Here and there – Two men of colour – who were giants

 

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

On 12 October, 1931, a young man in Austin Texas, a freshman at the University of Texas named Charlie Black, paid seventy-five cents to get into the downtown Hotel Driskill to hear someone billed as the ‘King of The Trumpet, and His Orchestra.’  The band was to play at play four dances in Austin.  Young Charlie knew precious little about jazz, and he had never heard of the King.  He went along and paid his money because he just knew that there would be lots of girls to dance with.  Well, in those days, young people went out to meet and dance together, and they even danced cheek to cheek, something that became part of a song later made famous by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

But there was of course a kind of separatism then.  It had been left there long after the Civil War by the curse of racism.  Everyone on the dance floor was white.  Only the waiters and the musicians – including the King – were black.

Charlie Black would later remember what happened when the King started to play:

…..mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed….Steamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will and even blended.

He was the first genius I had ever seen….It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy’s seeing genius for the first time , in a black.  We literally never saw a black back then, in any but a servant’s capacity….But genius – fine control over total power, all height and depth for ever and ever?  It had simply never entered my mind that I would see this for the first time as a black man.  You don’t get over that…The lies reel, and contradict one another, and simper in silliness and fade into shadow.  But the seen truth remains.

Charlie Black’s white mate was unmoved: ‘After all, he’s nothin’ but a goddam nigger!’

Charlie Black, who obviously had a way with words, carried the ‘seen truth’ with him all his life.  He became a distinguished teacher of constitutional law, and he would in part repay his life-long debt to the King in 1954.  It was then that he appeared with other counsel for the segregated bus travelling children in the great Supreme Court Case of Brown v School Board of Education.  The Court then ruled that the Great Republic would no longer tolerate segregated bussing for schoolchildren on the specious ground of ‘separate but equal’.  People were either equal or they were not equal.  Playtime for pussyfooting about race was over.  This was a great win for the nation, for the rule of law in the West generally, and for the people of the King.  It is an appalling cliché, but on this occasion we might justifiably use it – it could only happen in America.

Ken Burns made TV series about the Civil War, baseball, and jazz.   He saw all three as being deeply American – they were about freedom and improvisation.  The book of the last series begins with this anecdote about Charlie Black, and the author says: ‘Genius is ultimately untraceable.  No amount of historical or psychological sleuthing can ever fully explain the emergence of artists like Bach or Picasso or Louis Armstrong, who appears as if from nowhere and through the power of their own individual imaginations transform an art.’

In the Preface, Burns had become lyrical.  ‘Louis Armstrong is quite simply the most important person in American music.  He is to twentieth-century music (I did not say jazz) what Einstein is to physics, Freud is to psychiatry, and the Wright Brothers are to travel.’

If jazz had a holy trinity, Charlie Parker might be the son, and Duke Ellington might be the Holy Ghost, but there is no doubt who the first would be.

Louis Armstrong used to say that he was born on July 4 1900, but the fact was otherwise.  He was born in 1901, and he was the grandson of slaves.  His mother and father each abandoned him at one time or another.  He grew up in Uptown or Back of Town and then Storyville, the red light area, in New Orleans, the undisputed birthplace of jazz.  He hauled coal as a kid, but the family did not make enough, and his mother had to go on the game.  Louis dropped out of school at eleven, and he learned to play the cornet (a kind of trumpet) by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk.

Young Louis was in custody for a while in the New Orleans Home for Coloured Waifs.  He played in the band and was taught some music there.  He worked for a while for a Jewish family from Lithuania and he saw that you did not have to be coloured to be rejected by white people.  He wore a Star of David for the rest of his life.  He played with Joe ‘King’ Oliver, a legend of jazz, who fleeced him.  He there learned the importance of the straight lead being played in whole notes.  He also played with Kid Ory, and then he joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.

By 1925, Satchmo, as he would be called, was a recording star, and he started making recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven.  His then wife, Lil, played the piano.  Armstrong said: ‘When we made those records, it was just pick up them cats and do it.  And we didn’t want no royalties, just pay me man, give me that loot.  Got $50 each for each [tune] – just a gig to us and glad to do it so we could go up town and have a ball with the money.  And now look at them records.’  Lil said that ‘it’s amusing to read in books telling why we did this.  I’m glad they know, because we didn’t.’

