BODYBUILDING AND NATION-BUILDING

Tuesday 27 March 2012, 19:27

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

At first sight the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and the search for physical and mental fitness in the extreme contortions of modern Yoga seem to have absolutely nothing in common.

But curiously they do.

Both the terrible structural problems and distortions that underly Iraqi society today, and the strange, contorted poses that millions of people perform every day in things like Bikram's Hot Yoga, actually come from the fevered imagination of the British ruling class one hundred years ago.

As they felt Britain's power declining they wanted desperately to go back into the past and create a purer and more innocent world, uncorrupted by the messiness of the modern industrial world - a new Eden forged both by strengthening and purifying the human body and by inventing new model countries round the world.

And we are still suffering from the consequences of that terrible nostalgia.

At the end of the nineteenth century a fanatical craze for physical fitness swept through Britain. Millions of men and women took up gymnastics, body building and other physical exercises.

Such a thing had never happened before - and it was given a name - Physical Culture.

The craze had an almost religious intensity because those who promoted it said that it was the only way to prevent the British nation - and its Empire - from collapsing. Behind this was a powerful belief that the modern world of the 1890s - the teeming cities with their slums and giant factories - was leading to a "physical degeneracy" in millions of people.

It was a fear that had started with the elite who ran Britain's public schools. Matthew Arnold warned of "the strange disease of modern life" with its "sick hurry" and "divided aims". Out of that came a movement called "Muscular Christianity" which wanted to recreate the kind of heroic human being that existed before industry and the modern world came along and corroded everything.

It was a vision of a restored physical and moral perfection in the young men who were going to run the empire. And it involved doing lots of exercises in new things called Gymnasiums. Then liberal reformers got worried about the working classes - convinced that the slums were leading to a "physical degeneracy" . So they persuaded lots more people to do exercises.

Then a figure rose up who united all of this dramatically into a mass movement. He was called Eugen Sandow.

Sandow came from Prussia, he started as a circus and music-hall performer. But then in the late 1890s he invented something he called "body-building". It caused a sensation throughout Europe and America - and he became a massive celebrity because he was seen as the leader of a crusade of Physical Culture that was going to stop the degeneracy that was plaguing Britain.

Here is some film shot by Thomas Edison - showing Sandow in action.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Sandow said that building the perfect body was a way of reconnecting with a pre-industrial time of virile physical perfection. He was very good at PR - and he told a story of how he had gone with his father to see the Greek and Roman statues in Italy. He asked his father why there were no more such men?

His father replied that in those days the rule of the survival of the strongest had not yet been corroded by the dangerous, cushioning effects of "civilisation". There and then, Sandow said, he resolved to lift from himself - and the world - "the stigma of weakness".

And to do that you had to "build" your body to look like this

Sandow also started a magazine called Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture - to promote what he called The Gospel of Strength. It became the centre of a worldwide movement that incorporated bodybuilding with all sorts of physical exercises.

It was the start of the modern idea of fitness - and at its heart was an almost spiritual vision of restoring a lost wholeness to both human beings and to the world. The American promoter of Physical Culture, Bernarr Macfaddden wrote in 1904

"Our ancestors were strong, virile and conquering because they lived close to Nature and so absorbed her inexhaustible vitality. But we are losing our inherited vitality, slowly perhaps, but none the less surely."

In 1905 Sandow set up "The Empire and Muscle Competition", and then went off on a tour of the world. When he arrived in British India he became a sensation - thousands came to see him in his giant tent.

He had arrived in India at a time of rising tension. There were growing protests against Britain's rule, and Sandow's gospel of strength now began to get mixed up with another ideology - Indian nationalism. In the next twenty years, as Britain's hold over India weakened, the culture of physical fitness that Sandow had brought to the country would re-emerge in a strange mutated form as a way of fighting against British rule.

And in a further mutation this would lead to what we now know as modern Power Yoga.

After the First World War the territories of the old Ottoman Empire were divided up amongst the European powers, and Britain got three provinces in Arabia that would become the new country of Iraq.

Britain had created new countries within its Empire before and it had always started by surveying in extraordinary detail the societies they were ruling - compiling censuses and records of property boundaries and a mass of other details. Out of all that they then built a new administrative system.

It wasn't often very fair or democratic - but it bore some relationship to the reality of existing power structures.

But by the 1920s Britain was bankrupt after the war and couldn't afford such elaborate preparations. Instead a small group of elite administrators were allowed to create a new society out of their imaginations.

And their imaginations were influenced by exactly the same yearning for a return to a pre-industrial rural idyll that had created the Physical Culture movement in Britain.

What the British administrators did was take a romantic vision of a long lost Britain run by feudal landlords and project it onto Iraqi society - where the tribal Sheikhs were seen as being like the British landed aristocracy.

A historian called Toby Dodge has written an absolutely brilliant book called Inventing Iraq. It lays out in clear and very persuasive detail how this group of British Civil servants in Iraq built something that looked like a modern nation - but was in fact a facade. Behind it was really a weird nostalgic myth about Britain.

At the heart of this group was the legendary Gertrude Bell. She wrote the key "Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia" in 1920, and Dodge shows how she, like many of the men working with her, completely distrusted the new modern middle class that had grown up in the cities like Baghdad.

This class had helped run the Ottoman Empire and the British believed that they were tainted - that they had been corrupted by the despotic Ottomans, and that if they were given power they could rise up and become despots themselves.

