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.

Bloopers

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.

Here and there – Fear and jealousy in Shakespeare

PART II

  1. Cassius

Cassius was a jealous, scheming, hypocritical jerk of a politician – and Caesar saw straight through him.  He gave the perfect portrait of the ratbag we describe as a ‘smiling assassin.’

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous……

Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.  (1.2.192 – 210)

That is word perfect.  Cassius envies Caesar for his successes and standing.  He only goes back to his youth to belittle and mock Caesar.  He works on the politically naïve Brutus by saying that Caesar makes the Roman nobility look small – ‘petty even.’

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?  (1.2. 135 – 142)

His envy of Caesar drives him to seek to plant jealousy in the breast of the ‘noble’ Brutus.  And he believes, with all crooked politicians, that every man has his price.  He thinks he can play Caesar like a violin.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.307 – 312)

Cassius is one of the assassins and he makes the banal cry – the banality of evil – ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’  (Yes, and who bloody for, Mate?)

Antony said that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all and that he was the only conspirator who did not kill ‘in envy of great Caesar.’  Well, Shakespeare did a number on chivalry with Falstaff and Troilus and Cressida, and in my view he did a number on nobility with Brutus and Cassius.  One was a hopeless political ingénue; the other was a dreadful political skunk.

  1. Othello

When Othello prefers Cassio to Iago for the office of being his lieutenant, Iago is jealous of Cassio and he envies and hates both Cassio and Othello because they are above him on the ladder – and, to boot, Othello is not even a white man!  It may be one thing for a commissioned officer from Sandhurst to prefer a man from Eton and the Guards over an NCO from a coal-mining family in Durham – but, in the name of God, how do you respond if the Sandhurst chap is black?  Iago plans revenge by inducing Othello to believe that Cassio is having an affair with Othello’s wife, Desdemona.  This promises a ‘Divinity of hell!’ (2.3.350)  The evil is Satanic.  An ancient theologian, Origen, said this of the AntiChrist –

…..since evil is specially characterised by its diffusion, and attains its greatest height when it simulates the appearance of the good, for that reason are signs, and marvels, and miracles found to accompany evil, through the co-operation of its father, the Devil.

That is Iago.  And for many reasons, Othello is a ripe target.  His tragic flaw is that he has not one iota of what Keats discerned in the author of this play as ‘Negative Capability’ – ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable seeking out of fact and reason’. In the space of about a hundred lines, and in the course of a discussion on the first day of his honeymoon, Othello has gone from threatening to kill his sergeant to getting his sergeant to kill his lieutenant while he works out the best way to kill his wife.  And all because he could not bear being left in doubt.

Othello therefore stands for the cancer in our public life now.  People crave a clear tribal response regardless of the evidence.  Othello is the kind of fodder that Fox and Sky News thrive on – a sucker for any conspiracy story, or any bloated fool who flogs them.

Iago is very much like Satan.  A C Bradley said of him:

..Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil purely for itself.  His action is not prompted by any plain motive like revenge, jealousy or ambition.  It springs from a ‘motiveless malignity, or a disinterested delight in the pain of others….

Iago, then, stands for the other great cancer of our public life now – egoism unleashed.

  1. Conclusion

How does this stack up against the ‘banality of evil’ seen by Hannah Arendt?  Well, for a start, Eichmann was real.  Leontes and Iago are figments of imagination who played no part in the murder of six million people.  Arendt had the vital insight that Eichmann was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for his extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Perhaps the most singular clash of good and evil comes with Billy Budd.  Billy is as handsome as he is simple and innocent.  But John Claggart, the Master-at Arms cannot tolerate this simple beauty or goodness.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it?  …The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

Like Polyxenes, Melville goes back to the very beginning to describe primal innocence.  We are told that the ‘Handsome Sailor…in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.’  The vicious leer of Robert Ryan as Claggart in the movie chills the blood.  But this kind of evil is best expressed in the libretto for the Britten opera written by E M Forster and another.

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
Would that I never encountered you!
Would that I lived in my own world always,
in that depravity to which I was born.
There I found peace of a sort, there I established
an order such as reigns in Hell…….
Having seen you, what choice remains to me?
None, none! I’m doomed to annihilate you,
I’m vowed to your destruction. ….
No, you cannot escape!
With hate and envy I’m stronger than love….

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
You surely in my power tonight.
Nothing can defend you.
Nothing! So may it be!
For what hope remains if love can escape?
If love still lives and grows strong where I cannot enter,
what hope is there in my own dark world for me?
No! I cannot believe it! That were torment to keen.
I, John Claggart,
Master-at-Arms upon the ‘Indomitable’,
have you in my power, and I will destroy you.