Armstrong had no bother with top C’s then, and he began to get a following with his singing.  It was this which would in time, with his natural showmanship, bring him to white audiences.  And he was writing his own material, and the fruits of that melodic creation would become a basal part of the jazz canon.  It is a quirk of history that the charm of Armstrong as a man and an entertainer would blind too many in posterity to the fact that he was a musical genius.  Genius is a much abused word, but on any objective view, Louis Armstrong had it.

On 26 February, 1926, Armstrong and the Hot Five cut six more sides in the recording studio.  Two made jazz history, and are still played and replayed.  In ‘Cornet Chop Suey’, Armstrong states the melody with no accompaniment in a stop-time solo and a cadenza of his own.  It was all so daring that the producer delayed its release, but then cornettists all over the country started ‘cutting’ each other trying to match the Master.  In ‘Heebie Jeebies’, Armstrong sang without words – ‘scat’ – because, he said, he had dropped the song-sheet.  Scat became integral to the repertoire.  Mezz Mezrow drove fifty miles after midnight just to play this record for Bix Beiderbecke, who ‘then tore out of the house to wake everyone he knew’.  ‘Cats’ everywhere began to salute each other as ‘Heebies’ or ‘Jeebies’ and imitating Armstrong’s riffs.

This is how the British musician and critic Alyn Shipton saw those recordings.

The discs that Armstrong made, from November 1925, with his Hot Five Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five, became influential all over the world.  They confirmed that Armstrong had successfully combined emotional depth, rhythmic innovation, and a liberating sense of solo freedom into a heady and original mixture.  He pushed at the boundaries of the cornet’s range.  Even in his hottest soloes he explored a lyricism that might, in part, have come from his love of classics and light opera (indeed he regularly played a selection from Cavalleria Rusticana as his solo feature with Erskine Tate’s band during this period).  Overall, he brought a new set of aesthetic qualities into jazz, a sense that there could be considerable artistic worth in music conceived as popular entertainment.

There is no overstatement there, as is the English critical tradition, and there is nothing light about Cavalleria Rusticana.

Not many people now realise it, but Armstrong revolutionised singing in America, and not just in jazz.  Apart from scat, which became an artform in itself, he learned how to control the melody and rhythm of a song for his own purpose – Sinatra would do the same to make some songs his own.  He could give meaning to the most vapid lyrics, but swing remained paramount – just listen to him and Ella Fitzgerald together.  You are listening to two grand masters creating their own art as they go before your very ears, somehow putting an end to space and time.  Bing Crosby said that ‘Louis Armstrong is the beginning – and the end – of American music.’  And Bing Crosby was in a position to know.

With the end of the twenties, the so-called Jazz Age, and Prohibition, Satchmo was a New York star.  He acquired a protector, a Mafia man who looked after Armstrong for thirty-five years.  With time, and the waning of the Big Bands, he got out of them and developed his All Stars with legends like Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Sid Catlett.  (In the Rough Guide, Digby Fairweather notes that on Louis Armstrong And the All Stars at Symphony Hall, the solo of Catlett on Steak Face is one of the great drum events in jazz history.  The late Whitney Bailliett, in The New Yorker, idolized Catlett.)  It is as if these stellar players have to put themselves on a leash from time to time.

This is how a musician described the dressing room of the coloured musician who upstaged stars like Crosby and Sinatra in High Society.

He’d be sitting down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders and that white handkerchief on his head and he’d put that grease around his lips.  Look like a minstrel man you now…and laughing you know natural the way he is.  And in the room maybe, you see two nuns.  You see a street walker dressed up in flaming clothes.  You see maybe a guy come out of the penitentiary.  You see maybe a blind man sitting there.  You see a rabbi, you see a priest, see.  Liable to see maybe a policeman or two detectives, see.  You see a judge.  All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressing room and he’s talking to all of ‘em.  ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there?  This is Slick Sam an old friend of mine’.  Now the nun’s going to meet slick Sam, Old Notorious, been in one of the penitentiaries.  ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi, good man, religious man.  Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein?  Amelia, this is Rosie, Goodtime Rosie, used to work in a show with me years ago.  Good girl, she’s a great performer.  Never got the breaks.’  Always a word of encouragement, see.  And there’d be some kids there, white and coloured.  All the diverse people of different social levels…..and everybody’s looking.  Got their eyes dead on him, just like they was looking at a diamond.

He made appearances and films with big names and he made hits like Mack the Knife, Hullo Dolly and What a Wonderful World.  He reinvented himself for new audiences and he became a national and then an international icon.