To prevent this, Bell and the other colonial administrators turned instead to the tribes in the countryside and the Sheikhs that controlled the tribes. The Sheikhs would be a far better alternative - powerful "people of influence" who could help the British run Iraq. They were "true" Iraqis, unscathed by Ottoman influence.

Here is a picture of Gertrude Bell.

What made the rural tribes and their leaders so attractive to the British was the fact that they seemed - in their imaginations - to be just like the stable feudal world of Britain with its rural nobility. The British were explicit about this, the Administrative Report for the Basra Division in 1918 said:

"These landlords are men of gentility and pride, occupying a position of influence and status reminiscent of that of the feudal landlords of English history"

Gertrude Bell was full of the romance of the Sheikhs, she said they were "aristocrats" who managed to keep the collectives they headed in a "natural equilibrium".

Some British administrators in Iraq thought this was mad - that you couldn't transmit authority and order through the tribal system, especially because the sheikhs' political and social power had declined long before the British turned up. It was also sidelining the one group who could help create a proper modern society - the middle class in Baghdad.

But, as Toby Dodge shows, the romantic vision of the sheikh as the linchpin of rural society won out. His judgement is blunt:

"This vision had little to do with the historical or social truth of the society. It sprang in large part from the colonial officials own understandings of the evolution of British society.

To the British the noble bedouin, untouched by all that was negative about the modern day, stood in stark contrast to those who peopled the cities - to those who had succumbed to the temptations of modernity."

If Dodge is right - and his evidence is very powerful - what the British did was create Iraq as an expression of their own fears about what was happening to their own country. They took their worries about the rise of the urban mass, and the horrors of industrialisation in Europe and projected this onto the complex societies that were all mixed together in the nascent Iraq.

They then ruthlessly ignored this complexity and gave a lot of power to the noble, virile sheikhs - who were very like the noble heroes that Eugen Sandow wanted to recreate with his bodybuilding.

Here is part of a film that gives a perfect and vivid illustration of this British romantic view of the Arab tribe as pure, uncorrupted society. It is made by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger who spent the 1940s living among the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq, and then with the Bedouin nomads who live in what is called The Empty Quarter that straddles Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

But problems emerged right away.

The British supported the sheikhs who were prepared to co-operate, but there were others that the British deemed "unruly" - and because of this division there was growing anger and resentment among some of the tribes. And from 1920 onwards there were rebellions. But there was also a growing economic crisis in Britain - the defence budget had been cut in half and there wasn't enough money to find the troops that were needed to put down the revolts.

So the British invented what they called "Air Control". It was the first use of aerial bombing to put down a civilian uprising - and it was promoted as both a humanitarian and a moral way of keeping control. The bombers would be clean and precise, hitting only the buildings and fuel stores of the unruly tribes.

The first large-scale bombing was in November 1923 in the Samawah district on the Euphrates. It was against defiant tribes from the Bani Huchaim confederation. A British Special Services officer called John Glubb had done a reconnaissance and worked out who he thought were the sheikhs who led the tribes. His operations map showed:

"the location of the villages belonging to the Shaikhs and Headmen whose influence among the tribes rendered them particularly suitable for attack."

In doing this Glubb was following the simplified British vision of Iraqi rural society. In fact the society in Samawah turned out to be more complicated than he imagined. When the identified sheikhs were told to surrender or face bombing two of them came to the British and told them that they didn't have the power to make anyone surrender.

But the British thought they were being evasive - and the bombing went ahead. It was the shock and awe of its time. The RAF planes came in and bombed the villages, the people fled and returned as darkness fell. Then that night the planes came back with incendiary bombs and caught the villagers. An RAF report said that it was:

"to do away with the idea that they (the targets) will ever have any period of peace once an attack has begun."

The RAF's conservative assessment after the attack said that approximately 100 civilians had been killed and six villages destroyed. There was a lot of public concern in Britain about this new tactic, and in the face of this, John Glubb later claimed that only one Iraqi had died.

Glubb was one of the central military figures in Iraq - and his actions showed just how dangerous the simplified British vision of Iraqi society could be.

Here is a photograph of him:

Much later - in 1981- Glubb appeared on a very odd BBC chat show. It was called Friday Night Saturday Morning, and the theme was "The Arab People". It had a very strange collage of guests - first a Saudi prince comes on to defend his regime, then the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland dressed all in pink sits next to him and explains how every woman wants to have sex with an Arab sheikh.

Then John Glubb joins them to describe enthusiastically his bombing campaigns in Iraq in the 1920s. He starts by talking about the origin of "Air Control" but then slips away into a practiced, humorous after-dinner set of anecdotes about how the tribes were like little children who spent their time raiding each other - and had to be bombed to make sure they "played fair" like in cricket.

In an extreme, surreal way the programme illustrates the weird myth of "the noble sheikh" that the British had projected onto Iraq - and the extreme violence needed to sustain that myth.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

By the late 1920s there was a craze for Physical Fitness sweeping through India. It was something completely new to Indian society and it was led by a famous body-builder and gymnast called Professor K.V. Iyer. He had been inspired by the western ideas of Eugen Sandow and, like Sandow, he had turned exercise into both a physical and a moral duty.

Iyer modestly described himself as having "a body which Gods covet" and gave himself the title "India's most perfectly developed man"

What made Iyer's vision of a strong body so attractive to many Indians was not just physical. It was also a way of expressing the growing nationalism and hatred of British rule. Indian nationalists were very aware of the way their colonial masters dismissed all Indians as a weak and degenerate people - Baden Powell famously called them "enfeebled". A powerful body was a way of challenging that in dramatic physical terms.

