The Books: “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia ” (Rebecca West)

And here is my next excerpt.

My history bookshelf.

41ljdHuZAZL.jpgNext book on the shelf is the great Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Classics), by Rebecca West. A 1200 page masterpiece. Is it possible that every page contains interest, horror, great writing, insight? Yes, it is. Her accomplishment has never been matched. It’s one of the most important books of the 20th century. I don’t know how many people have even read this book. It’s just one of those massive tomes that sit in Barnes and Noble, and … people probably say, “I should read that some day …” but look at the length of it! That was my response to it for years. I read everything else about the Balkans I could get my hands on … and avoided Black Lamb and Grey Falcon because it’s just so HUGE. But reading about the Balkans without reading her book is ridiculous – because every single writer references her work. (Every writer worth his or her salt, I mean.) If you don’t give her the props for her accomplishment, and you think you can re-invent the wheel, then you’re an idiot. Once you read the thing, you realize just what the hell the big deal is about her book. And why people who HAVE read it talk about it in the way that they do. I finally just picked the damn thing up, and started. And it’s not a lie – once I started, I couldn’t stop. It took me months to finish it – but there isn’t one boring passage, there isn’t one sentence of dry or boring writing. One cannot fully understand the former Yugoslavia, and that entire area, without reading this book. The other thing that makes it not just a good and informative book but a great book – is how prophetic it turned out to be. Rebecca West took her journey in the late 30s, a terrible terrible time in Europe. But oh – even more terrible times were to come, especially for those in the Balkans. She predicts it all. She predicts it all.

I’m going to excerpt one of the sections that truly blew me away. She and her husband are at a place called Sheep’s Field, in Macedonia. They go out into this field where a fertility ritual is taking place – There’s a specific rock where it happens – a sheep is slaughtered so that a barren woman can get pregnant. Sheeps are brought forth, their throats are cut, blood spurts out … and Rebecca West goes OFF on this.

This is why her book is brilliant. There are more historical sections than this one – it’s a history book, after all – and there’s a hell of a lot of history in the Balkans – but here is where she gets uber. Here is where she gets global, rises up above historical concerns, or timelines, and looks at humanity. The human race. She’s pissed.

Passages like this are why other writers like Robert Kaplan spend their lives trying to write a book even HALF as good as this one. (Rebecca West is Kaplan’s idol).

The excerpt is long. She starts slowly, and then builds to an indictment of – well, you’ll see. Pretty much everything. The world was going MAD then. And she SEES it. She sees the madness EVERYWHERE. And Rebecca West is the opposite of non-judgmental. She judges. If that makes you uncomfortable, and if you take a stance of “all cultures are equal, who am I to judge?” then this book would be difficult for you. She pulls no punches. (She LOVES Yugoslavia, though – obviously – it is a place that haunted her dreams … this is the book she was meant to write, and she knew it.) Context is decisive here. Europe was being overrun by a savage madman. Loss of intelligent thought – mindless nationalism and zealotry … It was coming. The apocalypse was coming. This is what she sees on the fertility rock in the field in Macedonia. And yet … and yet … she also writes: “It is not possible to kill goodness.” A crazy time. She had a deep hatred for anything “mindless” … because she saw what that mindlessness was doing to the great culture of Germany. She prized rationality in a time when no one was rational. Hence – her fury at all religions, at anything designed to take away man’s sense of AGENCY in his own destiny. This was one of the ongoing things she kept coming back to – in her travels through the Balkans. A region where, so often, passion ruled the day, ancient gripes, ancient hatreds … mindless, and seemingly inevitable. There are many people who probably couldn’t even get through the following section without little trap doors in their brains closing left and right … because they do not want to deal wtih the implications. People like that are part of the problem, in my opinion. I’m not even saying that Rebecca West is right here – it’s her OPINION – but there are those who can’t even bear to look at such opinions, because it feels like an attack on them personally. Again: people who respond to differences of opinion like that are not just part of the problem – they ARE the problem.

Rebecca West hates those who “hate reason”.


From Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia , by Rebecca West.

The man with the knife and his friends gathered round us and told us of the virtue of the place. Many women had got children by giving cocks and lambs to the rock. One woman who had come all the way from Prilep had had a child after she had lived in a barren marriage for fifteen years. But it was foolish to doubt the efficacy of making sacrifices to the rock, for people would not go on doing it if it were not efficacious, and they had done it for a very long time, for hundreds of years. They should, of course, have said thousands. Their proof, which should have been valid if man were a reasonable animal, was therefore stronger than they supposed. The men who told us these things were good animals, with bright eyes and long limbs and good bones. They were also intelligent. Their remarks on the stone were based on insufficient information but were logical enough, and when they went on to talk of matters less mysterious than fertility, such as their experiences in the last war, they showed considerable good sense and powers of observation. One spoke a little English, another spoke fluent French, two or three seemed to follow skilled tradees. But what they were doing at the rock was abominable.