Armstrong never played what we now call ‘the race card’.  Many coloured people were upset by this, but Armstrong was a musician, and entertainer, not a politician.  He preferred to just grin and bear it.  The baseballer Jackie Robinson would suffer the same pain and humiliation.  The grandson of slaves and the coloured waif who hauled coal was feted at the White House.  He may have been just about the best known and best loved person in the whole world.

Duke Ellington was more urbane and dignified.  He could appeal to the white musical toffs even if the ‘cats’ just took him for his swing.  The suave orchestrator said; ‘I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people…some of the music which has been written will always be beautiful and immortal.  Beethoven, Wagner and Bach are geniuses; no one can rob their work of the merit that is due it, but these men have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music.’

Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, died with a smile on his face.  He had called a rehearsal of the All Stars for that day.  Duke Ellington said ‘I loved and respected Louis Armstrong.  He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.’  (Ellington was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after.)  Wynton Marsalis said: ‘He left an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time.’   He also said that Armstrong had been chosen by God to bring jazz music to the world.  ‘Louis Armstrong’s message is overwhelmingly one of love.  When you hear his music, it’s of joy…He was just not going to be defeated by life.  And these forces visit all of us.’  When Ken Burns told a psychic that other people thought that Satchmo was an angel, she merely said: ‘Biggest wings I’ve ever seen.’

And what is the best part?  This very, very great man never forgot Goodtime Rosie, who ‘never got the breaks’.

For what it is worth, Louis Armstrong is for me up there with Abraham Lincoln as one of the two unequivocally great gifts of the United States of America to the West and to the world at large.  Steamwhistle power, lyric grace….fine control over total power, all height and depth, for ever and ever….

21

Muhammad Ali (1942-)

As befits a nation of pioneers who put a premium on individual responsibility and community ideals, Americans go for sport in a big way.  It is their national tragedy that instead of rugby or football and cricket, they have their own sports of gridiron and baseball, so that their champions do not compete on an international stage.  That does not stop Americans following their sports with at least the passion and patriotic intensity of the Indians with cricket or African nations in football.  The games they play tell you a lot about Americans.

In June 1902, a guy who ran saloons in Pigtown, Baltimore took his seven year old kid on a trolley-car to a reform school and then left him there.  .  The school was named St Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys.  The kid would stay there until 1914 when he was 19.  By the time he left, his mother was dead.

The kid got training to become a tailor, but he was big on baseball.  His nick-name was the unkind one of Nigger Lips.  Photos show a wide-eyed innocent with thick lips.  He was a fan of Brother Matthias, who gave instruction on baseball on Saturday evenings, and as a big raw-boned kid, he could play.  He could both pitch and hit – left-handed.  Jack Dunn, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, spotted the kid and offered him a contract at $250 a month – primarily for his pitching.  The kid left St Mary’s as the legal ward of two of the Brothers, and with Jack Dunn as his guardian – the abandonment by his own family was complete.

They took off for spring training.  The kid had never been on a train or seen a menu before – he had never seen a professional player, let alone a professional game.  He must have been the most untutored player ever to go up to the Majors.  Dunn’s babies were known as ‘babes’.  Since the kid had got to retain his surname if nothing else from his family, and that name was Ruth, the kid became Babe Ruth, unquestionably the most famous name in all baseball.

Over the next twenty-one years, the Babe changed the game of baseball.  Before him, the game was controlled by pitchers, and batters approached their task tactically, and they tended to hit a flat trajectory.  The Babe was altogether less prosaic.  He introduced the power game, big hitting right up into the crowd.  He saw his role not just in moving men along the bases, but in belting home runs off his own bat.  He took baseball to a whole new level of entertainment, not just with the power of his hitting, but with the power of his presence.

The kid went to the Red Sox but they came to the doom-laden view that they would have to sell the Babe.  They did so at huge expense – an unprecedented sum – to the Yankees.  Now, the Babe was not really a Boston type, but he and New York in the Twenties were just made for each other.  And the city of Boston would pay an appalling price for its failure to come to terms with the Babe.  In what became known as the curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox would not win another World Series that century.

The Yankees won four World Series and seven pennants in the period that the Babe was with them (1920 – 1935).  In his total career he hit 714 home runs, a proposition that would have been laughed at in 1914.  He was the first to break 60 in a season – which he did after apparently being trumped by Lindbergh.  He was called the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, or the Wizard of Whack, but he still holds the tenth highest batting average of all time.

