Matthew Walther

What makes mankind behave so atrociously? Ian Buruma and Joanna Bourke investigate

Two books tackle the subject of violence in strikingly different ways

The first interaction between two men recorded in the Bible involves a murder. In the earliest classic of English literature, one of the murderer’s descendants has his arm ripped from its socket by a young warrior who celebrates his gruesome victory by drinking himself blotto; the next day, our hero wakes up (not hungover, apparently) and kills his opponent’s mother.

Not my cup of tea, Beowulf, or, perhaps, yours. But this is what literature was like until the 18th century or so, when the stakes were lowered and people began writing about inheritances, bishoprics and low-key adultery. Ian Buruma is interested in the other, older kind of story because, as he puts it in the introduction to this wonderful collection of his essays, ‘I am fascinated by what makes the human species behave so atrociously.’

Buruma, who studied Chinese literature at a Dutch university before reporting on Japanese politics for a British newspaper and, eventually, settling down at an American college, seems to have been everywhere and read and seen everything. It shows in Theater of Cruelty, which gathers together 28 pieces from the New York Reviewof Books. Few critics could have written with authority, much less with interest, about half of these topics: Harry Kessler’s diaries, the films of Leni Riefenstahl and Werner Herzog and Clint Eastwood, the Nanking massacre, avant-garde sculpture, kamikazes, the Palestinian economy.

Reading through these essays reminded me of why, as a teenager, I liked the NYRB. Why finish school when here was an education in itself, complete with all the clever titbits one could need in a lifetime of highbrow lunches? ‘Re-reading The Trial, eh? You know Alan Bennett wrote a great play about Kafka. Two actually. In his diaries he tells a great story about the time.…’

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in