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 – Some cold fish – and an angry ape

 

Part I

When Black Saturday came, I was living in a small town in the middle of the forest with only one way out.  I was scared stiff, and I went to the pub very relieved when the wind changed that evening.  We were horrified when we woke next day to find so many dead.  It could so easily have been us. We felt the guilt of the survivors.  We needed to reach out to other people to share our burden.  On the Monday, I was trying to explain this to a modish silk in a mediation I was chairing.  After a while, I realised I was going nowhere.  I may as well have been addressing the wall.  Nothing interested this silk unless it affected her personally.  You see just this with Donald Trump.  If the conversation does not concern him personally, he drops his head and his hands like a disconsolate ourangatang.

What was I trying to do?  Well, in some ways I was just trying to say what it is to be human.  You can’t really put it in words.  There are those beautiful lines of Virgil:

Sunt lachrymae rerum

Et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Nor is it easy to translate those lines. They mean something like: ‘Even things have tears, and we are touched by [intimations of] our own mortality.’  It is very sad if you seek to share your humanity and the other person cannot find within their self the humanity to respond.

If I told you I was going to introduce you to someone who was cold, you would not be happy with that news. Your day was not about to improve.   Nor would it be much better if the epithet were ‘precise’.  Such a person might share some humanity – but it may be measured or sterilised, or both.  ‘Sterile’ is never a happy epithet for one of us, but the three sorts of personality we are looking at are people who have problems relating to the rest of us.  They get called cold fish.

Two cold fish of Shakespeare are Angelo in Measure for Measure and Cassius in Julius Caesar.  Here is the kernel of the famous portrait of Cassius the smiling assassin.

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous….

………………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. 195-209)

Here is a man who only has time for himself.  There is something missing from his makeup.  Manning Clark would have said that the hand of the potter had faltered.  In Merchant of Venice,5.1.83 ff, we get: ‘The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons…..Let no such man be trusted.’  You would not warm to a bloke who was said to have no music of any kind in his make-up.  He might be a walking metronome.   And we know that Cassius sees little goodness in others.  ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ (1.2.312)

From Shakespeare’s source (Plutarch) we learn that Cassius has a personal grudge – Caesar became a consul before him – and that Caesar did not fear fat luxurious men, but asked: ‘What do you think Cassius is aiming at?  I don’t like him, he looks so pale.’

Lord Angelo is the ice man.

Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.4.50-54)

Later we get the earthier version from Lucio (who is a kind of comic Greek chorus): ‘But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.  And he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.’  (3.2.112 – 114)  (‘Motion generative’ is ‘masculine’ puppet’.)

Cassius had ambition and a grudge.  His coldness came from realising that if you want to be serious in politics, you have to put up with blood on your hands – and you must brace yourself accordingly.  The inability of Brutus to do just that brought them all undone; when Lady Macbeth sterilised herself to perfection, she went mad.  The coldness of Angelo was a front to hold down or at least hide the volcano raging under his belt – something that would certainly destroy him if it ever broke out.  But both Cassius and Angelo are what we call control freaks. They like playing the part of puppet-master.  And there is an awful lot about mortality in Measure for Measure – and, for that matter, Julius Caesar.  In the former we are told of one character who is ‘insensible of mortality and desperately mortal’ (4.2.148).  In both plays failures of humanity cross paths with visitations of mortality.  And if Angelo is the puritan and Cassius is the manipulator, they can each chill your blood when they turn really cold.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 5

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

COLLECTED PLAYS

Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure, but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsen wrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero.

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.)

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was gaoled for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art.

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Mr Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing truth’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at their worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy.

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by either Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.  This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

Passing Bull 233 – Am I a mere statistic?

 

In the discussion about the virus that threatens the world, we can see two sides forming.  One wants all possible steps to be taken by government now to stop the spread and reduce the risk.  The other favours less intervention with a view to keeping the economy going for as long as decently possible.  If you put it that way, a lot depends on the scope of the term ‘decently.’

Those on the side of the economy – if I can put it that way – are fond of quoting statistics.  They refer to other causes of death.  Death from this virus may or may not be excelled by deaths by influenza, pneumonia, road accident, or gun use, in the United States.  But how is that a reference to one cause of death might logically affect the way that we deal with another cause of death?

I have to confess a personal interest.  By reason of my age and health – especially the heart and the lungs – I would be a luscious target for the virus, and one of the first to be thrown overboard if those in control determined that the life boats were insufficient and that they had to decide who should be saved – which is, as I understand it, the position in at least Italy right now.  While it may be possible to envisage such a phase of death-sentencing triage, allowing people to play God over the lives of other people is abhorrent to any reasonable notion about the rule of law, or, for that matter, civilisation.  In the fullness of time, I will be a statistic.  But it is appalling to think that other people might see themselves as empowered to say when my humanity should succumb to arithmetic.

Some colour is given to the argument for the economy by saying that we are at ‘war’ with the virus.  The short answer is that government cannot claim new rights or powers, that affect our rights and powers, merely by claiming to affix a different label.  And we should remember not just the hollowness but the danger of the term ‘war on terror.’  The results were not pretty.

And while I am about it, the Second World War was a real war, but for the most part parliament kept its normal routine. There is something than worse than odd in suggesting that this crisis makes parliament unnecessary.

In a book about Terror and the Police State, I said:

In his book Bloodlands, Professor Snyder estimates that Hitler and Stalin murdered more than fourteen million people between Berlin and Moscow in twelve years.  While it may be within the power of the human mind to plan murder on such a scale, it is hardly within our power to comprehend the human evil that is required – or of the injury to mankind…….

If you accept as an article of faith that each of us has our own dignity or worth just because we are human, then it is wrong for anyone to treat anyone else as a mere number.  We are at risk of doing just that when we seek to compile numbers of the victims of the three regimes that we have been looking at. 

