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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is very unsettling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here and there – Tim Storrier

 

THE ART OF THE OUTSIDER

Catherine Lumby

Craftsman House, 2000; fully illustrated; here with slip case.

About twenty or more years ago, I attended the opening of a swank art gallery in that swish part of Armadale in Melbourne that treats of antiques.  The person who was advertised to open the gallery was one of its featured artists, Tim Storrier.  When I got to the gallery I passed a room with an open door and four or five people in it.  I did not know what Storrier looked like but I felt instinctively it was a well-dressed man a few years younger than me who looked like a well presented squatter – in the old country, a squire of the county.  Although apparently content within himself, he did not look all that thrilled to be where he was and doing what was asked of him.  Somehow, I got the impression that you might be wiped off like a dirty bum if you put a foot out of line.  One might even get the kind of put-down that one might get at ‘School.’  Well, the artist commenced his remarks with words to this effect: ‘Asking an artist to open an art gallery is a little like asking a cow to open an abattoir.’  I laughed out loud in part because this observation was in accord with mine of the speaker.  But, I have to say that the owners of the gallery did not appear to share the hilarity.  Indeed, they looked a bit queasy.  But Storrier went on to make a speech that held my full interest – so much so, that I was sorry I was not in a position to take notes.  For the most part, talking about art is about as useful as dancing about architecture.  Catherine Lumby, in this sensible and illuminating work, makes it plain that Storrier shares that view.  So, his remarks were full of sense and devoid of bullshit.

You might say something similar about the art of Tim Storrier.  When I was in the better part of the market – with someone else’s money – an enthusiast at Australian Galleries said that this artist was absorbed in the ‘elemental.’  He was dead right about that – fire, water, pyramids, serpents, and the firmament, as often as not in an outback so barren that it is threatening.

I am lucky to have two pieces by this artist.  One is a photo of a burning pyramid in what looks like a desert at about dawn or dusk.  It was made in 1981 and is entitled ‘Toward an innuendo of impermanence.’  (That kind of title would have appealed to Shelly in his Ozymandias mode.)  Against what I might call stiff competition, that cibachrome, as it is called, attracts a lot of attention.  It is commandingly elemental.  The second is a lithograph of a minutely executed drawing of a saddle.  It is called ‘Saddle, 1987.’  The first cost $450 in 1998 and the second cost $700 in 2007 (both without buyer’s commission).  I probably would not get anything like that for either in this market, but that is not the reason I acquired them – or any other art I have bought.  What I can say is that if we put one side the art of aboriginals, before I put my hand in my pocket to buy a work of art I like to know that the artist can draw.  This saddle leaves that in no doubt at all for this artist.  He is not just a natural; he is trained in what I might here call ‘high technique.’

Storrier may approach the market in Australia in much the same way as Barry Kosky approaches putting Wagner on in Germany: ‘The way I look at it, if you’re not virulently criticized by at least fifty per cent of the people, then you’re not doing very much at all.’

Given our wariness of bullshit on this subject, I shall leave it at two citations.  In his Foreword, the late Edmund Capon said:

There is a wonderful quality of honesty at work in his paintings, haunted as they are by the space and strange emotional quiet that is evoked in pictures with low horizons and vast skies.

Driving off into the virtual obscurity of the outback, setting up camp with his tables, chairs, sunshade, easel, paints and brushes, Storrier places the smallest of canvasses on the easel and then proceeds to survey all that space before him through a pair of binoculars…..His pictures are beautifully composed and executed: there is nothing brusque, temporary or arbitrary about his work…..Such images, of instinct and memory that sometimes border on the nostalgic, are fraught with the dangers of the cliché, but ultimately, the strength of conviction, the personality of memory and experience, and the subtleties of technique triumph.  Storrier is a cautious artist – he has to be in tackling such subjects.

John Olsen said:

First thoughts could have been influences of Drysdale or even Nolan, but this was not so.  There was rigour and exactness in his draftsmanship that allowed no vagueness of edge or blurry metaphors…..For Storrier, the Australian landscape is a stage set where all the players have gone home; where ‘camps’ or deliberately planned situations, named surveyors’ camps, are adorned with flat handmade saddles; where tools of craft hang symbolically from them…..Storrier remains privately shy and socially uncomfortable.  He is one of the most secretive and enigmatic artists working in Australia today – a man of unpredictable intentions and directions, and one of the most original.

Boyd, Nolan, Smart and Williams have changed the way I see my country.  I am not sure that Storrier has done that, although the night sky can cause a tremor, but he has changed the way I look at painting and drawing.  And Olsen was surely right when he said that Storrier is an original.  Possibly for that reason, the two works of his that I have are the only two that are specifically identified in my will.