Jackie Robinson became an officer in the US Army during World War II.  What awaited him when he got back to the land of the free?  ‘Down the back of the bus with the other niggers.’  Rather than football, Jackie took on baseball as his professional sport.  He had the eye of a natural hitter; he had all the skills for a second base; he was deadly quick at stealing bases, and handy if a shirt-front were needed; and he was determined to win.  In short, he was just the kind of player to build a team around.  Except that in 1947, baseball was rigidly segregated – no formal agreement, just invincible history and unwritten understanding.  There were white leagues and black leagues, and that separatism was just as saluted in the north as in the south.

Jackie Robinson and a man named Branch Rickey cracked the monolith.  They both subscribed to the teaching of the Jewish carpenter, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  They would both be tested on the hard bit – turning the other cheek – in a way that is not asked of most of us.  Rickey was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He told Robinson that he would give him a go in the minors with a view to signing him for a full season with the Dodgers if he was good enough.  He said Robinson would be exposed to hate and abuse, sometimes from his own side, and that he would not be able to answer back.

Rickey had one large portrait in his office – the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.  Rickey was smart as well as brave.  He described his purpose:  ‘First, to win a pennant.  There’s some good coloured players.  The second reason is…it’s right.’

Robinson made the season with the minors satisfactorily.  (In his second at bat, he had rifled it into the crowd.)  When it came time for him to turn out for the Dodgers, every club but one said they were against it, and players in his own team took up a petition to have him excluded.  Other teams threatened to strike.  He was still subject to insult and abuse and death threats on the road, and venomous hate speech on the field.  He kept his part of the deal.  He copped it and he did not answer back.  He had a great season with the bat and a league-leading 29 stolen bases and a momentum – turning base-running style.  He was the first ever Rookie of the Year.  The Dodgers made it to the World Series and forced the Yankees to go to the seventh game.  This Yankee side, with DiMaggio and others, is one of the greatest teams ever, and is the main reason why the Dodgers do not have more to show from their ten years with Robinson.  He was not just a hero for black people, but for all Americans.

Well, what might happen if America got a champion black sportsman who played on the world stage, and who could appeal to coloured people all over the world, and who was prepared to stare down Uncle Sam – and who just happened to be the greatest of all time?

This is how Norman Mailer began his book The Fight:

There is always a shock in seeing him again.  Not live as in television, but standing before you, looking his best.  Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear.  Women draw an audible breath.  Men look down.  They are reminded again of their lack of worth.  If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate.  For he is the Prince of Heaven – so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was born on 17 January 1942 in Louis Kentucky.  His father painted signs and his mother was a domestic.  They were African Americans descended from slaves.  The baby followed his father in being named after a famous abolitionist.  The former Cassius Clay was a most formidable man, a six-foot-six Kentucky farmer who had commanded troops in the Mexico War.  He inherited a plantation and he later freed his slaves.  For this he received death threats.  ‘For those who have respect for the laws of God, I have this argument.’  He produced a leather-bound bible.  ‘For those who believe in the laws of man, I have this argument.’  He produced the constitution.  ‘And for those who believe in neither the laws of God nor of man, I have this argument.’  He laid down a Bowie knife and two pistols.  Lincoln thought enough of him, or of the Russians, to send him to Russia on government business.  As David Remnick remarks, ‘He maintained his physical courage to the end.  When he was eighty-four, he married a fifteen year old girl.’

Clay grew up to win national Golden Gloves and then gold in the 1960 Olympics at Rome.  He turned pro and was undefeated, but he was not winning friends by his manner of belittling opponents.  He was light on his feet and he was unbelievably fast.  He had height and reach, and he could lean back and then hit his overcommitted opponent with a lethal right jab.  He won the right to challenge Sonny Liston, and the fight was set for 25 February 1964.

Sonny was born into the Mob – the underworld – and he could never get out of it.  He never had a chance.  He had no family to speak of and he knew the inside of the Workhouse.  He was an enforcer for the Mob.  Not many people gave lip to Sonny Liston and lived.  The Mob ran boxing.  A generation of Prohibition gangsters had promoted and fixed fights, charming people like Frenchy DeMange, Frankie Yale, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Boo Boo Hoff, Kid Dropper, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schulz.  You can ask why crooks were attracted to pugs, but they were both on the fringe.