The essential crime of both Hitler and Stalin was that they degraded humanity by denying the right to dignity, by denying the very humanity, of people beyond count – by denying the humanity of one man, woman, and child multiplied to our version of infinity.  Every one of those victims – every one – had a life and a worth that came with that life that was damaged or extinguished.  …..Professor Richard Snyder endorsed the proposition that ‘the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human,’ and when we descend to statistics, we might do the same. 

In short, a government that treats me or anyone else as a disposable statistic resembles those governments that we least admire.

Bloopers

But if the present crisis does not convince our leaders of the dangers of big government, nothing will.

The Australian, 27 March, 2029, Maurice Newman

It is a terrible time to be a small government ideologue.

The Guardian, 28 March 2020, Katherine Murphy

Those quotes might stand for the difference between two media groups on the current crisis.  It is frankly hard to see our present trials as an ad for less government.  And it is appalling to think that a government appointed Mr Newman as Chair of the ABC.

Here and there – REWARDS OF PATIENCE

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia to the area around what we now call Adelaide with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines were made from Grenache and were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub.

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  The story of Penfolds, and of the Grange in particular, justifies the wording of the title of this book.

The book includes an address given by Max Schubert where he speaks of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time.

The method of production seemed fairly straightforward, but with several unorthodox features, and I felt that it would only be a matter of undertaking a complete survey of vineyards to find the correct varietal grape material.  Then, with a modified approach to take account of differing conditions such as climate, soil, raw material and techniques generally, it would not be impossible to produce a wine which could stand on its own feet and would be capable of improvement year by year for a minimum of twenty years.  In other words, something different and lasting.  The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  surveys showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..It was finally decided that the raw material for the first experimental Grange Hermitage would be a mixture of shiraz grapes from two separate vineyards and areas consisting of Penfolds Grange vineyards at Magill in the foothills overlooking Adelaide and a private vineyard some distance south of Adelaide.

So began an Australian success story.  This book contains a comprehensive overview and tasting notes of nearly every wine that Penfolds ever produced including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world.

Andrew Caillard is a Master of Wine.  This book is effectively put out by Penfolds once every five years and contains on Penfolds styles by leading experts from around the world.

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly thing called the cringe.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 4

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

Passing Bull 232 – What happened to the focus on Western Civilisation?

 

Donations to promote the study of civilisation provided it could be labelled as western did not get a warm response from the target market.  Some of its sponsors had been regrettably candid about what they had in mind.  While re‑reading Volume 5 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I came across a passage where he reflected on the risks inherent in shutting out the learning of others.  I will set it out in full.

But the Moslems deprived themselves of the principal benefits of a familiar intercourse with Greece and Rome, the knowledge of antiquity, the purity of taste, and the freedom of thought.  Confident in the riches of their native tongue, the Arabians disdained the study of any foreign idiom.  The Greek interpreters were chosen among their Christian subjects; they formed their translations, sometimes on the original text, more frequently perhaps on a Syriac version; and in the crowd of astronomers and physicians, there is no example of a poet, an orator, or even an historian, being taught to speak the language of the Saracens.  The mythology of Homer would have provoked the abhorrence of those stern fanatics: they possessed in lazy ignorance the colonies of the Macedonians, and the provinces of Carthage and Rome: the heroes of Plutarch and Livy were buried in oblivion; and the history of the world before Mahomet was reduced to a short legend of the patriarchs, the prophets, and the Persian kings.  Our education in the Greek and Latin schools may have fixed in our minds a standard of exclusive taste; and I am not forward to condemn the literature and judgment of nations, of whose language I am ignorant.  Yet I know that the classics have much to teach, and I believe that the Orientals have much to learn; the temperate dignity of style, the graceful proportions of art, the forms of visible and intellectual beauty, the just delineation of character and passion, the rhetoric of narrative and argument, the regular fabric of epic and dramatic poetry.  The influence of truth and reason is of a less ambiguous complexion.  The philosophers of Athens and Rome enjoyed the blessings, and asserted the rights, of civil and religious freedom.  Their moral and political writings might have gradually unlocked the fetters of Eastern despotism, diffused a liberal spirit of inquiry and toleration, and encouraged the Arabian sages to suspect that their caliph was a tyrant, and their prophet an impostor.

It does seem to me that only the most determined defender of the local learning could deny that however you define or describe the relevant highway, the traffic is two‑way, and that if you were to presume to make it one‑way only, you might be invoking serious trouble.

Nor would we wish to emulate China in sealing ourselves off behind a wall – a notion that is not getting a good press because of one particularly inane advocate of such exclusion. The claim that a university might open minds – but only from one direction, seems to be at best quaint.

Bloopers

Leadership solidarity vital in coronavirus challenge.

Premiers have been exposed as unreliable and reckless

The Australian, 24 March, 2020.

The headline to an editorial reveals a factional fracture in a quest for solidarity.  It is also arrogant.  And the notion that the federal government is doing better than the states in this crisis is bizarre.  Not surprisingly, there are areas where reasonable minds may differ.  An attempt to conjure up some kind of cabinet solidarity is a reflection on the inability of some to tolerate uncertainty.

Passing Bull 231 – Tripe about sovereignty

 

And faced with the prospect of a deal on World Trade Organization terms that would mean a sharp rise in tariffs and border disruption, the EU hopes Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will eventually blink.

But this runs entirely counter to the hardening of the language from Mr Johnson’s government, which has placed sovereignty above the interests of business.

Financial Times, 3 March, 2020

When England broke with Rome and achieved a Home Rule for its church, you could have had a meaningful chat about sovereignty.  The pope could no longer law lawfully seek to assert authority over a subject of King Henry VIII.  The English, for better or worse, applied that maxim in the New Testament that a man cannot have two masters.

