Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Fox in the Attic

Richard Hughes is author one of the most compelling (and mysterious) books about children ever written: "A High Wind in Jamaica" where a group of children are captured by pirates and turn out to be radically more amoral than the pirates!

Such an understanding of childhood as beyond innocence and experience weaves through Hughes' 'The Fox in the Attic' - the first volume of an uncompleted trilogy (as he died only 50 pages into the third volume).

The trilogy is Hughes seeking to account for the rise of Hitler and the failure of peace to take root after the breaking carnage that was the First World War. He does this through a complex tale that incorporates both fictional and factual figures (including Hitler himself).

His central character is Augustine, a young English men, inheritor of a crumbling estate in Wales, who is breaking out after a time as a virtual recluse. He carries all the prejudices of his class and of a skin deep acquaintance with modernity. Through the book, he interacts with his sister, married to a Liberal politician and with his German cousins, who live in Bavaria, and whom he visits during Hitler's failed Munich putsch - which is beautifully described by Hughes replete with a defeated Hitler taking shelter in the attic of a supporter before being arrested.

One theme is how those who came of age in war (and assumed it as natural) and yet were too young to fight were left with a paradoxical mixture of relief and guilt (in England) and primarily of guilt in Germany. If the latter was betrayed, its honour must be restored (and its greatness), and nothing will assuage the guilt of not forestalling that betrayal other than through violence.

But it most deeply moving (and insightful) when describing the failure of Augustine to understand his German relations.Their differences can only be superficial - how can such attitudes (like their Catholicism) survive modernity and why are they not more like him? It is an extraordinary account of a young man's educated ignorance and egotism and in it we see mirrored our own inability to engage in empathy, to see anything or anyone, from their own point of view.

One of the motifs is of not hearing - continuously characters half hear or half read or are distracted - we like to think that we are not like this but, in truth, I suspect these monologues, passing each other by, is what counts for much of our conversation, sadly.

A second, related motif, is the confidence we have in our own knowledge and judgement (even if the evidence for them is minimal or suspect). So, for example, in Hughes description of the putsch he shows how people misread Hitler. This is not hindsight but a stark account of the myriad attitudes that prevented people taking Hitler seriously - of genuinely seeing him.

Both feed into a realization of our current dilemma - that we neither see nor hear the other - we simply trade half formed and often prejudicial observations. I was reading this week the accounts of the US Vice-Presidential debates where it appears that the only thing that matters is who appeared to have won. The first thing that goes missing here is truth - and without truth than can be no genuine advance.

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