‘With hate and envy I’m stronger than love’.  Even without Britten’s thumping score, this is elementally vicious.  Putting to one side the real world, including Auschwitz and Hiroshima, have you ever seen evil like this?

MY TOP SHELF -46

 

[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.]

CASABLANCA

Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch

Special Hollywood Edition, 1992, rebound in half gold leather and purple boards.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Everyone has their favourite movie.  Until recently, most film buffs named Citizen Kane, although you might go a long way until you found someone other than a film buff who really likes that movie.  In the last few years, Citizen Kane has been tipped off that perch by other movies that few people have ever heard of.  But everyone – or at least everyone born before the Vietnam War – knows Casablanca.  And those same people just know that Casablanca is the best film ever – beyond any argument.

Rick is a bruised American refugee from reality.  He runs a nightclub in neutral Casablanca which is a seedy hub of corruption for people fleeing the Germans and Vichy France.  A beautiful woman emerges from a lovelorn past that Rick thought he had buried, and he must decide between her and taking sides in the war.  ‘Honour’ is not in Rick’s lexicon.  Well, the film was made during the war, and that may tell you how Hollywood, and this as Hollywood as it gets, resolves Rick’s dilemma.

Hal Wallis bought the rights to an as yet unproduced play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s.  He paid $20,000, a huge amount in January 1942, a record for a play that had not yet been produced.  Filming started on 25 May and concluded on 3 August, just over two months.  The whole film was shot in the studio, with film of Paris and one airport shot.  The costs came in at just over a million dollars, a little over budget.  Wallis wrote the immortal last line a month after shooting was completed, and the lead had to be brought back to dub it.  The film premiered in New York before the end of 1942, and met with moderate critical and box office receptions.

This was Humphrey Bogart’s first truly romantic role.  One critic said of Ingrid Bergman and Bogart that ‘she paints his face with her eyes.’  The director was careful to film from her preferred left side – often with a softening gauze filter and with ‘catch lights’ set up to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem ‘ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic’.  Well, they certainly got that right.  Wallis got Bergman from Selznick by swapping Olivia de Havilland – Hollywood was then a very feudal place.  Paul Henreid did not want his part (for which he demanded equal billing) – the lethal New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, said that ‘it set him as a stiff forever.’  Well, how many young men burnt their fingers and whatever else by spoiling an amorous moment by trying the two cigarette trick of Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager?

For many people, including me, the star of the show is Claude Rains, who gets the most outrageous lines and looks like the quintessence of the schmaltz that lies at the very heart of this film – although Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre will always have their followers, as will S Z Sackall as Carl.  If you look at the extended cast list on the Web, you will see very many people from out of town living in exile while the outcome of the war, and the whole future of Europe, hung in the balance.  Someone who was there when they shot the scene of the two anthems saw many of the actors shedding real tears.  (Three sisters of Carl were killed in concentration camps.)  Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, and it was anathema to Rick, but it is a large part of the fiber of the heart-strings of this film.

Casablanca regularly tops the polls of general audience favourites.  For nearly forty years, it has been the most frequently broadcast film on U S TV.  Many of the babyboomers keep going back like people go back to Hamlet and Tosca.  For them, the nostalgia only gets worse with time – it is like going back home to your mum and dad, when life seemed ever so less complicated.  But people who have only seen it on T V, and then, as often as not, in a lachrymose condition not uninduced by drink, have to see it on the big screen.  Even if you have seen it twenty times on the small screen, you will see it as if for the first time when you see it on the big screen.  There is, for example, the moment when Bogart looks around and sees that Bergman is coming back into his closed off life – and he has the look of white terror of a man staring into the void.  The only other time I have seen this on stage, or anywhere else, was when Luciano Pavarotti was performing in an open air concert in Central Park – as he steeled himself for his launch at a high C, he for one instant, showed this look of vacant white terror in his eyes.  You might wonder with this was, consciously or not, a set part of his stage performance.

Different people have different favourite lines.  Some of the most cited lines are:

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’

Round up the usual suspects.

We’ll always have Paris.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

A friend of mine, who is called the Phantom, cherishes this exchange between a Rick and a young ‘broad’ getting the brush off.

YVONNE

Where were you last night?

RICK

That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE

Will I see you tonight?

RICK

(matter-of-factly

I never make plans that far ahead.

Bogart gets the most wounding lines.