You see how large this shift was when you recall that after the English struck their deal with their king in Magna Carta, the pope purported to annul what the English came to call their first statute.  John, who was a rat, had purported to turn England into a vassal state of the Vatican.  That shows how large the notion of sovereignty loomed in the Middle Ages.  But is it anything other than grandstanding waffle to talk about a loss of sovereignty when talking about the obligations a nation assumes when it enters into binding treaties about trade or the environment?  Every time I enter into a binding contract, I limit my freedom in some way – but it would be silly to suggest that it follows that I have therefore undergone a change of status.

I remarked elsewhere:

When the French herald, Montjoy, came to deliver the message of his king to King Henry V of England before the battle of Agincourt, he said that the French could have dealt with Harry at Harfleur, but that ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly.’ (In those days, it seems, kings used to address each other by the name of their kingdom – a little bit of mutual vanity in the union of royals.)  A little later that night, Harry moved among the sad and depleted English troops in disguise – ‘a little touch of Harry in the night,’ comments the playwright.  ‘What are you?’ the king asks.  Pistol – a swaggering drunk – replies ‘As good a gentleman as the emperor’.  This leads the king to say: ‘Then you are better than the king.’

So, if Shakespeare knew the English language – and there are problems in asserting the negative – an emperor was above a king.  This might upset an English king, who might then be moved to assert a supremacy, and one of a distinctly imperial hue.  The notion would sorely upset one English king who was a defender of the faith, the eighth of the name, Harry.  The result would be what we call the English Reformation. 

Before we come to that, we need to understand the means by which Harry and England sought to assert the sovereignty of the English nation, but can we make one thing clear at the outset?  The Reformation had little to do with religion, even less to do with God, and nothing at all to do with the Sermon on the Mount, or any other teaching of the tearaway friend of the meek who had started out from a Jewish carpentry shop.  It was a brawl – a nasty brawl – between State and Church, and little else besides.  It was about power and jurisdiction, not doctrine or faith.

When Henry IV, dies, Prince Hal, before he is crowned King Henry V, seeks to reassure some very nervy subjects, including the Chief Justice who had brought the law down weightily on the prince.  He said ‘This is the English, not the Turkish, court.’  Later he said:

Now call we our high court of parliament

And let us choose such limb of noble counsel

That the great body of our state may go

In equal rank with the best governed nation.

Shakespeare was reminding his audience that an English king was under the law, and that when he wanted to move strongly, he would call together a body that he called ‘our high court of parliament’.  Having done that, the government of England would have no superior in the world – in truth, a large part of the audience probably thought that the ‘Turks’ started at Calais.

If ‘sovereignty’ says anything, it says something about supremacy.  The English Crown in Parliament was supreme before the English subscribed to the Treaty of Rome and the like and it was supreme after that.  Invocations of sovereignty in this context better resemble a footy club war cry or the haka than a political or constitutional argument.

If you want to flirt with terms like that, you might descend into the error of the French in 1793 who put parts of their ideological dreamtime into words in their Constitution – ‘Sovereignty resides in the people: it is one and indivisible, imprescriptible and inalienable…..Any individual who usurps the sovereignty may at once be put to death.’  You might as well try to legislate for the Trinity or Real Presence – but it was a bit rich for people to lay down the death sentence for usurping sovereignty when they had to come to power by doing just that.  The Bastille stood for everything rotten in sovereignty in France when it fell.

And did they really want the gillets jaunes?

Bloopers

The text says that any trade deal must contain “robust” policy commitments “to ensure a level playing field”. The UK insists that the EU’s interpretation of this idea, which includes keeping Britain within the EU’s state-aid regime and limiting divergence in key policy areas, amounts to vassalage.

Financial Times, 28 February, 2020.

The reference to ‘vassalage’ is just lazy labelling at the other end.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 3

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

BACH

Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner, 2013

Alfred A Knopf, 2013.  Bound in cloth boards; rebound with quarter leather, and slip case.

Were it not a kiss of death, we might call John Eliot Gardiner a Renaissance man – if only because he has dedicated his life to reviving things that matter from the distant past.

Gardiner was born in Dorset at a village with the ancient name of Fontmell Magna.  It was the subject of a royal grant in 932 to the nuns of Shaftesbury on condition that they would song fifty psalms after Prime and offer masses at Terce.  The Doomsday Book of 1086 recorded that Fontemale was in Sixpenny Hundred.  This, then, is not a novel village.

Gardiner was born in 1943.  His father is called ‘a rural revivalist’.  His grandfather was an Egyptologist.  At King’s College, Cambridge, he studied history, Arabic and medieval Spanish.  He began conducting as an undergraduate, and conducted the Cambridge and Oxford Singers in a tour of the Middle East.  In 1968 he founded the Monteverdi Orchestra.  He made his opera debut with The Magic Flute in 1969.  He went on to become a leading conductor around the world.  He specialises in the baroque, in particular, Bach.  He has founded choirs and orchestras.  In the year 2000 he set out on his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage performing Bach cantatas in Europe and the United States over fifty two weeks.  In 2013, he published this book, Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Gardiner was introduced to music singing at home and in the church choir.  He therefore comes from a background where he was born into choral music.  He married a violinist and they had three daughters.  His second wife is the granddaughter of Victor de Sabata.  He resides on a farm in the ancient village.  It is of course an organic farm and it is said that the because of his unorthodox approach to gardening, the locals call him ‘Uphill Gardiner.’  Given his attachment to the old, it may not surprise that Gardiner will not go near Wagner.  ‘I really loathe Wagner – everything he stands for – and I don’t even like his music very much.’

In short, Gardiner – or, if you prefer, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, CBE, Hon FBA – is the sort of guy who makes you and me wonder what we have done with our lives.  He is also strikingly imposing to look at and is subject to the kind of vituperation that strong conductors may attract from lesser musicians.