All I had seen the night before was not discerniable to humanity. I had not found anything being done which was likely to give children to women who were barren for physiological reasons; but I had seen ritual actions that were likely to evoke the power of love, which is not irrelevant to these matters. When the Moslem women in the Tekiya put out their arms to embrace the black stone and dropped their heads to kiss it, they made a gesture of the same nature, though not so absolute, as that which men and women make when they bend down to kiss the cloth which lies instead of Christ on the holy table at Easter. Such a gesture is an imitation by the body of the gesture made by the soul in loving. It says, “I will pour myself in devotion to you, I will empty myself without hoping for return, and I can do this serenely, for I know that as I empty myself I shall be filled again.” Human beings cannot remind themselves too often that they are capable of performing this miracle, the existence of which cannot be proved by logic.

The women who lay in ritual sleep on the tomb of St. George were working as fitly as the women in the Tekiya for the health of their souls. We prune our minds to fit them into the garden of ordinary life. We exclude from our consciousness all sorts of knowledge that we have acquired because it might distract us from the problems we must solve if we are to go on living, and it might even make us doubt whether it is prudent to live. But sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time, and we must lift this ban. Then we must let our full knowledge invade our minds, and let our memories of birth crawl like serpents from their cave and our foreknowledge of death spread its wide shadow. There is nothing shameful for women whose senses have been sharpened by the grief of barrenness to lie down on the tomb of one whose life was visible marvel and explore the invisible marvels of their own nature. Their ritual sleep was wholesome as common sleep.

But the rite of the Sheep’s Field was purely shameful. It was a huge and dirty lie. There is a possibility that barrenness due to the mind could be aided by a rite that evoked love and broke down peevish desires to be separate and alone, or that animated a fatigued nature by refreshment from its hidden sources. But this could do nothing that it promised. 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, the stretching of wool through blood and grease. If there was a woman whose womb could be unsealed by witnessing a petty and pointless act of violence, by seeing a jet of blood fall from a lamb’s throat on a rock wet with stale and stinking blood, her fertility would be the reverse of motherhood, she would have children for the purpose of hating them.

The rite made its false claims not out of delusion: it was a conscious cheat. Those who had invented it and maintained it through the ages were actuated by a beastly retrogression, they wanted again to enjoy the dawn of nastiness as it had first broken over their infant minds. They wanted to put their hands on something weaker than themselves and prod its mechanism to funny tricks by the use of pain, to smash what was whole, to puddle in the warm stickiness of their own secretions. Hence the slaughter of the lambs and the cocks, the breaking of the jars, the mess of blood and grease. But the intelligence of man is sound enough to have noticed that if the fully grown try to go back to the infantile they cannot succeed, but must go on to imbecility and mania. Therefore those who wish to indulge in this make the huge pretension for it that it is a secret way of achieving what is good, and that there is a mysterious process at work in the world which has no relation to causality. This process is a penny-in-the-slot machine of idiot character. If one drops in a piece of suffering, a blessing pops out at once. If one squares death by offering him a sacrifice, one will be allowed some share in life for which one has hungered. Thus those who had a letch for violence could gratify it and at the same time gain authority over those who loved peace and life. It could be seen that the slaughterer of the lamb was very well pleased with his importance, and some of the Moslems round the rock smugly hastened to tell us that they had performed his office some time during the night. It was disgusting to think that they enjoyed any prestige, for though they were performing an action that was thousands of years old and sanctified by custom, there was about them a horrid air of whimsicality, or caprice, of instability. For all their pretensions they were doing what was not necessary. They had achieved unsurpassably what Monsieur Andre Fide licks his lips over, l’acte gratuit. This is the very converse of goodness, which must be stable, since it is a response to the fundamental needs of mankind, which themselves are stable.

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 pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing. Here it could be seen how the meaning of the Crucifixion had been hideen from us, though it was written clear. A supremely good man was born on earth, a man who was without cruelty, who could have taught mankind to live in perpetual happiness; and because we are infatuated with the idea of sacrifice, of shedding innocent blood to secure innocent advantages, we found nothing better to do with this passport to deliverance than destroy him. There is that in the universe, half inside and half outside our minds, which is wholly adorable; and this it was that men killed when they crucified Jesus Christ. Our shame would be absolute, were it not that the crime we intended cannot in fact be committed. It is not possible to kill goodness. There is always more of it, it does not take flight from our accursed earth, it perpetually asks us to take what we need from it.