ILSA How nice. You remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris. RICK Not an easy day to forget. ILSA No. RICK I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

And:

Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells? My own favourites involve Claude Rains (Captain Renault), delivered with the consummate dead-pan timing of London’s West End theatre:RENAULT I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. Rick still looks in the direction of the airport. RICK It was a combination of all three. RENAULT And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca? RICK My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters. RENAULT Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert . RICK I was misinformed.

And after the singing of the Marseillaise, the Germans tell Renault to shut down Rick’s.

RICK How can you close me up? On what grounds? RENAULT I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! This display of nerve leaves Rick at a loss. The croupier comes out of the gambling room and up to Renault. He hands him a roll of bills. CROUPIER Your winnings, sir. RENAULT Oh. Thank you very much. He turns to the crowd again. RENAULT Everybody out at once !

The business of Hollywood can be simply stated.  It is to make money by making a movie that people will pay to see because they will be entertained by it.  It is hard to envisage any movie that has or will entertain as many people as Casablanca.  It won three Academy Awards, including best picture, best screenplay, and best director, but those awards mean little now.  It matters not if you say that here is a film of Hollywood luxuriating in its own emotionalism, or that this film represents the crudest form of manipulation or kitsch.  The film works, and it is just about shot perfect and word perfect and mood perfect.  Forget critical or historical analysis – Casablanca, like Bradman or Black Caviar, just happened.  Here’s looking at you, kid.

And then there are those hats……

 

Passing Bull 223 – A weekend riot

 

The weekend press was alive with the sound of bullshit.

Simon Benson gave one of his paper’s encomiums on the Mayor of Box Hill (aka ScoMo) in the lead article on page 1.

On the same page, Dennis Shanahan reported, exclusively, that the drought boss wants to keep politics out of the discussion of drought.  Since that paper eschews discussion of science and drought, what is there left?  And what logic led a senior civil servant to conclude that giving a first page exclusive to the Murdoch press on the subject of drought was a good way to keep politics out of the discussion?

On the front page of the Inquirer, Simon Benson returned to his paean upon the Mayor.  He thinks it’s a good idea that the Ministers choose civil servants that they get on with.  Some unfortunate person actually used the term ‘drain the swamp.’

Paul Kelly ponders.  There is a word for that.

Chris Kenny goes into bat for the accident prone Angus Taylor – with all the set trimmings about the ‘green left’ and the ‘love media.’  ‘Childish’ would be unduly complimentary.  The opening is out of this world.

The impeachment circus plays out in Washington as the resistance tries yet again to tear down Donald Trump as he dismisses the charade as ‘bullshit.’

It is as if popularity is a complete defence for a populist.  For at least six years, Adolf Hitler must have been the darling of this kind of observer.

Janet Albrechtsen matches Kenny.  Her piece is headed ‘Woke hypocrites humiliated as Folaus bask in apology.’  While contemplating a life in exile, as more churches shut their doors.

Gerard Henderson is sniping at a colleague again.  No one on that paper understands what the word ‘professional’ entails.  They are driven from above to attack the ABC.  Mr Henderson starts by saying that what worries him about a Nine report ‘was the absence of doubt.’  Good grief!  Was someone being dogmatic?  Like the jury of a man named Pell?  Or his defenders?

And so it goes, as the man said.

Bloopers

…..it is core religious dogma of all progressives that radical action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Activists never level with people that this must mean drastically reduced living standards.  So when inevitably climate action explicitly reduces living standards, the public rebels.

Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, 7-8 December, 2019

Well, not many people like paying tax, but we have to if we want schools, hospitals and armed forces.  There is a process to resolve all that.  It is called government.  And as Sharan Burrow reminds Spanish coal miners in a BBC clip, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Here and there – Envy and Jealousy in Shakespeare

 

 

Cuckoo, cuckoo – O word of fear

Unpleasing to a married ear.  (Love’s Labour Lost, 5.2)

PART I

  1. Introduction

You are jealous if you think that someone you love loves someone else. You envy someone if you think that they are doing better than you.  The OED is more prosaic.  For ‘envy’ we get ‘mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another’s superior advantages.’  For ‘jealous’ we get ‘having the belief, suspicion or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another on account of known or suspected rivalry.’

The two notions or emotions are distinct, but they overlap.  In each case you feel or sense unfairness.  You feel like you have not been treated fairly.  You are not getting what you deserve to get.  You may feel that you have been cheated out of your entitlement.

