, for she recognizes that the poem speaks directly to her own ‘‘gift for martyrdom’’. As she continues her meditation, West discerns that Prince Lazar is ‘‘of a pattern familiar to [her], that he was one of that company loving honour and freedom and harmony’’, a company that for West includes many notable English liberals of the 1930s. Thinking of these English Lazars, West begins to weep when she asks herself ‘‘‘if it be a law that those who are born into this world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat,’’’ for if this is true, ‘‘‘then the whole world is a vast Kossovo . . . where people who love go out to fight people who hate’’’. Having already observed Constantine’s resemblance to the black lamb, West now sees that the ‘‘grey falcon had visited him also’’. Like Prince Lazar, Constantine has made a ‘‘curious choice’’—to ‘‘proB cure salvation’’ by ‘‘offer[ing] his loving heart’’ to Gerda’s abundant hate.
In their private talks with one another, West and Andrews agree that Gerda is ‘‘‘an international phenomenon.’’’ However, the couple conclude ‘‘‘that there may be enough Gerdas concentrated in separate areas to make her in effect a nationalist phenomenon. She probably exists,’’’ Andrews asserts, ‘‘‘in sufficient numbers in Central Europe to make it an aggressive, and, indeed, irresistible power’’’. Although West and Andrews hold that her empire ‘‘‘cannot last long . . . while it lasts it will be terrible.’’’ By the time West writes her epilogue, she knows firsthand how ‘‘terrible’’ ‘‘Gerda’s empire’’ is. World War II is under way, and bombs are falling in London. The war began with an England unprepared for battle, an England that, under Chamberlain’s misguidance, was experiencing not merely ‘‘a white winter of the spirit’’, but rather the sleep of death. According to West, the government’s treachery in Munich awoke the sleeping nation, for many then realized that unless they could rid themselves of Chamberlain, the populace would be sacrificed to ‘‘Gerda’s empire’’.
When Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1941, West did not know what the outcome of the war would be. She did know, however, the fate that had met Yugoslavia, for when its leaders began to negotiate with the Nazis, the people staged a nearly bloodless coup and installed a new king who led the willing populace into a doomed battle against the Axis powers. Although thousands died during this conflict, West judges this slaughter as worthy. The defeat, she maintains, ironically proved to be one of the country’s ‘‘great victories’’, for ‘‘the unexpected resistance . . . diverted the German forces in Bulgaria’’ and delayed the Russian campaign. West’s depiction of this ‘‘victory’’ is no less ‘‘paradoxical’’ for her assertion that as the Slavs readied for battle, they ‘‘often repeated the poem of the Tsar Lazar and the grey falcon’’. The Slavs who participated in this twentieth-century Kossovo, however, differed from their fourteenth-century counterparts: ‘‘[T]here was no one who would have bought his personal salvation by consenting to the subjugation of his people. . . It was their resistance, not their defeat, which appeared to them as the sacred element in their ordeal’’.
Jane Marcus has rightly called West ‘‘a propagandist of genius’’, and nowhere is this more true than in the epilogue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which stands as one of the most inspired and inspiring pieces of war propaganda ever written. This was, after all, a book West claims she ‘‘ha[d] to write’’. As the passages I have quoted suggest, West sees her own mission as grey falcon as both elegiac and hortatory; for as she celebrates the Slavs, who in World War II ‘‘never capitulated’’ although they were ‘‘destroyed’’, West seeks to rally her own people to follow the heroic example of the Yugoslavian army—to resist the combined forces of ‘‘Gerda’s empire’’ even if resistance means death. As West declares, ‘‘it is sometimes necessary to fight for one’s life’’. In this extended battle cry to the English, West makes clear that the defeat the Slavs suffered under King Peter Karageorgevitch II was, to borrow from the legend of the grey falcon, both ‘‘honourable’’ and ‘‘holy’’. For West, the sacrifice was all the more poignant because ‘‘[t]his was a state and a people that, above all others, wanted to live’’. The Slavs’ decision to die fighting was not the masochistic submission of a Constantine to a Gerda. On the contrary, the doomed populace recognized their invaders for what they were, but unlike Constantine, they chose not to offer themselves passively ‘‘to the service of hate’’.
Both Victoria Glendinning, the authorized biographer, and Jane Marcus, the editor of West’s correspondence, have recently called attention to an early review in which ‘‘the young Rebecca’’ addresses the slippery problem of women and genius:
Women only differ from men in that they have not been geniuses; but that is because they have lived virtuous and normal lives. And genius is the abnormal justifying itself. Men who are conscious of deep imperfections, of madness and sinfulness and spiritual failure, know that they are condemned by the laws of life, and to escape that condemnation they make themselves one with life by some magnificent act of creation.
In many respects, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon may be said to represent ‘‘the abnormal justifying itself’’. After all, West opens her ‘‘odd masterpiece’’ by admitting that she wanted her husband to journey with her to Yugoslavia because she felt unable ‘‘to justify’’ her belief in ‘‘a land where everything was comprehensible’’. Given West’s reading of Yugoslavian history and her interpretation of European politics in the 1930s, the reader well understands why West dedicates what is undoubtedly her most ‘‘magnificent act of creation’’ ‘‘To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved’’, and why she includes in her epilogue a prayer that begins, ‘‘‘Let me behave like a Serb’’’. For Rebecca West, there could be no nobler fate.
Source: Clare Colquitt, ‘‘A Call to Arms: Rebecca West’s Assault on the Limits of ‘Gerda’s Empire’ in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,’’ in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, May 1986, pp. 77–92.