Monday, 31 August 2009

Heresy and Belief


Christianity borrowed and adapted from older religions, and the New Testament is, arguably, little more than a palimpsest. But perhaps the objection is more fundamental than that. The original parchment is, of course, Judaism, and prior to the advent of St. Paul Christianity was little more than a Judaic heresy.

Yes, the foundation is Judaic but it proceeds by way of an almost total misunderstanding, or, perhaps, a deliberate perversion of the mother tradition. The Messiah, the anointed one, of the Old Testament, is a figure who combines both spiritual and political power. He comes as an earthly ruler and spiritual authority, a judge rather than a saviour of souls; his power is of this world. Mohammed might be said to have been such a figure, and there have been others, pretenders of one kind or another, in both the Jewish and the Muslim tradition. But Jesus is not to be perceived in such a light, for the simple reason that the Messiah was not and could not be the son of God. For if God is one, indivisible and absolute, such a claim is logically absurd; it is also heretical.

So, Christianity, as a religion, is founded on a fallacy, an error of interpretation, and a heresy. So, has belief in itself been enough to give life to their God, to their Messiah, to their Christ? Perhaps it has, but it has also given rise to theological and philosophical problems beyond all resolution. However, there is another question, even more fundamental. Is it possible for a mortal to become God? Would belief in itself be sufficient to invest you or me or any of us with divine and miraculous powers?

Well, again perhaps, though it is not a question that I can answer. All I will say that if it is possible to give life to a god it is equally possible to kill him, and the Christians have been doing that, in their several ways, for well over a century.

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars---and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

Churchill in the Wilderness


There is an awful lot of retrospective justification in Churchill's political career. From the hindsight of history we know that appeasement was a doomed policy; but there was simply no way of knowing this at the time. I would go so far as to say that appeasement was a rational and understandable policy taking all of the political, diplomatic and strategic factors into account. It was unheroic, yes, but it was necessarily unheroic. Neither Britain nor France was ready for war in 1936, or 1937, or 1938. They were only just ready in 1939, largely thanks to the time that Neville Chamberlain had bought at Munich. For along with seemingly spineless concessions to Hitler-and the unprincipled sacrifice of a central European ally-went a steady process of rearmament, particularly important for the RAF, which was to be the decisive defensive wing in 1940. Rearmament was not, of course, Chamberlain' chief aim; for that was simply to secure the peace. He failed, but it was not a failure without consequence.

It is important to see Churchill's 'prescience' in a far wider political and personal context, which might help people to understand why he stood alone on this issue, as on so many others. You see, Churchill was not just opposed to the appeasement of Germany; he was opposed to all forms of appeasement. Put another way: he was opposed to political compromise on issues of fundamental importance to the interests of the British Empire, as he conceived those interests.

The emphasis here is important, for it entailed a refusal to entertain any kind of compromise, even in forms that most people, including the bulk of his own Party, considered perfectly reasonable. For example, he refused to entertain the proposal, again accepted by his own party, that India should aim for Dominion status within the Empire. For Churchill any understanding with Ghandi and Congress was, almost by definition, 'betrayal', attacked in the same way he was later to attack attempts to reach an understanding with Germany. Here was the arch-reactionary, the voice of the Tory ultras, whom no less a figure than Sir Samuel Hoare believed was aiming to smash the government and introduce some sort of undemocratic and Fascist rule in Britain and the Empire. Ridiculous, of course; but it remains true that Churchill's 'warnings' over India and Europe began to seem more and more out of touch, more and more unreasonable and reactionary, the voice of the past. Hardly surprising when one considers that in the preface to My Early Life, written in the summer of 1930, he bemoaned all of the political and economic changes in British society since the Victorian era, including universal suffrage.

Even before Hitler, true to his unique style, he was warning against disarmament, a principle universally strived for, describing the 1932 Geneva talks on the subject as 'mush, slush and gush.' In the Commons his speeches came close to war-mongering, and were generally perceived as such. His seeming lack of judgement was confirmed in 1936 during the Abdication crisis, when he threatened to form a 'King's party', even though there were great constitutional issues at stake, even though almost all opinion in Parliament was against Edward. It was at this point that his political stock sank to its lowest. He subsequently sought to recover by pronouncements on foreign policy. But he now had the reputation of being 'unsound' on almost all issues. In the Commons his denunciation of the Munich Agreement was seem merely as more of the same old stuff; the same old uncompromising Winston, full of hot air and bellicose intentions, unrealistic in every degree. It was fortunate for him, and his future reputation that history, at least in this one instance, proved him to be in the right

Shakespeare Causes a Riot!


In February 1934 the government of Eduard Daladier, reacting to an anti-parliamentary interpretation that had been placed on a new production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus by the right-wing pressure group, Action Française, banned further performances of the play. In the growing heat engendered by the Stavisky Affair, a scandal that exposed extensive political and financial corruption, members of the group appeared in the theatre in force, cheering on the play's denunciations of political leaders.

In Action Française, the movement's newspaper, praise of Coriolanus was used as an excuse to attack French democracy; to hurl accusations of corruption and villainy against the republic and its institutions in the light of every fresh revelation about Alexandre Stavisky, a Jewish financier and embezzler. Circulation shot up as Action Française urged people to come and protest in large numbers at the Chamber of Deputies, the first time in history, so far as I am aware, that Shakespeare contributed towards a major political riot-and a French one at that!


Sunday, 30 August 2009

Age and Wisdom

I'm reminded of the brief exchange between Lear and the Fool;

Fool: If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'ld have thee beaten

for being old before thy time.

KING LEAR: How's that?

Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst

been wise.


Alas, my trouble is that I am wise before I am old. :))



Of a Gay King and a Red Hot Poker



It is often claimed that James I was homosexual, though this is a contention that cannot be proved conclusively; it is unknown and unknowable. This is also true of Edward II, though to a far lesser degree, and there is enough material to make out a good circumstantial case, if one were so minded. So, at my peril, here it is.

Piers Gaveston, Edward's greatest friend, was introduced into his household by his father, seemingly as a suitable role model for the young prince. Later the Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II was to claim that an immediate bond formed between the two; that Edward felt such regard that "he tied himself against all mortals with an indissoluble bond of love." The first contemporary reference we have is from a letter written by Edward himself in 1305, after the King had reduced his household, separating him from Gaveston and Gilbert de Clare, another young knight. In this he urges his sister Margaret to persuade Queen Margaret their step-mother, to intervene with the King to allow both men to return-"If we had those two, along with others we have, we would be greatly relieved of the anguish which we have endured and from which we continue to suffer from one day to the next."

Both were eventually restored, but in 1306 Gaveston was banished for unspecified reasons. He was only allowed to return after the King's death in the summer of 1307. It is now that expressions of disquiet become ever more evident in the sources, including that given by the Vita Edwardi Secundi. Robert of Reading goes even further in the Flores Historiarum, saying that Edward entered into 'illicit and sinful unions', rejecting the 'sweet embraces of his wife.' In the Chronicle written by John of Trokelowe, Edward no sooner brought his new bride, Isabella of France, to England after their marriage at Boulogne in 1308, than he rushed to greet Gaveston, showering him with 'hugs and kisses.' During the Queen's coronation Edward's attentions to Gaveston, and his neglect of his bride, caused her uncles, Louis de Everaux and Charles de Orleans to storm out in anger. That same summer Isabella wrote to Philip the Fair, her father, complaining of ill-treatment.

The final piece of evidence comes in the spring of 1312 when Edward fled in the company of Gaveston from the Baronial forces of Thomas of Lancaster, abandoning jewels, plate and his pregnant wife in his haste.

None of this amounts to a conclusive case-and one always has to be mindful of the bias in Medieval sources-, but it shows both an astonishing lack of judgement and degrees of intimacy with a single individual that exceeds all reasonable fraternal bonds; a degree of intimacy that would seem to go beyond mere considerations of personal loyalty. Edward was a king who came close to losing his throne not for the love of a woman but for his love of a man, in whatever form that was expressed.

He was later deposed by Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, disappearing behind the walls of Pontefract Castle, where it was later claimed that his bowels were burnt out by the insertion of a red hot poker, a comment, I think, by chroniclers on his supposed sexual tastes

Hadrian and the Jews


Hadrian showed little sympathy or understanding towards the Jews of the Empire. From the outset his new settlement Aelia Capitolina, built on the ruins of Jerusalem, was intended as a wholly pagan city, to be populated by Roman soldiers.

Hadrian must have known that to erect what was for all practical purposes a military garrison on the sacred city of the Jews was an immense provocation. There was no magnanimity or generosity in the action, no attempt to pacify the local people, or to remind them that their Emperor had their well-being at heart. Jews were specifically forbidden to enter the new settlement, except for one day a year. But the most serious affront of all was the erection of the Temple of Jupiter on the foundations of the Second Temple, an unmistakable symbol of Jewish subjugation and humiliation. It would seem that Hadrian could not have done more to provoke the Bar Kokhba revolt, whether that was his intention or not.

Weimar and the Freikorps


Consider the political circumstances in Germany in November and December of 1918, where an old system of rule had died but a new one was yet to be born. Friedrich Ebert, the new Social Democratic Chancellor, stressed that the task before him, the object of the German Revolution itself, was to create a stable parliamentary democracy. The challenge to this came not from the right but from the left; from people like Rosa Luxembourg, who responded sarcastically "Oh how German this German Revolution is! How proper, how pedantic, how lacking in verve and grandeur." This was a view shared by her comrades in the extreme left Spartacist League, soon to be reconstituted as the Communist Party of Germany. Over much of Germany the fragile republic came under challenge, with major risings in Berlin in January and March 1919. At first Ebert and his Minister of Defence, Gustav Noske looked to their allies in the trade union movement to provide militia forces. When no such support was offered they were obliged to turn elsewhere. It was Kurt von Schleicher, a career officer, who offered a solution to a serious problem-and that solution was the newly-organised Freikorps.

Who were they? Young men, essentially, uprooted by war, who had grown in a cult of violence; men with no past employment and no family; men who were motivated, first and foremost, not by politics, but by the appeal of adventure. A great many of them had actually been trained as Stormtroopers, the elite strike force of the Imperial Army, who wished to continue in service, or whose opportunity to serve had been frustrated by the sudden end of the war. Politically, the natural home for many of these individuals was in the nationalist right, though only a minority joined the new formations for political reasons alone. As many as 25% of the Freikorps volunteers had trained as officers. A large number of these were men of middle class origin who had received battlefield commissions, and were unhappy about losing the social and personal prestige associated with this. Even more were students or cadets, too young to have served, but anxious for the chance of action. They were, in essence the same men who had served in the Italian Arditi or the British Black and Tans. Though most really wanted to fight in the east to defend the Reich's uncertain frontiers against the Poles or the Russians, action for the sake of action was the supreme imperative. Communists, Russians or Poles: in the end it made little real difference who the enemy was.

Oh, on a point of personal information, my German great-grandfather served with Freikorps Rossbach, but-ssssh-we don’t talk about that. :-))

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Victorian Crisis of Faith


Robert Browning fashions Easter-Day as a discussion between two voices, exploring, amongst other things, the nature of faith, how insecure it is, and how necessary God's help is in sustaining it. The simple fact is that the Victorian world was beginning to lose some of its past certainties in matters of faith and religion, a process that the publication of David Strauss's The Life of Jesus helped to accelerate. Browning was later to say "I know the difficulty of believing...I know all that may be said against it [the Christian scheme of salvation] on the ground of history, of reason, of even moral sense. I grant even that it may be a fiction. But I am none the less convinced that the life and death of Christ, as Christians apprehend it, supply something that their humanity requires; and that is true for them."

The same uncertainty, the same crisis of faith, was also taken up by Matthew Arnold in "Dover Beach":

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Lessons of October


The history of the period between the World Wars of the last century is, it might be said, the history of reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution; that the victory of the Communists-which Lenin and Trotsky believed would be the spark for revolution across the Continent-was only the first stage in a new civil war, a new class war, if you prefer, in which the left saw defeat, after defeat, after defeat.

Not only did the Bolshevik victory cause a permanent division between the Communists and the moderate Socialists, but it was one of the most important factors in the shaping of Fascism and right-wing authoritarianism, first in Italy and then across the rest of Europe. Fear of Communism, in other words, was the greatest single force in galvanizing the right, from Horthy to Hitler.

So, you already have an international labour movement further divided and further weakened by the emergence of vigorous forms of right-wing reaction. To make matters even worse, a large section of the left looked to the Third International in Moscow for political direction, which most often results in a 'general line', regardless of local conditions. Looking beyond Europe, the United Front strategy of the 1920s obliged those loyal to Moscow to enter into alliances with so-called bourgeoisie liberation movements, which almost led to the ruin of the Chinese Communist Party in 1927, when it was purged by Chang Kai-shek.

Having learned nothing from this, the Comintern then adopted the ultra-left Third Period line, favoured by Stalin, which insisted that revolution was immanent, and that the real enemy was not the Fascist right but the moderate left, the so-called 'Social Fascists'. It was against this background that Hitler came to power in 1933, bringing the destruction of the KPD, the largest Communist party in Europe outside Russia.

Now, with the whole of the European left in disarray, and Stalin in a state of shock, the Comintern made yet another rapid change, this time in favour of Popular Fronts, intended to unite all on the left, Communists and Socialists, with moderate liberals, in a common effort against the further advance of Fascism. But the Popular Front in France only added to that country's deepening political divisions, while the Popular Front in Spain led to the outbreak of the Civil War and the victory of Francisco Franco, yet another serious defeat of the left.

So, what is the conclusion? Simply this: that the Bolshevik Revolution created the raison d'etre for Fascism and, by dividing the left, weakened the capacity of the working classes to resist its advance. It was a disaster in whichever way you care to look at it, in Russia and beyond

Unconditional Folly


Unconditional Surrender, the declaration that the enemy powers had to lay down arms without condition or concession, was President Roosevelt's idea which he announced to the world at the end of the Casablanca Conference, on an entirely unilateral basis. For the sake of Allied unity, it was immediately endorsed by Winston Churchill, though he later admitted to being dumfounded by the announcement, and worried by its likely effect on the future course of the war.

Dwight D Eisenhower, also present at the conference, shared Churchill's misgivings, believing that such an uncompromising line would only serve to prolong the war, costing more Allied lives than was necessary. In fact, there would appear to have been few, if any, who welcomed Roosevelt's declaration of intent

It also dismayed people like Admiral Canaris and others in the German resistance, but-not surprisingly-delighted Josef Goebbels, who said "I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan. If our enemy tells us, we won't deal with you, our only aim is to destroy you, how can any German, whether he likes it or not, do anything but fight on with all his strength." It is surely no coincidence that the Propaganda Minister's infamous Total War Speech came a few weeks of the Casablanca edict-Now, people rise up and let the storm break loose.

Perhaps the absolutely worst thing about unconditional surrender is that it came just as the German army had suffered one of the worst defeats in its history at Stalingrad, considerably weakening the prospects for the Reich, and making it more likely that the senior command would listen to the blandishments of Canaris and others. But now they had to fight on, Nazi and anti-Nazi alike.

In the summer of 1943, with Italy on the point of abandoning the Axis, Churchill and Eisenhower's attempts to negotiate a compromise peace with Pietro Badoglio were ruined after Roosevelt held fast to unconditional surrender. In the delays that followed the Germans were able to pour troops into Italy, ensuring that Allied progress up the peninsula would be slow and painful.

Similarly, as D Day approached in 1944, George Marshall and the US joint chiefs urged Roosevelt to moderate his policy, but met with outright refusal. Even after German resistance in Normandy proved far tougher than expected Roosevelt refused to budge, despite a further appeal from Eisenhower. He defended his policy on a visit to Hawaii-when he confirmed it also applied to Japan-, drawing an example from American history, insisting that this is how U. S. Grant had dealt Robert E Lee at Appomattox in April 1865. But, of course, it was not, as those of you familiar with the history of the American Civil War will be only too well aware. Grant offered Lee and the defeated southern army terms, and very generous terms at that.

In the end the policy, though not completely discarded, was moderated after Roosevelt's death. While the Japanese surrender was declared to be 'unconditional', they were permitted to keep their Emperor. If they had not, while one cannot be absolutely certain, it is possible that America's nuclear bluff would have been called, making an invasion of the Home Islands necessary. The cost in lives of such an endeavour can only be imagined.

Twittering Twit

Do you know anyone who uses Twitter? I certainly don’t; none of my friends do. It seems to me-please forgive me for being so direct-a form of narcissism for the middle-aged, full of matters of no particular consequence, just endless babble and pointless self-promotion. When I say I don’t know anyone who uses it I simply mean I don’t anyone personally. I certainly know of people who tweet; people like Stephen Fry, the destitute person’s Oscar Wilde. Oh, and there is also Joker Brown, supposedly tweeting from Downing Street, and his frumpy wife, Sarah.

I have absolutely no interest in reading what the Joker tweets about, no desire to listen to his particular dawn chorus. I’m aware just how desperate the poor man is to appear cool, like some acutely embarrassing father. He’s a fan of the Arctic Monkeys; he watches Big Brother; he has time to congratulate our cricket team; he appears on You Tube; he twitters here, there and everywhere. But when it comes to the big issues, the things that really matter, the little bird simply refuses to sing.

We have a Prime Minister, a leader, who has not the first idea of what it takes to lead, no idea that leadership is not just about taking decisions; it’s about moral courage. On issue after issue the Joker has simply tried to hide behind his dour Presbyterian façade; issues like the conduct of the execrable Damian McBride, or issues like Parliamentary expenses. Oh, he always manages to do the ‘right thing’ in the end, but only after days of doing the wrong thing.

Now, after more wasted time, more wasted opportunities, he’s finally opened his beak to tweet about the release on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al Megrahi. He tweets, yes, but not very forcefully and not very loud. Once again his lack of action led to days of speculation, days when the nation drifted without a note from Downing Street or wherever the Joker happens to be. He now criticises the reception of Megrahi in Tripoli but he dare not say any more; he dare not enter a constitutional battle with the Scots; he dare not offend the Americans and-I have to stress this once again-he dare not offend the Libyans, not in any fundamental way.

As I said quite recently on my Gaddafi blog this whole issue has nothing at all to do with morality, with what is right and what is wrong: it’s about oil and it’s about gas; it’s about done deals and secret negotiations. I stress my point once again: this government is mired in gross moral turpitude. I am in dissimulation Stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Why do I call the Joker the Joker? Well, I’m sure most people have seen his You Tube performance. Remember that bizarre smile? Now try to conjure up the figure of the Joker from the Batman movies. :-)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Characters in Literature I Hate


Well, perhaps hate is too strong a word though there are a lot that I find quite tiresome, particularly the feckless Harold Skimpole in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, and just about everyone in George Bernard Shaw's overrated and bloodless plays.

But the one character who had the most negative impact on me was Uncle Tom. I used to wonder what black Americans meant when they used the term in such a disparaging way towards certain members of their community; I used to wonder, that is, until I opened the pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin!

Yes, I know that Harriet Beecher Stowe intended him as a 'noble hero.' Yes, I know that he demonstrates a certain form of Christian resignation and acceptance, that would have been wholly understandable to a nineteenth century readership. Yes, I know that it was a message for the times. But when I reached such a stage of irritation with him, when I began to feel that he needed a 'damned good whipping' to rouse him from his dog-like torpor, then I simply knew I had to stop reading. To be put in the frame of mind of a slave owner in the Old South was far from being a comfortable experience! :))

The Romans in Britain


I rather suspect that Roman attitudes towards Britain were rather like British attitudes towards the north-west frontier of their own nineteenth century Indian Empire: important to hold but difficult to love. Dio Cassius, when writing of the third century campaign of Septimius Severus in the north of the island, was to lament the difficulties caused by the 'bogs and forests', the very same things that had hindered the conquest under Claudius almost two hundred years before. Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth century Roman historian, was to praise the Emperor Constans for a surprise visit he made to the island in 343AD, in terms that would suggest he had crossed to the ends of the earth!

But Britain remained attractive, in economic and strategic terms, for the rest of the Roman world; at once a place of profit and settlement in the south, and mystery and barbarism in the north, the direction of Ultima Thule and the Fortunate Islands. Even Antoninus Pius, the most unwarlike of Emperors, was determined to make his mark there, advancing his army into what was later to become the south of Scotland, the only expansion of his reign. And it was from Britain that Constantine the Great began what was perhaps the last great military campaign of the Roman world, one that was to transform the Empire. "Fortunate Britain, now most blessed of lands since you have been the first to see Constantine as Caesar."

Such, Such Were the Joys


Anyone reading Orwell's early work will be aware of his hostility to all things Scottish, which takes various forms, most particularly his deliberate use of the word 'Scotch' instead of 'Scots', because he was fully aware of how much annoyance this caused. I used to believe that this dislike dated from his time in the Burmese Police, where he encountered a particular kind of Scotsman, once common in the Imperial service. It was only after reading Such, Such Were the Joys, his essay on St. Cyprian's, his prep school, that I became aware of the true cause.

Cicely Ellen Philadelphia Vaughan Wilkes nee Comyn, the co owner of the school, better known to Orwell, or Eric Blair, I should say, as Flip deliberately encouraged a 'cult of Scottishness', in part derived from her pride in an assumed Scottish ancestry.

The Comyns were one of the great nobel houses of Medieval Scotland, and one-time rivals to King Robert Bruce. But more than that the cult, brought out all of Flip's latent snobbery, and left poor Eric with a deep sense of resentment:

The School was pervaded by a curious cult of Scotland, which brought out a fundamental contradiction in our standard of values. Flip claimed Scottish ancestry, and she favoured the Scottish boys , encouraging them to wear kilts in their ancestral tartan instead of school uniform, and even christened her youngest child by a Gaelic name...But underlying this was something quite different. The real reason for the cult of Scotland was that only very rich people could spend their summers there...Flip's face always beamed with innocent snobbishness when she spoke of Scotland. Occasionally she even attempted to trace a Scottish accent. Scotland was a private paradise which few initiates could talk about and make outsiders feel small.

If anyone is puzzled by this (Scots most of all!) I should make it clear that this 'Scotland' is not to be found in the backstreets of Glasgow, Edinburgh or Dundee, but on the grouse moors and by the salmon rivers, where the only Scots to be seen were beaters, game-keepers and ghillies! Such, indeed, were the joys

When I was sent away from home for the very first time I must confess I was a little bit tearful and fearful, but before this I used to soak up stories about girls' boarding schools and quickly learned to make the most of the opportunities offered by Wycombe Abbey, my old school, which I came to adore. But Eric, promising as he was as a scholar, was socially and personally slighted, embarrassed by his rather down-at-heel middle class origins. Because of the perceived insults he received at the hands of the Wilkes a 'Bolshie' attitude began to form, fully developed by the time he went to Eton, an attitude seems to me operating like a form of emotional armour, more than anything else.

I can only speculate here, but the English class system was much more rigid in his day, and I think he always felt himself to be an outsider; an outsider from his own middle-class milieu and an outsider from the working-class he adopted but never really seemed to like. The protagonists in his novels are always the same lower middle-class types, which is really no surprise. What is revealing is the way that some become such self-pitying egocentrics. Just think of the tiresome Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, who digs his own social grave then blames everybody else when he lies in it! Please do not think I am hostile to Orwell; I'm not-I love his work, though some parts more than others, and the essays more than most of the fiction

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Mad Caliph


Have you ever heard of Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah? No?; well here is a story!

Caliph Hakim was a member of the Fatimid dynasty, and ruler of Egypt from 996 until his death in 1021. He was, to say the least, a highly eccentric individual, sometimes referred to as the Mad Caliph. Amongst other things, he prohibited the eating of grapes and the playing of chess, and ordered the people of Cairo to work at night and sleep during the day! His persecutions were real enough, though like many of his other arbitrary measures, they tottered between the gratuitously vindictive and the outright ridiculous. Christians were made to wear huge crosses and Jews a golden calf around their necks. His persecutions, moreover, also extended to Sunni Muslims.

There are other examples of Muslim persecution, the most notorious of which is probably the wholesale massacre of the Jews of Granada in southern Spain in 1066, following a particularly vicious hate campaign. Also in Spain, the fundamentalist Almoravids forcibly transported many Christians to Morocco in the twelfth century. However, it remains true, in spite of these exceptions, that there is little of the wholesale massacre, persecution, forced conversion and expulsion of minorities that was to be a recurrent theme in the history of Christian Europe.

Of Seers and Wolves

My family have a cottage in Easter Ross, which we visited just about every August when I was growing up, so I acquired over time a detailed insight into the myths and history of much of that part of Scotland, from the Dornoch Firth to Strathspey and Badenoch. Here are two of my favourites.



The Brahan Seer

I touched in a another blog on the case of Mother Shipton, an English wise-woman and prophet. I thought I might complement that with a Scottish tale, that of Coinneach Odhar, the so-called Brahan Seer. He is reputed to have lived in the seventeenth century and been employed by the Mackenzie, Earls of Seaforth, though contemporary evidence is non-existent. He may, and the emphasis is on may, have been the descendant of a man of the same name who lived in the previous century, arrested in 1577 as ‘an enchanter.’

Odhar is remembered, like mother Shipton, for the prophecies he allegedly made, anticipating such things as the Battle of Culloden and the building of the Caledonian Canal. But he seems not to have anticipated his own gruesome demise. Having supposedly offended Lady Seaforth, he found himself arraigned on a charge of witchcraft. Having bn found guilty he was taken to Chanory Point on the Black Isle and there burnt to death in a spiked tar barrel.

The Wolf of Badenoch

Alexander Stewart, Lord of Badenoch and later Earl of Buchan, was one of the younger sons of King Robert II. Because of his fearsome reputation he was destined in pass into history as the Wolf of Badenoch. At no point was this reputation better deserved than in the destruction of Elgin Cathedral.

Alexander had married Eupheme, Countess of Ross, in 1382. But as the marriage proved childless in 1389 he asked for the assistance of the Bishop of Ross in obtaining a divorce. After the Bishop came down on the side of Eupheme, Alexander simply sent her packing, installing Mariota Athyn, his mistress, in her place. He was at once excommunicated and, in response to this, gathered a force of “wild, wykked Heilandmen”, in the words of the contemporary record, sacked the town of Forres, destroyed Pluscarden Abbey, finally arriving in Elgin, where the Cathedral, known as the Lantern of the North, was set alight. A little excessive, don’t you think? :))



The Futility of Utility


The whole problem with Utilitarianism as a system of values is that it is deeply rooted in the mindset of the English middle classes during the high noon of the Industrial Revolution. It has, as Karl Marx rightly observed in Das Kapital, no real historical dynamism, that it cannot transcend time and place, and it cannot account for changing values and needs. The perfect Benthamite might very well be said to be the figure of Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dicken's novel Hard Times, relentless in his demand for facts, and only facts. And I can think of no more damming critiqe than that penned by Nietzsche-If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does. This, in my view, might very well serve as an epitaph for the whole Utilitarian movement!

I am the State


There were two things crucial in the formation of Louis as a king: his early experience of the disorders induced by the Fronde and the education in statecraft he received form his observations of Cardinal Mazarin, himself a pupil and protégée of Cardinal Richelieu. From the Fronde he took the lesson that it was necessary to limit- and severely limit-the power and independence of the French nobility; following the example set by the Cardinals, he further refined and magnified the agencies of the state. The two things, it might be said, came together in his person and his court. At Versailles he created a great political theatre, a universe, with himself, in the role of Apollo, the Sun God, at the very centre. The nobility was tied to, and often ruined by, attendance of the king; the bureaucracy, the standing army and the treasury radiated from his person. L'Etat c'est a moi-I am the state. It really does not matter if he ever used those words; they express an essential-and fatal-truth

Monday, 24 August 2009

Pan, not Satan


I described Satanism as a Christian heresy in a discussion on one of the social networks I belong to. I still hold to that essential truth but I would modify it somewhat in the light of what I have since discovered from some rapid reading.

I suppose it is possible to identify Satan as a kind of symbolic figure, the tragic rebel-hero of Milton ’s Paradise Lost, who would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. I’m still unable to make a definite conclusion on this-I have simply not read deeply enough-but Anton LaVey, the author of The Satanic Bible, seemed to be promoting a cult that was primarily hedonistic rather than malign. I suppose it is ‘paganism’ insofar as it is a deliberate reaction against the strictures and restrictions of Christianity.

I actually find the La Vey branch of Satanism quite appealing, insofar as it harmonises with my own personal outlook on life and insofar as it stands against the wooly-mindedness of so much of contemporary Neo-Paganism. But why focus on this particular figure or avatar; why have Satan and all of the Abrahamic baggage as a guide and a symbol? I simply makes no sense to me when there are plenty of alternatives available who might equally serve and with far less ambiguity, uncolored, above all, by the judgments and preconceptions of others. Perhaps it's simply the shock value? Anyway, Pan, for me, is the ultimate symbol of the purest forms of hedonism and freedom. Far rather him, freed of all corruption, than Satan, Lucifer, the Devil or whatever.

Attila and the Empire of the Will


There is little doubt that Attila was skilled, both as a soldier and more generally as the ruler of a great Hun confederation. He was also rampaging and brutal, though given the nature of his rule, and the peoples he ruled over, he had little alternative. Despite justifiable Roman fears of the Hun threat, not all of the contemporary assessments of Attila are perhaps as negative as one might assume. Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, a Roman historian, describes him thus;

Of middle height, he was manly in apperance and well made, neither too frail nor too heavy; he was quick of wit and agile of limb, a very practiced horseman and a skilful archer; he was indefatigable with a spear. A born warrior; he was renowned for the arts of peace, without avarice and little swayed by desire, endowed with gifts of the mind, not swerving from his purpose for any kind of evil instigation. He bore wrongs with utmost patience and loved labour. Undaunted by danger, he was excelled by none in the endurance of hunger, thirst and vigil.

Others who knew him remarked that he was not himself greedy for plunder. When he was visited by a Roman diplomatic mission it was noted that he drank from a simple wooden bowl, as might be used by the lowest of his followers.

What he did have a taste for, though, was power; and he was utterly ruthless in maintaining his position at the head of a great barbarian alliance, that included not only his own Huns but also Ostrogoths, Gepids, Franks, Rugians, Sciri, Burgundians and Thuringians. And the only way that he could maintain his hold, and ensure their loyalty, was by finding fresh opportunities for plunder and yet more plunder. His empire, in other words, was an alliance for robbery and destruction. It was also an 'Empire of the Will', so to say, for reasons that should become a little clearer as I proceed.

So, in his quest for plunder, Attila was drawn over the borders of the Roman Empire, first in the east, where he raided in 440, 442 and again in 447. The object was not to conquer but to draw out all of the sources of wealth, so much so that by 450 the Empire was close to economic exhaustion. The whole destructive, and it might be said, self-destructive campaign, continued, first in Gaul and then in Italy, where the waves were broken. Of this John Julius Norwich has written;

Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital in Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts, just as surely and just as completely as the Balkan peninsula was reduced by the Ottoman Turks a thousand years later. ("Byzantium. The Early Centuries", 1988, p. 157)

In the end this great threat came to nothing for one simple reason: Attila was a man caught between two worlds; that of the barbarian nomads, and that of the settled urban world of the Romans. He needed war simply to survive, though old fashioned mounted archery was no longer enough. To take the great cities of the empire he needed siege equipment; he needed to keep their populations under control; to build an administration; to make laws. He did none of these things, and never rose to the real challenge of imperial rule, unlike, say, Genghis Khan, with whom otherwise he mighty stand comparison. In the end the vast Hunnish empire simply imploded on Attila's death in 453, leaving little more than a savage memory.

The true victors are those who create history: Attila was just passing through.

Nero: the First Anti-Christ


Nero probably has, in both Tacitus and Suetonius, a better 'press' than he deserves. Suetonius, although he clearly despises Nero, balances the good with the bad, and Tacitus points out just how commendable at least some of his actions were during the Great Fire of Rome. His reign did not begin badly, especially during the period when he was being advised and guided by Seneca.

Nero was not stupid but the defects in his character were eventually to expose the true weakness of the whole apparatus put in place by Augustus, both tyrannical and contradictory; imperial and republican. The final crisis begins when he starts to lose all restraint in his exercise of pure and egomaniacal forms of power. The Pisonian conspiracy contributed to this, but the real rot came with the building projects he conceived after the Great Fire, so grand that he was on the verge of taxing Rome-and some Romans-quite literally to death. He died an enemy of the state who was in time to become, for the Christians he scapegoated and persecuted, a version of the Anti-Christ. And such is the verdict of history.

Inglorious Tarantino


OK, I begin with a confession: I don’t like Quentin Tarantino as a director; I don’t like his movies. Sorry, that’s not quite true: Pulp Fiction was mildly entertaining, though a little incoherent for my taste. It’s not that I don’t appreciate his talent, his love of film-making, his sense of humour and the clever way he intercuts, the visual references he makes. Yes, he’s clever, he has a real fluency with the medium-but, so far as I am concerned, he’s is also shallow, obvious, insincere and far too glib. I simply don’t take him seriously as a film-maker. Most of his stuff bores me. I would have given Inglorious Basterds a miss but my boyfriend was keen; so, off we went.

A word, to begin with, about the title, specifically the spelling of Basterds (I make no mention of Inglourious!) I wasn’t sure quite was going on here, why the words was misspelt. Perhaps it was something to do with residual censorship, with hoardings and advertising on buses? Perhaps it was akin to the swearing in Father Ted, the Irish sitcom, where it was possible to say feck but not f*ck.? Oh, what a difference a vowel makes! The title actually comes from an Italian B-movie made in the early 1970s, though the Italians managed to get the spelling right. It seems the explanation is only to be found in the mind of the director!

Yes, Inglourious Basterds is wonderfully acted and well-scripted. No matter; I hated it, really hated it. It’s a pastiche of the Second World War, of dimensions of that war, perhaps not a thousand miles removed from the likes of Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden. Yes, this was a romp all right, just not that gay. Well…on second thoughts. :-) It was most certainly over the top in every conceivable sense, exuberant to the point where exuberance is close to parody and exhaustion. It could be read as a black comedy, if one was of a mind to, though the comedy for me was strained in the extreme. Operation Kino, the last scene, wasn’t exuberant or comic; it was utterly ridiculous. Oh, and that movie that Nazis were watching would, I suspect, have been too boring even for them!

I’ll be fair; I always try to be fair. The opening chapter was good, the one where the French farmer was interrogated by Christoph Waltz, playing one Hans Landa, an officer in the Sicherheitsdienst, a wonderful performance, sustained throughout, at once charming and persuasive, sinister and deadly. Still, leaping ahead to the final act, I’m completely mystified why he felt compelled to strangle the actress-spy when he himself was on the point of switching loyalties. Perhaps Tarantino just saw it as an opportunity to have a woman strangled for no apparent reason other than the strangulation itself. But that’s getting away from the point. Yes, Waltz kept up a high standard but the movie itself spiraled steadily downwards ever faster with every subsequent act.

Now we are introduced to the basterds, a group of American-Jewish commandos or Special Forces or whatever, headed by Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine. These men are sent to occupied France to kill Nazis or Germans, for there is really no difference between the two. The movie takes a turn towards the spaghetti western, and that’s not my criticism, that’s Tarantino’s intention, as we are presented with an ‘alternate’ history of the final stages of the Second World War. But the Jewish soldiers are sent not just to kill Nazis/Germans; they’re sent to commit atrocities, exactly the same kind of atrocities that the Nazi-Germans (better, I think) carried out extensively in Belorussia and the east, though I don’t believe they actually scalped the people they killed in the fashion of Raine’s ‘Apaches.’ Well, Apaches do brutal things, do they not, a bit like Nazi-Germans, a bit like, well, Jews? For the world has been turned upside down: the Jews have become Nazis. Can you see where this is going; can you see the implications of this? I hope so. Please don’t hate me for making this point. Others will with far less benign motives.

Was there comedy here? Was there some deeper message? If there was I missed it, my failure, no doubt. When I saw a German prisoner having his brains beaten out with a baseball bat by a character called ‘Bear Jew’ for rightly refusing to divulge the position of his comrades I could feel my sympathies switch to the Nazi-Germans, not a comfortable sensation, believe me, though others around me found the scene titillating funny. The soldier who did agree to tell was allowed to live but only after he had a swastika carved on to his forehead, a reference, perhaps, though I’m not sure that the director is aware of this, to the practice of some SS units carving the Star of David on the breasts of rabbis.

The mutilated soldier returns to Berlin. Now Hitler enters the scene, played by Martin Wuttke, the usual laughable manikin. It seems to me to be next to impossible for actors to recreate Hitler as a believable human being. The only one who came close, in my estimation, was Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang.

I can hear the objections, at least some of them: don’t take things so seriously; learn to suspend disbelief, appreciate art at the level of art, entertainment at the level of entertainment. But I can’t, I simply can’t, not with this movie anyway. We are dealing with real things, real people and real events, not a collection of fictitious gangsters in Tarantino’s usual style. This is history post-Schindler’s List, past all seriousness, past all subtlety, past all introspection: it’s fun, killing is fun; it’s history-and I can find no better way of putting this- at the level gamers will understand.

I’ve read a couple of reviews of this movie, not many, and none of them terribly favourable. The comment that resonated most with me comes from a piece by Kate Williams in this week’s Spectator (“We are fast forgetting how to be guilty about the past”), a clever critique of the process by which atrocity is being turned into entertainment. She concludes thus;

If no one is affected and worrying about guilt is passé, then everything is up for revision. What can be next-a film acclaiming Nazi doctors for their work on genetics? Or Brad Pitt as Speer, a sensitive family man battling a brutal system? Now that SS officers are highly profitable Hollywood ‘booty’-as Pitt’s character shouts in Inglourious Basterds-you can bet it’s only a matter of time.

Indeed. Inglourious Basterds is not pulp fiction; it’s just pulp.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Englishness


There was already a consciousness of Englishness and England before the Danish onslaught in the ninth century; before Alfred and even before Bede. However, England, as we have come to know it, and Englishness as a given identity, was formed, it might be said, by a gradual process of cultural and historical sedimentation. A loose identity was given a definite shape and direction by adversity; by war and the threat of war; by victory, and yes, by defeat. The successive victories of Alfred, of Ethelfleda and Edward the Elder established England on a new and more lasting basis, one that could not be threatened by the fresh wave of Norse invasions in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the country was absorbed into a Danish empire.

Even so, this England, and once Anglo-Saxon and Viking, effectively came to an end with the Norman Conquest in 1066. No longer part of a Germanic and Scandinavian world, the country was drawn into the mainstream of European feudal civilization; no more than an appange, it might be said, of a trans-continental empire. And there it might have remained, no more politically significant than Provence, but for one man: good old, bad old King John. An unusual 'hero' of Englishness, I know; but it was his loss of Normandy and the bulk of the Angevin Empire that threw England back on itself; that gave the country a new sense of its political importance, notwithstanding the fact that there was still a huge cultural divide between an English-speaking peasantry and a French-speaking aristocracy. The victory of William Marshal over the invading force of Prince Louis was also an important step in safeguarding this new political independence and sense of self-reliance.

In considering the whole question of the formation of modern England by far the most significant figure of all, as far as I am concerned, has to be Edward III. It was he who began the political and cultural transformation of the nation; he who embarked on a War that helped form a new national consciousness; a war that consolidated and defined some of the country's most enduring political institutions. It was his patronage that turned St. George into a national saint, and his policy that, in 1362, saw English recognised as the 'tongue of the nation.' It was during his time that the old divisions between Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon became less and less distinct, and Englishness, the Englishness of Chaucer and others, emerged on its modern path

Diocletian and Government


Diocletian's system of government, an answer to the murderous political chaos of the third century, was essentially an exercise in good-faith, the assumption that those in power will give way peacefully, and by their own volition, to successors, already in the wings. Better, yes, than succession by murder, the preferred practice after the death of Septimius Severus, but it still failed to recognise that power has its own attractions, whatever the risks. The late imperial system of government, absolutist and uncompromising as it was, certainly contributed to the continuing decline of the empire. Quite simply it depended too much on the capacity and talents of a limited number of individuals; for when the Emperor was good he was very, very good; and when he was bad...well, he was much more than horrid!

The Will to Power


I should like to make two things clear: first, that Nietzsche’s The Will to Power is essentially a series of notes, jottings and speculations, written between 1883 and 1888, subsequently collected and arranged in book form by his sister, Elizabeth; second, Elizabeth may eventually have given her support to the Nazi Party, but it is quite wrong to suggest that she 'twisted' her brother's works towards the Nazi cause. Her compilation-and it is her compilation-was, after all, first published in 1901, well before the advent of National Socialism.

Elizabeth's 'fault' was to blur the distinction between her brother's published works and his rough speculations; to present to the world the false impression that The Will to Power was the final and definitive statement of Nietzsche's thought. It was not. That lies in the work published while he was still intellectually active. Having said that, it is still a fascinating and worthwhile collection, an insight into the mind of the thinker in the raw. It would encourage me to think that it is read before judgement is passed


Thursday, 20 August 2009

Have You Seen a Queen Travelling?


