Some thoughts on ‘the Man in the High Castle’

“The Man in the High Castle” is one of the most haunting and intriguing films I’ve ever seen. This original Amazon series (2 seasons out ‘so far’) presents a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won the Second World War and divided the world between themselves. Most of the film is set in a dystopian United States in the 1960s made up of three political units, Nazi America – roughly two-thirds of the former U.S. – under the rule of the Greater Nazi Reich, the Pacific States in the west under Japanese control and a ‘Neutral Zone’ acting as a buffer between the two powers. Various sub-plots all answer to the main thread focussing on the ‘Resistance’, a movement bringing together various committed and reluctant freedom fighters all intent on disseminating mysterious reel films released by an equally mysterious figure referred to as the “Man in the High Castle”. The films are the fulcrum of the whole story and, in my opinion, the genius underlying the production (based on Philip Dick’s 1962 novel). The reels contain actual footage from the historic Second World War and the Cold War, but it is not explained how they can exist in this counterfactual world.

Although the storyline is occasionally maladroit and the actors’ performance lacks lustre and complexity, the film raises so many questions that its depths are almost unfathomable. It hits at the heart of historiography and ferociously challenges our comfortable notions of freedom, evil, and political totalitarianism. Orwellian in style and Tacitean in philosophy, it successfully promotes the idea that even under the worst of dictatorships, (some) men can be great – but their greatness is guaranteed, in this instance, by the redeeming power of imagination and transcendence. Salvation comes from above (the elusive ‘man in the high castle’), and through the inexplicable – for how can a Hitler in his seventies can watch a film about Khrushchev?

When left to themselves, the characters struggle with the inability to rise above the ethical predicament that they can only intuit. In this, they are indebted to Orwell’s critique of the human condition. However, when confronted with the possibility of the alternative that the reel films unveil, they are energised and given a new lease of life. Goodness is not so much the cause of the revolt, as its consequence. The cause of it is the transformative power of the counter-narrative, which makes disciples, spreads the good news and brings the system down. The film is bold enough, at the end of its second season – a third hasn’t been announced – to claim that the system is never down. Perhaps it can never be down. But the incomprehensible ‘dare!’ has the power to put it out of joint.

Perhaps no review can fully do justice to this film. The feeling I was left with after devouring its twenty or so episodes was one of sinister optimism. The micro-details of übertotalitarianism are all there, crude and disturbing, sometimes even too much, but they do the job. There’s even a caput-mundi-type of Berlin based on Hitler’s blueprints. What would our world be like if history had been different? That is the starting point. But more importantly, where exactly are we? Is our (apparent?) diversity of narratives today a guarantee of that counter-narrative that freedom can and will never be chained? For some of us, that counter-story was laid bare long ago, and it’s proved to be the reel film that kept our world from becoming a permanent dystopia. But that is another story.

Dante and the genius of hypertextuality

Dante’s Commedia remains, in my opinion, the archetype and the most accomplished exemplar of hypertextuality in European literature (no offense to Beckett fans).

It has been claimed that Virgil stands more indebted to Homer than Dante to Virgil. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Whilst there can be no doubt that in terms of form and content the Aeneid follows the Odyssey far more closely, the stylistic and narrative tentacles with which Dante reaches out to the author of the Aeneid are more complex and variegated. The chief evidence for this claim is the role given to Virgil in the Commedia. Homer doesn’t walk alongside Aeneas above or under the earth, nor does the Greek bard’s voice mediate between characters on stage the way Virgil does in the Inferno. In the Aeneid, Homer is a silent voice, the illustrious great-grandfather whose example is followed at a distance, with reverence and obsequiousness. In the Commedia, however, Virgil is a close, tangible friend (remarkably illustrated by Bouguereau – see image below), a liminal presence, straddling faith and disbelief, a bridge across two ontological and ethical worlds. In the Aeneid, Homer is never let go, the Greek mirror always held up to the Roman face. In the Commedia, Dante respects his friend enough to move past his guidance, staying true to himself, to Virgil and to the worldview which imposes limits on their respective movements and agencies.