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 23

 

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

23

CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON

Immanuel Kant (1781)

Macmillan Co Ltd, London, 1963; translated Norman Kemp Smith; Papermac; rebound in half biscuit morocco with soft burgundy boards.

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1724.  He was the fourth of nine children of a poor harness-maker.  His parents were simple Prussians – and devout Pietists, a reformist group within the Lutheran Church, sometimes compared, not always politely, to the Jesuits.  Kant was fortunate to be sent, although poor, to a school that would have given him a better education than many countries in the West now offer to their poor children.  But Kant was to be scarred for life by the teachers whom he regarded as religious fanatics.

The whole life of Kant was governed by duty.  One Prussian Pietist saw what duty might mean at the age of thirteen.  A friend of his mother was jilted in love.  She fell sick with a deadly high fever.  Kant’s mother nursed her friend.  The friend refused her medicine.  To encourage her, Kant’s mother took a spoonful herself.  As she did so, she realised that her friend had already used the spoon.  She died the same day of smallpox – in the words of Kant, ‘a sacrifice to friendship’.  She was buried ‘silently’ and ‘poor’, possibly in the manner shown in the film Amadeus for the burial of Mozart.

Kant entered the University of Konigsberg at sixteen and graduated six years later.  He took work as a private tutor.  When aged thirty one, he obtained a post at the University.  He gave public lectures.  He became known as de Schöne Magister, the Elegant Teacher.  Konigsberg was then a substantial city of 50,000.  It was a sea-port with trading interests and it therefore had a cosmopolitan flavour.  Kant was constrained to lecture over a wide area, including geography, but from the time he became a professor, his interest was in philosophy.  It looks like Kant never stepped out of Konigsberg.

His lectures were very popular.  He gave them at 7.00 a.m.  It was said that you had to be there at 6.00 a.m. to be sure of getting a place.  One of his students said of the lectures that Kant had an intense way of stating the issue to be discussed.

Kant was indifferent to music and painting – how unlike Wittgenstein! – but he loved poetry and satire, a form which he indulged in his own writings.  His published works are astonishingly substantial.  He must be the most prolific and industrious philosopher since Aristotle.  His major work, The Critique of Pure Reasoning, was not published until he was fifty seven.  Most of it is too dense for the average reader, but it is shot through with practical insights.  He later wrote The Critique of Practical Reason, The Critique of Judgment and The Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals.  The last work contains his ethical theory, and may be the most accessible to the general reader.  Kant is probably the most uplifting of writers on ethics for the uninitiated.

In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant launched an all-out assault on those who want to intellectualize God and faith.  Kant was well and truly warned off by the Prussian establishment.  Throughout his life Kant managed to avoid attending any ceremony at the University that may have involved religious ceremony.

Toward the end the mighty mind of Immanuel Kant fell into decline. This is how the English philosopher Roger Scruton describes his ending:

He faded into insensibility, and passed from his blameless life on 12 February 1804, unaccompanied by his former intellectual powers.  He was attended at his grave by people from all over Germany, and by the whole of Konigsberg, being acknowledged even in his senility as the greatest glory of that town.  His grave crumbled away and was restored in 1881.  His remains were moved in 1924 to a solemn neoclassical portico attached to the cathedral.  In 1950 unknown vandals broke open the sarcophagus and left it empty.  By that time Konigsberg had ceased to be a centre of learning, had been absorbed, following its brutal destruction by the Red Army, into the Soviet Union, and had been renamed in honour of one of the few of Stalin’s henchmen to die of natural causes.  A bronze tablet remains fixed to the wall of the castle, overlooking the dead and wasted city, bearing these words from the concluding section of the ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’:  ‘Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more and the more steadily we mediate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within’.

It is good to see that the tradition of clear, crisp writing, in English philosophy is not dead.

You might think that the religious writings of Kant constitute one long protest.  He was brought up, but he did not remain, a Protestant (as was the case with Hume and Gibbon).  He was brought up as a Lutheran Pietist and it shows, both in his life and in his writing.  The Pietists saw themselves not as subscribing to doctrine, but as being in a living relationship with God.  They had a ‘born again’ feeling.  They were against their religion being taken over by intellectuals.  You see both tendencies alive and well in the US – the second with alarming consequences.  They also tended to be egalitarian. The priesthood was their community of believers.  All this comes through in Kant, the most intellectual man in Europe.

The thinking of Kant would affect the Christian churches of Europe in at least three ways.  First, Kant set about demolishing the logical arguments for the existence of God.  Moses Mendelssohn, a friend and colleague, said that the criticism of Kant were ‘world-crushing’.  But Kant did hold that the concept of God is natural to human reason.  Just what that concept may involve is another matter.

