The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy
by Daniel Kalder
Henry Holt, 2018, 400 pp.
The Scottish writer Daniel Kalder has set himself an unenviable task. Like Morgan Spurlock, the filmmaker who ate only McDonald’s for a month to expose the hazards of fast food, Kalder consumed the least appealing of literary diets to reveal the inner workings of the “dictatorial soul.” Or so he hoped when, in 2009, he began to study the books published by twentieth-century tyrants. He read widely, from Lenin’s bricks of theory to Mao’s pocket-sized aphorisms. Even Kim Jong-il’s treatise On the Art of the Cinema (1973) made the cut.
In the timely The Infernal Library, Kalder tries to wrestle this “krakatoa-like eruption of despotic verbiage” into a coherent literary tradition. It is a tall order. Kalder finds Gaddafi’s once-ubiquitous The Green Book so laughably incoherent as to defy interpretation. Saddam Hussein’s historical romances about unrequited love seem to have been written more for his own pleasure than for his public’s. Hitler, the master orator, hated writing. And Mao’s 1937 essay “On Contradiction” is so “intricate and useless” that “reading it is like staring at a detailed model of a ship inside a bottle: you wonder how its creator got in there, while also thinking that the energy would have been much better spent doing something else.” You start to wonder the same thing about Kalder’s own investment in these texts. On the one hand, he comes close to admitting that most of the works he reads are trivial exercises in strongman vanity. On the other, he keeps insisting that they are worth reading as historical records, even when they are barely readable as prose.
Unfortunately, much of the writing in The Infernal Library is as “soul-killing” as that of the dictators under review. “There were protests, there was terrorism, there were strikes and riots” is how Kalder describes the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. A few pages later we find Lenin reaching up “from the page to hand you the crack pipe of revolution for another hit of the good shit.” Kalder has a weakness for grating epithets. Lenin is a “master troll, king of the flame war”; Stalin, “the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags”; Mussolini, a “proto-Richard Dawkins throwing rhetorical firecrackers at a series of straw men.” Clichés and dead metaphors mingle freely. Here is his characterization of the books published by Stalin’s followers: “Oceans of ink flooded forests of trees in a Guttenbergian literary apocalypse, as the ink was corralled and coerced into assuming alphabetic shapes, arranged and rearranged in a Babel of tongues that, once decoded, nevertheless amounted to variations on the same old tripe.”
All of this is worth remarking on, if only because it illustrates Kalder’s indifference to language, politics, and history. He seems unwilling to concede that even the most evil men never acted alone, and shows little interest in the role that the United States played in propping up some of these leaders. Instead, fruitless counterfactuals abound. “Had Stalin’s mother never sent him to the seminary he never would have learned to read and never would have discovered the works of Marx or Lenin,” he writes, in one of several attempts to emphasize the harms of literacy. “Had Mussolini’s sense of timing been better—that is to say, had he managed to drop dead in the first half of the 1930s—history would have been much kinder to him,” he later suggests of the Italian fascist. And so on. Kalder is so dismissive of the tyrants’ actual ideas that it becomes difficult to understand why they had any power in the first place.
In the place of political analysis, one encounters textual pedantry—a fascination with chapter titles, the number of times certain words appear in a book, the color of the ink used in the margins. Through this narrow lexicographical focus, The Infernal Library becomes, as Kalder says of Stalin’s précis of Marxist-Leninism, “almost purely textual, a record of the clash between good proper nouns and evil proper nouns.”
The most evil of these proper nouns—worse, for Kalder, it would appear, than Stalin or Lenin or Mao—is Karl Marx. With more than a hint of strong-leader worship, Kalder is eager to note that Marx, unlike the latter dictators, was a “titanic loser.” As evidence of this indisputable fact, Kalder asks us to consider “that when Karl Marx died in 1883, a mere eleven people attended his funeral.” This argument would seem laughable if it wasn’t issued with total seriousness. Kalder’s main trouble with Marx is the “ninety-four million corpses produced by tyrants citing his texts as inspiration.” It is a familiar critique that sweeps the whole of communist thought into one dustbin, but rather than probing it—say, by attending to why Marx’s texts were at once seductive, prone to misreading, and necessary to contextualize—Kalder moves on. In his sophomoric Marxist treasure hunt, everything leads back to Marx, even if it’s only to point out when someone didn’t read him.
Its bluster notwithstanding, The Infernal Library puts forth a strong case for attending closely to the rantings of madmen. In many of the works that Kalder reads, the authors elaborated, in no uncertain terms, what they were going to do before they did it. “In its pages,” a German historian quoted by Kalder says of Mein Kampf, “Hitler announced—long before he came to power—a program of blood and terror in a self-revelation of such overwhelming frankness that few among its readers had the courage to believe it.” Kalder holds the same to be true of Lenin and Stalin, whose books were initially met with public indifference. It’s a theme that he sounds again and again. In secular Iran, no one expected a fundamentalist revolution. Thus the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power “without raising many flags, even though he had produced an extensive bibliography that openly telegraphed, and in detail, his less than progressive views on a multitude of subjects.”
But while some of these works may have been under-examined in their time, it’s worth asking whether it’s necessary to revisit them today. When does exposure become propaganda? If left alone, might some of these deplorable ideas finally go away?
A promising approach might be found in the 2016 German reprinting of Mein Kampf, which had not been published in the country since 1945. The two-volume edition appeared with a special layout: Hitler’s original text was placed on the upper right of a two-page spread, and commentary from a reputable team of historians on the left. Their 3,500 academic annotations aimed to defuse any propagandistic effect while also educating the public about the book’s dangers. “We wanted literally to surround Hitler with our comments,” one of the annotators told the New York Times in 2015.
Kalder is less optimistic about this tactic. “While the impulse to confront bad ideas rather than wish them away through a ban is admirable,” he writes, “it is hard to resist the conclusion that the existence of this annotated Mein Kampf indicates an unawareness of a simple truth on the part of its highly educated editors—that arguing with a fanatic is almost always a waste of time.” And yet most of Kalder’s own book achingly tries to do just that, attempting to apply a moral framework to works that are morally bankrupt.
“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1946 in Anti-Semite and Jew. “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” It is a classic dance: major media outlets continue to insist that white supremacists can’t mean all of the awful things that they say, since what they say doesn’t make sense.
As The Infernal Library makes abundantly clear, dic lit’s defining characteristic is its irrationality. That Kalder found nearly all of these dictators’ ideas tedious, incomprehensible, and illogical should not surprise us. These authors intend to numb and fray our sense of the rational. They are contemptuous of facts. Their propositions are not put forth for compromise. Any truths they contain are provisional, since all that really matters is the brute force of their lies.
Ava Kofman is a writer living in Brooklyn.