By Jody Moylan
All of a sudden, I feel like Karl Marx. And no, despite what you might be thinking, I haven’t become a socialist revolutionary over night, or a man whose influence will decide the fate of nations (though both are on my bucket list). No, it’s because, like Karl, I am writing in conditions of profound chaos. I was flicking through a biography of the great Prussian last week, when I really ought to have been studying. I discovered that for all his legend and cool-cat status, Marx was a bit of a disaster when it came to organising himself. Now, I don’t think I’ve got the personal hygiene issues that Karl never sorted out (though you tell me), nor the chronic financial anxieties (though I ain’t rich), the status of exile, nor the personal tragedies either. But I do feel his pain about ‘the long days and nights of frenzied reading and writing, followed by collapses into exhaustion’.
Yes, the pressure is well and truly on, and Christmas now seems like many moons ago. There are a few deadlines looming, goose-stepping steadily towards me. As a third year, it seems like I’ve been living with these deadlines for a long time now; constantly tip-tapping away at the back of my mind. But I’ve got this far, and I have to believe the work will get done; it always does. In any case, the modules I’m studying this semester are very interesting, and it’s not the worst way to be spending your time — that’s why I’m back here after all.
Coincidentally, given that it’s back in the news, the Holocaust has come up in our history syllabus. It really is fascinating stuff. I’m particularly thinking about our latest readings, namely the rise of the Third Reich, and the plummeting of civilised German society. I remember looking at a brilliant lecture series on YouTube by John Merriman, on European Civilisation. He’s a famous name to anyone who studies European history and one thing I remember from those lectures was when he talked about Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, which we’re now reading. I had somehow imagined that those Nazi soldiers we’ve gotten used to seeing in films like Schindler’s List were the real deal; the raw, robotic embodiment of hate they’ve been portrayed as. And that’s probably what they were, when they crossed that line, and left the real world behind. But in Ordinary Men, we get to see them before all that. Those screaming monsters who had entered the ghettos had once been truck drivers and dock workers. They’d worked in warehouses and on building-sites. They had once been machine operators, sea-men, and waiters. When, all along, you’d thought they couldn’t have been from your world, the realisation that they were, that they’d once been ‘ordinary men’ is somehow, in some ways, the most disturbing thing you’ll ever read. Browning’s is a great book, doing what great books do; telling you something you never knew.
In a similar vein, my new history research project, on Ireland’s famine of 1817, is uncovering all sorts of interesting information that I’d really known nothing about. It’s a forgotten period, overshadowed in popular imagination by the Great Famine, but 1817 is a fertile ground for research, with online databases like the Irish Newspaper Archives and the British Parliamentary Papers giving us not just a glimpse, but a whole story of life in Ireland two centuries ago. The fever epidemic that followed that famine lasted right up until 1819, and maybe now is the right time to be remembering it, exactly 200 years on.
One topic we’ve not covered yet has been World War One, but I made time recently to get to the cinema to see 1917. From the advertising shots, I went in expecting something like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, an edgy and dark film, unique and powerful, with a lingering effect. I was left disappointed by 1917, a forgettable movie that played up to sentiment and cliché and gave us nothing new. Somewhat better was Uncut Gems; a film I caught last week, before all those deadlines began to march in my direction. Adam Sandler as the lead plays a bumbling, chaotic, and completely unlikeable character, but you can’t for one second take your eyes off him. Now that’s a sign of great writing.
Hopefully, when I hand in my assignments, my own writing will at least be readable. And though I should have read more of Marx last year, when we studied him, at least I learned something worthwhile this time round: no matter how chaotic his life, he always managed, in the end, to get everything he was doing done.