Envy involves a kind of longing; jealousy involves a kind of fear; and there may be different moral consequences for each emotion.  If I am jealous of someone I love, I fear that they may betray me.  My faith in that person is being put to the test.  I am, in the words of Scripture, sure of what I hope for, but I am not certain of what I do not see.

You will see both envy and jealousy at work if you give two of your children presents for Christmas that are obviously unequal – one feels cheated of your affection, and is upset that the other is doing so much better.  In that kind of family setting, there is an implied premise of fairness, and if that translates to the community at large, you can sense the unease opening up because of the frightful inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

In Paradise Lost, the original sin may have come from Satan’s anger with God for dividing the godhead and by putting his son above the angels.  Satan is jealous of the son, and he envies Adam and Eve for their innocence and beauty.  In the end, in the words of the poet, ‘all hell breaks loose’ because of both the envy and jealousy of Satan.  Both emotions drive him to commit acts of evil.

In Othello, Iago feels jealousy toward both Othello and Cassio for their standing, and for the preferment of Cassio, but he also envies Cassio for his goodness.

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly (5.1.18 – 20)

When Satan is confronted with a good angel, he –

…felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d

His loss; but chiefly to find here observed

His lustre visibly impaired.  (4.847 – 850)

The sight of Adam and Eve has a similar effect.  When he first sees them having it off- ‘Imparadis’t in one anothers arms’ – his first words are ‘O Hell!’  Before we got:

……aside the Devil turned

For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne

Eyed them askance…..(4.502 – 504)

When you are confronted with someone much better than you, you feel diminished.  Just look at how poor Salieri felt diminished by Mozart.  In the worst case of envy, the result may be that the person diminished feels they have no option but to seek to destroy their better.  (Some suspected Salieri of just that.)  The comparison strikes at their very self, their identity, all that they have ever stood for.  In that case, the insult is mortal.  This was the reaction of Satan to the arrival of the Son:

……… he of the first,

If not the first archangel, great in power,

In favor and pre-eminence, yet fraught

With envy against the Son of God, that day

Honored by his great Father, and proclaimed

Messiah King anointed, could not bear

Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain……(5.659-666)

You will notice that in both the envy of Adam and Eve and the jealousy of the Son, the result is that Satan felt ‘impaired’.

In jealousy, there is a felt breach of trust, a sense of betrayal, which inflames as much as it wounds.  If the rival for your affection is a person close to you, then you have a double betrayal.  And the result may well be Vesuvial – as it was in A Winter’s Tale.

We saw that the OED referred twice to suspicion in ‘jealousy’.  Suspicion and intrigue play a bigger part in jealousy, because the move in rivalry is commonly concealed.  Not many circles allow a man to say ‘I want to bed your wife’.  Envy operates on known facts – indeed the envy increases with the spread of knowledge of the seen superiority.  But in either case, there is likely to be a sense of betrayal that leads to bitterness and a felt need for revenge..

And in the case of a man having another man bed his wife, the affront to amour propre can be mortal.  This is deep Freud country.  ‘Have you considered the possibility that not only were you unable to keep her, you were unable to satisfy her?’  Our language has no feminine counterpart to being ‘unmanned’.  And hitting a man below the belt can lead to hurt and injury and collapse in a way that women have no knowledge or experience of.

Let us then look at some of this in four characters of Shakespeare – Ford, Leontes, Cassius, and Othello.

2.Frank Ford

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a cross between a middle class sit-com and a bedroom farce.  The hold of the middle class then on status was very brittle.  That meant that face was all important.  This may be the only play that Shakespeare did not have a prior source to base his plot on, but the main themes, including that of the jealous husband, had been standard fare since the time of commedia dell’ arte (I Gelosi).  As Tony Tanner remarked, ‘Being robbed, being cuckolded, and being duped are all forms of that great bourgeois dread – theft.’  Everyone in the play ‘cozens, is cozened, or both.’  Falstaff was born to be ‘a cheater’.

In one of his more deranged moments, Falstaff thinks that Ford’s wife has given him ‘the leer of invitation.’  He boasts of this to Ford in disguise as Brooke, and promises ‘You shall have her, Master Brooke…you shall cuckold Ford.’  Not surprisingly, Ford erupts when Falstaff leaves.

What a damned Epicurean rascal is this! My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy?  My wife hath sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at; and I shall not only receive this villanous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong….
Cuckold! Wittol!–Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they
think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect.  God be praised for my jealousy
(2.3. 287 – 308).