Gardiner might therefore promote angst among those with a chip on their shoulder. As if on cue, The Spectator chimes in with a piece from The Heckler.   ‘Why does John Eliot Gardiner have to be so rude?’  It’s a shame that this once decent journal can descend to this bitchy and heckling gossip – mostly taken off the Net – but at least Australians might be relieved to see that they are not alone by being debased by envy in the face of their betters.

The book begins.

Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.  In fact we seem to know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last four hundred years.

The book ends this way.

Monteverdi gives us the first gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailty and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven.  But it is Bach, making music in the castle of heaven, who gives us the voice of God – in human form.  He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music; to make divine things human and human things divine.

There are some big calls there.  Has Gardiner made good on them?

It is not long before you recall not just that you are reading the work of a maestro, but one brought up in the tradition of family and church singing; one trained in history; and one who observes the seasons while cultivating the land.

Even with the powerful layer of Protestant theology added to the inhabitants’ lives, the forest remained both mysterious and threatening, as can be seen in the paintings by Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach, in the woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, emphasising its engulfing luxuriance, and in the landscape paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer.  Music was there to give strength as well as to placate the tutelary sylvan gods.  It is surely no accident that in a land of such communal music-making, so many folk songs rich in woodland themes should have survived.  The power of song here was perhaps not quite that of the Australian Aboriginals – the principal means by which they marked out their territory and organised their social life – but it did not lag far behind, the thinnest of membranes separating song, creation myth, landscape and boundaries.

Historians of the common law are familiar with the sometimes occult powers of the ancient German forests, but here we see a strong, independent mind, one not to be confined by intellectual, much less academic, demarcation boundaries.

Throughout the book, the author links language and music – as Luther did so strenuously.  Luther was called the German Cicero and he maintained that without music, man is little more than stone.  He asked why the devil should have all the good tunes and said that the whole purpose of harmony is the glory of God.  Gardiner quotes a German philosopher as saying that the chorales retained the moral effectiveness (a ‘treasury of life’) that German folk-poetry and folksong had once possessed but by his day had lost.  The moment the poet begins to write slowly, in order to be read, art may be the winner, but there is a loss of magic of ‘miraculous power’.  (This last point is fundamental and shows that you cannot skip footnotes.)

Gardiner stresses the communal nature of choral work.  Opera was very Italian, and very communal since it involved the audience.  The Italians sound a little like the English at soccer or the Spaniards at a bullfight – or some Lutheran Germans in a church.  Gardiner speaks of Thuringia (a part of Germany) after Luther’s time when even the smallest parish church had its own pipe organ framed by a curved choir gallery where local craftsmen or farmers could sing during the service.  He tells of doing a cantata concert in the town of Eisenach on Easter Day 2000.  (This also is in a footnote.)  The pastor invited Gardiner and members of his choir and orchestra to lead part of the singing.  In the middle of the Mass, they were suddenly joined in the organ choir by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and then left.  (It’s a great story.  From any other source, we may be inclined to doubt it.)

Here is the author on the beginning of opera.

Claudio Monteverdi, amazingly, provided all of these missing elements in the very first through–composed work for the stage… He recognised that the hitherto unexploited potential of what the Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental base line, giving just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast… The radicalism of L’Orfeo may not be fully recognised by audiences even today.  In an age when the emotional life of human beings was becoming a topic of the utmost fascination – with philosophers and playwrights trying to define the role of passions in human destiny, and with painters as varied as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all intent on betraying the inner life of men and women – Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above the contemporary musicians in the consistent way he explored and developed musical themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘representation’.  We now refer to L’Orfeo as an opera and think of it as the beginning of the genre; but that is because we are looking at it backwards via the perspective of Wagner or Verdi.  To Monteverdi, it was a… fable in music…

Gardiner reminds us:

In Bach’s day, the arts were still expected to impart some explicit moral, religious, or rational meaning.  It was not until the second half of the century that aesthetic concepts such as ‘the ‘Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’ began to uncouple the artistic from the scientific and the moral’

And one might add, from God(The footnote cites another scholar as saying that students of aesthetics would abandon the idea that music ‘should serve an extra-musical, religious or social end.’  Why can’t we just enjoy the music?)

People coming to Bach late commonly go for The Well-tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations or, above all, The Saint Matthew Passion.  It is up there with King Lear and the Pieta.

In the same way that we buy tickets for King Lear and come away chastened, sobered, and put in our place, so Leipzigers…flocked to the Thomaskirche on a Good Friday, hoping that the excitement and harrowing uncoiling of the human drama would still hold them in thrall, knowing full well that they would be distressed (and perhaps disappointed if they found they weren’t.)

Even the most devout atheist or unrelieved agnostic cannot help being blown away, as the saying goes, by the Chorus, and what leads to it, Sind Blitze, sind Donner, ‘one of the most violent and grandiose descriptions of unloosed passion produced in the Baroque era.’  We speak of the moment of the arrest of the man called Christ.  For artistic daring, this is up there with Michelangelo’s depiction of the moment of the creation of Man.

And it reminds us of how much we might lose from music if we continue to banish God from it.  Nietzsche said: ‘This week I heard The Saint Matthew Passion three times and each time I had the same feeling of immeasurable admiration.  One who has forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as Gospel.’  Gardiner also quotes William James on ‘right to believe – religion, like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinct eagerness and impulse…adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.’  A contemporary composer says:

Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist……A Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it.  .In music, I am always looking for the hammering of the nails… That is a duel vision.  My brain rejects it all But my brain isn’t worth much.

This book is impeccably produced in every way – it is the result of industry and care, as well as insight, intellect, and grace.  The scholarship is broad without ever looking shallow.  Sir John, as he now is, may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can teach us to cross boundaries and jump fences until we come within view of those broad sunlit uplands.  It is little wonder that the gnats felt a need to strain after this camel.  Off hand, I find it hard to think of a book in this collection that is more enlightening than this one.