In 1927 the popular journal Vayayam - The Body Builder - said its mission was "to uplift India from the mire of physical decadence."

K.V. Iyer was very aware of the paradox - that Indians were using European ideas of physical exercise to challenge their European colonial masters. And at the end of the 1920s he took his theories of body-building that were based on Western models and fused them with the spiritual ideas of Yoga. The aim was to create what one of Iyer's closest collaborators called "A Physical Culture Religion" which deliberately had roots in India's ancient past. They called it "The Yogic School of Physical Culture".

It was something very new - that had very little to do with traditional Yoga as it had been practiced for centuries. Yet it is the root of almost all the modern Yoga practiced today in Europe and America.

Such an idea is heresy to what are called the "Yoga Fundamentalists" in the west today who portray Yoga as having a special antiquity that goes back thousands of years. But recently a Yoga teacher and academic called Mark Singleton has written a fascinating and gripping book that challenges that idea head on. It is called Yoga Body.

Singleton goes back to the India of the 1920s and 1930s and shows in forensic detail how modern Yoga was constructed out of Western ideas of gymnastics and a modern Indian political nationalism. He points out that traditional Yoga has very few poses - and most of those are variations on the seated meditation posture. For hundreds of years, Singleton says, yoga was not about physical fitness but a system of meditation and philosophical enquiry.

Here is some footage - from BBC news in 1957 - of this new kind of physical yoga being displayed to the new leader of an independent India - Pandjit Nehru.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

And in a brilliant piece of detective work Singleton goes on to show how in the 1930s a completely fictitious spiritual history was created for this new kind of Yoga - which then allowed it to be sold back to the west as something ancient and mystical.

It happened in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore. The Maharaja was a fitness fanatic, he installed a gymnasium and invited K.V. Iyer to come and teach his body building there. As Singleton shows, in the next door room was an unknown yoga teacher called T. Krishnamacharya who then proceeded to take the yogic physical culture that Iyer had invented - and push it much further.

Here is a picture of the palace.

Out of it came a radically physicalised form of yoga which is the basis for almost all the modern forms of yoga like Power Yoga that have grabbed the western imagination.

What made this so attractive to the west was that Krishnamacharya said that his system was five thousand years old and based on an ancient text called the Yoga Kurunta. He had first heard of the text, he said, when he was taught the system by a guru high up in the mountains in Tibet. He had then returned and "discovered" a copy of the five-thousand year old Yoga Kurunta in a Calcutta library, which he then transcribed.

Strangely no-one has ever seen the original text. Unfortunately when his followers asked to see it Krishnamacharya told them that it had been eaten by ants.

Singleton makes it clear that the real inspiration was far more likely to have been the body-building contortions and gymnastic exercises going on next door in the gym of the Mysore Palace.

Here is some footage of one of Krishnamacharya's followers - who was also his brother-in-law - called B.K.S. Iyenegar who was the person who brought this yoga system to Europe and America and made it famous. The first is an early exhibition he did for the BBC in 1966. It is followed by a wonderful scene of the same Mr Iyenegar on a BBC evening magazine programme from 1981 getting the presenter to do this "ancient spiritual exercise". Iyenegar was by then 63 years old. Obviously this kind of yoga works.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in 1926 - having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Noone knows whether it was suicide or not. But what is known is that she had come to realise that the British attempt to build a nation out of Iraq had failed. In a letter she wrote:

"There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know."

In many ways the story of Gertrude Bell and her family is also the story of the fall of the British Empire. Her grandfather had been a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in iron and steel. He then became a powerful Liberal party politician helping to create the global vision of Empire under Disraeli.

Gertrude was one of the generation who then struggled in the 1920s to keep that global vision alive in the face of economic crisis and political and public opposition in Britain - and failed.

Strangely it was Gertrude Bell's half-sister, Mary, who would show the way forward to the next stage of this global vision - a mystical vision of the world in which individuals around the globe were no longer dominated by political power - but instead united by a vague, spiritual force. It was the New Age philosophy - and Yoga was going to play a central role in this new ideology.

Mary Bell's eldest child was Sir George Trevelyan who would become one of the founders of the New Age movement in Britain. The central guiding idea of the movement was that the world was moving towards a new age in which the fragmented and divided societies and nations would die away. It would be a "oneness" - a restored unity with all the people of the earth, with nature and within your own body.

The earliest and most powerful concrete expression of these ideas was the Findhorn Foundation. It was a rural community in Scotland whose aim was to try and create a model for this new kind of unified world. Sir George Trevelyan helped create the Findhorn Foundation - and tirelessly promoted it as a vision of an alternative future for the world.

I want to show a programme that the BBC made in 1973 about Findhorn. It was taped in their community hall where the founders and many of the members of Findhorn were asked to explain their vision, questioned by a very sympathetic presenter called Magnus Magnusson.

It is incredibly funny and wonderfully bonkers, but it is also very touching. I particularly like the middle-aged, very respectable man who says that he often meets "the Great God Pan" on the streets of Edinburgh - and then says that the God Pan is sitting in the audience tonight - "somewhere towards the back".

And the man in charge of the Findhorn garden is just brilliant - both in his fashion choice and his conviction that the vegetables he grows know telepathically what he is thinking and can feel his love for them.

"The vegetables are happy to be eaten because it is an expression of love. It is a wholeness, a oneness. I am at one with the lettuce I eat, especially after I've eaten it."