Sonny’s manager was Paul John (‘Frankie’) Carbo, also known on the street as Frank Fortunato, Jimmie the Wop, and Dago Frank.  After being sent to Sing Sing for homicide, he lifted his game to become a hit man for the Brooklyn branch of Murder Inc.  David Remnick says that it took Cassius Clay, still on his way up, to break the grip of the Mob.  That young man found his protection in the Nation of Islam.  Many of his countrymen would have been more relaxed if he had stayed with the Mob – the devil they knew.

Sonny then would frighten the hell out of anyone.  The bookies had Clay at seven to one, which is insane in a two man event, and journalists were plotting the locations of the nearest hospitals.  Many thought that the kid would be killed.  The kid – the Louisville Lip – responded as was his wont now.  He taunted Liston, pulled up outside his house and asked him to step outside, and famously said that he would ‘dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’  He turned the weigh-in into a circus.

At the bell, Liston came out like an enraged bull, but Clay slipped away, and was scoring heavily by the end of the first round.  He buckled Sonny’s knees in the third, and he cut the champion for the first time.  He seemed to be blinded in the fifth, but he came back to belt Sonny in the sixth.  Sonny did not come out for the seventh.  It was a TKO and Clay shouted to the world that he was the greatest ever.  The rematch came after Clay had publicly, and amid great hostility, converted to Islam and changed his name.  It was a sad farce.  Liston copped what the press called the ‘phantom punch’, and the fight was over in less than two minutes.  It looked for all the world as if the fix had gone in and that Sonny had taken a dive.

Ali said that ‘Clay’ was his slave name.  He got offside with millions by taunting his opponents and then being cruel to them by prolonging their punishment.  He then courted more unpopularity by refusing to be drafted for the increasingly looked down on war in Vietnam.  He knew who his enemies were.  ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’  In the way of things, it would be this stand that would secure his position in the Pantheon – and in the U S, as well as the rest of the world.  He would later be courted by presidents.

Ali was stripped of his title and locked out of boxing until the Supreme Court eventually set aside his conviction on a fine point of law.  (The black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, did not sit.)  By then, the tide had turned completely on Vietnam and Ali was a living legend for more reasons than one.  But he had lost the best years of his boxing life.  He fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was more in the Liston mould, and he lost his first professional fight.  He would later beat Frazier, but the highpoint of his return, and of his boxing career, came with the fight against George Foreman for the title at downtown Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974, the Rumble in the Jungle.

There was a book, Mailer’s The Fight, and an Academy Award film, Once Were Kings, made about this contest.  Ali was passed his prime.  And Foreman had a fearful reputation.  He was a frightfully heavy puncher.  He had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in the second round.  Ali responded with his normal verbal barrage and mind games, but in the film, Norman Mailer said that Ali never looked at Foreman’s heavy punching bag – it had been deformed.  No one ever got into the ring with George Foreman after watching him deform the heavy bag.  No one – or hardly anyone – though that Ali had any chance at all.  This was then like the first Liston fight that had taken place more than ten years ago.  Again, people in the know feared for the survival of the outmatched challenger.

This is how Norman Mailer describes their coming together in the ring to get instructions from the referee.

It was the time for each man to extort a measure of fear from the other.  Liston had done it to all his opponents until he met Ali who, when Cassius Clay at the age of twenty-two, glared back at him with all the imperative of his high-destiny guts.  Foreman, in turn, had done it Frazier and then to Norton.  A big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb.

Then something extraordinary happened, something almost unbelievable.  Ali came out in the first round and started to hit Foreman, and hit him hard – with his right hand!  It would be like a right-handed batter or golfer coming out and playing left-handed.  It was downright insulting.  Then as the fight settled down, Ali would just go back on the ropes, hunch up, and absorb flurries of punches.  At first some thought that the fight had been fixed.  But then they saw that most of Foreman’s punches directed at the body were not scoring, but were drowning the energy of the champion.  It was high drama – anyone of those missiles could have landed any other fighter back in the bleachers, but Ali just went back, took the blows, and then eased out and scored.  All the time he was taunting Foreman: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’  It then became apparent that Foreman was tiring.  His punches were either not landing or not hurting.  And Ali was starting to float about him and was pinning him with darts at will.  Then in the eighth, Ali moved in for the kill and it was all over, and the world title was his again.  There was delirium in the crowd, and in front of TV sets all around the world.  Sports fans who have seen the fight and the film many times still move to the front of their seats and hold their breath while they watch it yet again.  It is probably the most watched sporting event ever.