Here and there – Supreme Inequality

 

Many years ago – about, say, thirty – I ran into Michael black, QC, later Chief Judge on the Federal Court, walking up William Street, with his red bag, looking a little disconsolate.

Where are you off to, Michael?

Off to the High Court to get bashed up.

Why?

I’m for the Commonwealth.  They want to amend their defence out of time to plead the Statute of Limitations in a case arising from a notorious naval accident.

Commiserations, Michael.  May the Lord make his face shine upon you….

We then discussed the betting at the bar table about who would be the first to say ‘Hard cases make bad law.’  Michael and the Commonwealth did get bashed up – so badly that people are still trying to work out the juristic rationale of the decision.

Well, you hear this kind of chatter every day among barristers.  ‘I’m for a bank against a widow today.  Guess who is going to win?’  But it is just badinage – and if taken seriously, it represents the archetype of prejudice, the prime form of intellectual cancer that can obliterate any notion of a fair trial – in fact or in appearance, or both.

Let me give an example.  About the same number of years ago, I heard a tax case where the Crown was struggling to hold on to an assessment against a widow who, as I recall, was frail.  As counsel commenced to cross-examine her, I recall thinking that this might get ugly – as they say in the NRL.  I can’t remember the detail, but I recall that counsel, who later acquired a reputation for being seriously hard as a magistrate, slowly, softly and politely demonstrated that the lady had a bad case.  He had in short over-run my prejudice against his case.

In criminal cases, we are used to the notion that the accused gets the benefit of the doubt.  Is there a similar process in civil cases?  Well, if there is, it is not one that is often articulated – unless you have someone of the standing and intellectual fire-power of Lord Devlin (in a passage I referred to a little while ago).

Trial by jury is a unique institution, devised deliberately or accidentally – that is, its origin is accidental and its retention is deliberate – to enable justice to go beyond that point [the furthest point to which the law can be stretched ]…The fact that juries pay regard to considerations which the law requires them to ignore is generally accepted…It is, for example, generally accepted that a jury will tend to favour a poor man against a rich man: that must be because at the bottom of the communal sense of justice there is a feeling that rich man can afford to be less indifferent to the misfortunes of others than a poor man can be.

But it is also a fact of life that some judges seem at least to be better for you if you are for the plaintiff in a civil case or against the Crown in a criminal case.  The author of Supreme Inequality, Adam Cohen, would not I think object to being described as one of that persuasion.  He is a liberal of the NYT kind.  The thrust of the book is that while the Warren court was firmly of that persuasion – if you are bent on labels, try ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ – the reaction since has been firmly in the other direction – say conservative.

In truth, Mr Cohen says that the U S Supreme Court has bent too far against the poor and civil rights and too far in favour of big money and big corporates.  The picture is not a pretty one.  Mr Cohen has what Helen Garner might call an agenda, but does this mean that he cannot be relied on?  Well, read the book yourself and make up your own mind.  One thing is clear – the book is written in clear terms that avoid jargon – to the point of calling amicus briefs ‘friend-of-the–court’ briefs, and foregoing quoting slabs of judgments (which too many of our judges are guilty of doing).

Mr Cohen is qualified as a lawyer, but he practises as a journalist – to the everlasting betterment of his readers.  The book is to me devoid of the type of padding and ascription that disfigures so much North American scholarship. It is a book that both lawyers and non-lawyers can read and enjoy.  And learn from.

Two things are likely to hit Australian lawyers between the eyes when they read this book.  The first is the ghastly repetition of the call that the court split five to whatever ‘along ideological lines.’  The very idea is anathema to us.  People who should know better might like to play party games about clusters on our High Court, but we will all walk the plank the day we hear that the High Court split along ideological lines, the conservatives appointed by the Coalition against the progressives appointed by the Labor Party.  (There is apparently at least one think tank here who thinks that may have occurred already, but they are away with the birds.)

Secondly, and relatedly, too many of the Supreme Court’s rulings read like arguments rather than judgments.  Too many read as if they have been the product of bargaining – which many of them have.  The present Chief Justice told his confirmation hearing ‘I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strike, and not to pitch or bat.’  His Honour may have had in mind the analogy of Maitland with the cricket umpire – his job is just to answer the question ‘How’s that?’

Well, to continue the analogy, too many of these judges take to the bowling with a long handle.  And we may fairly fear that this is because too often the writer is coming from his or her own very distinctive position in the dug-out.  It is very hard to imagine some of these judges approaching issues with a clean sheet.  To my mind the worst offender – and I do not resile from the word ‘offensive’ – was the late Justice Scalia.  Because this book is light on chapter and verse, you do not see much of it, but elsewhere I said of the decision in Heller about guns:

Two things may be said immediately of the majority judgment.  First, it is one of those judgments that leaves you wondering how the contrary view may even have been put.  It reads more like the argument of a zealous advocate than the reasoning of a dispassionate judge.  If you did not know better, you might have suspected that its author entered upon the case with his mind made up.  The judgment has the shrill, combative tone of the high school debate.  Secondly, and relatedly, the majority judgment contains terms that are not just uncompromising and intemperate, but downright unmannerly.  The following phrases are alleged against the Justices in the minority: ‘incoherent’, ‘grotesque’, ‘unknown this side of a looking glass’, ‘the Mad Hatter’, ‘wrongheaded’, ‘profoundly mistaken’, ‘flatly misleads’.  In most pubs I know, any one or two of those could get you a bad black eye, and you would not be heard to say that you had not asked for it.  Some asides are just plain bitchy.  ‘Grotesque’ is deployed for effect in a one word sentence.  In English, that word means ‘characterised by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre, quaint’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).  This is five Justices describing the reasoning of the other four Justices.