Here he is - full of vegetables.

Sir George Trevelyan is sitting in the front row next to the two founders of Findhorn - Eileen and Peter Caddy.

What is fascinating is that none of these people are hippies - they are the disillusioned children of the British empire. The Caddys had met in the early 1950s when both were stationed on an RAF base in Iraq - it was RAF Habbaniyah, the airfield from where many of the Air Control raids had taken off. Both were disenchanted with their lives and had come back to Scotland to try and build an alternative kind of world.

Here is a frame grab of Peter and Eileen.

Sir George, the Caddys, and the others sit there describing eloquently and sincerely how they want to telepathically get in touch with nature to create a new Eden and build "a great harmonious oneness that links us all".

Everything they say is suffused with a yearning desire to recapture something that has been lost.

It's as if what they are really doing is creating a fantasy global empire that is run by what Peter Caddy calls "different administrative levels of natural spirits". An empire that is populated by thinking, telepathic, vegetables that are happy to be eaten - just like the happy natives that were content to be ruled by the white men that loved them for their simplicity and innocence.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Behind the New Age movement in Britain was the same belief that had driven the physical culture movement sixty years before - that the modern world and above all industrialisation was corroding both the moral and physical fitness of human beings. The aim was to restore a new unity of mind and body.

But the movement couldn't turn to the old ideas of health and fitness because in the 1930s they had become inextricably linked with nationalism - above all in the Nazi cult of physical fitness and the superman.

And that is where Yoga came in because it offered a system of physical exercise that also promised to create a spiritual oneness with the mind. It was physical exercise cleansed of all political connotations - and based instead on a powerful mystical tradition that went back five thousand years (even if the ants had eaten all the evidence for that).

And Yoga really took off in the New Age movement. It was one of the physical activities at Findhorn - and by the 1970s it had swept through the West. Here is a wonderful bit of film. In 1978 the BBC sent Sir George Trevelyan to report of the Festival For Mind and Body at Olympia in London. And one of the first thing Sir George wants to show you is Yoga.

I wish more reporters were like Sir George - I love his style, especially the way he quotes Wordsworth's pantheistic vision of the world in the middle of Olympia.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

In Iraq Britain's failed attempt to create a modern state in the 1920s has haunted the country ever since.

In 1958 there was a military coup which began a period of bloody violence that led to the country being taken over by the Baath party in 1968. When they took power the Baathists deliberately set out to try and dismantle "premodern" tribalism. They did this both to try and finally modernise and strengthen the country - but also because the tribalism was so linked in their minds to collaboration with British imperialism.

The Baathists tried out experiments with the collectivisation of land ownership in 1970 - and then started to nationalise land in 1971.

But in the late 1970s the structure of power began to strangely mutate - and as Toby Dodge argues in his Inventing Iraq - it moved backwards towards a copy of the very same tribal structure of patronage that the British had instituted.

This happened because of the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and the Tikritis within the Baath ruling elite. As power became increasingly personalised around the figure of Saddam, the power of the Baath party came to depend on the al-Bu Nasir tribe - and within that the Beijat clan group.

And in the process Saddam began to do exactly what the British had done in the 1920s. He turned away from the urban political elite (in his case bloodily - by ruthlessly executing scores of senior Baath party members that he thought were threats to him) and moved towards using the tribal system. He set out to co-opt other tribes - and to try and break the power of others

Then - after the Gulf War in 1991 - Saddam went further. He effectively recreated tribal networks and tribal "recognized sheikhs" all across Iraq who were given resources and power in return for loyalty to him. Just like the British.

And as Dodge points out - that structure continued after 2003

"It is these very same "recognized sheikhs" that the British and American forces have begun to look to for the cost-effective provision of order in the post-Saddam era.

If one were able to pick up Iraq like a good piece of china and turn it over, it would bear the legend: 'Made in Whitehall, 1920'."

Here is footage of Saddam from 1981 that shows how he was reinventing this structure. There is footage of him going to rural villages, sitting next to the headman, and promising them stuff in return for their loyalty.

It is followed by a extraordinary description of how he invented himself almost as a super sheikh - his personal telephone number listed in the Baghdad phone book - that anyone could call and talk to - just like going to see the headman.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Meanwhile Yoga conquered the western world.

But the history of Yoga is just as convoluted and contorted as the positions its followers adopt. For much of the ideas behind it were initially born as attempts to morally reinvigorate the minds and bodies of those who ran British Empire. Those ideas then swept through India and became part of a nationalism that challenged Britain's rule. They then were sold back again to the west in a new form - linked to a mysticism that gave a purpose and meaning to a nostalgic post-imperial generation.

Today yoga has morphed once again. Much of the new age mysticism linked to it has fallen away, and in an age of intense individualism where people increasingly feel disempowered, the human body has become the last territory individuals feel they have control over. It is the Empire of One - and Yoga is the administrative system that controls it.

Here is Jerry Hall reporting on the latest fashionable version - Bikram's Hot Yoga - and meeting Bikram himself who claims to have "800 plus" schools across the world. She also then visits an Ashram in India and is puzzled to find that their Yoga isn't really like what goes on in the Hollywood Hills.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Tagged with:

Comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1.