After that, there was The Thriller in Manila with Frazier again, but it was all downhill.  Ali was permitted to go on too long.  This is sadly common with boxers and other sportsmen.  He became a distressingly sad reflection of the wonderful athlete and fighting machine that he had been.  In his advanced age he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he has had it now for a long time.

But even in that condition, he could move very greatly younger people who came into his presence.  Even in decline he had an aura – as Norman Mailer saw, he could be ‘luminous’ – in a way that could still move people by a curious alchemy, a kind of out of body experience.  Why is that?  Perhaps they just feel somehow that Muhammad Ali was in truth the greatest of all time.

It is a great story, the descendant of slaves beats off the mob, becomes world champion, beats off the government, and wins back his championship, each time against a frightening odds and a terrifying opponent.  For all of his faults and failings – which, for him, like most of us, were formidable – his story is a tribute to the human spirit.  This is why he is held in such awe right around the world.  This is why so many see him as the greatest ever, the greatest ever sportsman and the greatest ever entertainer, the promoters’ final dream, the ultimate crowd pleaser.  He embodies the truth that at least at the top now, professional sportsmen and women have almost nothing to do with sport, and almost everything to do with entertainment, business, and money.  If that means that we have gone from the amateur sportsmen of the Olympic Games of the ancient Greeks to the professional chariot races and gladiators of the decaying and decadent Romans, then that is a lookout for all our mums and dads and others.  Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali have between them consummated that transformation.  The man has been, if nothing else, a mover and a shaker.

Muhammad Ali has a lot in common with the late Maria Callas.  He was, like she was, an entertainer.  They are both seen by many as having been in their time the best ever entertainers of their kind – there is generally seen to have been blue sky between them and the rest.  By the force of their character as much as by the high reach of their technique, they both radically changed the way that the world saw their art – and we should not blush to use that word for Ali was well as for Callas.  And now, in his reflective time at peace, Muhammad Ali might agree with Maria Callas that: ‘There are no short cuts.  There is only discipline, technique, and Mut’.  As the professional coach said in Chariots of Fire, ‘You can’t put in what God left out.’  It is just that some make better use of what they get from God than others do.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 9

 

[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.]

Doctor Zhivago

Some writers make it feel easy – Grahame Greene.  Some let you know that you might have to dig in and hope – Hermann Melville.  Some come up at you like nuggets from out of rocks – Christina Stead.  Some are brilliant but prone to flash outside the off stump – Balzac.  Some just let you know that they are big hitters – Tolstoy.  Some just end up over the top – Joyce.  Some are all class but leave you wondering what the fuss is about – Flaubert.  Some leave you wondering where in Hell that came from – Emily Brontë.  And every now and then you come across one who very soon lets you know, and makes you confident, that they have real strength and power.  That was certainly the case with Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago – which, to my shame, I had not read before.  I find it hard to recall a novel that is so strong and powerful.

A young boy born into Imperial Russia is abandoned by his father and when his mother dies, he is taken in by a kindly uncle.   The boy, Yuri Zhivago, who is bright and sensitive, grows up to be a poet and a doctor.  (You might think that is an odd coupling, until you recall Keats.)  He marries Tonya, who was also a medical student, and they go out to live in the provinces as the war comes.

Lara is a daughter of a Russian woman married to a Belgian.  When the husband goes, the mother has an affair with a friend of his, a ruthless man of business and politics – the precursor of the oligarch – who proceeds to defile Lara while she is seventeen and still at school.  The mother tries to kill herself, and then Lara tries to kill her lover.  The businessman hushes up the affair and Lara marries Pasha who is deeply engaged politically.  They too go the provinces.  Pasha is thought to have died in the war but he becomes a ruthless killer and a Commissar for the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution under the name Strelnikov.

The paths of Lara and Yuri cross, and they eventually fall deeply in love, even after they find that Pasha is still alive as Strelnikov.  But it is hard to see how they or their love can survive.  It is not just that they are both married – their whole world has been turned upside down by a revolution and a civil war far more barbarous than what France faced after 1789, and which took the French at least a hundred years to get over.  Both Lara and Yuri have what we call baggage that the new regime will reject.  The times are utterly beyond compassion.  If a child goes missing in the country, the parents will fear cannibalism.  The icy egoism of Lenin will give way to the murderous paranoia of Stalin.  Lara and Yuri strive to keep and treasure what humanity is left to them before they get washed away in the maelstrom.  They were not born in the right time or place.