It is worth remembering the assessment of the famous German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius, who underlined the importance in European literature of the Dante-Virgil hypertextual rendez-vous:

“The conception of Dante’s Commedia is based upon a spiritual meeting with Virgil. In the realm of European literature, there is little which may be compared with this phenomenon. The ‘awakening’ of Aristotle in the thirteenth century was the work of generations and took place in the cool light of intellectual research. The awakening of Virgil by Dante is an arc of flame which leaps from one great soul to another. The tradition of the European spirit knows no situation of such affecting loftiness, tenderness, fruitfulness. It is the meeting of the two greatest Latins.”

(European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York 1963, p. 358)



Donaldus anas atque nox Saraceni

This reminds me of that line from Jurassic Park, ‘Nature finds a way’. Latin always finds a way. Funny, progressive liberals have always thought Latin to be a sitting duck in the curriculum. I’m not quite sure about that.

Next on my waiting list, ‘Donaldus Turpe ad potestatis summum’


Nel sottobosco di Internet siamo riusciti a recuperare questo vecchio albo della Disney in latino, dal titolo Donaldus Anas atque nox Saraceni, edito dall’European Language Institute di Recanati nel 1984.

Lo condividiamo volentieri con voi tutti: per scaricarlo è sufficiente cliccare sull’immagine sottostante! Continuate a seguirci su GrecoLatinoVivo!


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The use and abuse of books 1450-1550 (Cambridge Univ. exhibition)

“The development of the printing press in Mainz in the 1450s was immediately recognized as a pivotal moment by contemporaries. Its impact was monumental, heralding a communication revolution akin to the birth of the internet and leading to the slow but inevitable decline of the manuscript as the dominant means of transmission. Fundamental to our understanding of the reception of this seismic event is the evidence left within books themselves. Over the past twenty-five years researchers have focussed increasingly on the marks left by early readers, as a means of assessing how books were used, how and where they moved, their trade, impact and audience.”

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Click here to be taken to the virtual exhibition


Aldus Manutius joins my library

I have recently bid on Ebay for a 1515 Aldine of Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticarum which I have now won. The book arrived today, and to say it’s pretty would be an understatement.


Aldus’ printer’s mark showing the famous anchor and dolphin



The colophon on the last page, which illustrates the close link between these early printed editions and the manuscript culture from which they grew. It shows the font used, the collation (assemblage of quires), printer and date (September 1515)


The binding is 18th-century French vellum, strong and well-matured


From 1495, humanist and printer Aldus Manutius (1452 – 1515) had published more than 120 editions of Greek and Latin works in Venice, earning himself a reputation for quality and innovation. He was the first to print books in octavo (pocket size), to establish the use of the semicolon and to develop the italic script invented by Niccolò de’ Niccoli in the early 15th century. Editions printed by Aldus and his successors are referred to as ‘Aldine’.

The book I purchased was printed in 1515, the year Aldus died. For some years, his father-in-law had been working with him and that is why the colophon reads: Venetiis in Aedibus Aldi, et Andreae Soceri. ([printed] in Venice, in the workshop of Aldus and Andreas, his father-in-law). The Aldine press ran until 1597.

The first edition (editio princeps) of Aulus Gellius’ work was printed in Rome in 1469. Before the 1515 Aldine came out, Aldus had published another edition, which was not deemed good enough.

Aldines were often counterfeited, but usually the difference in script quality left no doubts as to which was the original, and which the pirated copy. Moreover, counterfeiters would often leave the colophon out altogether. This book is clearly not a child of these printer buccaneers, but to tell you the truth, a part of me wishes that were the case, for the book would be worth so much more.

A digitised copy of the 1515 edition from the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna is freely available through this link.

It is worth having a look at this virtual exhibition on Aldus and his books from Cambridge University here.

For all you Italian speakers, there’s a detailed article on Aldus from Treccani here