The Good Polemicist

The Good European: Essays and Arguments
, Iain Bamforth
(16.95, 317pp, Carcanet)

The splendid thing about writing (and reading) essays such as these is that one seems freed of the burden of proof, which for the reader feels rather daring, risque, and even vertiginous. It is a legacy of my profession as a lecturer, that I am worn to a wraith correcting the sweeping generalisations that litter undergraduate essays. I will die muttering weakly, 'where's your evidence?' So it takes my breath away to read, in Iain Bamforth's essays, 'Walter Benjamin thought Atget's photographs resembled those of the scene of a crime' with no hint of where Benjamin said this, or why or when ('Overwhelmed by Aura'); or that Rousseau was known as Mr Ross Hall by locals in Wootton during his exile in England ('The Continuing Adventures of Mr Ross Hall, Esq.') without the buttress of reassuring footnotes. Indeed, giddy as I am at the idea, Bamforth could have made this up.

Of course, he hasn't: 'witty, informed and opinionated' are what the editor of this journal exhorts his reviewers to be, but Bamforth has beaten me to it, and while his wit and opinion may incite, aggravate or elicit a felt 'yes!', it is his 'informed' that really inspires. The man must never have his nose out of a book, yet he seems to have been everywhere, and not just on a flying visit, or after the event. In 'Berlin Diary' he records the aftermath of the falling of the Wall, or rather he records his being there at that moment - and naturally, Bamforth is staying in a flat above a brothel disguised as a dentist's. So very Isherwood (and I can't decide whether I need to stay in - and read more - or get out more!). Bamforth combines compassion and erudition in his wanderings; he is the immediate flaneur, reviving indeed, that tired idea, gazing around at hungry East Germany as it gorges on the modernity it finds in West Berlin (history in the making), but also the wistful flaneur jostling the shades of Auden, Nabokov, Benjamin, and yes, Isherwood, Wolfe, de Beauvoir and her husband (history made). He is right to do so, for not only does this map for us, everyone's dreamily decadent Berlin, but reminds us simply, how scarred by partition Berlin has been. He observes how: 

     [i]n her diaries, Simone de Beauvoir mentions walking
     several times the length of the Kurferstendamm and through
     the Brandenburg Gate to the Alexanderplatz. Nobody, of
     course, has been able to do that in three decades.

The art of understatement is alive and well. It is part of Bamforth's cool precision that he can leave us reeling, at the political absurdity that means attempts to cross a border one day risk death, and yet, the next, the state is practically running bus trips. Bamforth too crosses the border, over into East Berlin, which is as bleak as one might expect, as bleak in fact, as Bamforth's native Glasgow. No need to spell that one out.

The title essay is about Nietzsche and ironically, about Nietzsche's resistance to travel, as if his success at being European was to be almost physically unable to venture too far from its centre. The physical endeavour is not the point, however. As Bamforth's Nietzsche has it, the 'good European' means not having to be German, but rather being able 'allude freely to sources in Greek and Roman, French and Italian history'. There is something of the Good Enlightenment about the Good European then, and this is true also of the Good Polemicist. Polemic? The art or practice of dispute, the dictionaries say, reductively in my opinion, as if dispute could not be layered, complex and nuanced. Wendell V Harris has outlined a genre called the 'personal' essay, which is 'built on an individual's thoughtful, unhurried refection on certain experiences that seem to have an interesting significance', that offers 'untamed pronouncement[s]', and that 'even while presenting inner debates, seems to say, "here I stand, this
is where my honestly described thoughts lead me." ' He could have been describing Bamforth's collection.

          Kym Martindale 2008