Unfeeling and Embodiment in the Balkans in the 1930s: Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

By Nicola Dimitriou

Rebecca West, in recent years, has been rediscovered in her own right. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) [1], Andrew Hammond highlights, is a prime example of a travelogue that would ‘most surely be considered one of the greatest works of the modernist period if only it had not been written in a genre (travel writing) and on a region (Eastern Europe) marginalised alike in British literary studies’ [2]. Timothy Wientzen also described it is a ‘massively ambitious 1941 travelogue’ which offers a ‘meditation on the history and culture of the Balkans [;] … a region West (rightly) feared would soon come under the domination of fascism’ [3]. The text was importantly written on the brink of World War II; it is a close examination of the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia, discussing three trips that West took between 1936 and 1938 while interweaving her travel narrative with a thorough history and ethnography of the region.

West begins her journey by travelling to Zagreb and is shown the city by Constantine, a poet and a Serb, and two Croats, the mathematician Valetta, a young separatist, and a journalist, Marko Gregorievitch, a believer in the nation of a united Yugoslavia. Throughout the book, West discusses her views on politics, society, feminism and fascism. In this context, West demonstrates unfeeling in a number of instances as an attempt to discuss the multiple races, ethnicities and nationalities in the borderland that the Balkans constituted, between the West and the East. In the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘unfeeling’ is described as a noun and an adjective. As a noun, it is defined as ‘lack of feeling’ while as an adjective, the entries offer further depth such as ‘having no feeling or sensation, insensible; figurative not sensitive to impressions’ and ‘devoid of kindly or tender feelings; uncompassionate, unsympathetic’ [4]. This fact, namely, that my research had not come across many instances of feeling in West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, intrigued me, as West undoubtedly was, and is, a female writer renowned for never failing to express her opinion, thoughts and political voice. This led me to want to further research this lack of feeling and attempt to answer the question: why did such a strongly opinionated female writer not express feeling?

The following, longer passage, in which West describes Gregorievitch, Valetta and Constantine, is a prime example:

They are standing in the rain, and they are all different and they are all the same. They greet us warmly, and in their hearts they cannot greet each other, and they dislike us a little because it is to meet us that they are standing beside their enemies in the rain. We are their friends, but we are made from another substance. The rich passions of Constantine, the intense, graceful, selected joys and sorrows of Valetta, and Gregorievitch’s gloomy Great Danish nobility are all cut from the same primary stuff, though in very dissimilar shapes. Sitting in our hotel room, drinking wine, they showed their unity of origin. A door opens, they twitch and swivel their heads, and the movement is the same. When these enemies advance on each other, they must move at the same tempo.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon [5].

Unfeeling, in the above instance, is found in collaboration with affect theory. As Sara Ahmed points out, ‘maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it”, to agree to where [one is] placed. To refuse to be placed would mean to be seen as trouble, as causing discomfort for others’ [6]. Gregorievitch, Constantine and Valetta have to remain placed, in the order they were put, ‘agree to where [they are] placed’, and should demonstrate unfeeling towards one another so that West and her party do not sense discomfort. This ‘critical discourse of emotion’ and the forces between their bodies have offered these marginal Balkan figures the ability to ‘forcefully question the privilege and stability of individualized actants possessing self-derived agency’ that West owns [7]. It is only through their bodies and their awkward stance that they are able to show their dissatisfaction for the manner in which they have been placed, waiting forcefully and obediently to welcome their Western guests, for whom they are forced to hide their feelings and demonstrate unfeeling. Deborah Nelson also highlights that ‘affect theory is a nexus in which painful emotion is studied’, which, at first glance, seems to be in conflict with unfeelingness [8]. For her, affect theory is ‘a source of dread in studies of crowds, masses, and fascism in the first half of the twentieth century’; indeed, it is so in West’s work, when the forces between the bodies and the analysis through affect theory bring to the surface West’s worries about fascism in Europe [9].

Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg describe affect theory as the ‘ever-gathering accretion of force-relations that lie the powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected’; about ‘belonging and non-belonging to a world’ [10]. The bodies of the characters described in the quotation, as described by Seigworth and Gregg, are interacting with one another and the smallest of movements, such as the manner in which they ‘twitch and swivel their heads’, betray these intensities and the similarities that exist between them. Superficially, they wish to be different due to political circumstances linked to war and tensions. On a deeper level, however, their bodies are naturally drawn to one another and imitate each other’s movements, as they all belong to this world, a world in which West, rightly so, considers herself an outsider, notwithstanding her knowledge on the history and area.

