Debris scattered around the sixth reactor building of the Fukushima power plant, whose reactors were built by General Electric. Image: Getty
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Snake Dance by Patrick Marnham: The self that is known

Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released.

Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky
Patrick Marnham
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £18.99

At the dead centre of this book’s snaking path down the friable face of human history stands Aby Warburg, a scion of the well-known banking family and a dilettante scholar at a time – and in a place – when to be so was still intellectually respectable. When Patrick Marnham writes that Warburg “mocked the keepers of academic purity as ‘border police’”, I suspect a strong sense of identification is at work. Michael P Steinberg, the translator of Warburg’s discipline-transgressing monographs on the snake dances of the Hopi, characterised his voice as one of “spiralling and endless mediation, between peoples, between pasts and presents, between the self that is known and the self that is secret”. I suspect that this, too, could be a description of Marnham’s own efforts in this book to which he would assent.

In the 1890s, Warburg travelled from his home in Florence to the American southwest with a view to substantiating theories he had about the endurance of pagan thinking in the Renaissance iconography. While there, he witnessed the snake dance of Marnham’s title, a ceremony in which the Hopi wrestle with live rattlesnakes and then expel them into the desert.

Many years later, in 1921, having sustained a terrible breakdown that Marnham hypothesises was a sort of collateral shell shock, Warburg was confined to an asylum in Kreuzlingen on the shores of Lake Constance. Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released. The subject Warburg chose to lecture on was the Hopi snake dance but the interpretation he placed on it – at least by Marnham’s account – was precursive of the theories of structural anthropology put forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss decades later.

For Warburg, the snake dance was an attempt by the Hopi to master the lightning that struck down from the heavens into their desert lands, the curves of the rattlesnake being an animate symbol of lightning – its flickering tongue the fork; mutatis mutandis, in contemporary culture Warburg identified the same electrical threat but this time from the technology of electrical simultaneity that collapsed the linear chains of causality on which the western Weltanschauung had been founded. But in keeping with Marnham’s desire to link places and peoples spirally, it isn’t simply the gravamen of Warburg’s argument that interests him: it’s the provenance of his research material, for the Hopi reservation where the sensitive scholar witnessed the primal ritual was only a few score miles away from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project scientists, under the direction of J Robert Oppenheimer, designed and built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Snake Dance is short on “the self that is secret” as against “the self that is known” but its readers will learn at least this much about its author: initially interested in writing a biography of Oppenheimer, Marnham tells us that early on in his research he began to find himself quite viscerally repelled by what he was learning of his subject’s character, with its curious mixture of intellectual arrogance and braggadocio. He decided to pursue a different course – to investigate the genesis and meaning of Oppenheimer’s mind-children through a series of nuclear landscapes; New Mexico, but also the Belgian Congo, where the uranium that made the fissioning heart of Little Boy was mined; and also the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan, following the meltdown after the tsunami of 2011.

Marnham, a veteran foreign correspondent with a distinguished record as both a journalist and a wide-ranging author of books about such diverse subjects as Georges Simenon, Jean Moulin and Mary Wesley, is in many ways the perfect guide for this centripetal odyssey in which all paths loop back towards a grim conclusion about the 20th century’s militarisation of technological advance. His prose is calm and unshowy, maintaining the same steady character whether recounting the terrifying course of an internal air flight in Congo or the toxic long tail that waggled out from Fukushima’s stricken reactor. He took a decade over Snake Dance, a book that is also, in part, a prose libretto for the moody and elegiac film of the same name made in tandem with the Belgian director Manu Riche. The book gives Marnham the opportunity to develop his thesis more thoroughly and less elliptically than the film, but even so it suffers from a form of post hoc reasoning that at times borders on tendentiousness.

The third person around whom Marnham triangulates his argument is Joseph Conrad and lengthy passages are devoted to retelling the story of the novelist’s short-lived career as a Congo River steamer captain and his exposure to the genocidal fiefdom established in Central Africa by King Leopold of Belgium. Marnham’s account, in situating the Belgian Congo as the foundational hecatomb of the 20th century, can’t help but bear comparison with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, which also makes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a choric link between natural devastation and techno-death.

Unfortunately – and somewhat inevitably – Marnham comes out the worse. Not only is Sebald’s lapidary prose, his masterful interfusing of the real and the fictive, superior in tone and feel to Marnham’s writing but his form of documentary fiction is better suited to putting forward a thesis that depends less on logical deduction than a willingness to let drop one’s disbelief in the chains of causality that Aby Warburg saw as crucial to maintaining good mental health in the electrical age. In his collection of lectures On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald also lucidly expounded the thesis that lurks behind Marnham’s text; and this is, put bluntly, that military technology has an ineluctable productive inertia. The Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War –which many, despite the inauguration last year of a pig-ugly memorial at Hyde Park Corner, still view as a prima facie war crime –was, according to Sebald, undertaken not for strategic reasons, nor simply as a punishment meted out to civilians for their collective culpability in Hitler’s wars and deranging atrocities, but because the bombers had been built, the crews trained and the ordinance manufactured. To justify the expense of all this, something had to be done with it.

Snake Dance applies this argument to the Manhattan Project, which, Marnham demonstrates, was initiated in advance of Pearl Harbor, when the US was still at peace, and further was prosecuted by a secret directorate, answerable to no democratic mandate. Even those who might wish to defend the Hiroshima bombing as essential to end the war (and this is by no means a defensible position: the Japanese were already suing for peace) can hardly claim that it was also necessary to incinerate tens of thousands of people at Nagasaki three days later, before the Japanese government had absorbed the impact of the first use of the atomic bomb.

Although these are urgent and important matters – all the more so because the global gaze, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has turned aside from the ever-present atrocity-in-waiting of nuclear war to concentrate its attention on the convenient and largely chimerical spectre of international terrorism – I’m afraid Marnham’s account, leaning heavily as it does on Richard Rhodes’s monumental The Making of the Atomic Bomb, adds little of substance.

Still, Marnham does have the solid virtue of boots on the ground. He writes penetratingly about the activities of the Belgian mining corporation at Shinkolobwe, speaks to the poor souls who now risk their lives to wrest a livelihood from the uranium workings deep in the jungle; and he is almost lyrical when he turns his attention to the beauty of the “America deserta” surrounding Los Alamos.

Where I found it harder to follow him was in his connection of the civil nuclear energy programme in Japan to the fomenting of the US military-industrial complex. He points out that the US government was the most persistent proponent of Japan’s programme and that the reactors – including those at Fukushima – were built by General Electric, often on woefully unsuitable sites, with the consequences that we have now seen.

In a way Marnham is simply a victim of his own clarity and lucidity: the Sebaldian contention depends for its terpsichorean effects on the numinous quality of the poetic truth that humanity has, for over a century now, been engaged in the mechanical annihilation of the thing that it loves. Put down starkly on the page as an accumulation of facts, this thesis risks being judged with the same kind of bean-counting mentality that enters unthinkingly into modern warfare as the extension of economic growth by other means.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser