Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd



When people come together to vote for parliament or to serve on a jury – rather similar exercises – we feel good about each other.  But if we see them come together as a lynch mob, we are revolted.  We are revolted because people following the herd instinct are behaving more like animals than human beings.  Most of us are very worried about the crowds behind the gillets jaunes in France.  People have there taken to the streets not just to protest against government but to try to bend the government to do its will.  That is a plain denial of parliamentary democracy.  That kind of government can only work if the overwhelming majority of people accept the decision of a majority.  But ever since 1789, the French have claimed the right to take to the streets to stop government taking a course they do not like.  The result is that France has not been able to push through unpopular reforms in the same way that Germany and England did.  And the result of this triumph of the people is that the people are a lot worse off.  That in turn leads to the gillets jaunes and to the President’s not being able to implement the reforms for which he was elected.  And so the cycle goes on – until one morning the French get up and see a scowling Madame LePen brandishing a stock whip on her new tricoleur dais.  She will have achieved the final vindication of the crowd – the acquisition of real power by real force.

The Bagehot column in The Economist this week is headed ‘The roar of the crowd.’  It begins: ‘The great achievement of parliamentary democracy is to take politics off the streets.’  Well, the English achieved that – but not the French.  The article goes on to refer to street protests being invoked to express ‘the will of the people.’  That bullshit phrase is or should be as alien to the English as it is to us.  It is dangerous nonsense advanced by people over the water like Rousseau – one of most poisonous men who ever lived – Robespierre, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

The article also refers to social media –the worst misnomer ever – as ‘virtual crowds online.’  It quotes an 1895 book The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind as saying of crowds that they show ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments’ and says that the crowd debases the ordinary person – ‘isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’  That is because he has handed over the keys to his own humanity.  All this is just as spot-on for social media as it is to those whom Farage whipped up against Muslims, or those for whom Trump did the same, or those who marched last night in favour of Brexit and did so to a ghastly drum-beat that made them look so much like the English fascists from the 1930’s.

For our system to work, people have to show at least some restraint and toleration.  At least two forces are in my view at work in Australia working against us and in favour of the herd instinct of the crowd.  One is social media.  The other is the Murdoch press.  The first is obvious.  As to the second, a New Zealand observer said there were two reasons for the immoderate restraint and toleration of their government to a crisis of hate – the leadership and empathy of the leader of their government, and the absence of the Murdoch press.  In Australia, Sky News after dark regularly parades Pauline Hanson while Bolt and others defends her and while in The Australian columnists attack Muslims as jihadis in something like a frenzy.  And it was just a matter of time before they spitefully turned on the New Zealand Prime Minister and the ‘Muslimist Aljazeera’ – and of course those middle class pinkos at Fairfax and the ABC.

The people behind social media and the Murdoch press are wont to preach about freedom of speech.  The sad truth is that they go to the gutter for the same reason – for profit.

Two more points.  The current disaster in England started when they went and tested ‘the will of the people’ and got an equivocal answer – yes, leave, but on what terms? – with a majority too slim to permit a simple solution to a difficult problem to be found and implemented.  Now we have the awful and degrading spectacle of parliament behaving worse than the crowd.  And people who got where they are on a vote from the people are with a straight face saying that it would be wrong to ask the people again now that everyone knows what lies were told and who has been the worst behaved.  Indeed, their Prime Minister says a second vote would be a ‘betrayal of democracy.’  Some say an election would be better – when both major parties are hopelessly splintered and there is no reason at all to think that a reconfigured group of those responsible for the present mess might do better.

The real betrayal of democracy has taken place in America.  Trump appealed to the crowd to reject the ‘elites’ – people who know what they are doing.  Neither he nor almost everyone in his government has any idea about governing.  But his betrayal is more elemental.  A President is elected, as Lincoln said ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’  Trump could not care less about the people.  He is only interested in that ghastly minority that is called his ‘base.’  And since he thinks his base wants him to abandon affordable health care, he will try to kill it.  And to hell with the people.

It’s not just that the policies of people like Farage, Hanson and Trump are revolting – it’s the people they get to work with them that are also revolting.

It looks like the hour of the crowd is with us again and it may never have looked worse.


But Trump bends history to his will.  May simply bends under the will of others.

The Weekend Australian, 30-31 March, 2019.  Mr G Sheridan

It is an interesting view of the strong man.  Amazingly, the editorial was even sillier.

Passing Bull 198 – Following the leader


The herd instinct is on full display in the letters of today’s Weekend Australian.  There are nine letters about John Setka.  All appear to be sympathetic.  I doubt whether many readers of that paper have met a worker, much less a union official, much less a warrior with the heft of Setka.  No one mentioned that Setka has said that he will plead guilty to a criminal offence.  We get the usual stuff about ‘political correctness’ and ‘virtue signalling.’  Setka says he was elected my members.  I can’t recall hearing a bank director on the way out saying he had been elected by shareholders.

This sensitivity about our being free to speak our minds takes a bit of hit on the front sports page.  The headline is ‘Bitter’ retort sours Matildas win.’  Their captain, after a gutsy win, said of their critics ‘Suck on that one.’  Good on her.  But the Oz finds two past Matildas to criticise her.  It is one thing to form an adverse view (although it is beyond me how a Matilda expects our captain to be ‘humble’).  It is another thing to go public and fuel controversy when those representing us are trying to make a comeback in a foreign country.  If that is their notion of loyalty, it is little wonder the Matildas have issues.

But is not the point more simple?  We have better things to talk about.


No one wants to be lectured on humanity by politicians, let alone backers of porous borders whose compassion resulted in more than 1000 deaths at sea.

The Australian, 10 June, 2019.  Jennifer Oriel.

As ever, there is the horrifying thought that she might believe it.

Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry



The Iliad of Homer ends: ‘So the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.’  The death of Hector marks the end of the play Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare written more than 2000 years after the Iliad.  This, then, is an enduring myth.  Horses hardly figure in the Iliad, but later they became decisive in war.  The medieval knight on a horse (cheval) was their Panzer tank.  Tales were told about the deeds of knights (chevaliers).  They had their own code – chivalry – and it in turn was a fertile source of myth.

What does the word ‘chivalry’ denote?  ‘The character of the ideal knight, disinterested bravery, honour and courtesy’ (OED).  The word ‘ideal’ suggests that we may be near romance.  There is much romance in the epic tales of chivalry – like those of Arthur and Roland.  They speak of knightly love, and they end in tragedy.  They are also full of blood and guts, but Kenneth Clark in Civilisation got lyrical about it all.  He thought that the age of chivalry now looks ‘infinitely strange and remote’.

It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory – and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

That unreality had been revealed by two of the great characters of Western letters.  Don Quixote and Falstaff came to us at about the same time.  Each was a torpedo under the ark of chivalry and knightly love.  Falstaff was a dangerous ratbag, but we have too much of that in each of us to let that put us off a man who makes us laugh so much at our betters – and ourselves.  Don Quixote was dead-set mad, but we have the insight that we all tip-toe around that particular volcano, and the Don comes down to us as kind of off-centre Christ.  These are two of our most loved characters.  You would have to have to be really mad to describe either as ‘disinterested.’

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida is a far more brutal demolition job on chivalry and knightly love, and there is hardly a decent person in it.

So, how does Troilus start?  In the second line we get one of those nuggets that this author puts in our path.  The Greek princes sailed for Troy, we are told, ‘their high blood chafed.’  Those four words tell us the story of this pointless war.  What were they chafed about?  A wife of one of their princes has shot through – with a bloody Asian!  Well, at least that romance was consensual.  When the Greeks get to Troy, Achilles is sulking because his king has pinched his Trojan trophy, a woman that Achilles has taken a shine to – notwithstanding his love for Patroclus (who is here described as a ‘male whore’).  Then our two lovers no sooner get into bed than Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner.  And when she gets traded, she starts to enjoy herself sexually far too quickly.  Her uncle, Pandarus, is a pimp who has set up the consummation.  Her father, who is a priest and a traitor, sets up the trade.  Women are just tradeable commodities, handy in bed if your taste goes that way, but otherwise useless.  So much for courtly love.

When Don Quixote could not think of a better way to start a fight, he would demand that his protagonist acknowledge the supreme beauty of Dulcinea (who did not exist).  That is how single combat is set up in this play.  The protagonists go to defend the honour of their ladies  Aeneas, a very unpleasant puppet-master, taunts the Greeks in his challenge saying that unless they accept the challenge, the Trojans will say that ‘Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth the splinter of a lance.’  The slippery Ulysses pulls the levers so that the mad Ajax goes to fight Hector.  But by this time, Achilles, who is not too bright, realises that his ‘reputation is at stake’ and that his fame is ‘shrewdly gored.’  When he runs into Hector, the two confront each other like ruckmen before the bounce in a grand final.  And when he comes across Hector unarmed, he instructs his version of the Waffen SS to murder Hector in cold blood.  So much for chivalry.

The repudiation of chivalry is express.  Troilus taxes Hector for sparing the lives of vanquished Greeks.  Hector actually uses the term ‘fair play.’  Troilus responds with ‘fool’s play’.  Troilus was dead right.  The unarmed Hector asks Achilles to ‘forgo this vantage’ in vain.  In this play, the ball-tamperers win.  Those who don’t cheat are losers and bloody idiots – and this play has lots of references to fools and idiots.

At the start, we are told that ‘expectation, tickling skittish spirits…sets all on hazard.’  But young Troilus experiences the kind of emptiness felt by young Prince Hal.  He thinks there are fools on both sides.  ‘I cannot fight upon this argument….It is too starved a subject for my sword.’  But when the Greeks offer to call it off if they get Helen back – she presumably not being consulted – Paris and Troilus fall out with their brother Hector.  Hector says Helen is not worth the cost of her keeping.  Troilus refers to that weasel word ‘manhood’ and the most lethal word in the language – ‘honor’.  He then equates worth, or dignity, with value.  Hector asks the kind of question that some of us might ask about our role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?  (2.2. 115 – 118)

Troilus is a shallow sulk.  He tamely lets Cressida go.  His first concern is that Aeneas does not reveal that he found Troilus in the same house as Cressida so early in the morning.

But Cressida gets what might be called the full Anita Hill treatment.  That unfortunate woman was branded ‘a little bit sluttish’.  When Cressida gets handed over to the Greeks, the big hitters take it in turns to kiss her.  ‘Lewd’ is the word.  Ulysses says:

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

The last line is scarily modern.  And revolting.  The appalling behaviour of these ageing white males may in part be behind the insight offered to us by Tony Tanner that there ‘is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida.’  Beside her male elders, including her own family, she comes across like a saint.

This play may be the most brutal repudiation of war outside of Goya.  As you would expect of a classic, it still speaks to us now.

Ulysses and Aeneas are political operatives – manipulators.  Like our shock jocks now, they embody what a wise man called power without responsibility, the ‘prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  They think that they can manipulate the politicians – by, for example, playing on the hideous vanity of Achilles – and then get the mob to take the bait because they are mostly fools or idiots.

They do all this in a world that has no moral base.  We saw that Troilus equated dignity with value.  Ulysses says that ‘no man is the lord of anything’ until he communicates to others and that he will not know himself until he sees himself realised in the applause of others.  (Just ask yourself if any of this catalogue does not apply word for word to Donald Trump.)

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness.  (3.3. 134 – 137)

In this moral desert – ‘war and lechery confound all’ – the political leaders treat the people with contempt.  It is a measure of the empty vanity of Achilles that he tolerates Thersites, the most crude cynic of our stage, but this nasty clown sums up the play when he says that Achilles is the ‘idol of idiot-worshipers.’

They are of course heavily into spin and fake news.  No sooner is Hector murdered, than Achilles is telling his bodyguard to broadcast that ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’  They even have alternative facts.  When Pandarus and Cressida discuss the complexion of Troilus, Pandarus says ‘to say truth, brown and not brown’ and Cressida says ‘To say the truth, true and not true.’  When Troilus sees Cressida being too fresh too fast with the Greeks, he says that it is not Cressida – at least not his Cressida.  Or as the President of the United States says ‘There is no proof of anything.’  Reality has just gone.

So, this play was written by someone who could have seen at firsthand the heartless inanity of a Trump rally, or the workings in the inner sanctum of an Australian political party.  The play still, therefore, has a lot to say to us.

But it is painfully long.  Cassandra, Pandarus and Thersites are all ghastly to listen to.  For our taste, there is too much word-play of the type that students of rhetoric enjoyed in the early comedies.  And if Qantas plonked Ulysses beside you on a flight to New York, you would want to sue the airline.  The full version of the play is painful in the Wagnerian sense.  The BBC version is repulsive.  This play really is a problem play in production – as difficult for me as Cymbeline.

At the risk of upsetting some, I would suggest that we would enjoy the play a lot more, and take more home from it, if it was cut – say, in half.  For our taste, the play as written breaches the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up by banging on.

Since starting this note, I see that I have referred before to the bad press on chivalry in a book about the middle ages.

But the prize for the most appalling hypocrisy must go to the members of the ruling class called knights.  They invented this wonderful code of chivalry about defending the helpless and maintaining the right.  It was almost entirely pure bullshit.  They became mercenaries for hire – the Knight of Canterbury Tales might be a paradigm.  They depended on and lived by violence.  If the Crusades had not been ordained by God, chivalry would have had to invent it to satisfy their lust for blood and booty.  Their crimes against innocent Jews and Muslims are a perpetual stain not just on Christianity, but on humanity at large.  Dante put Saladin in a pleasing part of hell for answering back so handsomely.

Then, after they got home, and whipped their serfs into line, the knights would drift into some dreamy, droopy adolescent puppy love – for another man’s wife, a mother substitute.  If they succeeded in consummating their affair, which we may suspect was almost never, and they got caught, the same code of chivalry would have required them to fight to the death on a point of honour; and, depending on the jurisdiction, and the ripeness of the detection, the guilty wife might have been run through on the spot.

And enfin, do you know what really gets on our wicks about these knights?  Their high blood chafes far too easily.  They had too many tickets on themselves.  That’s why Cervantes and Shakespeare took them down.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]




Benedict de Spinoza (1670)

Translated R H M Elwes Second Edition, Revised; George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden, 1889; republished in facsimile by Kessenger Publishing, U S; rebound in half yellow leather and yellow cloth with black label embossed in gold.

Superstition then is engendered, preserved and fostered by fear.

The main text that the Inquisition invoked against Galileo was the miracle of the sun standing still for a day to enable Joshua and the Israelites to kill a lot more of the indigenous people whose land God had promised to his chosen people.  This is one of those parts of Scripture that makes a lot of people very nervous about miracles and an all too human God – nor did it do much for Galileo.  Do we really want a God who intervenes in Middle Eastern wars by suspending his own laws to help one tribe kill more of others because he has chosen them as his favourite?  Do we want a God who is so exclusive and so lethal?  If you do not, you may wish turn to Spinoza and Kant.

For some, the only black mark against Spinoza is that Bertrand Russell said that he was ‘lovable.’  This is what Russell said.  ‘Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.  Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.  As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.  He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him.  Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.  Leibniz, who owed much to him, concealed his debt, and carefully abstained from saying a word in his praise; he even went so far as to lie about the extent of his personal acquaintance with the heretic Jew.’  That is a fair summary.  Good people, saintly people, can have that kind of effect on others.

Spinoza’s parents were Portuguese Jews forced to ‘confess’ Christianity by the Inquisition.  They migrated to Amsterdam where Baruch (or Benedict) was born.  He was very bright as a child and so intellectually precocious that his own community eventually excommunicated him.  The terms of the cherem chill the blood.  He was described when young as having a beautiful face with a well formed body and ‘slight long black hair.’  He polished lenses by day and wrote philosophy at night.  He died young of a lung condition that was not helped by his work.

The Tractatus was published anonymously and was immediately condemned on all sides.  His master-work, Ethics, was not published until after his death.  He lived alone, and frugally – although he enjoyed a pipe and a glass of wine, he could go for days on milk soup made with butter and some ale.  There is no evidence that he ever sought to harm another, but plenty to suggest that he died in a state of peace, if not grace.

The Ethics contains his full world-view, made up of geometric propositions.  One is: ‘God is without passions, neither is he affected by any emotion or pleasure or pain.’  That is a large part of the Tractatus.  Spinoza says that his chief aim in the Tractatus is to separate faith from philosophy.  He says that Moses did not seek to convince the Jews by reason, but bound by them a covenant, by oaths, and by conferring benefits.  This was not to teach knowledge, but to inspire obedience.  He then says, ‘Faith consists in a knowledge of God, without which obedience to Him would be impossible, and which the mere fact of obedience to Him implies’.  Spinoza supports this assertion with reference to both Testaments.  He then goes on to say that he has ‘no further fear in enumerating the dogmas of universal faith or the fundamental dogmas of the whole of Scripture.’

As doctrinal dynamite goes, there is enough in his exposition for believers and unbelievers of all kinds to inflict a lot of damage on each other.  And Spinoza gives intellectuals another slap in the face:  ‘The best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who discloses the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity’.  You might think that a lot, or even most, believers of good will would go along with that proposition, but Plato and Aristotle would have been very, very unhappy, and deeply shocked.

Spinoza holds that if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend, Christ communed with God mind to mind.  Elsewhere, he puts it that Christ was not so much a prophet as ‘the mouthpiece’ of God; Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race.  He condemns those who stick to the letter:  ‘If a man were to read the Scripture narratives believing the whole of them, but were to give no heed to the doctrines they contain, and make no amendment in his life, he might employ himself just as profitably in reading the Koran or the poetic drama.

Reason, Spinoza said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’  His belief is evidenced by the following extracts from the Tractatus.

I have often wondered that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion … should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.

Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries;  men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt … are never tired of professing their wonder at the profound mysteries of Holy Writ; still I cannot discover that they teach anything but speculations of Platonists and Aristotelians, to which (in order to save their credit for Christianity) they have made Holy Writ conform; not content to rave with the Greeks themselves, they want to make the prophets rave also….

The Bible leaves reason absolutely free…it has nothing in common with philosophy; in fact, Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings….I pass on to indicate the false notions, which have arisen from the fact that the multitude – ever prone to superstition, and caring more for the shred of antiquity than for eternal truths – pays homage to the books of the Bible, rather than to the word of God.

Spinoza corresponded widely on a very high plane, but some letters show homely insights from the least sect-bound of men.  Christ gave ‘by his life and death a matchless example of holiness’; if the Turks or other non-Christians ‘worship God by the practice of justice and charity toward their neighbour, I believe that they have the spirit of Christ, and are in a state of salvation’; the ‘authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates does not carry much weight with me’; and ‘Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture.’  He also asked question similar to one asked by Darwin: whether ‘we human pygmies possess sufficient knowledge of nature to be able to lay down the limits of its force and power, or to say that a given thing surpasses that power?’

In The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, the late Professor Alan Donaghan contributed a paper called Spinoza’s Theology.  Theology is the study of God.  If Spinoza was studying God, you would think that he believed in God.  Sane people do not devote large portions of their lives to discussing something that they do not believe exists.  Spinoza said that he believed in God.  He was emphatic about it.  When you get to his Ethics, published after his death, God is fundamental to his whole world view – to the whole universe.  Yet the other members of his community expelled him on religious grounds.  They said that he did not believe in God.  They said that Spinoza was an atheist.

In the Ethics, you come across propositions that run slap, bang into the face of the Bible.  We have already seen one proposition denying passion to God.  It is fundamental to Spinoza that he takes humanity out of God and identifies God with Nature.  Then Spinoza incorporates the Sermon on the Mount into his metaphysical edifice.  Part IV, Proposition 45, says:  ‘Hatred can never be good’.  A corollary is that envy, contempt, derision and revenge are bad.  Then you get Proposition 46:  ‘He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other man’s hatred, anger, contempt etc, toward him’.  This is the doctrine of turning the other cheek in logically modelled Latin.  And later comes a little gem of humane wisdom in Part 4, Proposition 55:  ‘Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme ignorance of self’.  It is not at all hard to see why Spinoza appealed to the mind of Einstein.

It is fundamental for some that the existence of God can be and has been demonstrated (proved).  Well, even if you accept that this may be the case, or is the case, that proof must leave open the question of which, if any, model of God that is presently on the market has been proved to exist.  The model put forward by Spinoza was not satisfactory to most Jews or Christians, but it is inherently unlikely that any logical proof of the existence of God could lead necessarily to the proof of a god whose characteristics are defined by revelation and in very human terms.  And do not forget that Spinoza, brought up in the Jewish tradition, was not just a great mind.  He was a first-rate Bible scholar – in both Testaments.

Spinoza holds that the sphere of reason is that of truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience; ‘I consider the utility and the need for Holy Scripture or Revelation to be very great … the Bible has brought a very great consolation to mankind.  All are able to obey, whereas there are the very few, compared with the aggregate of humanity, who can acquire the habit of virtue under the unaided guidance of reason’.  Reason, as he had said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’

The little Dutch Jewish outcast also said:

Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others.  He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness, and the joy which he feels is either childish, or envious and malicious.

Many of those words will ring true for those who have become estranged from religion, and just as many who are struggling to stay with it.  The last citation alone would justify the whole life and work of this very great and holy man.  That sentiment should be put up in neon lights outside every exclusive institution in the land.

Spinoza was a very holy man who crossed on to the turf of less holy men.  Turf wars are the scourge of religion.  The great gift of Spinoza and Kant to mankind was to stand up and stare down those clever and subtle men – alas, they were all men – who claimed to have exclusive rights to the box of tricks without which the rest of us could not get near God or enjoy the grace of true religion.  They both should be remembered as two of our greatest liberators.  Their legacy is worth so much more than the brackish howls of those bothered God-deniers whose very loudness bespeaks the bankruptcy of philosophy.  Just what does philosophy have to show for itself?  And, just before dawn, did Bertrand Russell see himself as one of those who were intellectually superior to Spinoza?



Passing Bull 197 – The love media


It takes a degree of froideur to go to The Weekend Australian after a Coalition win – or, more accurately, yet another ALP loss.  But I summoned it up this morning.  Greg Sheridan is not stupid – he is just so often wrong.  ‘Scott Morrison is restoring our global swagger.’  Where and when did we lose it?  In Cape Town with the sandpaper?  Mr Sheridan is full of praise for Morrison who he thinks as yet shows no sign of hubris.  And again he praises Trump by condemning Trump’s critics.  The fallacy is blatant.  Trump is out to destroy conservatism.  Which contribution of Trump to the world order this week did Mr Sheridan most celebrate?  Building a wall in Ireland or getting Mar a Lago to run the NHS?

If ‘tribalism’ had not been discovered, Chris Kenny would have demanded it.  He thinks ‘the love media’ should follow Seinfeld – and not Twitter.  That raises two questions.  First, what is the other media called – ‘hate media’?  Secondly, how do you account for the success of his idol, Donald Trump, on Twitter?


Labor’s overreaction to the Australian Federal Police raids was another clear example of falling for misguided priorities….Journalists cheered of course, but away from the political/media class, the insinuation the Coalition has us sliding toward a police state would have sounded hysterical and partisan, while non-journalists would have wondered why the media thinks it deserves exemption from the rule of law.

The Weekend Australian, 8 June 2019.

I don’t know if Mr Kenny sees himself as a journalist, but he does write for the Murdoch press, and his subscription to the rule of law fairly takes your breath away.

Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright


Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the first of what would be many summer schools at Cambridge or Oxford.  It was at Oxford and the subject was Verdi and Shakespeare.  The tutor was a very entertaining musician who played the tuba.  According to my notes – which are far more extensive than those for later courses – George Bernard Shaw said that Othello was the only tragedy written as grand opera.  I well remember our analysis of the last act of Otello.  The tutor detected an application of the Golden Ratio (or Rule), or the Fibonacci Principle, in the last act.  My notes say a: b; b: a + b.  The numerical progression is, I think, 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55.  That is how a pine cone is shaped.  It is hard to explain but easy enough to see in the layout of a Jeffrey Smart painting.  The question was: did Verdi consciously apply this ratio, or was this just an illustration of his native genius?  You will be happy to learn that we settled on the latter – possibly because we were struggling to understand the ratio itself.  As for Shaw’s remark, it sounds bright enough, but what does it signify?

Verdi read Shakespeare mostly in translation.  He venerated the playwright as a god.  He based three of his operas on the plays.

The first was Macbeth and that was composed before the full flowering of Verdi’s artHe thought that Macbeth was ‘one of mankind’s greatest creations.’  He wrote to London to find out how Banquo’s ghost was normally brought on stage.  He sketched out the opera and he usually left the orchestration until rehearsals.  Then at the ripe age of thirty-four, Verdi nearly drove his leads mad rehearsing the duet in the first act more than one hundred and fifty times.  It had to be more spoken than sung.  He behaved like a theatrical tyrant and well before Wagner, he had begun a revolution in the staging of opera.

In his biography, George Martin said that ‘Verdi is ‘unique in the roles he gave to baritones, and in a sense he created the voice.’

There was of course much in the opera that was exactly as expected.  There was a conspirators’ chorus, this time of assassins gathering to kill Banquo; a patriotic chorus of Scottish exiles which, as always, aroused great enthusiasm; and some jiggy witches’ music….To modern ears these parts of the opera sound dated and incongruous beside the more dramatic writing.  And if this mixture of styles kept Macbeth from being as great as Rigoletto or La Traviata, both of which came after it and were more of a piece, it probably also made it possible for the opera, as a very early venture into dramatic writing to survive at all.

But when someone accused Verdi of not knowing Shakespeare, he said:

Perhaps I did not render Macbeth well, but….Shakespeare is one of my favourite poets.  I have had him in my hands since my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.

Verdi had predicted that Macbeth would be a triumph and it was.  The locals were astonished at its despair and ferocity.  In Italy it was known ‘l’opera senza amore’ – the loveless opera.

Otello was written toward the end of Verdi’s life – after the death of Wagner.  Verdi admired the German, but he resisted the ‘infection’ of an Italian art form by ‘Germanism.’  He spent almost two years working on it.  It was to be his first new opera in sixteen years and widely thought to have been his last.  By cutting the first act of the play, Boito (the librettist) could set the entire action in Cyprus and make each act follow its predecessor almost exactly in time.

Not unusually, Verdi had trouble with his leads.  One tiff with the title role led Verdi to write a note to the conductor which reminded me of what I felt driven to say occasionally to counsel for the Crown in tax cases – ‘Do you think that you might persuade the tenor to perform something approximating to what has been laid down?’  We are told that the choice for Desdemona was not ideal, but that the conductor had an interest in her that was not exclusively musical.

The disintegration of Otello is ruthlessly presented – this is what makes both the play and the opera so difficult for some of the more squeamish of us to follow.  Verdi’s Desdemona is firmer and more modern.  When in the play Othello calls her false, she replies ‘To whom, my lord, with whom?  How am I false?’  In the opera she replies ‘I am honest’ and the stage direction is ‘looking firmly at him.’  For all I know, they may have had in mind the question that Hamlet posed to Ophelia, but there is a bit of #MeToo there.

Although the composition was very novel in many respects, Verdi made use of Italian operatic idioms, such as the storm scene, the victory chorus and the drinking song.  Nowadays someone would mumble some nonsense about bums on seats, but the consensus is and always has been that this work of art is a masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Verdi had to put up with censors – and idiots.  People said that an opera seria had to have a happy ending.  So, Verdi had to write a version where Desdemona persuades the Moor of her innocence.  Well, some drongo would do the same to King Lear.  We should not be surprised when fresh insults are offered all the time to the art of the greatest playwright the world has seen.  It’s like putting a fig leaf or condom on the David of Michelangelo, or some pink lippy on the Mona Lisa – select your own location.  Or – how would you like it if you rocked up to a concert of a late Beethoven string quartet, and the band turned up in black shirts, jackboots, Storm trackies – and tats?  Where is the moral right of the artist to be immune from this form of desecration?

The premiere was of course an event.  Tout le monde was there.  A nineteen year old from Parma played the second cello.  He was so moved that when he got home, he woke up his mother, told her that Otello was a masterpiece, got her out bed, and insisted that she kneel beside him and repeat ‘Viva Verdi.’  That young man was Arturo Toscanini.  The Italians, like all of us, can get a lot wrong, but there is a continuing thread to their gift of opera to the world.

The final opera was Falstaff.  Rossini had fed blood to a tiger when he said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi spent years on the project, trying to keep it secret.  Although in his eightieth year, Verdi spent hours each day at rehearsals.  He reduced the opera to two episodes.  He conducted the first night.  It was at La Scala, with which Verdi had had at best an off and on relationship, and it was hailed as another masterpiece.  As someone correctly said, the whole cast is the star of Falstaff.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is mainly from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II  – although Verdi did bring in parts of the speeches in the history plays.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me now is music drama at its most evolved.  Eat your heart out, Waggers.

Wagner had claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house to hear this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with ‘Wagner’.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

As for recordings, if you don’t mind Lady Macbeth stealing the show – and I don’t in either the play (Harriet Walter completely changed the way I see it) or the opera – then the live La Scala 1952 recording with Callas and de Sabata is the go.  For Otello,  the RCA boxed set of Toscanini has his 1947 recording with Ramon Vinay, who was said to be the Otello, but I prefer the 1955 version of Serafin with Vickers and Gobbi – Jon Vickers had a power in his voice that young people would call awesome.  For Falstaff you must get the 1956 Karajan with Gobbo and Schwarzkopf.  Kant would have called it ‘transcendental.’

On many occasions, Verdi longed to try King Lear.   He believed that sixteenth century Elizabethan drama was very close to nineteenth century Italian opera.  There is oratorical blood and thunder, aria-like soliloquies, a storm scene, a mad scene, and the trumpets of royalty.  What more could he ask for?  Mascagni asked him why he had not gone ahead with this opera.  Verdi closed his eyes and replied slowly and softly: ‘The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me.’  That was wise.  Too many directors are not scared enough.  In truth, the maestro knew the limitations of his art.  When his second wife died, Verdi said:

Great grief does not demand great expression; it asks for silence, isolation, I would even say the torture of reflection.  There is something superficial about all exteriorization; it is a profanation.

Plato would have been pleased.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



John Keats (1818)

Grolier Club new York, 1995, limited edition of 225 copies; silk covered boards with tobacco morocco label embossed in gold, in slip case with marled paper; paper specially hand made by the Cardinal Mill in the Czech Republic; with portrait of Keats, facsimile of one of the letters, and map all tipped in separately.

All I hope is that we may not be taken for excisemen in this whiskey country.  We are generally up about 5 walking before breakfast, and we complete our 20 miles before dinner.

In June 1818, John Keats and a friend set out on walking tour of the English Lake District and Scotland.  He was twenty-two and had just published his second book of poetry, Endymion.  We saw with Milton that intelligence does not preclude art.  It is just as well – Keats, one of the great romantic poets, shows an astonishing IQ in prose.  This is from the first letter:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance……I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

Hazlitt, too, was very bright, but this difference between them is very revealing.  The English come across some Scottish dancers – ‘they kickit and jumpit…..and whiskit, and fleckit, and toed it and goed it, and twirld it    tattooing the floor like mad.’

I hope I shall not return without having got the Highland fling.  There was as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, and one exquisite mouth.  I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.  This is what I like better than scenery.  I fear our continued moving from place to place will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of rivers, lakes, and mountains.

Could Wordsworth have said that?  Rivers, lakes and mountains are just fine, but there is more to us than fire, water, stone and air – and it was not just Bishop Berkeley who may have said that they are nothing to us unless we are there to see and feel them.  They may as well be on the other side of the moon.

The dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland is much the same – yet I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the chambermaid at this …. inn kept by Mr Kelly.  She is fair, kind, and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk.  A Scotch girl stands in terrible awe of the elders – poor little Susannahs.  They will scarcely laugh – they are greatly to be pitied, and the kirk is greatly to be damned.  These kirkmen have done Scotland good (query?): they have made men, women, old men, young men, old women and young women, boys, girls and infants all careful – so that they are formed into regular phalanges of savers and gainers…..These kirkmen have done Scotland harm: they have banished puns and laughing and kissing…..I….go on to remind you of the fate of Burns.  Poor unfortunate fellow – his disposition was southern.  How sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self-defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in things attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after things which are not.  No man in such matters will be content with the experience of others.  It is true that out of sufferance there is no greatness, no dignity; that in the most abstracted pleasure there is no lasting happiness: yet who would not like to discover over and again that Cleopatra was a gypsy, Helen a rogue, and Ruth a deep one?……We live in a barbarous age. I would sooner be a wild deer than a girl under the dominion of the kirk, and I would sooner be a wild hog than be the occasion of a poor creature’s penance before those execrable elders.

What a plea do we have here for suffering humanity!  Let this text be nailed to the door of every gloomy kirkman or other prelate.

And he was still so young, and would die so young.

When I was a schoolboy I thought a pure woman a pure goddess; my mind was a soft nest in which some of them slept, although she knew it not.  I have no right to expect more than their reality.  I thought them ethereal above men; I find them perhaps equal.  Great by comparison is very small…..for after all I do think more of womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet high likes them or not.

Here is a candour about sex that the crusty Anglo-Saxon will let go straight through to the ‘keeper’.

Near the end of the last of these letters, this great poet offers an insight into what drives this fiery romantic imagination in a way that recalls one of his best known poems and is an enduring testament to our crumbling humanity.

…..went up Ben Nevis, and NB came down again.  Sometimes when I am rather tired, I lean rather languidly on a rock, and long for some famous beauty to get down from her palfrey in passing, approach me – with her saddle bags – and give me – a dozen or two capital roast beef sandwiches.

There, dear Reader, you have the whole secret, heretofore hidden, of that great movement in art known as the Romantic Rebellion.  A decent round of sandwiches – roast beef, of course.

I have three editions of Keats’ letters, including a fine old edition of the complete letters owned and signed by Henry Cabot Lodge.  This present edition is the most luxuriant book in the hands of all those on this shelf – the paper is hand-made and rough cut at the bottom and the sides, and the facsimile letter, map, and portrait help bring the letters alive – not that they need all that much help.

Keats followed Shakespeare all his life.  He turned to Shakespeare for precisely those reasons that others turn to Scripture – for inspiration, for guidance, for discipline, and for faith.  He was to tell Severn that he could not ‘believe your book – the bible’.  In truth, Shakespeare was his bible.

The father of Keats was involved in keeping an inn.  That was enough in England then, as it is in Australia now, to dint the ideas of inclusiveness of some people.  Keats had to live with this snobbery – Shelley, who was not immune from the complaint, said that it killed him.

It is hard to imagine the idol of Keats as a snob.  It is not just that Shakespeare had to spend so much of his time with actors, as that he had to know what the crowd wanted and would pay to see, and he had to be able to characterise those who made up that crowd.  Shakespeare loved creating characters at the bottom of the ladder.   He went for women like Cleopatra, Helen and Ruth – Helen had nothing on Cressida.

Keats saw Edmund Kean play in at least the roles of Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Timon.  When he wrote his own play Otho, there were over forty borrowings from seventeen of the plays of Shakespeare.  When he published his most popular poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, he did so under the name Caviare, a reference to Hamlet.  When he died in Rome, he had his seven volume set of Shakespeare by his bed. He had acquired a tasselled portrait of Shakespeare on the Isle of Wight and this, too, was with him at the end.  It was as if the two were on speaking terms. When Mrs Hunt told him he would be invited to a party for Shakespeare’s birthday, Keats told his brothers that ‘Shakespeare would stare to see me there’.

Matthew Arnold made a comment which may remind you of how religious people describe the condition of one of their faithful.  He said that Keats ‘is with Shakespeare’.  Arnold said that ‘…the younger poet’s work was not imitative indeed of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’.

But the observation of Keats about Shakespeare for which we best remember him comes from a letter to his brothers:  ‘At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’  You might think that this is just the start of a mature view of the world, but the observation might usefully be put up in bright lights on the rear wall of every court in the country.  It is the foundation of tolerance, and its absence marks the beginning of intolerance.

Shelley waited until Keats was dead to defend him.  He then spoke of ‘A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift’ fleeing ‘Far from those carrion kites that scream below’.  It is no surprise that T S Eliot, who could not have written a poem of the natural charm of those of Keats, said that he was intent on analysing not the degree of greatness of Keats but its kind, ‘and its kind is manifested more clearly in his letters than his poems’.  Rather like squirting the score of the Liebestod from Tristan with an antiseptic syringe.

If you have dragged yourself up the Grampians in Victoria and obtained an exhausted view of one hundred feet of mist, you will recognize a lot in these letters.  One difference is that Keats thought that twenty miles a day was about par.  Another was that having gained the top of Ben Nevis, he could punch out a sonnet on the spot.

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist; even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It is hard, off hand, to think of anyone with a more clear-eyed view of the world than poor little John Keats.  If only someone could tell him that his name was not writ on water.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Franz Kafka

Franklin Library, 1977; full grey morocco; gilt titles and humped spine; moiré endpapers in black with black ribbon; gilt edged paper in text; translated by W and E Muir; and illustrated by Phero Thomas.

Someone must have traduced Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

How do you feel when your bank bounces a cheque – usually in favour of your secretary or your landlord or, even better, your golf club – and you get a computer generated letter – long after the affront has been administered to the payee of the cheque – and which does not name any actual person in the bank but which bears an anonymous squiggle over the printed title ‘Team Leader, Dishonour Team’?  Just think of that – your bank has a whole team dedicated to dishonouring you and the rest of its customers.  Does the team get to march to a tune?  Do they have their own guernsey?

Or, you get another computer driven letter that contains the name of no real person. It is almost entirely incomprehensible, but it is alleging that you owe your government a large amount of money for tax.   You correspond with computers and you cannot get any sense from them.  You sense that they do not know what the law is and that they do not care about you.  But the one thing you do understand is that they say that the law stands behind their assessment and says that it is right and that you have the onus of proving them wrong.  Are not really bad criminals better treated by the law?