    I have had the extreme displeasure of contorting my way through a few yoga sessions. Aside from the vague amusement of watching myself and my peers frequently fall over it was overall an unsettling experience. The never ending New Age bull streaming from the supervisor's mouth was incredible. Third eyes, black and white smoke, free energy, happy places, stress demons - it made my skin crawl. The reasoned cynicism I imparted on my peers afterwards was met with disbelief and outrage. I am going to have to resist the temptation to link them this article.

    Thanks Adam, really good stuff as usual.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 2.

    Jerry Hall is an obnoxious presenter and should be taken off television immediately. Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.

    It's clear from that last clip that yoga, like all spiritual practices, is mostly for the suppression of sexual desire. Practitioners in the West prefer to use it as a punitive means to enhance sexual enjoyment. That's more than a little strange, I suppose. But them, how many would keep arching into the crane-position if they knew the real goal was sexual repression!?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Insightful and hilarious article, as usual.

    Of course the New Age movement wasn't "creatio ex nihilo", but was an extension of earlier movements like Helen Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. In the late 19th century and early 20th century the European Theosophists, very popular among the establishment (bankers, architects and even members of the Dutch royal family were keen dabblers), were instrumental in reviving a fairly moribund Buddhism in parts of Asia, especially in what was then Ceylon. And in the same way as you outline with yoga, this revived Buddhism became mixed with a nationalism that was hitherto unknown and actually contradictory to the core of Buddhist philosophy. The disastrous result of this new spiritual nationalism was the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils.

    Allow me make one correction: the so called Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) is not in the north of Saudi Arabia but in the south, bordering on Yemen and Oman.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    This is one of Adam Curtis's more intriguing posts for its juxtaposition of a significant cultural and popular fad arising from a general social and cultural meme (physical improvement of the masses) linked with the histories of at least two countries likely to become more significant in the immediate future.

    Physical education for the masses wasn't just a British fad, it was popular in many parts of Europe where it was linked to nationalist aspirations. The development of gymnastics and gymnastics clubs in Sweden and Germany was part of this trend as was also the rise of Sokol clubs and mass gymnastics displays in Czech-speaking Bohemia and Moravia. Many modern sports either began or were properly codified during the late 19th century / early 20th century and this is also when steps were taken to revive the Olympic Games. Even traditional pastimes particular to certain countries such as savate (French kick-boxing) in France and sambo (a form of wrestling) in Russia became "sports" in the modern sense of the term.

    It is interesting also that the British colonial rulers should have turned to Iraqi sheikhs to build a modern Iraq and I wonder if there wasn't an element of anti-Semitism in their thinking as the bulk of the middle class in Iraq during the 1920s and 30s were Jewish. I recall reading somewhere that two-thirds of Baghdad's population during this time were Jewish and Jewish people made up nearly all the engineers, doctors and financial services workers in the country. Saddam Hussein himself was delivered by a Jewish midwife when his mother suffered complications during his birth.

    In the late 1940s and early 50s, the Jewish community in Iraq was plagued by a series of bomb blasts that caused panic and stampeded most Jews into Israel. To this day there have been rumours that the bombings were set off by Zionist agents working for the Israel government in order to induce Jews to leave the country. Some time in the 1960s, a couple of Iraqi Jews who had suffered injuries during the bomb blasts sued the Israeli government and the government settled their cases out of court to avoid publicity but a journalist found out about the cases anyway and reported them.

    Once they arrived in Israel, Iraqi Jews and other Jews from North African and Middle Eastern countries suffered racial discrimination and their cultures, histories and experiences in co-existing with Christian and Muslim communities were ignored. Today there are universities in Israel that offer courses teaching Yiddish to students but no courses teaching other historic Jewish languages such as Ladino or Yahudi (Jewish forms of Arabic).

    The population of Jews in Iraq has fallen from a high of 120,000 in 1948 to less than 100 by 2004 (source: Wikipedia). As President, Saddam Hussein diligently courted the Jewish community, building a lavish synagogue in Baghdad, and threw lots of money at the Jews; most were flattered but a few people guessed at what he was really doing: buying their loyalty.

    And as I said on an earlier AC post, the British approached most tribal groups in Africa and imposed a monarchical system on them if none appeared to exist (because most tribal groups were actually democratic in that they diffused political authority throughout the tribe and no-one person was in charge; and military and political authority were kept separate as well). The same thing was done in Saudi Arabia and enabled the rise of the Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam which has become the stereotype by which all forms of Islam are judged by the West.

    A reward for Adam is due: Omni Records has just released "Song of the Second Moon: the Sonic Vibrations of Tom Dissevelt / Kid Baltan" which features the kind of melodic kitschy / spooky paranoid electronic music popular in the 1950s - 60s, very similar to Raymond Scott's experimental electronic music recordings of the same period. The album offers many juicy pieces Dissevelt and Baltan composed between 1957 and 1961; Stanley Kubrick himself was interested in using some of this music for "2001: A Space Odyssey". AC, if you're looking for more soundtrack music for future documentaries, this is one album you should get.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    Alas, the harvest failed one year in Findhorn, and Magnus went back of his own volition, to report on the story of a missing girl. But the last we heard of him, he was heading toward a giant wicker-chair...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 6.

    Interesting comments on the Iraqi Jews, Nausika. Their story is, indeed, too often forgotten in modern commentary. The community was always populous up until the 1950's, and held a vital importance in Jewish history, with the Mesopotamian heartlands being the first area that seems to have held a sizeable Jewish diaspora (following the Babylonian Captivity) and whose academies generated the most authoritative version of the Talmud. Inasmuch as the Biblical account can be held to reflect historical validity, it is also true that it indicates Jewish ancestry seems to have originated somewhere in Mesopotamia, too. Given this, the fact that the more modern history of the Iraqi jews (and, indeed, more widely those of Mizrahi Jews from other areas of the Islamic Middle East/North Africa) has been so comparatively neglected is startling (though, in truth, as you say, it is Askenazi Jews who have written the history of Israel).