Gertrude Bell is a particular heroine of mine: the first woman down from Oxford with a First in Modern History; an independent scholar, an archaeologist, and expert in several Middle Eastern languages, a writer, a political specialist, a traveller; a friend of sheiks and kings-the female Lawrence of Arabia! In 1900 she dressed herself as a Bedouin man, riding alone into the dangerous Hauran Plain, still under the control of the Ottomans, in search of the Druze, a militant Muslim sect, which had been fighting the Turks for two hundred years. She made contact with Yahya Beg, king of the Druze, and conversed with him in his own language. Some weeks after he was to ask another visitor to his domain 'Have you seen a queen travelling?'

Bell's knowledge of the Arab peoples was later to be used by the British authorities after the outbeak of the First World War. When the British Army captured Baghdad in March 1917, she took up a position in the city as Oriental Secretary. There she remained in Iraq, or Mesopotamia, as it was known at the time, until after the conclusion of the war. Like her friend, Lawrence of Arabia, she became keen advocate of an independent Arab state. In 1919 she complied a report on the subject, in which she wrote;

An Arab State in Mesopotamia...within a short period of years is a possibility, and...the recognition or creation of a logical scheme on those lines, in supercession of those on which we are now working on Mesopotamia, would be practical and popular.

Her advice was effectively ignored, and the tribes of the Euphrates, angered that one form of imperialism gave every appearance of being replaced by another, rose in revolt, an event that cost the lives of 10,000 Arabs and several hundred Britons. Bell wrote:

We have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anyone suspected...I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country is really an incohate mass of tribes which can't as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn't govern and we have tried to govern...and failed.

For Bell the one way out was to give the people a distinct political identity, which she believed could be focused in a monarchy, in the particular person of Faisal bin Hussein, recently deposed by the French as King of Syria. At the Cairo Conference of 1921, she and T. E. Lawrence worked assiduously for the creation of Iraq and Transjordan, and Bell persuaded Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, to endorse Fisal as King of Iraq. Bell was also in favour of Sunni dominance in the new nation: "Otherwise", as she put it, "you will have a... theocratic state, which is the very devil."

With her help and guidance Fisal came to his new kingdom, and was crowned king in August 1921. For Arab and Briton alike Bell was the uncrowned 'Queen of the Sands.' With the King's approval she went on to found Iraq's great Archaeological Museum, whose unparalleled collection was so sadly looted in 2003. This leads me on to some final words from 'Queen Gertrude', which may serve to sum up the present position of the Western powers in the region;

If Mesopotamia goes, Persia [Iran] goes inevitably...And the place which we leave empty will be occupied by seven devils a good deal worse than any which existed before we came.

I've always believed that an understanding of history should be an essential basis for the formation of policy. But historians will always be cast in the role of Cassandra. Even so, Gertrude Bell's book, The Desert and the Snow, is still worth reading, all these years later.

Edward Gibbon on Muhammad


Edward Gibbon was first and foremost a historian, one that engages too closely with his subject, perhaps, for contemporary taste, but a remarkable one nontheless. He could be highly critical of the impact of forms of religious belief on civil society, and the contribution they made to the corruption of the perfect ideal of the Roman state, so much so that The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was placed on the list of banned books by the Catholic Church.

He says many things about the Prophet Muhammad, which I dare say that Muslim scholars would object to; but it is not all accusation, and he looks at Muhammed's life from the point of view of a historian, not a Christian polemicist. I have a copy of the Decline and Fall in front of me, in the 1978 reprint of the six volume Everyman edition, first published in 1910. Gibbon's remarks are too lengthy to quote in full, but here is some of his summation of Muhammad's life from volume five, pages 273-4:

The author of a mighty revolution appears to have been endowed with a pious and contemplative disposition: so soon as marriage had raised him above the pressure of want, he avoided the paths of ambition and avarice; and till the age of forty he lived in innocence, and would have died withut a name. The unity of God was an idea most congenial to nature and reason; and a slight conversation with the Jews and the Christians would teach him to despise and detest the idolatry of Mecca. It was the duty of a man and a citizen to impart the doctrine of salvation, and to rescue his country from the dominion of sin and error. The energy of a mind incessantly bent on the same object would convert a general obligation into a particular call; the warm suggestions of the understanding or the fancy would be felt as he inspiration of Heaven; the labour of the thought would expire in rapture and vision; and the inward sensation, the invisible monitor, would be described with the forms and the attributes of an angel of God...Charity may believe that the original motives of Mohammed were those of pure and genuine benevolence; but the human misssionary is incapable of cherising the obstinate unbelievers who reject his claims, despise his arguments, and persecute his life; he might forgive his personal adversaries, he may lawfully hate the enemies of God; the stern passions of pride and revenge were kindled in the bosom of Muhammed, and he sighed, like the prophet of Nineveh, for the destruction of the rebels whom he had condemned.

This is fairly typical of Gibbon, and there are indeed more critical passages; but there is nothing that bears any similarity to 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman...' There may be much in Gibbon with which Muslims would take issue; but he makes a sincere attempt to be honest in his judgements and scrupulous in his facts.

A Doll's House


Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House is a wonderful play, cutting, with great economy of words, through the lies and hypocrisy of a Victorian marriage. I saw it performed in London last autumn and made some notes afterwards;

a) Christina and Nils were forced apart by circumstances, chiefly economic circumstances, although the never ceased to be attracted one to the other. In order to support her mother and brothers, Christina entered into a loveless marriage. Now her husband is dead she has come to town, not just to look for employment, but to make contact with the lover of her youth. Here one needs to pay particular attention to their conversation in Act Three, where she tells Nils that they are both castaways clinging to the wreck of their lives, and they should join forces because they need each other. For Nils this turns into a moment of recognition and reformation. His former absence of morals, his opportunism and his cynicism, were all born out of disappointment and anger at having lost Christina in the first place.

b) Christina has come to understand that that the Helmers' marriage cannot continue on the basis of lies and deception, and that Nils' letter will provide the necessary catharsis. Remember what she says to Nils: "...it's quite incredible the things I've witnessed in this house in the last twenty-four hours. Helmer must know everything. This unhappy secret must come out. Those two must have the whole thing out between them. All this secrecy and deception, it just can't go on."

c) Christina's epiphany, her moment of revelation, is the key dramatic moment in the whole play. She has been considering killing herself to avoid bringing disgrace on her husband, though all of her sacrifices and her deceptions, the way in which she obtained the loan in the first place, were solely for his benefit. She is convinced that Torvald loves her enough to be prepared to make his own sacrifice; to reject Nils attempts at blackmail; to make things public and take the whole blame on himself. After all, did he not just say before reading the letter "...I wish you were threatened by some terrible danger so I could risk everything, body and soul, for your sake." But he does not; he proposes to give in, while continuing to blame Nora, even saying that she will not be allowed to bring up her own children.