There you see the shame of being a cuckold.  Falstaff seeks to use fraud on the wives with an almost lunatic egoism; both Ford and the wives practise fraud on Falstaff; both the wives and Ford are lied to.  But even allowing for the near lunacy of Falstaff, Ford was entitled to suspect someone was after his wife.  Page may have been able to laugh it all off, but could you blame Ford for being different?  The Welsh parson cautions Ford to ‘not follow the imaginations of your own heart.  This is jealousies.’  But, as the saying goes, even paranoiacs have real enemies.

Frank Ford has not had a good press.  He is held up to ridicule.  But jealousy is very natural.  A dog can show it if you invade the space of his master – even more so when it is another dog doing the invading.  A healthy jealousy might save a union; a perceived indifference might kill it.  And you might cause quite a stir if as a tutor on Shakespeare at Cambridge you were to suggest that someone could sleep with your wife and you could feel no sense of jealousy.  That may well sound downright unnatural, and not just among the matrons.

  1. Leontes

There was a western – I forget its name – where a rich bad guy (Ralph Bellamy) hires a professional (Lee Marvin) to retrieve a gorgeous woman (Claudia Cardinale) from other bad guys.  (If they did not include Jack Palance or Eli Wallach, they should have.)  At the end, Marvin welshes on the deal because Bellamy is a jerk.  Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard.  He gets this bell-ringer back.  ‘That’s OK.  With me, it’s an accident of birth.  But you are a self-made man.’

That is exactly the case with Leontes.  His descent into jealousy makes Othello look slack – but Iago had a lot of luck on his side.  His descent is almost entirely self-propelled.  It appears to come from nowhere.

This playwright considered the arrival of a woman between two male friends in Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen.  The invasion of an intimate state can be as testing as a woman marrying an only son.  The occasion is ripe for jealousy of the invader.  But if one of the two male friends marries, and he then suspects his friend of having bedded his wife, then we have double the betrayal and a possible nuclear reaction.

That is just what we get in A Winter’s Tale.  Leontes and Polyxenes have been friends since childhood.  That was their golden age.  Each could have stayed that way forever (‘boy eternal’).  They are like those old boys who regret getting out of short pants.  Leontes has been unable to persuade Polyxenes to extend his stay, but Hermione does so with ease.  Polyxenes romances about their childhood and loss of innocence on growing up.

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did.  Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.  (1.2.81 – 89).

And then, a little later, Hermione makes a wistful reference to Polyxenes as ‘for some while a friend’ and Leontes explodes instantaneously picking up Polyxenes reference to ‘blood’.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?  (1.2.132 – 144)

A throwaway remark and blameless byplay leads to heart palpitations immediately.  And – this is important – the RSC editors (Bate and Rasmussen) say ‘mingling bloods’ is a ‘process believed to occur during sex, since semen was assumed chiefly to be composed of blood.’  So, after four words and one !, we are back among the enseamèd sheets that nearly sent Hamlet mad.

Now to a layman this looks like an illness – it looks pathological – and it is one of those dreadful illnesses where the victim cannot see that he is ill – that is all part of the infection.  (I have a recollection that before Anthony Sher played the part, he consulted psychiatrists who said that the symptoms described by Shakespeare were spot on.)  As Jonathon Bate remarks, the dramatic interest is in ‘the tendency of human beings who have fallen into holes to dig themselves ever deeper’.  For that reason alone, some adviser to the present President of the U S (November, 2019) should suggest that he heed the advice of Clausewitz On War and avoid reinforcing a losing position.

MY TOP SHELF -45 – RUSSELL

 

[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.]

A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY

Bertrand Russell

George Allen & Unwin limited, 1961; rebound in half red morocco, with sage title and author, and floral boards.

Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.

Bertrand Russell may not have been a very pleasant man, but he was very, very bright, and he could expound difficult concepts in a way that even those who are not experts or who have not been exposed to philosophy at university can understand.  This book is in my view a classic of that kind of exposition.  I have used it as a reference book for nearly fifty years, but recently I read it for the first time from cover to cover.  I wish other scholars would use it as a model of the kind of book that can be read by the general reader.  When asked about his style once, Russell said that it should be a mixture of the prose of Milton and a Baedeker Guide.  That was very good advice.

The book is large.  Its 800 pages, with a very full index, cover the ambit from the beginnings of Greek civilization to the time at which Russell wrote.  The book may therefore serve as a very good introduction to the history of the West because Russell never hesitates to put his subject in a wider political or social context.  Here, for example, are two passages on the relative claims of ancient Greece and Rome.

These [Greek] cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes [admirers of Greeks], and did not destroy what they had conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done.  The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilisation which they governed but did their utmost to preserve.