Of that lesson we had profited hardly at all, because resourcefulness rises from the rock like the stench of its blood. The cruel spirit which informed it saved itself by a ruse, a theological ruse. So successful has this ruse been that the rock disgusted me with the added loathsomeness of familiarity, as the drunkenness of a man known to be a habitual alcoholic is more offensive than the accidental excess of a temperate man. Its rite, under various disguises, had been recommended to me since my infancy by various religious bodies, by Roman Catholocism, by Anglicanism, by Methodism, by the Salvation Army. Since its earliest days Christianity has been compelled to seem its opposite. This stone, the knife, the filth, the blood, is what many people desire beyond anything else, and they fight to obtain it. There was an enemy of love and Christ called Saul of Taurus who could not abide this demonistration by the cross that man was vile and cruelty the essence of his vileness, and for that reason persecuted Christians till his honesty could not tolerate his denial of the adorability of goodness and showed it to him under the seeming of a bright light. But the belief of his heart was in force and in pain, and his mind, which was very Jewish in its refusal to accept defeat, tinkered incessantly with the gospel till it found a way of making it appear as if cruelty was the way to salvation. He developed a theory of the Atonement which was pure nonsense yet had the power to convince, for it was spoken quickly in tones of genius to excited people who listened trustfully, knowing the innocence of Christ and assuming that everything said in his name was innocent also, and being tainted, as all human beings are, with the same love of blood as the speaker. This monstrous theory supposes that God was angry with man for his sins and that He wanted to punish him for these, not in any way that migh tlead to his reformation, but simply by inflicting pain on him; and that He allowed Christ to suffer this pain instead of man as if he had not committed these sins. This theory 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.

There was a gap in the theory which could never be bridged, but those who loved cruelty tried from then on to bridge it. There were many lesser ones of this sort, and one great one, Augustine, so curiously called a saint. Genius was his, and warm blood, but his heart was polluted like the rock. He loved love with the hopeless infatuation of one who, like King Lear, cannot love. His mother and he were like dam and cub in the strength of their natural relationship, but his appetite for nastiness made him sully it. Throughout their lives they achieved from time to time an extreme sweetness, but the putrescence gained, and at her death, he felt an exaltation as mean as anything recorded in literature, because she died in Italy, far from her African home, and therefore could not be buried, as she had desired, beside her beloved husband. His relationship with God covered as wide a range. He wanted a supreme being sterilized of all that his genius recognized as foul, but he did not want him to be positively good. He hated all the milder aspects of virtue, he despised the spirit that lets all things flower according to their being, for he liked too well to draw the knife across the lamb’s throat. In his desire to establish cruelty in a part of holiness he tried to find a logical basis for the abominable doctrine of St. Paul, and he adopted a theory that the Devil had acquired a rightful power over men because of his sins, an dlost it because he forfeited all rights by crucifying Christ, who was sinless. This went far to proving the universe to be as nonsensical as the devotees of the rock wished it to be. It presents us with a Devil who was apparently to a certain degree, at least respectable enough to be allowed by God to exercise his legal rights in the universe, until he killed Christ. This robs the wickedness of man of its ultimate importance. His sins were evidently not so bad, just what you might expect from the subjects of a disorderly native prince. It was perhaps that which recommended the theory to Augustine, who knew he was wicked.

It was certainly that which recommended Augustine’s theory to Martin Luther, who was not even like the rock, who was the rock, with the sullied grass, the cocks’ heads, the grease, the stinking blood. He was the ugliest of the great, a hog magnified and with speech. His only virtue was the virtue of the wild boar; he was courageous. But all other merits he lacked, and strove to muddy life into a sty with his ill opinion of it. He howled against man’s gift of reason, and in one of his sermons he cried out to his hearers to throw shit in her face, because she was the Devil’s whore, rotten with itch and leprosy, who ought to be kept in the privy. He hated reason for a cause: because it exposed the idiocy of Augustine’s theory of Atonement, which was dear to him in its bloody violence, which was dear to him because it substituted joy in murder for remorse at the murder of goodness. His honesty blurted out that there was no sense whatsoever in the idea of God’s acceptance of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for man, but all the same he smacked his lips over it, it was good, it was gorgeous, it was eternal life. Because of him Protestantism has bleated ever since of the blood of the lamb, though not more loudly than Roman Catholicism.

So there has been daily won a victory for evil, since so many of the pious give divine honours to the cruelty which Christ came to earth to expose. If God were angry with man and wanted to punish him, and then let him go scot-free because he derived such pleasure from the sufferings of Christ, then the men who inflicted these sufferings must be the instruments of our salvation, the procurers of God’s pleasures; they are at least as high as the angels. The grinning and consequential man standing on the rock with a stained knife in his grubby hand is made a personage necessary to the spiritual world; and because cruelty was built into us in our mothers’ wombs we are glad of this, while at the same time everything in us that approves of kindness and can love knows that it is an obscene lie. So it has happened that all people who have not been perverted by the West into caring for nothing but machine-made articles (among which a Church designed to be primarily a social organization can fairly be classed) have found Christianity a torturing irritation, since it offers both the good and the evil in us the most supreme satisfaction imaginable and threatens them with the most final frustration.

