Books: Circles of Perdition

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THE MEANING OF TREASON (307 pp.)—Rebecca West—Viking ($3.50).

When, in 1936, General Emilio Mola announced that he would capture Madrid because he had four columns outside the city and a fifth column of sympathizers within, the world pounced on the phrase with the eagerness of a man who has been groping for an important word. The world might better have been stunned as by a tocsin of calamity. For what Mola had done was to indicate the dimension of treason in our time.

Other ages have had their individual traitors—men who from faintheartedness or hope of gain sold out their causes. But in the 20th Century, for the first time, men banded together by millions, in movements like fascism and communism, dedicated to the purpose of betraying the institutions they lived under. In the 20th Century, treason became a vocation whose modern form was specifically the treason of ideas.

Modern man was challenged to choose between the traditions of a 2,000-year-old Christian civilization and the new totalitarian systems which, in the name of social progress, contended for the allegiance of man's secular mind. The promise of the new ideas was as old as that serpentine whisper heard in the dawn of the Creation: "You shall become as gods"—for the first traitor was the first man.

And yet, though the new ideas had been violently avowed, and the hallmark of their advocates was a fanaticism unknown since the first flush of Islam, wherever the fanatics were brought to trial, almost without exception they failed to defend their beliefs. Why?

A book published in the U.S. this week, The Meaning of Treason, is a clue to this clouded question.

The Book. The Meaning of Treason is a collection of Rebecca West's reports of the trials of a number of British World War II traitors. She covered the trials on assignment for the New Yorker, where her articles (now expanded and revised) were first published. But the idea was her own, and she could scarcely have chosen a better person for the job.

Rebecca West is a novelist of note ( The Thinking Reed), a distinguished literary critic (The Strange Necessity). But, above all, as she proved in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (TIME, Nov. 17, 1941), she is one of the greatest of living journalists.

Most reporters report in one dimension, achieving at best the dramatic surface of a mural or a movie. Rebecca West reports in depth—a depth whose winding recesses of character, situation and context she divines by the play of unusually acute instincts and intuitions guided by an eye for significant detail. And she floods the planes of her perception with the generous human warmth of a womanly nature and a culture-crowded brain that gives to the meanest fact a new perspective.

The treason trials, as she records them, were not just the raw pulp of daily news, tatters of irrelevant wretchedness or cold inquests of justice upon a succession of dingy destinies. They become three-dimensional—as events in a process of history, which Miss West views as organic and continuously alive; as ordeals of a common humanity, which the men on trial shared with the men who tried them; as glimpses of a common hell, which all men know (since all men betray themselves continually), but know less terribly than those traitors who in addition had betrayed their fellows.

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