The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture, and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy.  The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion.  The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but the latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted for a long time.

I have probably spent more time reading this book than any other non-fiction book on the shelf.  It has been beautifully rebound, and it is a pleasure to both hold and read.  I just fear that if I start picking out slabs to quote, I may not serve the cause of getting it read.  It does if nothing else show the danger of judging a book by its author.

 

Passing Bull 222 – What is a hoax?

 

The President of the United States trashes everything he touches.  His latest target is the U S Navy.  The Republican fall from grace is complete when its leaders tolerate an attack on their navy – and an attack that may well imperil its members.  The President, of course, does not understand the military.  His cowardice and corruption led him to evade service to his country.

And he does of course trash the English language every time he opens his illiterate mouth.  He says that the impeachment inquiry is a hoax.  What is that?  ‘A humorous or mischievous deception with which the credulity of the victim is imposed upon.’  You get it in commedia dell’arte and the Marx Brothers.  It’s what the merry wives of Windsor did to Falstaff (as had Prince Hal done two plays earlier – Sir John was born to be hoaxed).  It’s what NATO leaders and royals may like to do to President Trump, but they presently content themselves with laughing at him behind his back.

But whatever else the impeachment process is, it is not a hoax or any other form of joke.  The fact that this oaf can make that claim shows what in my view is the main ground for his impeachment – the man simply has no idea of the duties that come with his office: he is quite unable to see, much less accept, that he has committed a great wrong.

His other response is his general fall back – witch hunt.  According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, this is in political usage ‘the searching out and exposure of opponents alleged to be disloyal to the State, often amounting to persecution.’  Now, whenever someone in authority criticises Trump, the spoiled child in him – and there is not much else – says he is being persecuted.  But that delusion is not enough to create a witch hunt.  It is also true that about six people close to Trump are in jail for conduct in or arising from his election, but that does not mean that there is a witch hunt, any more than that the Nuremberg trials were a witch hunt.

The people of Salem knew what a witch hunt was.  So did McCarthy, and his pet lieutenant, a B grade actor named Ronald Reagan.  So did the Australian government that spent a fortune of our money over about a decade pursuing John Elliott and associates for party political purposes and no result.  But that was nothing like what is going on in Washington at the moment.

Speaking of the NATO shambles, have you noticed that whenever Trump meets a world leader who is smarter than him – that is, any other world leader – he looks ‘alone and palely loitering’ – with his head down and his hands between his knees, in his ludicrously predictable attire, which he is incapable of doing up, like an estranged ourangatang who has been force fed in the jungle on industrial strength Prozac?

As for witch hunts, I like the remark that an English judge passed a long time before the English started settling here – there is no law against flying.

Bloopers

‘He’s still very young in his Test career,’ said Chris Silverwood, the head coach, after stumps.  ‘Jofra’s learning about himself and the game of Test cricket. And, equally, Joe is learning to captain him as well. From a holistic point of view we’re growing together, really.’

The Guardian, 23 November, 2019

Contributions to the pre-conference blog claimed ecosystems could be a silver bullet, they ought to have a value chain — or possibly even be part of one — they should be ‘leveraged’ to ‘maximise value and achieve competitive advantage’ or ‘populated with new addressable customers’. ‘If you orchestrate it and tie the ecosystem on to a platform, you’re really resolving the customer problem holistically,’ enthused one panellist.

Financial Times, 3 December, 2019

Even for addressable customers in Byron Bay, ‘holistic’ is a rock solid guarantee of bullshit of Himalayan proportions.

MY TOP SHELF -44 ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

 

[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.]

ABSALOM! ABSALOM!

The Southern Classics Library, 1978; fully bound in brown morocco, with gold inscriptions, raised spine, marbled endpapers, and silk ribbon.

-You are my brother.

-No I’m not.  I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister.  Unless you stop me, Henry.

There is something spare, dark and elemental about the great novels of William Faulkner, and Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of a novel.  It is a novel told through voices built up like a Bach fugue, but at its heart is a Greek tragedy – a house subject to a curse that runs through the generations until a kind of moral equilibrium obtains, and it’s time for a new cycle.  Faulkner may have shared the human failings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – for both booze and skirt – but for me his offerings are so much more substantial.  Ask not who the more clever writer was, but who had the deeper insight into the human condition.  Absalom, Absalom! was written by man from the Deep South – Oxford, Mississippi – but it is not just about the South or, for that matter, the American Dream – it is about us, all of us.  That is what makes it a truly great novel, a work of very high art.