It is a matter of regret and surprise that the Chief Justice did not restrain this unjudicial behaviour; but not only did he not restrain it, he joined in it, with three other members of the court.  I know of no other superior court in the common law world, or in Europe, where this kind of behaviour would be tolerated – either within the court or by those outside it. 

It is hard for judges to be taken seriously when they preach restraint if they are incapable of showing it to each other.  More worryingly, this is the kind of swaggering self-conviction that is likely to be seized on by manic gun lovers……

The Supreme Court could have avoided this decision on handguns.  The ‘right’ was never universal.  It related to the militia which has nothing to do with handguns or personal self-defence.  The English had already taken handguns off the table.  But some policy demon drove the Court backwards.  This failure of the Supreme Court to slay or tame the dragon in the cave was not just a failure of legal scholarship and judicial technique – it was a failure of moral courage and intellectual leadership. 

When you read stuff like that from people who should know better, the breakdowns in other parts of the fabric – say, the Presidency – become less shocking.  Has the ordure of the Wild West permeated One First Street, Washington, D C?

One disaster of the Court was the decision about campaign financing in Citizens United.  The notion that spending money was an act of speech – yes, you guessed it: money talks – started with a ninety minute attack ad on Hillary Clinton – ‘the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist’- and opened the way to an orgy of venality that just reached its apogee in the attempt by Michael Bloomberg to buy the White House – just as the Romans were wont to auction the purple.  In the result, freshmen to Congress are now told to expect to do about four hours a day on financing – a capitol mostly made up of  male tarts.

Bush v Gore still haunts both sides.  Would Trump or McConnell have copped it so sweet?

The five conservative judges who stopped the voting were not only choosing the next president –they were ensuring that the conservative court that Nixon had established in 1972 lived on into the twenty-first century.

If that comment is fair, it bears dwelling on.  A critical component of the electoral success, such as it was, of the current occupant of the White House lay in his promise, which he is keeping, of delivering appointments to the Supreme Court that will be celebrated by the infamous ‘base’.

One of the cases that Mr Cohen says was adverse to the workers was reversed by an act that passed the House 381-38 and the Senate 93-5.

A generation or so ago, the courts lent in favour of mediation and arbitration.  One senior judge said that ‘private judging is an oxymoron, because arbitrators are businessmen.  They are in this for money.’  One survey said that 94% of decisions sided with business.  This is a tool for secrecy and open to the same abuse as non-disclosure agreements.

You get the impression that sometimes the Justices just make it up as they go.  If Miranda gave you the right to have counsel, what good was that if you get someone in forensic nappies on a murder charge?   In Kentucky, one quarter of the prisoners on death row had lawyers who were later disbarred or resigned to avoid disbarments. One observer said ‘A majority on the Court is unwilling to overrule Miranda; however, a majority is also unwilling to take Miranda seriously. The Americans have been much firmer than us on rejecting evidence obtained illegally, but the factional divide opens here.  Justice Brennan, a liberal from way back, said in one case: ‘It now appears that the Court’s victory over the Fourth Amendment is complete.’

The critique of the way that the Court has shown a solicitude for the wealthy to match that of the current President does not make good reading when the court slices up jury verdicts on exemplary damages.  But it just gets awful when you look at the discrimination against people of colour, or the brutality of tactics used by some prosecutors to bully people into plea agreements.

A Kentucky man was indicted for passing an $88.30 forged cheque.  That carried two to ten years.  The prosecutor offered five years, and said that if the accused did not cop that, they would go after him under the Habitual Criminal Act that because of his record would land him in jail for life.  The accused rejected the offer and got life.  The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and affirmed the life sentence.  That, if I may say so, is grotesque.    And I may add that no one has ever explained to my satisfaction that saying you will get a discount if you plead guilty does not amount to saying that you will have to suffer more if you exercise your rights.

One person who pleaded guilty was in one sense fortunate.  While preparing a 60 Minutes documentary, someone by accident stumbled on evidence that they had the wrong man.  He had only lost sixteen months of his life and ‘several teeth, which were knocked out in one of several jailhouse beatings he endured before he was freed.’

One survey showed that 11 % of 365 people shown to have been wrongly convicted pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.’  That looks to me to be about the opposite of the equation that we were brought up on – about letting some ‘guilty’ go, rather than convicting some that were ‘innocent.’

It gets worse.  Mandatory sentencing is in my view based on a sop to the worst of our press, a distrust of our judges – and, in my view, an affront to our shared humanity.  An Army veteran stole children’s videos in two lots, both worth under $100.  But the state law made these misdemeanours into felonies because of a prior offence. In the result, and although he had never been found guilty of an offence involving violence, the accused was given two sentences of twenty-five years to life.  For stealing for his children, this man who had served his country was then thirty-seven and he would not be eligible for parole until he was eighty-seven.   You would not have read about it in Les Misérables. Even Victor Hugo knew where to draw the line.  The Supreme Court upheld the sentence 5 to 4 ‘along ideological lines.’  Can you envisage, even among the assizes sentencing young people to Botany Bay for stealing bread, anything more grotesque than this?

But there is more.

The court had two very different ideas about proportionality of punishment: one for corporations under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause and another for people under the Eighth Amendment.  The Due Process Clause, it said, did not allow a jury to punish one of the world’s wealthiest of companies with a punitive damages award of $145 million, which was equal to 0.29 per cent of its annual revenue – barely enough to get the attention of the company’s leadership.  The Eighth Amendment did however allow California to put a thirty-seven year old Army veteran and father who engaged in minor shoplifting behind bars until he was at least eighty-seven.

For stealing goods worth less than $200 – by a man who had done what the current President chose to avoid, and who celebrates his refusal to pay taxes because of his bankruptcies in business.    And for good measure, the taxpayers of California will have the Justices of the Supreme Court to thank for a daily bill in excess of that $200 as the cost of that imprisonment – until a combination of sanity and humanity at last steps in.