Now she knows the truth. At that point she begins to stop loving Torvald. Any residual feeling is killed by his feelings of relief when Nils returns the IOU; his assumption that things can now return as they were; that Nora will once again become his 'little song bird.' She tells him that is impossible, that she has been treated for too long as a plaything, living in a Doll's House. In those crucial moments she growns up and beyond Nils and their sham marriage, breaking the confines and restrictions of her Doll's House forever. She is free.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Edward III-Father of the English Nation


I've been reading Ian Mortimer's book, The Perfect King: the Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation. Yes, there is much in Mortimer's thesis that stands up to scrutiny. Perhaps the most common perception of Edward's reign is one that brought England success in war, from the Halidon Hill and Neville's Cross against Scotland, to the even greater victories against France at Crecy and Poitiers. In 1356 England had two enemy kings in captivity: David II of Scotland and John II of France. In some ways the country had reached the high point in its Medieval history. But success in war brought two more innovations: the enhanced role of ordinary people in attaining military success, and the rise of Parliament as a unique English political institution.

Before Edward England had continued to rely on the feudal levy for its military arm, which meant, in essence, dependency on the great feudal nobility and the armed knight. But Edward's wars saw the recruitment of professional armies, where the decisive arm was not the knight but the plebeian archer.

It was through Edward's wars that the ordinary people of England (and Wales!) acquired a direct interest in the course and the outcome of the nation's foreign adventures, which did much to forge a common sense of nationhood, distinctly lacking at earlier periods. Even more important, the wars demanded money, and money meant Parliamentary grants, and Parliamentary grants meant detailed scrutiny of expenditure, as well as the granting of petitions. By the end of Edward's reign the Commons were able not only able to introduce legislation, but also to hold officials to account. His successor, Richard II was to discover just how assertive Parliament could be.

It was Edward who raised England from the nadir of the reign of his father, and created a sense of common identity and purpose. More than that, it was his patronage that turned St. George into a national saint, and he was the first king to give first place to the English language, as opposed to the Norman-French favoured by his predecessors. Not only did he use English himself in everyday discourse, but also in 1362 he passed legislation recognising English as 'the tongue of the nation.' Where he led the great nobility followed. So, the answer has to be, yes: Edward has every justified right to be considered as the father of the English nation.

Caspar David Friedrich

I adore the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the nineteenth century German romantic. They have a mystery and Gothic intensity to them which seem to invest nature with a sense of power and foreboding. When people are depicted they appear diminished and unimportant, almost as if civliization and the created world itself were equally unimportant.


Arnold Böcklin, Mythology and Death

Arnold Böcklin, the nineteenth century Swiss symbolist, is another of my favourite painters, though he is not quite as technically proficient and awe-inspiring as Casper David Friedrich. Böcklin specialised in subjects with a mythological theme in the main. He also had an obsession with death, nowhere better expressed, perhaps, than in The Isle of the Dead, possibly his most famous painting, and his self-portrait with a skeleton in the background playing the violin.



Out of the Ashes


In May 1933, under the guidance of Goebbels, Nazi students consigned ‘degenerate books to the flames. What came after; what was left of German literature? What is usually left after a bonfire? Why, ashes.

Speaking at the burning of the books Goebbels announced that "The soul of the German people can express itself again. The flames not only illuminate the end of the old era, they also light up the new." The 'old era' consisted of some 2,500 writers, many of international renown. To fill the gap Goebbels delegated control of literature to Department VIII of his own Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. The Department quickly set up a set of standards, to which all aspiring writers were obliged to conform. Work had to be produced in any one of four categories: Fronterlebnis, stressing the camaraderie of war; Weltanschauung, reflecting the Nazis world view; Heimatroman, stressing the national mystique of the German localities; Rassenkunde, reflecting Nazi views on race.

I am sure it will come as no surprise for you to learn that those who operated within this straight-jacket were distinguished by their mediocrity; people like Werner Bumelburg, who wrote mawkishly sentimental novels about comradeship in the Great War; Rudolf Binding and Bōrries von Münchausen, who wrote tiresome pseudo-Medieval epics.

The few writers who stood out against this apotheosis of the second-rate included Hans Grimm and Gottfried Benn, who though initially supportive of National Socialism, later turned hostile. Others like Ernst Jünger, though a hero of the German right, had always maintained a sense of personal distance. Goebbels' phoenix was nothing more than a turkey.

Khajuraho-Sex and Divinity



As the weeks pass since our return India begins to take a more settled shape in my mind; the sheer bewilderment induced by the experience is in decline. I thought I would add some more information from time to time on the variety of things we saw. I could begin with the Taj Mahal, the great masterpiece of Islamic art, but I’ve settled instead on another monument, a little less well known, but one that combines aspects of both the sacred and the profane-the Hindu temples at Khajuraho.

Lost and neglected for many centuries, the temple complex at Khajuraho in the state of Madhya Pradesh was built by the Chandella Dynasty in the tenth and eleventh century AD and then abandoned soon after for reasons that have never been adequately explained. There are three main complexes-the western, the eastern and the southern-covering an area of several square miles. For the days we were there we hired a guide to take us around, a better way of discovering things and significances that we might otherwise have missed.

Those who have been will know just how perplexing the whole thing is, with carvings representing a multitude of activities, a multitude of experiences, human, divine…and superhuman! Lakshmana Temple, the oldest among the western group, dating back to the late tenth century, is really splendid, full of the most wonderful carvings, anything from soldiers and dancers, camels and elephants, to a man doing a rather unspeakable things with a horse!

From there we went to the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, an eleventh century construction and, in simple visual and architectural terms, by far the best of the western group. It’s here that the erotic reliefs achieve a particular intensity. There is one particularly beautiful carving of a couple having sex, assisted on either side by female attendants. This really is the Kama Sutra at its most acrobatic, with the male figure seemingly standing on his head! Inside and outside there are also carvings of all sorts of figures celebrating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati; there as guests, attendants or protectors. I loved the figure of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and the Sapta Matrikas, the seven mothers, responsible for the dressing of the bridegroom.

I should add that the carvings depicting sexual encounters in all their variety-and believe me, variety is the operative word-are all to be found on the exterior of the temples, in clear separation from the sanctum sanctorum. And as to why sex was depicted by the Chandellas in such a vivid and unforgettable manner there is simply no clear and generally accepted explanation. Some have suggested that it shows a link with Tantric cults; others that it is pornography offered for the entertainment of the Gods. All I will say is, as always, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there!

In the eastern group the temple that impressed me most was that of Parsvanath, included now within the Jain collection. There is a particularly fine carving here of Brahma and Vishnu, his consort. Even more beautiful was Kama, the love god, with his quiver of flower arrows, embracing Rati, his own consort.

In all we spent four days exploring the area, though it really requires more time to make sense of it all. But, in the end, I don’t suppose one human life is really enough to understand India properly, to understand all that the country has to offer. History lies heavy here.