Or you live in a regime where you get fined for driving offences that are detected by computers and notified to you by computers and which carry points which are tallied by computers until you get enough to lose your licence – by computers.  Computers then notify you that you have scored enough points to have lost your licence and that accordingly you are not allowed to drive.  You seek to challenge that decision – if decision it is – and the bureaucracy showers incomprehensible paper all over you.  It refers to an ‘Infringements Court’.  Do people really believe that there is such a court?  In the meantime the law is that you have been deprived of your licence and therefore your livelihood by a process untouched by a human hand, much less by judicial hands.

These instances of contemporary absurdity – of how we are losing our way and our rights – are called Kafkaesque.  Franz Kafka was a German speaking Czech Jew who trained in law but who engaged in office work to support his writing.  His best known work is The Trial.  It is set in an indeterminate time and place and it follows the course of an absurdly unreal legal process brought against its hero who is named Joseph K.  It begins with the text set out above and it does not relent.

The events of the day somehow lead K to be attracted to another tenant, Fraulein Burstner.  ‘K … rushed out, seized her, and kissed her first on the lips, then all over the face, like some thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring of long-sought fresh water ….  He wanted to call Fraulein Burstner by her first name, but he did not know what it was.’  There is a recurring streak of anonymity and unreality.

When he gets to see the court, he enters a door directed by a young woman with sparkling black eyes who is washing children’s clothes in a tub.  He felt like he was going into a meeting hall.  When he got before the crowd he said:  ‘Whether I am late or not, I am here now.’  This was met with a burst of applause.  K thought that ‘these people are easy to win over’.  K tells the Examining Magistrate that ‘I do not say that your procedure is contemptible, but I should like to present that epithet to you for your private consumption’.

There are nightmare elements throughout.  The uncle of Joseph K refers him to an old lawyer.  The lawyer is ill but agrees to see Joseph. The lawyer is looked after by a nurse called Leni who is attracted to men generally, and accused men in particular.  Leni immediately propositions K, and not without effect.  The lawyer knows more about K’s case than K, because he is a lawyer who moves in legal circles and has discussed this case with his colleagues.  In this system, the accused is never told the charge.  Sometimes they try to guess what it might be by looking at the course of the interrogations.  ‘In such circumstances the Defence was naturally in a very ticklish and difficult position.  Yet that, too, was intentional.  For the Defence was not actually countenanced by the Law.’  (The third question put to Galileo on his second visit to the Inquisition was: ‘Why do you think you are here?’)

There are ranks of lawyers.  At the bottom are pettifogging lawyers.  They are all over the place.  At the top are the truly great lawyers.  No one has ever met one of those.  The most important part of the role of the lawyer was counsel’s personal connection with officials of the court.  No client ever dismissed a lawyer – such a thing was not done.  An accused man, once having briefed a lawyer, must stick to him whatever happened.  It is rather like marriage, but more binding.

Joseph K is so preoccupied with the process – which in no way resembles what those in the common law would call a trial – that his work at the bank is affected and a deputy manager is moving in to poach his clients.  K has to keep customers waiting, and he sometimes gets some satisfaction from the fact that others have to be kept waiting.  It is a way of stressing the hierarchical nature of the world of Joseph K.  (When will our computers be programmed to be sweeter to those with money?)

Titorelli is a painter with influence.  He asks the question that criminal lawyers generally avoid:  ‘Are you innocent?’  When he gets an affirmative answer, Titorelli says, ‘I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the Court indulges and in the end, out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.’  K asked the painter how he came into contact with the judges.  ‘That was quite simple ….I inherited the connection.  My father was the court painter before me.  It’s a hereditary post.  New painters are of no use for it…..For every judge insists on being painted as the great old judges were painted, and no one can do that but me.’  Titorelli thinks therefore that he is unassailable.  He assures K that ‘as you are completely innocent, this is the line I shall take’. But then the painter goes on to give K the bad news:  ‘I have never encountered one case of definite acquittal.’  The best that K can hope for is ‘ostensible acquittal, or postponement’.  ‘Ostensible acquittal’ is a masterpiece of evasion. In such cases it is just as possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the court and find officers already there waiting to arrest him again.  The very fruitful meeting with the painter ends with the painter selling K a few paintings.

The lawyer says that he has discussed K’s case with a judge who does not think much of.  K:  ‘But for all they know, the proceedings have not yet even commenced.’  ‘At a certain stage of the proceedings there was an old tradition that a bell must be rung.’  It was perfectly possible that K’s case has not reached that stage even yet.

The last chapter is called ‘The End.’  It begins:

On the evening before K’s thirty-first birthday –   it was about nine o’clock, the time when a hush falls on the streets – two men came to his lodging.  They were in frock coats, pallid and plump, with top hats which were apparently irremovable.  After some exchange of formalities regarding precedence at the front door, they repeated the same ceremony more elaborately before K’s door.

Later K says to himself: ‘Tenth-rate old actors they send for me ….They want to finish me off cheaply ….What theatre are you playing at?’  He was repelled by the painful cleanliness of their faces.  They are mechanical and anonymous as the warders who came to arrest K.  They take him to a quarry and his last words are: ‘Like a dog!’

The end is unseemly, but not nearly as unseemly as the millions of ends inflicted by the secret police of Hitler or Stalin in ways and circumstances that Franz Kafka could never have dreamed of.

Orlando Figges informs us that on 28 July 1938, two young girls, Nelly and Angelina, were arrested without notice with their mother, Zinaida, by two NKVD operatives.  Their father had been arrested nine months before, and not seen since.  The girls were told that they would not see their mother again and would be sent to different children’s homes.  When they left, the girls could see the NKVD beating up their mother.  Unlike Joseph K., Zinaida was told of the charge against her.  She was charged with failing to denounce her husband.  The State said its subjects owed more allegiance to it than to their husbands or wives.  She was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp – the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland.  She was nursing a baby at the time.  Could the singular mind of Franz Kafka have comprehended such denials of the essence of our humanity?

Kafka wrote at a time when people spoke of the death of God, meaning peoples’ loss of faith in God.  What we now see is not a voluntary loss of faith, but a mandatory placing of faith.  After Einstein, physics passed beyond the understanding of all but a few.  Most of us have to take the physical world on faith.  It is like Darwin – and that ask is too big for some.  It is the same now the way computers control so many parts of our lives.  They add to our sense of loss of independence, to our sense of helplessness.

This novel is very different to the novels of the great George Orwell warning us of the loss of humanity under totalitarian regimes.  The Trial is more like an opera or a tone poem.  It is very twentieth century.  Think of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck or Lulu, or The Makropoulos Case of Janacek, or The Chairs of Ionesco.

The Trial delivers slashing insight into the frailty of the human condition.  As it happens, the nightmare vision of this artist may not be realized again under dictators like Stalin and Hitler, but more simply by the accretion of the processes that we have now mastered, as a result of which the trial system keeps getting longer and longer, lawyers keep getting more and more expensive, and the law itself just gets more and more incomprehensible, and the descent in each is completely assured and computer-assisted.  Did Kafka the lawyer see this, or is it merely implicit in the vision of Kafka the artist?  You will recall that great lawyers were like acquittals – they had never been seen.

As is commonly the case with great artists, the vision of Franz Kafka was eerily prophetic.

Passing Bull 196 – Anecdotal evidence


This phrase is common, but I am not sure what it means.  What evidence is not anecdotal?  I see something happen and I report it.  This anecdote becomes part of the account of the life or lives of those involved.  A biography is just a collection of anecdotes.  History is just a collection of biographies.  By what alchemy of certification, statistics, graphs, corroboration or repetition does the evidence cease to be anecdotal?  If you were walking around a volcano, and a local said that he had seen signs of imminent eruption, would you dismiss this evidence as anecdotal?


Count Fedor Tolstoy was related to the great novelist.