    It is certainly possible that there was anti-semitism latent in the minds of the British administrators in Iraq. Jewish citizens were often significant amongst the ranks of middle class professionals in the late Ottoman Empire, and had always held comparatively important positions as bankers, doctors and legal representatives in Islamic nations. It is also true that there were important Jewish elements involved in e.g. the Young Turk Revolution. Indeed, the whole post Versailles settlement in British territories mandated in the Middle East can be read in sizeable part as a contest between an essentially philo-semitic British establishment, Arthur Balfour, Sir Herbert Samuel and, more haphazardly, Winston Churchill and an essential philo-Arabic establishment represented by figures like Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence and Glubb Pasha. These dividing influences were still having repercussions on the area well into the 1960's.

    You are also right about the Europe wide obsession with physical culture in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, but then the entire culture world of the European fin de siecle was dominated by theories of racial degeneration, miscegenation, the threat of mesalliances, class warfare, and incipient sexual disease. That all of this was coloured by a preoccupation with the pestilential conditions of the newly industrialised city, and that these preoccupations, in turn, had their influences on both the formation of 'Volkisch' ideology and pervasive modern forms of anti-semitism (as exemplified, for instance, by the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion') is also suggestive.

    The common Aryan roots of ancient European and Indian cultures were, of course, established in

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    the course of 19th century research into the origins of Indo-European languages, and theosophical elements, often allied to Masonic or occult revivalist principles, had their part to play in the intellectual origination of Nazism via such organisations as the Thule Society, it would seem. Certainly, the Nazi adoption of the swastika, and the pervasive cults of fire and lightning, appear to have derived symbolism directly from what were perceived to be ancient Aryan ritualisations (and, indeed, there are common elements with Jungian thought of a similar vintage). Thus, for Adam to say that adopting yogic or New Age practices as a mechanism to *distance* from the old nationalism is a bit peculiar - more, perhaps, like a continuation of the same essential values with a different emphasis!

    I suspect I am rambling now, but another interesting aspect of this (to me, at least) is how all these tendencies played in the US. In fact, there we see that such pioneers of 'physical culture' as Bernarr Macfadden developed publishing empires that were later bought out for the establishment of the nascent 'scientifiction' genre by Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback's publications (and the many that followed) frequently continued to promote the notion that 9 stone weaklings could get a body like Charles Atlas in the small ads for decades thereafter. And much of this fascination with bodies of total physical perfection bled through into early science - fiction stories too. Eventually, it served to inspire Siegel and Shuster (two young Jews and early SF fans) to develop the concept that became Superman. There's probably not a moral in there somewhere.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    @ Leeravitz: That's right, the Ottoman rulers welcomed Sephardic Jewish refugees who fled Spain and Portugal after the edict by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 1490s that banned Judaism in the Iberian Peninsula, and used them as go-betweens in administering an empire that included a huge number of non-Muslims.
    Sephardic Jews were employed as diplomats, merchants, messengers, artisans and spies. There was often distrust between Sephardic Jewish communities and the Ottoman subjects they lived among and this of course led to tragedy, especially in Greece where the native Romaniote Jews, who had lived in Greece since ancient times, were protected by Greeks when Nazi Germany invaded the country while the Sephardic Jewish community in Thessaloniki ended up destroyed in the death camps in Poland.

    An excellent book I read some years ago was Benjamin Ginsberg's "The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State" which concentrates mainly on American Jewish people's relationship with the US government during the 20th century and the ways in which anti-Semitic expression by whites and non-whites achieve certain ends for those groups. Black people's use of anti-Semitic tropes often reflect their resentment of being treated as junior partners by Jewish people in civil rights issues and protests. The book also briefly deals with the ways Jewish people throughout history have often looked to the State to protect them from non-Jews even in countries where the State itself was anti-Semitic.

    You mention how aspects of Carl Jung's psychology had elements in common with Nazi ideology and its appropriation of Aryan and Buddhist symbols and mythology. Is it known whether he actively collaborated with the Nazis and supported their ideology and policies? He is known to have joined the Nazi party and to have edited a journal that endorsed Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf". The Jungian idea of the collective unconscious and archetypes certainly agrees with Nazi ideas about the instinctive, vaguely hive-like mental nature of Aryans and the concept of Jews as a rootless people who thrive in a cosmopolitan, urban, money-obsessed world at odds with a Romantic view of Germanic / Aryan people as bonded to the soil and of nature and pastoralism. But Jung may have just joined the Nazis as a way of saving his career and his theories.

    It is interesting that AC documented the use of Freudian psychoanalysis by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays as a tool in the service of the US government and US business to mould the public's conscious and unconscious wants and desires in his series "The Century of the Self" and while Bernays was hard at work, across the Atlantic Ocean the Nazis had more or less co-opted Carl Jung's work to help mould their society and create a new mythology.

    I have seen David Cronenberg's film "A Dangerous Method" and though it was a shallow treatment of Freud and Jung's ideas, there is a suggestion in the film that Jung saw psychoanalysis as a transformative, therapeutic treatment while Freud was content to use it as a tool to document individuals' psychology and psychopathology without questioning whether the individuals' wider social and cultural context might have anything to do with their problems.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 9.

