Author: Gustav Jönsson

How to Be a Dictator—A Review

A review of How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century by Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury Press (December 2019) 304 pages One of the first things to emerge from Professor Frank Dikötter’s eagerly awaited new book How to Be a Dictator is that it is a stressful vocation: there are rivals to assassinate, dissidents to silence, kickbacks to collect, and revolutions to suppress. Quite hard work. Even the most preeminent ones usually meet ignominious ends. Mussolini: summarily shot and strung upside down over a cheering crowd. Hitler: suicide and incineration. Ceausescu: executed outside a toilet block. Or consider the fate of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie: rumoured to have been murdered on orders of his successor Mengistu Haile Mariam, he was buried underneath the latter’s office desk. Not the most alluring career trajectory, one might say. Dikötter’s monograph is a study of twentieth century personality cults. He examines eight such cults: those created by Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier, Ceausescu, and Mengistu. For them, cultism was not mere narcissism, it was …

High Theory and Low Seriousness

Sixty years ago today, just as Henderson the Rain King was going to print, Saul Bellow penned an article for the New York Times in which he warned against the perils of deep reading. Paying too close attention to hidden meanings and obscure symbols takes all the fun from reading, he wrote. The serious reader spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to find profound representations in the most trivial of details. “A travel folder signifies Death. Coal holes represent the Underworld. Soda crackers are the Host. Three bottles of beer are—it’s obvious.” Moreover, deep reading is such an imprecise game that numerous dull and contradictory interpretations arise from the same passage. “Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville’s Pequod in Moby Dick can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous.” One man, Bellow wrote, had volunteered an explanation of Moby Dick as Ahab’s mad quest to overcome …