And sentencing man to fifty years for what used to be called petty larceny.  Did it occur to any of the justices who affirmed this sentence in obedience to what they saw as the law, that one day somewhere and in some hierarchy they may have to answer for their conduct before a tribunal that does not allow the defence of superior orders?  Put differently, did none of their Honours lose any sleep at all over this decision?

One thought kept coming back to me in looking at these plea deals induced by what may be called duress – or undue influence – or unconscionable conduct – by those in a position of power who owe obligations to those in their charge over and above those owed by persons dealing commercially at arms’ length.   If that pressure had been brought to bear by, say,  a professional over a client or patient, or a priest over a penitent, or a teacher over a student, it would have obviously been open to the Court to inquire into the lawfulness of the impugned bargain by reference to that body of law that we know as equity.  We in Australia have been blessed by the fact that many of our best criminal judges were thoroughly trained – I may say indoctrinated – in equity.  I have not seen anything like that in the U S in my time – the word ‘equity’ does not get a mention in a very full index of this book.  If I am right about that, then that is another reason why we here in Australia have indeed been fortunate.

Before looking at two other wrinkles in the perceived stance of the U S Supreme Court, I offer two anecdotes, one personal. First, just as there was a sea change in the 1960’s to judicial review of government action, so there was a change of at least similar magnitude both here and in the  U K to schemes of tax avoidance that might fairly be called artificial.  There was no formal announcement here, but as a simple matter of fact ‘Anything goes’ on one day became ‘You are not going to try that on here, are you?’ on the next.  There was a form of judicial announcement in the U K.  The doctrine was called ‘fiscal nullity’, but it was in truth a cri de coeur from their Lordships: ‘Please don’t act like you think we came down in the last shower.  If very clever people put up what is in truth a house of cards, we will say so.’  While Australian courts said they did not follow the English model, the result was in substance the same.  The days of a judicially blessed Alice in Wonderland were over.

The other anecdote is that when I was admitted to practise in 1970, many if not most magistrates were reluctant to make findings against the police.  ‘If your client did not do it, why would the police have charged him?’  This was a very nasty form of institutionalised prejudice.  But if you came to be acting for a government body proceeding against someone – like an egg board against a poultry farmer who was trying to avoid the marketing scheme – in what was called ‘the quasi list’, the wind swung hard and fast from the other end of the ground.  It was like trying to evict a tenant from premises ‘protected’ since the war.  You were likely to be met with all kinds of technical objections, and overt hostility.   In an egg board case at Casterton, not far from the border, the magistrate refused to award costs to my client – even though the locals thought that s 92 made them untouchable.  It was as if the bench was doing a kind of penance for its laxness in preserving due process in the general criminal law.

The first came back to me when I read of some tax cases in the Supreme Court.  An American Airlines pilot named John Cheek was part of a ‘tax protest’ movement.  He came to believe that wages were not income under tax law.  He said that based on his research, and the teachings of the movement – the phrasing is that of Mr Cohen – he believed he did not have to pay taxes.  A jury found him guilty.  He appealed saying that the violations had to be ‘wilful’ and that the judge had not properly instructed the jury.  The Supreme Court ruled 6 – 2 in his favour.  Unsurprisingly, the minority said that the majority view defied belief.

You will be relieved to know that Mr Cheek went down the second time round.  But the Court had contemplated a defence based on non-belief in the law.  Here, surely, had solipsism made its masterpiece.  Mr Cohen says:

It was particularly notable that the law-and–order conservatives – including Rehnquist, Scalia, O’Connor, and Kennedy – were in the majority, arguing that Cheek’s years of intentional tax avoidance were not necessarily criminal.  The dissenters, Blackmun and Marshall, who wanted to uphold the conviction, were two of the Court’s most liberal members.

An intruder from here, or Mars, might feel compelled to ask – just what part of the American psyche drove six justices to stand behind John Cheek?  The Tea Party?  Paul Revere?  The Alamo, perhaps?

Then there is what some call the ‘white collar paradox’.  The same justices who have tended to vote to uphold the usual kind of criminal convictions tend to make an exception for white collar criminals.  One observer says the Court tends to be ‘anti-defendant….except in white collar cases.’   The same observer said that Justice ‘Scalia voted for defendants in fewer than 7 per cent of non-white collar criminal cases and nearly 82 per cent of white-collar cases.’ One judge – not I think of this Court – made the remarkable admission to researchers that it was hard to avoid being biased when ‘people like you are standing in front of you.’  This is indeed a very touchy area.

The book canvasses many other areas of ideological dispute that may be of more interest to Americans than to us.  I must utter two express caveats.  The first is that I am taking Mr Cohen on trust and I have not gone to the law reports to look at the judgments themselves.  That is a luxury that I immediately learned I could not afford when I was hearing cases.  (It really is dispiriting to see the look of glum betrayal on the face of counsel when you ask them which side won in the case they have just referred to.)  The second is more important. I am yet to hear the case for the other side – at least one that is put by someone who comes from the tradition, if I may put it that way, celebrated by those who have espoused the views that Mr Cohen has criticised.  Perhaps we should hear from jurists who think that the jurisprudence of the Court needed a ‘correction’ after Warren.  All I can say is that the job of presenting what Americans call the rebuttal should not in my view be left to a lightweight.

And whatever else books like this might achieve, this book shows the huge difficulty facing those in Australia who want to change the status of our Bills of Rights so that it is part of the Constitution as it is in the United States.  How many Australians would like to have justices of the High Court make laws for them in the manner of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States?  Let us put the issue colourably.  How would you like your children to be liable to be offered up for human sacrifice because of an ideology made into law by five unelected law-makers cloistered away in that suburban fastness that they call Canberra?