    Wicca in the late 90s seemed to rise to popularity for many of the same reasons: it claimed to be derived from ancient naturalistic and matriarchal religion(s) passed down in secret from one generation of women to another, with the Salem witch trials considered as one of the points of evidence for its existence and suppression. Some even claimed that almost all ancient religions and societies were matriarchal and had only recently been overrun by masculine elements like Christianity and industrialism.

    I met some fascinating people involved in it, like Margot Adler, whose dispositions were very much in agreement with my own, but wasn't surprised when serious scholars began to debunk much of the false history.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    The influence of the New Age movement on modern youth culture is well worth exploring as well. It is awfully silly, but it does inspire a whole range of wonderful artists, especially in the folk/rock crossover field between the late 60s and early 80s.
    Mike Scott, of the Waterboys, is a great supporter of Findhorn, and of course, his songs about pagan beliefs, especially 'the great god Pan' are inspired by this woolly, if ultimately harmless pantheism.
    I wonder about the influence of such a rag-bag of 'oriental' philosophies on a number of other great artists often wrongly dismissed as hippes (Kate Bush, George Harrison and Sandy Denny for starters)...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 11.

    I could not help but feel the stuff about the Empire influences and the Bedouin missed a pillar of wisdom about a certain man called Lawrence. Was it an earlier blog that featured the craze for Body Building in Afghanistan too? I recall the american gym built in an old Afghan shrine.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 12.

    @ Herr Munchausen: You just opened a can of worms for me. Have you heard of the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas who cooked up the Kurgan hypothesis about the origin of the Indo-Europeans and how those nasty patriarchal horse-riders supposedly usurped the utopian matiarchal societies of "Old Europe"? Her theories provided the academic base for the Goddess religion and Wicca movements in the 1990s.

    @ Leeravitz: I just remembered also that along with the craze for physical culture in late 19th century Europe that in parts of northern and eastern Europe there was also a craze for "rediscovering" ancient ancestral cultures and in particular ancient historical epics. The Finns had the Kalevala, most of which is based on actual myths and legends, but which was welded together by its creator Elias Lonnrot's imagination; the Estonians had the Kalevipoeg by F R Kreutzwals which also draws on native myths and legends; and the Latvians had "Lacplesis", an epic about a hero with bear's ears, by A Pumpurs. How much of these epics and others that appeared during the 19th century for various European ethnic groups discovering their "identity" were based on actual legends or on their creators' imaginations is mysteriously intriguing - but perhaps that's an inflammatory question I should avoid.

    Likewise most of the "traditions" that surround the British monarchy actually go back no further than the late 19th century when loyalty and enthusiasm for that institution were far, far lower than they are today.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 13.

    Nausika,

    Re: Carl Jung. I wouldn't claim to be a Jung expert, but, as far as I understand his history, he was one of those somewhat problematic scientist/philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Konrad Lorenz who were prepared to work within the academic framework of Nazi Germany's perspective without necessarily being unequivocally supportive of all aspects of Nazism.

    I wasn't aware that he was actually a strict member of the Nazi Party, though I would assume, as a professional man within a single Party state, it was necessary for him to be affiliated to the Nazi apparatus. From a personal perspective, Jung was reservedly critical of Nazism (he seems to have had a particular distaste for the Hitlerian personality cult), although he certainly also saw the manifestation of Nazism as a response to world crisis which he felt had validity. He ran his clinics in accordance with basic Nazi principle, and certainly never condemned the regime's behaviour in any meaningful way, although he equally refused to ignore the vital contribution to pyschoanalysis made by Jews, and supported continued dialogue with Jewish practitioners, quite contrary to Nazi condemnation of psychoanalysis as a debased 'Jewish Science'.

    As far as I am aware, Jung never particularly encouraged the regime to propagate his ideas, either (and, indeed, those who see some kind of direct influence are probably mistaken). What is true is that something of the same essential mentality - the fascination with ancestral Aryan ritual, the importance of the cult of fire, the strength of the lightning bolt bringing power and enlightenment - is recognisable in both Jung's writings, and some of the more rarefied occultic justifications for Nazi mentality, and that I find interesting, culturally. It is otherwise true that Nazi symbology appears to have been a wild conglomeration of many aspects from a wide variety of diverse 'intellectual inspirations', amongst which may be numbered, not least, the 'Wandervogel' movement (youth cults, and 'back to nature'), the 'Garden City' movement, van den Bruck's notions of 'Third Reich' (i.e. renascent German imperialism and Germany requiring 'living space'), Romanticised visions of the 'drang nach osten' (the habitual war of Teutons vs. Slavs), the Masonic occultism of The Thule Society (universal brotherhood, and the cult of The Teutonic Knighthood), social darwinism and eugenic engineering (as embodied in the thought of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Jorg van Liebenfels), anti-industrialist anti-semitism (especially as embodied in e.g. The Protocols), astrological values, perceived Hindu cultism%

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    via e.g. Schopenhauer (the cult of the saddhu, the cult of Aryan charioteers), and so on. Some of it appears to have had close links to political concerns (the socialist aspect of 'national socialism', and embodies ideas that may be compared to e.g. principles found in William Morris, Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells, Ebenezer Howard), some of it was philosophical in origination, particularly as derived from the Romantic tradition of thought. It is often forgotten that Nazism was rabidly anti-Christian in a post Nietzchean manner - and that many of the most vociferous Western critics of it before the Second World War actually feared the regime less for its militarism and even its mistreatment of Jews than for the fact that they felt it looked certain to begin a wholesale persecution against Christian practices as time wore on.