Born in 1782, he joined the…Life Guards where he soon made a reputation for himself as a fire-eater duellist – he was said to have killed eleven men in duels in the course of his life – and card-sharp.  In 1803, he was a member of an embassy to Japan taken by Admiral Krusenstiern on his circumnavigation of the world.  Tolstoy made himself so obnoxious on board that Krusenstiern abandoned him on one of the Aleutian Islands – together with a pet female ape, which he may later have eaten.  (Pushkin, T J Binyon, Harper Collins, 2002, 96).

It can happen in the best of families, but either way, the ape was hard done by.

Here and there – Is Hamlet a tragedy?


At a recent course on Shakespeare at Madingley Hall, Cambridge – on All’s Well, Measure for Measure, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – the tutor in his introduction said that Hamlet was a victim of circumstances.  This led me to reflect that Hamlet was the only hero of the big four tragedies who did not morally collapse before his death.  Macbeth was the victim of ambition, and a young wife who could not go the distance.  Othello was made vulnerable to insult and suspicion by slapping the Venetian Establishment in the face by marrying above his station and outside his race.  (He is so obviously open to manipulation that I can no longer watch the play – or the opera.)  By no later than line 141 of Act 1 Scene 1 in King Lear, we know that the weakness and heat of this choleric old man will lead to his unmanning and betrayal and to death and disaster.  (‘Come not between the Dragon and his wrath.’  You might think that’s ripe, but it is just the start.)  But we see no such disintegration in Hamlet.  Is Hamlet then a tragic figure, the hero of a tragedy?

What does that word ‘tragedy’ mean?

Drama dealing with serious themes, ending in the suffering or death of one or more of the principal characters…The tragic hero should be of high worth or standing, but not perfect: a tragic flaw, weakness or transgression…or an excess of arrogant ambition…leads to downfall.  The effect of the inevitable disaster (catastrophe) on the spectators is the purgation or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotion of pity and terror through what they have seen.  (The Oxford Companion to the English Language.)

In the still magisterial Shakespearian Tragedy, A C Bradley said:

In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait…is fatal to him.  To meet these circumstances something is required which a smaller man might have given, but which the hero cannot give.  He errs, by action or omission; and his error, joining with other causes, brings on him ruin….In Hamlet, there is a painful consciousness that duty is being neglected….

We are, then, looking for a flaw in our hero that may prove to be fatal.  (‘Tragic trait’ does look a bit circular.)

What was Hamlet’s fatal flaw?  He is accused of delay and indecision.  Bradley turned this into a ‘neglect of duty’- the injunction by the ghost to revenge the murder of Hamlet’s father.  These allegations are frequently linked to the suggestion that Hamlet is rendered incapable of action because he thinks too much.  (This is a little curious.  When Caesar says Cassio spends too much time considering ‘the deeds of men’, he is giving the most withering assessment of the smiling assassin in our letters: Julius Caesar, 1,2, 198-213).

Is it fair to suggest such a flaw in Hamlet?  In my view, the suggestion is as unfounded as it is unfair.

First, it is wrong to say that Hamlet delayed.  The ghost could hardly have expected his son to race off to Gertrude and the alleged murderer writhing drunkenly and in flagrante in ‘the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed.’  (We may be forgiven for having difficulty seeing Derek Jacobi writhing with Julie Christie in any case at all.)  Even taking the ghost at face value, Hamlet had to seek corroboration and to count the numbers. This playwright was after all the most consummate political analyst the world has known. Sulky young Hamlet could not simply ask the court of Denmark to accept that a young son justifiably upset by his mother’s want of decorum was justified in killing the king – that adds the count of treason to that of murder – because he had the word of his father’s ghost that uncle had murdered dad.*

The second point is the more substantive.  To the extent that Hamlet hesitated to obey his father’s ghost, it was because the ghost was asking him to commit murder.  Murder is a crime both at law and morally.  It does not cease to be a crime simply because it is carried out to avenge a killing.  On the contrary, that motive makes the crime morally worse.

The first object of our law was to end the vicious cycle of revenge.  On the second and third pages of the biblical The Common Law of Oliver Wendell Holmes, we find:

It is commonly known that the early forms of legal procedure were grounded in vengeance.  Modern writers have thought that the Roman law started from the blood feud, and all the authorities agree that the German law began in that way.

(‘German law’ includes that brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons and therefore our law.)

What the ghost was asking Hamlet to do was to commit the crime of murder and by so doing take Denmark back about one thousand years to the Dark Age and to another cycle of vengeance and endless civil unrest.  That is why, as Tony Tanner pointed out, Hamlet is so different from the Oresteia. The intervening two millennia had witnessed the birth and acceptance in Europe of Christianity. Hamlet pauses for a simple reason – he has a conscience, a word that keeps cropping up in this would-be revenge play.

That being so, the wonder is not that Hamlet hesitated, but that he even thought about murdering his uncle for revenge.  And, as we know, he never executed the command of the ghost.  He finally kills Claudius for killing his mother and himself.

Let us test our conclusion in three ways.

First, we know from his swift and merciless despatch of the very unlovely Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Hamlet has no trouble in killing people where the homicide is morally justifiable – which it is in self-defence. (‘Why, man, they did make love to this employment./ They are not near my conscience.’  5, 2, 56-57.)  Here was no neurotic intellectual incapable of decisive, lethal action.  (You may recall that that hypocritical young hot-head, Laertes, expressly renounces ‘conscience and grace’ and dares damnation: 4, 5, 132-136.  Whoever expected Hamlet to act like that?)  Nor was Hamlet slow to accept a duel with Laertes.

Next, look at the models that the author of the play offers his hero for those who act strongly to exact revenge. I might seek to summarize what I have said before on this.

Pyrrhus was the son of Achilles. He murdered the King of Troy, old Priam, to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet was so fond of this story that he knew a lot of it by heart. There was one speech from this play that Hamlet ‘chiefly loved’ (2.2.456). He recites about a dozen lines about ‘Priam’s slaughter’ and then hands over to the Player King. Achilles may or may not have been a homicidal maniac, but he was certainly a manic homicide. Hamlet had nothing – nothing at all – in common with either of them.  They are not just worlds apart, but millennia apart.

The second model available to Hamlet may have been slightly more appealing, and for us more threatening. Fortinbras (a derivative of ‘strong-arm’) leads a Norwegian army against the Poles over a worthless bit of dirt. This sends Hamlet into a whirl of romantic bulldust. He refers to this ‘delicate and tender prince … with divine ambition puffed’ (4.4.48-9). (‘Divine ambition’ is, I suggest, a contradiction in terms.) Hamlet then switches over to a sickening paean to war:

Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor’s at the stake … (4.4.53-6)

Men were being commanded to go to their death over a useless piece of earth because ‘honor’ was at stake. Hamlet steadies himself and then romances that twenty thousand men ‘face imminent death for … a fantasy and trick of fame’ (4.4.61). If that kind of thinking ever had any attraction – and it could never have had any place in the thinking of a true follower of the Sermon on the Mount – it went west at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, and in Vietnam, and in Iraq.

No, Hamlet could not get help from either of these two heroes to resolve his moral quandary.

Finally, let us look at the heroes of two tragedies, Macbeth and Othello.  Both are obviously flawed, and as a result both commit murder.  For that we condemn them. Are we to condemn Hamlet because he does the opposite and refuses to commit murder?  You will recall that Bradley spoke of ‘something [that] is required which a smaller man might have given, but which the hero cannot give’.  That is precisely the case with Hamlet – he is simply not able to commit murder to revenge his father’s death.  That incapacity is anything but a flaw – just as the incapacity of Lay Macbeth to extinguish her humanity is anything but a flaw.

Hamlet is not, then, a tragedy in the accepted sense.  I agree that he was not a victim of himself.  That is why, I think, Hamlet plays more like a spy thriller of John Le Carré than a tragedy of Euripides.