West also practices detachment and unfeeling in order to take a scientific or sociological view of the Balkans, thus echoing Barbara Laslett’s thoughts that ‘scientists characterise their work as nonemotional to differentiate science from nonscience as they compete with others for social respect and resources’ [11]. By becoming nonemotional and describing painful and difficult situations in an objective, cold manner, West fancied herself as a ‘realist of a certain kind’ which meant adopting a kind of ‘toughness’ that ‘demanded a heightened sensitivity to reality, just not to other people’s emotions’ [12]. Unfeeling, therefore, is seen as a way in which to validate her journalistic opinion on the three men’s feelings for one another and about the political situation. She wanted her voice to be seen as equally valid to scientists’ conclusions and findings and to, consequently, be held in esteem.

West tried to adopt a realistic, distant viewpoint, which could only be achieved through unfeeling, but which she believed could echo, for instance, Valetta’s words, such as when she used the phrase ‘unjust authority’ to describe his feelings she assumed he felt towards Yugoslavia [13]. These words are hers, but she makes them become Valetta’s and how she imagines he feels for Yugoslavia. She undertakes a similar path for all characters; she fabricates and creates their reality and emotions according to her own perspective, under the façade of scientific and journalistic objectivity and under the prism of unfeelingness.

In conclusion, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a means for West to express her unfeeling towards a multitude of subjects, issues, people and races, in order to demonstrate scientific objectivity in a world and society that doubted her claims and ability to be serious. She demonstrates a conflicting attitude towards these subjects, as she does present their bodies, mind and expressions as naturally similar to one another, but she also demonstrates how external circumstances have influenced this natural relationship. Her inner-conflicting attitude is a prime example of a modernist text and author, one that demonstrates conflict with one’s self and who alters their attitude depending on the changing context and influences. West is anything but clear, when travelling, in her demonstration of unfeeling regarding the Balkans, its politics and its people. On the contrary, this reading of the time’s context, as well as of West’s description of the people, demonstrates that she reformed, hid or appropriately demonstrated unfeeling. When doing so, as a female writer with Western political power over words and politics, she was completely dependent on her ulterior goal which was to influence the political circumstances and express her hopes and fears for Britain and Europe’s future.

Nicola Dimitriou is a 2nd Year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is currently working on a thesis that looks at how walking, embodiment, as well as the figure of the urban and rural flâneur are used in modernist texts in order to express a political stance against power – be that capitalism, overt liberalism or fascism. She holds an MA in English Studies from the University of Nottingham. Her MA thesis focused on the figure of the white woman as the racial ‘Other’ in three short stories by D. H. Lawrence.

[1] Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2006).

[2] Andrew Hammond, ‘Memoirs of conflict: British women travellers in the Balkans’, Studies in Travel Writing, 14 (2010), 57-75 (p. 66).

[3] Timothy Wientzen, ‘An Epic of Atmosphere: Rebecca West, Black Lamb, and Reflex Author(s)’, Journal of Modern Literature, 38 (2015), 57-73 (p. 59).

[4] Search, ‘unfeeling, n.’ in Oxford English Dictionary https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/213270?rskey=fFHRDQ&result=2#eid [accessed 20 February 2022].

[5] West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 86.

[6] Sara Ahmed, ‘Happy Objects’ in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, (Durham, North Caroline: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 39.

[7] Gregory J. Seigworth & Melissa Gregg, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in Affect Theory Reader, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 8.

[8] Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Seigworth and Gregg, p. 2. [1] Barbara Laslett, ‘Unfeeling Knowledge: Emotion and Objectivity in the History of Sociology’, Sociological Forum, 5(1990), 413-433 (p. 414).

[11] Barbara Laslett, ‘Unfeeling Knowledge: Emotion and Objectivity in the History of Sociology’, Sociological Forum, 5(1990), 413-433 (p. 414).

[12] Nelson, p. 10. It is also worthy to highlight that, as James Chandler explains in his work, Archeology of Sympathy, ‘sentimental’ had become permanently and irrevocably associated with bad taste and moral simplicity and ‘unsentimentality’ with good taste and moral acuity. See James Chandler, Archeology of Sympathy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). [1]

[13] West, p. 85.

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