For that matter, the proponents of a law about ‘freedom of religion’ need to think about the forces that they might unleash.  What we can say with some confidence is that if in 1689 you had told an English MP that one day the colonies might say that the provision in their Bill of Rights about the right to bear arms could have the effect described by the majority of the Supreme Court in Heller, he would not have hesitated to say that you were stark, staring mad.

The issue of equality is vital for at least two reasons.  First, we read almost daily of the rate of depression and suicide increasing among Americans who did not get to go through college.  Mr Cohen says:

The Court’s rulings have helped to produce historic gaps between the most well-off and the least.  Wealth inequality is once again where it stood in 1929, just before the Great Depression began.  The top one per cent of Americans control about 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth.  Much of the rest of the country is only scraping by.  A survey by an employment website in 2017 found that 78 per cent of Americans said they were living paycheck to paycheck.

It is one thing to recall 1929 – it is altogether something else to recall the Vesuvial years of 1789 and 1919.

The second reason that equality is of over-riding importance is that it underwrites our whole jurisprudence.  The incontrovertible base of our logic is that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.  The incontrovertible base of our jurisprudence is that like cases should be treated alike.  Try giving a dog a biscuit each time he raises a paw to shake hands and then smacking him for the same action.  (As Justice Holmes remarked, even a dog knows the difference between an accidental kick and a deliberate kick.)  Try giving one daughter for Christmas a ukulele that is twice as big as that given to another.  If some of the best jurists in the world make a mess of equality, what hope is there for the rest of us?

 

 

 

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 2

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

COLLECTED POEMS

W H Auden

The Franklin Library, 1978; Limited Edition, The Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century.  Bound in green leather, embossed and titled in gold, with ridged spine; gold edges to pages, moiré endpapers and satin book mark.

When I was a young boy, but old enough to hear jazz as a distinct form of music, I bought my first LP – ‘Jazz for People Who Do Not Like Jazz.’  All of the poets who feature in this book might attract a similar label, and none more so than Auden.  But it took me some time when I got a bit older to adjust to the proposition that the following poem was addressed to a boy or young man.  This may not have been a rite of passage, but it was at least a hurdle on the path of education.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms to break of day

Let the living creature die,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Auden had a dream upbringing and education, and studied English at Christ Church, Oxford.  He was ferociously bright, and would later write critical prose up to the intellectual standard of that of T S Eliot.  His poetry is, though, more accessible to the general reader than that of Eliot.  So, we might suspect, was his personality.  He had a long association with Christopher Isherwood, and he also had a following of acolytes.  The young Stephen Spender was desperate to get the attention of Auden.

‘You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.’  This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: ‘But do you really think I am any good?’  ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly.  ‘But why?’  ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated.  Art is born of humiliation’, he added in his icy voice – and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.

That was the kind of preppy stuff that bright young men went on with at Oxford in those days, and it is as well to recall how many of them went clean off the rails.

Here is Auden, perhaps a little out of character, in Roman Wall Blues.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging round her place,

I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish:

There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

Like so many of that ilk, Auden was drawn to the Spanish Civil War, but he would come to see it with an eye as clear as that of Orwell.  He contributed to the booklet Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, but he did so in a pained way that showed the pain in his own mind.  Still, he did better than some other big hitters.  Ezra Pound: ‘Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’  Evelyn Waugh: ‘If I were a Spaniard, I should be fighting for General Franco.’  T S Eliot: ‘While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best if at least a few men of letters should remain isolated.’  The only thing more limp-wristed than that is an aetherised hand upon a table.

He also had a clear mind on that curious notion, the role of the artist.

Artists and politicians would get along a lot better in the time of crisis [1939], if the latter would only realise that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed.

If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.

Tolstoy, who, knowing that art makes nothing happen, scrapped it, is more to be respected than the Marxist critic who finds ingenious reasons for admitting the great artists of the past to the State Pantheon.

Here is an intellectual and Anglican poet on religion.

Luther

With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,

He saw the Devil busy in the wind,

Over the chiming steeples and then under

The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.

 

What apparatus could stave off disaster

Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?

Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,

World a still pond in which its children drown.

 

The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:

‘Lord, smoke these honeyed insects from their hives

All works, Great Men, Societies are bad.

The Just shall live by Faith…’ he cried in dread.

 

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.

 

Auden wrote a luminous and scholarly paper on Melville and others.  In his poem Herman Melville, he said:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table,

And we are introduced to goodness every day,

Even in drawing rooms among a crowd of faults;

He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,

But wears a stammer like a decoration;

And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;

It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover

And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,

And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

Later in life, Auden got interested in Tolkien.

Tolkien is a man of average height, rather thin.  He lives in a hideous house – I can’t tell you how awful it is – with hideous pictures on the walls.  I first encountered him in 1926, at a lecture at Oxford.  He read a passage from Beowulf so beautifully that I decided Anglo-Saxon must be interesting, and that has had a great interest on my life.

Auden might remind us of Schubert.  Or, perhaps, Louis Armstrong.  You could just turn him on like a tap.  This gorgeously handsome volume runs to more than 700 pages.  That is a lot of poetry.

Auden died in 1973.  The first poem in this volume is dated December 1927.  The last poem is dated April 1972 and finishes:

Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,

For all, both sweet and horrid,

Are jokes in dubious taste,

Too jejune to have truck with.

Sleep Big Baby, sleep your fill.

In one of the Forewords to his collections, Auden said:

In art as in life, bad manners, not to be confused with a deliberate intention to cause offence, are the consequences of an over-concern with one’s own ego and a lack of consideration for (and knowledge of) others.  Readers, like friends, must not be shouted out or treated with brash familiarity.  Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.

Auden said that in 1965.  He was not to know that he was speaking of what has become in 2017 the malaise of our time.