We are continually told to range ourselves with both the crucified and the crucifiers, with innocence and guilt, with kind love and cruel hate. Our breasts echo for ever with the cries, “In murdering goodness we sinned” and “By murdering goodness we were saved.” “The lamb is innocent and must not be killed”, “The dead lamb brings us to salvation,” so we live in chaos. This state is the less likely to be relieved because those who defend the rock are too cunning to commit their case to terms that could be grasped and disputed. Though the doctrine of the Atonement profoundly affects most public and private devotions, it has never yet been defined in any creed or by any general Council of the Churches.

Nearly all writers dip their pens in inkwells tainted with this beastliness. Shakespeare was obsessed by it. He was fully aware of the horror of this rock, but he yielded to its authority. He believed that the rite was in accord with reality, which he thought to be perverse in character. He recognized the adorability of goodness, in its simplicity and in its finer shades, as in worsted kingliness or a magician’s age. But there filters into his work from the depths of his nature a nostalgia for infantile nastiness, a love of groping for trout in the peculiar rivers of the body, a letch for cruelty which hardly took pleasure in it, but longed sickly for consummation with the disgusting and destructive but just moment, as martyrs long for their doom. He who perfectly understood the nature of love, who knew that “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove,” felt under an obligation to castrate it by smearing the sexual function which is the means of bringing together most lovers in the world, be they husbands and wives or parents and children. His respect for the rock forced him to write King Lear and take up all lambs of the herd one by one and draw his knife across their throats. All kinds of love are in that play presented as worthless: the love of parent for child, of child for parent, of married people and illicit lovers, all are impotent or bestial. But at the end the part of Shakespeare that was a grown man cries out that there is no health in the world save through love, that without it life is madness and death. It is not to the credit of mankind that the supreme work of art produced by Western civilization should do nothing more than embody obsession with this rock and revolt against it. Since we have travelled thus far from the speechless and thoughtless roots of our stock we should have travelled further. There must be something vile in us to make us linger, age after age, in this insanitary spot.

But some were not with us at the rock, but with the sunglight which the stench only so faintly disturbed, which shone inviolate above the mountains. That is the special value of Mozart. It is not that he was kind. When he wanted a lamb for food it had to die. But in all his music there is no phrase which consented to anything so lacking in precision at this ritual slaughter, so irrelevant to its professed purpose as this assault on infertility, nor does he ever concur in the belief that the disagreeable is somehow of magical efficacy. He believes that evil works nothing but mischief; otherwise it would not be evil. “Psst! Psst!” says Leporello, beckoning the masked strangers in the garden, and bidding them to a ball; but since wickness is the host it is not ball but an occasion for rape and bloodsheed. After Don Juan is dead the characters of the play who are good, be it in solemnity or in lightness, gather together in a nightingale burst of song, because the departure of cruelty allows their goodness to act as it must according to its own sweet process. The same precision, the same refusal to be humbugged by the hypocritical claims of cruelty, account for the value of Jane Austen’s work, which is so much greater than can be accounted for by its apparent content. But suavity of style is not the secret, for William Blake is rough. His rejection of the rock took another form, he searched his mind for belief in its fraud like a terrified woman feeling her breast for a cancer, he gave himself up to prophetic fury that his mind might find its way back to the undefiled sources of its knowledge of goodness.

Here on the Sheep’s Field it could be seen where the cleavage lies that can be apprehended to run through art and life: on one side are the people who are accomplices of the rock and on the other those who are its enemy. It appeared also where the cleavage lay in our human nature which makes us broken and futile. A part of us is enamored of the rock and tells us that we should not reject it, that it is solemn and mystical and only the shallow deny the value of sacrifice. Because here a perfect myth had been found for a fundamental but foul disposition of the mind, we were all on an equality with the haggard and grimy peasant, his neckerchief loose about a goitre, who now slouched to the rock, the very man to attend a nocturnal rite late the next morning, and held up a twitching lamb to the fezed executioner, who was scrambling consequentially to the squalid summit.

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2 Responses to The Books: “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia ” (Rebecca West)

  1. Ken says:

    Powerful. Your comment about trapdoors is well taken, too. Being an old RC mobster from five days before there was dirt, I have a higher opinion of Augustine than the author does. So my own reaction to the passage was…interesting.

  2. red says:

    Yup. You just can’t go at these difficult subjects with trap doors in place. If you have such rock-solid beliefs that you can’t even look at the opposing side, or another view of a topic – then (in my opinion) your faith is a house of cards. It’s too fragile to even be worth anything.

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