    Jung was certainly able to place his own thinking within this context and not find the fit disturbing, but this is undoubtedly because it played strongly on the values that assumed a 'volkisch' origination for the psychological makeups of particular peoples, and so, acceding to the idea that Nazism's rise was a direct response to the latent guise of a particularly Germanic 'race spirit' seemed valid. This did not necessarily jar with the idea that other peoples also developed unconscious principles coloured in the terms of their own 'racial spirit' and, inasmuch as Jung advocated the existence of a 'collective unconscious', inhabiting all human beings, regardless of origin, informed by consistent processes of human experience, and simply later projected outward in terms determined by the dominant local culture group (and thus requiring culturally specific responses in order to resolve neuroses satisfactorily), Jung was actually quite universalist, rather than particularist.

    It is perhaps interesting also that Freud himself seemed to sense a necessary divide conditioned by the pervasive anti-semitism of German reaction in the years before the First World War when Jung was still his closest disciple. It would appear to have been Freud himself (who, for an assimilated Jew, was fascinated by Jewish heritage, and spoke of Jung as 'Joshua' to his 'Moses' when they were both in sight of the 'Promised Land' of psychiatry) who wanted Jung to assume his mantle primarily because he recognised him as a Gentile scholar capable of making psychiatry more respectable and accessible within a society in which the Jewish originations of the practice were routinely used to disparage it.

    I agree it is interesting that, at about the same time that Jungian style psychiatry was making inroa

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    inroads into mitteleuropa (and influencing everyone from Thomas Mann to Hermann Hesse), the fact that much of the Jewish inflected mode of psychiatry necessarily uprooted to the US, is intriguing.

    It is also worthy of note, in connection to these topics, that Jungian thought underwent a significant repopularisation amongst the 60's counterculture. Important Jungian disciples, like Joseph Campbell, transferred much emphasis onto the comparison of Hindu and Buddhist ritual practice to Jungian psychoanalytical process, and tended to decry (however subtly) monotheistic religion as narrow minded and neurosis inducing. They were, of course, heavily anti-Nazi (seeing Nazism, rightly, as having perverted the more profound philosophies of Schopenhauer, Nietzche and appropriating them), but it may not be altogether surprising that some elements of the wider Californian counter-culture did not make these distinctions so clear, and a strange cult of Hitler revivalism, with Hitler seen as a kind of pop culture icon, magician and guru (shorn of his politics and overt anti-semitism) was sometimes seen amongst the hippies.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    @ Leeravitz: Thanks for the exhaustive information about Carl Jung and his relationship to the Nazi Party apparatus. I have seen some online information about Jung's affilations with the Nazis and indeed he was a member of the National Socialists in much the same way as most Iraqi professionals were required to be members of the Ba'ath party in Iraq and as most professionals in China still need to be members of the Chinese Communist Party: if you don't belong to the party, your loyalties are subject and you can be denied work and important professional contacts. Jung did indeed edit the journal Zentralblatt fur Psychotherapie, the flagship publication for the International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy which he organised separately from the national professional organisation. He resigned as president from the international organisation in 1939 due to Nazi attempts to politicise it.

    I consider Jung was fascinated and repelled by parallels between what he found in his own practice and research on one hand and what he observed in the German people's reactions to Hitler. It's likely that he placed too much confidence in the idea of a collective unconscious and that what he thought was part of that phenomenon was really the result of unconscious learning or imprinting at an early age such as infancy.

    Your mention of Hitler revivalism among hippies who considered him a counter-cultural hero finds an echo among some right-wing conservative types who think that because Hitler headed a party called National Socialist, that he was a leftist or Communist!

    Personally I think the idea of a collective unconscious on the basis of ethnicity or religion is a dangerous one: it plays into the realm of evolutionary psychology as inhabited by the likes of Kevin B MacDonald who has claimed that Jews possess a suite of characteristics that can be inherited and which supposedly enables them to out-compete gentiles for resources and undermine and disempower gentiles in Europe and North America. I wonder what he'd make of people who have part-Jewish ancestry?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    brilliant! thank you

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 18.

    If you want to see some descendents of an enfranchised, monied New Age aesthetic, I thought this recent video summed it up well

    http://video.nytimes.com/video/2012/03/30/t-magazine/100000001458514/doug-aitken-acid-modernism.html

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 19.

    A fascinating blog, Adam. I think you'd really enjoy two books by the Swedish historian and thinker Sven Lindqvist. One is his book 'Bench Press' - a history of body building and its links to the German obsession with physical culture (and ultimately the rise of Nazism), and also his book 'A History of Bombing', which goes into the British bombing campaigns in inter-war Iraq that you discuss. Both superbly illuminating and original.
    Roman Krznaric
    www.romankrznaric.com

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    I am a big fan of Adam's work and would like to show some of his documentaries at a screening night in Dublin. Can you please advise if it is possible to gain permission to show any of his work. The event would have no cover charge and would be attended by 15-20 people. Thanks in advance.

 

Page 1 of 2

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts

Previous
WHO WOULD GOD VOTE FOR?

Tuesday 6 March 2012, 15:45

Next
RUPERT MURDOCH - A PORTRAIT OF SATAN

Wednesday 25 April 2012, 11:06

About this Blog

This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?