William Faulkner was raised in Mississippi.  He started writing as a poet and wrote short stories throughout his career.  He had a lifelong battle with the bottle.  He may also have lost count of his affairs.  He also wrote for the screen.  When he first went to MGM – a contract worth $500 a week in 1932 – he told them that he wanted to do either Mickey Mouse or newsreels, ‘the only movies I like’.  He worked with Bogart and Bacall on The Big Sleep.  He once had a long discussion with Howard Hawks and Clark Gable about literature.  Gable asked him to nominate the kind of writing that Gable might read if he wanted to become literary.  When Faulkner responded, Gable asked him if he was a writer.  Faulkner replied that he was, and asked Gable what he did for a living.  His best known novels include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary and Go Down Moses.  Greek tragedy recurs throughout his work which is frequently described as either Gothic or apocalyptic.

The story of Absalom, Absalom! is told through different voices, in a narrative more layered than those of Conrad, and people and events are seen in different lights, and through different prisms.  It can be very difficult to follow, and you should make full use of the chronology at the back.  But the fugal structure is essential to reflect our partial and fragmentary understanding of our past and our condition.  The plot unfolds through three extended conversations.  The differences in the recall of the narrators, and their perspectives, give you a sense of walking around the main characters and events.  You reach the story in the same way that you peel an onion.  To quote our management speak, the reader gets to take ownership of the problems.  In reading the book we seem to participate in its construction.  We become part of the story, although the process of reading it is both hard and wearing.

This is the first sentence.

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being  flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Miss Coldfield sat there –

Sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation invoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Writing like that is not taught – it only comes from someone who has insight and the gift to express it – and the courage to keep going.

This version of the American dream starts in the Appalachians where people were equal, and noone looked down on anyone, except the Indians, and ‘you only looked down at them over your rifle sights.’  It was different in the Tidewater.  People were measured by their skin colour and their land.  As a young man, the hero, Thomas Sutpen, goes up to a big white house with a message from his lowly father, and he is turned away from the front door by a black butler.  He goes to Haiti to make his fortune, but colour gets in the way even there.  He returns to carve out his revenge on this slight to his manhood.  He is innocent in the sense that Oedipus is innocent – he does not know what fate awaits him.  With ‘innocence instructing him’ he resolves that ‘you got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with.’  He strikes into the jungle like an Old Testament prophet in a tale told with language to match that scars the page as Thomas Sutpen wounds the earth.

Out of the quiet thunder-clap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a school-prize water color, faint suphur-reek still kin hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts and half-tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect, with his hair grim, ragged, and tatter-ran.  Immobile, bearded and hand-palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.  Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and  formal garden violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm mobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s hundred…

This attempt to forge a mighty dynasty involves, almost by definition, what the Greeks called hubris, and the unfolding of the curse that Greek tragedy, in the form of nemesis, puts on the House of Sutpen is what the novel is about.  You can gauge just how lethal and Greek that curse was from the Freudian inscription at the head of this note.  The rise and fall of the House of Sutpen might be thought to mirror the rise and fall of the Old South itself.  At the end, the final narrator is sitting in the ‘cold air, the iron New England dark’, and he is asked why he hates the South.  The book ends with these words: ‘I don’t.  I don’t!  I don’t hate it!  I don’t hate it!

The hero has no room for God.  He has no room for women either. One item that is missing from the novel is a contented woman.  The function of a woman in this patriarchy is to produce a male heir.  That way Sutpen can cheat God if not death.  The Haitian wife is discarded because her disclosed colour took her out of the design.  Once Ellen has produced the heir, she flits around like a useless butterfly and expires after being cheated of being at her daughter’s wedding ‘at the absolute flood-peak of her unreal and weightless life’.  The mother of Clytie does not even get a name.  Rosa is offered marriage conditional on producing an heir.  Milly Jones is treated as being worth less than a horse.  At least Clytie gets to burn down the mansion and the son who would have been the heir as she incinerates herself.

The contempt for humanity does not therefore stop at negroes and Indians.  This is how the three castes of women are described:

… the virgins whom gentlemen some day marry, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity – not this to Henry, strong blooded, victim of the hard celibacy of riding and hunting to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man, to which he and his kind were forced to pass time away, with girls of his own class interdict and inaccessible and women of the second class just as inaccessible because of money and distance, and hence only the slave girls, the housemaids neated and cleaned by white mistresses or perhaps girls with sweating bodies out of the fields themselves and the young man rides up and beckons the watching overseer and says ‘Send me Juno or Missylena or Chlory’ and then rides on into the trees and dismounts and waits.

