Passing Bull 200 –Bloopers


For number 200, may I celebrate with three Bloopers?  They are all crackers, but the third is already a short-priced favourite for Blooper of the year.  It is spell-binding.

But Johnson’s camp was adamant the row was nothing more than a typical contretemps.

‘The couple intend to live together in No. 10 if he is elected Tory leader and to marry after his divorce is finalised’, a source said.

The Age, 25 June 2015.

Well, at least the police will not have so far to go for the next typical contretemps.


We are embarking on something new in the country, which is not new outside of the country, which is utilising all of this practice, utilising these examples, utilising this expertise as one of many inputs to better inform us so we can then write reports and provide the feedback.

James Shipton of ASIC in AFR, 29-30 June 2019.

It is little wonder that the same article reported someone as saying ‘The problem is we have a regulator that is deeply steeped in timidity’That problem is not reduced by having hirsute he-men chasing the press and huffing and puffing and threatening to blow down whole houses.  As for the English language, this looks like an attempt at assassination.


Almost all Christians believe in the reality of judgment and hell, as well as forgiveness, redemption and heaven.  But even though I think Folau made a couple of mistakes, he is manifestly a good person.  He was trying to help people not hurt them.  And the disproportion of his punishment to his offence is absolutely insane.  The idea that he should lose his ability to earn a living for the rest of his life for expressing his beliefs is truly shocking.

Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, 29-30 June, 2019.

Of all the bullshit about Folau, this wins the prize.  There are nearly as many errors as words.  If you believe that Izzie was not trying to hurt people but to help them, you should seek urgent medical advice.  Did Hitler try that line on with Mein Kampf?  Did he say that he was trying to help the Jews by giving them a fair warning?

And where does a journalist get the right to pronounce on the ‘goodness’ of anyone?  I would not allow Izzie into my house – not because I think that he is a dangerous religious fanatic with no moral judgment, and I do think that, but because I think that he has let down his team-mates and his country for reasons that can only be described as selfish.  He put himself above his team, and no decent team would want to have anything to do with him.

Just two more things.  Every time someone who professes that faith parrots stuff like this, you will be able to count the empty pews in church next Sunday.

And the editorial in the AFR was nearly as bad.

God help us all.

Passing Bull 199 –Hypocrisy on high


I congratulate the Hawthorn players on their decision to honour Goodes.

I am revolted but not surprised that most social media response has been ‘negative’.  We have a real problem about this in this country.  And what kind of ‘supporter’ refuses to back their players on some political ground – not least a ground espoused by Andrew Bolt?

It is clear that the AFL and its clubs must sever all ties with anyone connected with gaming.  The time has I think  now passed when trading corporations can seek to be morally neutral.  It is hard for the AFL to lecture people about gambling when it is, slut-like, living off the earnings of gambling.

I think Footscray and Collingwood are taking real action on gaming – if so, I congratulate them, too.

I gather that the Goodes film is wrenching.  Certainly, the reactions of some people who think that they are intelligent was appalling at the time – and it shows just how deep this problem runs in this country.  It is just what people like Bolt and Hanson (and Trump) run on.

And in case you missed it, Sam Kerr is getting a different kind of abuse from people similarly embittered.


Peter Dutton claims asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are refusing resettlement offers in the United States because of the medevac legislation claiming 250 applications for medical transfer were currently being reviewed by ‘activist’ doctors.

The Guardian, 24 June, 2019

An ‘activist’ is presumably someone actively seeking a result.  Not many of those in parliament.



Passing Bull 198 – Following the leader


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

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

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


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

The Australian, 10 June, 2019.  Jennifer Oriel.

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

Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

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

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

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

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

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

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

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

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

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




Benedict de Spinoza (1670)

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

Superstition then is engendered, preserved and fostered by fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little Dutch Jewish outcast also said:

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

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

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



Passing Bull 197 – The love media


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

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


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

The Weekend Australian, 8 June 2019.

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

Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plato would have been pleased.



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



John Keats (1818)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

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

And there is sullen mist; even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

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