Secondly, Kant developed a system of ethics or morals from the ground up, so to speak, and without invoking religion or the supernatural in the process.  His teaching on ethics was and is available to most people.  Some in the church may have felt threatened by a moral code that did not require God.  But Kant went one step further.  He did not stop with saying that morality does not rest on religion; he went on and said that religious faith is founded on morality.  The whole point of his arguments on morality is to establish that morality, which is independent of religious belief, nonetheless does lead us to religious belief.  Such a contention would, of course, leave plenty of room to manoeuvre on the content of the religion.

Thirdly, Kant has a lot to say about the practice of religion, and it was mainly this that got him into trouble.  Like the old Hebrews with God, Kant refused to refer to Jesus of Nazareth by name, but like Spinoza before him, Kant accepted the teaching of Jesus and incorporated it into his own and was hostile to people who sought to come between that teaching and the rest of mankind.

Kant may have been a bit of a pill to have lunch with – even if he did ensure that a wine decanter was in reach of every guest.  But his mind was one of Europe’s great engine rooms.  It is sad that provincialism and specialization mean that he is hardly taught now at English universities because no one since has got within a bull’s roar of producing insights across the scale like Kant ,and Kant might be just the kind of man to make the word ‘intellectual’ sound decent to Anglo-Saxon ears.  He fought the fight for religious faith and he did more than anyone else to give people an ethical code that did not require underpinning by faith.  He never set out to hurt anyone, and he left the world better than he found it.  It is not just Prussia or Europe that should revere the name of Immanuel Kant.

Passing Bull 195 – Defiling the dead

 

People who play around with geniuses like Shakespeare or Mozart overestimate their ability and worth to an extent that might make even Donald Trump blush.  They also defile the work and the art of the dead.  Their haughty conceit is staggering.  We may have been able to get over Glenda Jackson playing the lead role in Sam Gold’s King Lear on Broadway – although ‘humility’ does not come easily to your lips with that lady – but she was not the only one in the part of a male, and the three daughters had three very distinctive accents.

The New Yorker is not amusedAccording to Hilton Als, this director has form.  He sent out an actress with muscular dystrophy to play a key role in The Glass Menagerie.  This, said Mr Als, takes the audience hostage – if you condemned the casting, you could be splattered with all kinds of abuse.  It’s a bit like that South African runner who looks like a bloke and who runs like one but who competes as a woman.  If you take the side of the badly beaten women, you get canned for intolerance – for a want of sympathy for ‘gender fluidity.’  Balls.  I just don’t want my night out at the theatre to be ruined by some arrogant puppeteer who is out to make a political point and to bignote himself – or herself – or itself.

What about Lear?

In a way, it’s impossible to review Gold’s staging of ‘King Lear,’ because, in the arrogance of its conception, it turns up its nose at the plebeian notion of simply providing the audience with what it wants: Shakespeare’s words, that accumulation of more intelligence and insight about humanity than it seems possible for one mind to have produced….I grew increasingly consumed by questions about what was happening onstage and why.

Precisely.  And that’s before you get to the poetry.

If I said that I could improve on Einstein’s theory of relativity, I would fairly be dismissed as mad.  But these swaggerers behind the stages of theatre and opera do not have that out.  We should assess these directors like we assess judges and AFL umpires – if we hardy know that they are there, they have done well.  If their interference with proceedings catches our attention and annoys us, they have botched it – big time – and they should be given time off in the sticks to repent and reform.

Bloopers

So far, the special investigator probe and report by Robert Mueller are a significant victory for Donald Trump.

This is because the Democrats and other Trump critics have so wildly overplayed their hands and because Mueller, too, has not conducted himself well.

Of course there is in the full Mueller report stuff that shows Trump is unpleasant, but there is nothing on which Mueller can recommend any charges at all.

Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, 20-21 April, 2019

As bullshit goes, this is in the category that Kant may have called transcendental.  Every word drips with wrongness.  Among other things, what would a person who (1) is not a lawyer or copper and (2) has not read the report know?  We have thought that Mr Sheridan may have had some intelligence, but we have long known that he has zero judgment.  Mueller is everything that trump is not.  Who but a lunatic could compare Trump favourably to Mueller?

This rubbish shows how we in this country have completely failed to develop a press that might fairly be called ‘conservative.’  No conservative properly so called could regard the aberration of populism called Donald Trump as anything but a disaster for the U S and the world.  When Mr Sheridan refers to ‘stuff that shows Trump is unpleasant’, he shows that he is craven as well as inane.

And Mr Sheridan has a new toy – ‘bloviation’.  It will not be long before that little chap with the silly beard gets on to it.  Wikipedia says:

Bloviation is a style of empty, pompous political speech particularly associated with Ohio due to the term’s popularization by United States President Warren G. Harding, who, himself a master of the technique, described it as ‘the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing’.

Well now, for a political commentator in the Murdoch press to accuse someone of bloviation must be an instance of what psychologists call projection.