Here Be Deplorables

A few years ago I was at a wedding in Delaware when the father of the bride, on learning that I lived in Austin, asked whether Texans still wore spurs and had guns holstered at their hips. I assumed he was joking: this successful businessman had to know that Texas is home to NASA, Dell computers and the oil-metropolis of Houston. But he was sincere. I assured him that in twenty-first-century Texas, nobody wear spurs to the mall. Perhaps, however, I got off lightly. As Lawrence Wright observes in God Save Texas: A journey into the future of America, “One can’t be from Texas and fail to have encountered the liberal loathing for Texanness, even among people who have never visited the place”. This is true also of some residents. I know people who arrived in Austin years ago, but have never ventured outside the city limits, through fear of what lies beyond: here be deplorables.

Tradition and the Individual Tyrant

The dictators of the 20th century were firm believers in the power of the written word. Lenin had read the theories of Marx and the Russian radical tradition but it was Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done? that caused him to abandon chess and other "distractions" to dedicate himself full time to revolution. Stalin was so impressed by Alexander Kazbegi's novel The Patricide that he renamed himself "Koba" after its central character, and used the pseudonym throughout his early career.

Transformed by these encounters, and obsessed by questions of ideological purity, Lenin, Stalin et al. naturally demanded control over the printing presses once in power. And they also anticipated that their own deep thoughts, captured in print, would mould the minds of their subjects.

Massive print runs and critical acclaim for dictator books were de rigeur regardless of ideology or the particulars of each dictator's personality cult. Mein Kampf is the most notorious and Quotations from Chairman Mao was the most widely distributed, but these works--sacred texts for regimes run by man-gods--represent the tip of a very deep literary iceberg. From the obscure Stalinist Albanian despot Enver Hoxha to the theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini, the tyrants of the 20th century offered up their bibliographies as evidence of their genius.

Yet most (if not all) dictators realized that their subjects could not live by their word alone. When it came to affective forms of writing, others would have to write the novels, screenplays and poems that stir the emotions. Stalin put it best: writers were "engineers of the human soul," reworking the inner lives of the masses for the new era. Let the dictator be the super genius of theory, but leave the inspirational tear-jerkers about tractors and concrete-pouring to the professionals.

But while many dictators did restrict themselves to grandiose works of "theory" or collections of speeches, some felt compelled to write novels, poetry and plays themselves.  Largely forgotten today, these writings represent a strange literary detritus of the 20th century that, on occasion, provide insight into the inner lives of their (would be) all-powerful authors.

Death Sentences

 Daniel Kalder spent almost a decade reading the books of history's worst tyrants so that you wouldn't have to. Here he selects some of his favorite sentences written by dictators.

Colonel Gaddafi: "Freedom of expression is the right of every natural person, even if a person chooses to express his or her insanity."  

Many dictators proclaimed their support for freedom of expression. Of course, they were only interested in their own freedom; anyone who deviated from the norms they established would be punished (this is not an attitude restricted to dictators, needless to say). Gaddafi's articulation of the principle, from his infamous Green Book,  is masterful--especially when read as a statement of personal intent.

Mao Zedong: "It [materialist dialectics] holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes. In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis."

This gobbledygook comes from Chairman Mao's excrementally poor work of "philosophy" On Contradiction. It was reprinted in Quotations from Chairman Mao, the most widely circulated book in history after The Bible.  The mania surrounding Mao's quotations was such that Chinese newspapers attributed miracles to them. Reciting Mao could even heal the blind, according to state propaganda. I read On Contradiction while suffering from a fever. It made me feel worse.

Saddam Hussein: "Even an animal respects a man's desire, if it wants to copulate with him."

An Interview with Portugal's Expresso Newspaper

Was there anything in Salazar’s writings that impressed/surprised you?

I wouldn't say that anything "impressed" me, beyond that one of his books, Doctrine and Action, was published in the UK by Faber in 1939, the same house that published my first two books 67 and 69 years later respectively--so he and I share something in common.

In the 1930s TS Eliot, the great Anglo-American poet was on Faber's board of directors; he was an arch conservative and was interested in Salazar's Portugal. Meanwhile, books by dictators were fashionable in the late '30s: Mussolini's memoir, Hitler's Mein Kampf, and collections of Stalin's writings were published in mass market editions in the US & UK and beyond. Faber were clearly trying to grab a piece of the action with a volume of Salazar's political thought. It can't have sold very well, however, because sequels were not forthcoming.     

Much of what Salazar wrote passed through me leaving no trace. It was like walking through mist. I can easily remember some of the worst bits of Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, Mao... even Franco. Were you to hand me an edition of the writings of any one of those dictators right now I could quickly find you something outrageous, shocking or radically tedious. But Salazar's books lacked the extremism or outright terribleness of his contemporaries' efforts. They were quiet and restrained. They are forgettable.
I was pleasantly surprised by the brevity of his anthology of aphorisms, Salazar, Prime Minister of Portugal Says. I did not suffer much in reading it. The typeface was inoffensive.  It was much less tedious than "Quotations of Chairman Mao " which also collects the sayings of a dictator, and which sold many more copies.

How does Salazar rank in the dictator’s dullness/boredom world ranking?

Podcast: The Killer's Canon

There are a lot of very good, very long books out there: Middlemarch, War and Peace, Don Quixote, the Neapolitan Novels. And then there are the very long books you probably won’t ever want to read, like Leonid Brezhnev’s memoirs, Saddam Hussein’s hackneyed romance novels, or the Kim family’s film theory. This show is about that kind of very long book, and the man who decided to read all of them: Daniel Kalder, who joins us on the show to talk about his journey through The Infernal Library and what these books tell us about the dictatorial soul, assuming there is one.

Check out the podcast with The American Scholar.

10 Things I Learned From Reading Terrible Books Written by Dictators

The 20th century’s most infamous dictators were also authors, often prolific ones, complementing the atrocities they visited on humanity with crimes against literature. For his new book, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, Daniel Kalder read the significant works from this benighted subgenre, from the vast theoretical corpus of Lenin, through Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mussolini’s My Life, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Here's what he found.

From Mussolini to Mao, many are the dictators who have inflicted atrocious books upon their subjects. Yet though these tomes are revered as sacred texts while their authors are alive, they vanish almost as soon as their regimes fall. Fascinated by this phenomenon, I set out to read my way through the dictatorial canon. I wanted to know what was really inside these diabolical books, and to understand what the poetry, political theory and (yes) romance novels of the world's worst tyrants could tell us about their authors and the relationship between the word and the world. The fruit of my suffering is called The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. And here, for your reading pleasure, are just a few of the things I uncovered on my odyssey through the long dark night of the dictatorial soul.

1. Hitler knew he wasn't any good as a writer. Although generally not known for his modesty, and despite the fact that he forced two volumes of Mein Kampf on the German people (including a Braille edition and a luxury "wedding edition" for newlyweds), the Fuhrer seems to have suffered self-doubt regarding the quality of his magnum opus. Years after Mein Kampf was published he confessed to his lawyer that he would not have written the book had he known he would become chancellor. He also admitted, with startling frankness: "Ich bin kein Schriftsteller"-- "I am not a writer."

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?