So, the world of Sutpen is one of stolen people, stolen land, and abused people.  He knows it is a jungle.  He has taught himself to put a bullet through a playing card while cantering on his horse twenty yards away.  That keeps the whites at bay.  He wrestles with the ‘niggers’ to show that he is boss. Presumably he tumbles a nigger occasionally for practice – they, like the courtesans, are the guardians of white female purity.

Here is the doomed pride of the hero.

‘You see, I had a design in my mind.  Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent that this would indicate….

The mistake of the hero in the design was to think that he could impose it and himself on the world.  White freedom meant black subjection, and Sutpen brings with him his own caste system, and he is haunted by crossings of the boundary in his past.  All that talk by Jefferson about all men being equal was phoney.

In Light in August, Faulkner boasted that he had created a Nazi before Hitler did.  In her fine book on this author, Carolyn Porter said that ‘Light in August is an angry novel, angry at the people who succumb to the comforts of hatred and the titillations of violence’  The author is ‘so infuriated at the spiritual poverty informing the hunger for violence at the heart of the society he is portraying.’  Well, our novel is at a different, and possibly deeper, level.

The hero of Absalom, Absalom! brought his doom upon himself by trying to play God, and in the end, all that is left is an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

William Faulkner was as elemental in his reading as he was in his writing.  He took with him wherever he went a one volume Shakespeare and he read Don Quixote once a year.  Absalom, Absalom! is a great big bloody red diamond of a book.

At the end of King Lear, these lines occur:

……we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.

At the end of this great novel, one of the narrator’s, Quentin Thompson, says ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.’

 

Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in nay large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.

Passing Bull 221 – Warped minds at Westpac

 

Some of the folks at Westpac remind me of Messrs Trump and Giuliani on their shakedown of the erstwhile comedian who is now the President of the Ukraine.  (Have you noticed this tendency of comedians to go into politics to lead their country?  It says a lot about the other clowns.)  They cannot see that they have done anything wrong.

The Chairman, Mr Maxsted, says that ‘we have not seen anything that is case for his [Mr Hartzer, the CEO] dismissal.’  That is presumably some kind of opinion on the options of the company at law.  If he is right, he may wish to have a chat with the lawyers who wrote the relevant employment agreement.  If presiding over years of a course of conduct that brings the bank into disrepute, if not contempt, does not allow the bank to fire the massively overpaid CEO for failing to discharge his office, then the bank is in more trouble than we thought.

Then Mr Maxsted is reported to have gone from expressing what looks to be a legal opinion to expressing what looks to be a commercial judgment.  ‘He qualified that by saying he was yet to meet with some large shareholders and that could change ‘if there isn’t investor support’ for Mr Hartzer.’

Just who is running this bank – the board or a coterie of large shareholders and investors?  As a small shareholder, I have some interest in that question.  Is corporate governance like our political governance – just a crude numbers’ game bereft of merit?

Mr Hartzer says he accepts responsibility?  ‘As CEO I’m ultimately responsible in the chain of command for everything that happens in this company.’  How can he say that while retaining the office that he has failed to fulfil?

Mr Maxsted says: ‘We accept that we have fallen short of both our own regulators’ standards and are determined to get all the facts and assess accountability.’  ‘Accountable’ is even more weasel than ‘responsible’ – they just get overpaid spinners in to do that.

But in any event, it looks like Mr Maxsted is saying that as presently advised he does not have enough facts to ‘assess accountability.’  This is what is called the Volkswagen dilemma – the directors either knew or ought to have known what was happening for years in the company whose business they manage.  And we might hope that Mr Maxsted has not forgotten that the courts may have their answers to the questions that now pain him so much.  And thank heaven for that.

The well-known line of Horatio comes to mind.  ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Bloopers

Mr Henry Herzog of East St Kilda may or may not have a different view of the world to me, but I enjoy his letters to The Age.  That of today is a pearler.

I’m taking the Morrison approach: Since my contribution to the Good Friday appeal is less than 1 per cent of the total raised, there’s no point in giving.

Truly, it looks as if Mr Maxsted shares the mystical capacity of Mr Morrison to switch trams in the middle of nowhere – say, just outside the Birdsville pub.  The capacity of our P M for inanity is transcendental.  Like the time he bore coal in the parliament; or, even better, the times he said we did not need a royal commission into banks because there was an honest cop on the beat.  From Keystone.

Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.