Does any of this matter?  Of course not.  Labels are the demons of pin-striped minds.  William Shakespeare made a good living out of entertaining people like you and me.  It’s just that he did it in ways that still leave us smitten with awe.  (Emerson said that when he read Shakespeare, he actually shaded his eyes.)  And it also just happens that Hamlet is I think the most popular play that he or anyone else has ever put on our stage.  And may God bless him for that!

*Going to bed with the man who murdered your husband was politically sensitive when Hamlet was first put on.  Protestants charged Mary Queen of Scots with doing just that, and, as ever, she was not her own best witness.

Here and there – The meaning of affront –and the real face of Avis



The Road to Serfdom held some attraction for many university students in my time.  It looked at what George Orwell called Big Brother and what Ken Kesey called the Combine.   Hayek said that we were just heading for the status of serfs.  But, with time, the book sounded too doctrinaire for people not given to dogma, and it was preached by people whose company we may not have enjoyed – Andrew Bolt territory.

The following note that I sent my daughters while travelling in Scotland – on a round the world trip – will show just how far down that road to serfdom we have travelled.

It was a good short flight on time from Cardiff to Glasgow. I got clobbered with 40 pounds for each bag which a very capable agent assured me had been covered, but I know how predatory these small airlines are.

I finally made my way to the Avis desk to pick up my car. I had corresponded with  them about the booking – at some length.   All I wanted  was a good clear way for me to get on the A82 to the highlands.  I was getting on with Ann like a house on fire – comparing accents and so on.  She is finally about to hand over the keys, and then says, dead-pan: ‘Mr Gibson.  I’m sorry but I cannot let you have this car.  You have been banned’ – or words to that effect. 

I don’t know that I have felt anything like this before.  Among other things, I had just travelled around Wales for two days in an Avis car.  There was no reason.  Just a sign on the computer.  I saw her pointing to it with colleagues.  I suggested she call for a manager – but I instinctively felt that no one in a yellow jacket would override the computer.  While waiting for the manager, I shopped around.  Hertz said they had no car available.  Thrifty said they answered to the same computer. 

Finally, I got a very nice people at Europcar and their system did not disqualify  me.  They were very efficient and capable and their manager, a fine lady of Glasgow,  felt empowered to authorise my hire.  She was  a genuinely decent lady; the young man on the desk, Roddy, plays loch in rugby.   He was terrific.   My first credit card bounced – probably because Avis had not taken off the Cardiff deposit.  Thank God, the computer allowed the second.  In the name of God, I had spent time the night before in Cardiff to make sure ample funds were available on each credit card.

Well, I have a very adequate VW Polo that has got me here in comfort, and I will restructure my trip to take the car back to Glasgow.  That inconvenience is relatively slight.  Could I have been banged up in a Glasgow boozer for days?

But I cannot even begin to tell you how unsettling this has been. 

I think we are going to the dogs – as my old man used to say.

It is very unsettling.

What Orwell and Kesey described was the sense of powerlessness of the victims of the State entities that they described.  Orwell’s hero is crushed into total submission.  Kesey’s hero is despatched to eternity as an act of kindness.  One word for the result is ‘unmanned.’

That is how you feel when you deal with someone employed by a big corporation that rules its own like a very firm government.  If you are into labels, try fascist.  And it all gets so much worse when the whole corporation has handed over the keys to what might have been called  its soul to a machine in the sky – a deus ex machina – called a computer.  And no one – no one – is authorised to query, challenge much less override the computer.  The hand-over of power – the surrender – is complete.  And so is the victory of Big Brother and the Combine.  And we are left unmanned.

But the powerlessness of Ann was only part of the story.  Indeed, in at least one sense, Ann and I shared a powerlessness.  One of the primary aims of a vicious ruler is to make the subjects complicit in the viciousness.  That way, the minions get locked in.  Just look at how Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco went about stitching up their underlings (and reflect on the obsession of Donald Trump with personal loyalty of the kind that Hitler extracted, even from previously decent officers of the army).

Ann is, I fear, becoming complicit.  Possibly the most frightening part of this episode came when I was sitting down in something resembling shock, and Ann was standing and  looking down at me, and then Ann – yes, that  nice, kind Ann with the Glaswegian accent – gave me a look of suspicion.  For a moment, I could have been looking at an East German guard on Checkpoint Charlie.  ‘Are you sure there is nothing in your past with Avis, Geoffrey?’  Or words to that effect – words that Robespierre could have drooled over at the height of the Terror.  Suspicion is a primary tool of trade of the terrorist.  Robespierre said ‘Feel my fear’ and ‘Who among us is beyond suspicion?’  And Ann is being reduced to that level.

What the gods of the machine want to do with us is to strip us of our humanity.  And we are all now becoming complicit by handing the keys to ourselves to our mobile phones.  I was appalled in both Manhattan and Wales to see nearly everyone on the street looking at their phones. People at the Frick could not put them down.  (What about a selfie with my old mate Rembers, Digger?)  The plague has even reached us here in the Highlands.  At Ballaculish, I ran into a very handsome couple from Vancouver who looked like they might be on a honeymoon – if people still do those things.  Then I saw them in the bar – each immersed in his or her own phone.

In the name of God, what kind of world is this?  This device does not just murder minds and manners – it annihilates any sense of grace altogether.  All that bull about bringing people together from super brats like Zuckerberg is all just part of one grand lie.

The medical profession has astonished me with the care and professional attention with which it is treating a cancer that a few years ago would certainly have killed me.  I have just experienced another instance of professional care and plain human kindness deep in the Highlands.  What I must now do is to respond by fighting another form of cancer that does not terminate life but certainly terminates decency.

To return to Avis.   They promised to lend me a car in return for my promise to pay them.  That is a called a contract in our law – and the law of the US.  I travelled and made arrangements in reliance on that contract.  I am travelling around the world, and the visit to the Highlands was the principal reason for the whole trip.  Then Avis said ‘We made that promise, but we reserve the right to renege on any basis at all – including the colour of your skin or the way you wear a head scarf.’  What do we care if you are degraded and humiliated in public and if the last visit to the land of your ancestors is ruined?  Our only God is Mammon.  You – poor fellow – just fall under the heading of collateral damage.  Just look at the business model of our President.

Then there is the problem of a cartel operating to interfere with contractual relations.   At heart we are dealing with a wrong that our law does not distinctly recognise as one of outrage.  But, as Sir Frederick Pollock pointed out many years ago, our law has long permitted juries to deal with the arrogance of the haughty by the measure of the damages that they, on behalf of their country, award to the victim.  Putting to one side my personal circumstances, I find it hard to imagine a better case to test the limits of this wrong at law.

I do not know why Avis reneged.  They could not or would not tell me.  That inflames the wrong.  These people are like Richard III – they murder while they smile.  As the lady from Europe Car said, it may have been a parking ticket from ten years ago.

I have a recollection of hiring a car in Oxford about ten years ago for a fly fishing lesson.  I cannot recall the hirer, but I have a kind of recollection of correspondence that was (1) false (2) insulting and (3) extortionate – criminally so.  If it was that kind of thing on the mind of the computer, Avis is adding infamy to criminality.  Whatever incident the computer had in mind – it may just be wrong – it must look to be as mean and petty and spiteful as you could imagine.  But it does not matter – whatever it was, it cannot justify this frightful breach of promise.  We made our laws to shield the innocent,  not the arrogant.

About forty years ago, Aunty (our ABC) made rude remarks about a very important Royal Commission team.  These wronged lawyers then sued for libel.  And in cold blood they entered judgment by default.  When I moved to set aside the judgment, the late Neil McPhee, QC sought to hold on to the judgment by saying that we – the ABC – had no defence.  I well remember the relish with which Neil looked at me across the bar table and said ‘The only possible defence is truth and if Mr Gibson does make that plea, this court room would not be big enough to hold the damages.’

I think it may be time to offer that option to Mr Avis and his imperative computer.