That is a bare outline of a hugely complex story.  The number of characters and the variations in the names make the book very hard to read.  It is at times like separating the threads of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.  But the effect is nearly overwhelming, because you get this magical blend of sordid reality set against a feeling of remorseless fate.  Even accidents seem inevitable, and the effect is heightened by sudden changes in tempo or revelation.  The result is to make the two lovers ‘star-crossed’ in a manner that was perfected in Romeo and Juliet.  They are helpless victims and they are no less appealing for that.  They are in truth pathetic, and the backdrop for this pathos is the world being turned upside down in the most gruesome way possible.

Here is the author on the new men after the 1917 Revolution.  ‘Commissars with unlimited power were appointed everywhere, people of iron will, in black leather jackets, armed with means of intimidation and with revolvers, who rarely shaved and still more rarely slept.  They were well acquainted with the petty bourgeois breed, the average holder of small government bonds, the grovelling conformist, and never spared him, talking to him with a Mephistophelian smirk, as with a pilferer caught in the act.’  There were a lot of sans-culottes just like that in Paris in 1793.

Here is the apotheosis of the Commissar: ‘For some unknown reason it became clear at once that this man represented the consummate manifestation of will.  He was to such a degree what he wanted to be that everything on him and in him inevitably seemed exemplary; his proportionately constructed and handsomely placed head, and the impetuousness of his stride, and his long legs in high boots, which may have been dirty but seemed polished, and his grey flannel tunic, which may have been wrinkled but gave the impression of ironed linen.  Thus acted the presence of giftedness, natural, knowing no strain, feeling itself in the saddle in any situation of earthly existence.  This man must have possessed some gift, not necessarily an original one.’  This could be Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal Nazi killer, one of the most evil men ever born.  Strelnikov as the Commissar was a brutal killer– but was the husband of Lara evil like Heydrich?  Or Stalin?  How do ordinary people become cold-blooded killers?

The picture of Strelnikov could also derive from Robespierre.  When the pure are corrupted by power, their killing is indeed merciless.  Puritanical killers like Cromwell and Robespierre may or may not have been as brutal as, say, Stalin, but their dead are just as dead.  Lenin would take after Robespierre, and Stalin was Lenin gone rotten.  The book contains slashing insights into the jealous cruelty that is unleashed after centuries of cruel oppression.

There are passages of poetic insight – of a poet.  ‘The cannon-fire behind his back died down.  That direction was the east.  There in the haze of the mist the sun rose and peeped dimly between the scraps of floating murk, the way naked people in a bathhouse flash through clouds of soapy steam.’  Snow is a recurring image.   The hero gets a letter from his distant wife, Tonya.  She says of Lara: ‘I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate it and confuse it.’  As it happens, that is fair – but did it have to happen?  The letter concludes with Tonya believing that they have come for her execution.

Yuri Andreevich [Zhivago] looked up from the letter with an absent, tearless gaze, not directed anywhere, dry from grief, devastated by suffering.  He saw nothing around him.  He was conscious of nothing.  Outside the window it began to snow.  Wind carried the snow obliquely, ever faster and ever denser, as if trying all the while to make up for something and Yuri Andreevich stared ahead of him and through the window as if it were not snow falling but the continued reading of Tonya’s letter, and not dry starlike flakes that raced and flashed, but small spaces of white paper between small black letters, white, white, endless, endless.

Even in translation, that writing has a kind of grace and power that can only come from a writer who is justifiably confident of his own strength.  It is a passage that might remind some of a well-known passage by James Joyce in his story called The Dead.*  This is the kind of writing that annihilates the boundary between prose and poetry.

The book is shot through with writing that could only come from a writer who is happy to back his judgment.  This is how the narrative part of the book ends.

One day Larissa Fyodorovna [Lara] left the house and did not come back again.  Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of those countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.

The author was deeply spiritual in the Russian tradition.  There is an epistle of Paul that said something to the effect that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’  Pasternak translates that ‘in that new way of existence and new form of communion known as the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons.’

This is a proposition that might unsettle a whole lot of people, and it was not well received in some parts of the world.  It is hugely liberating for some – including me.  (What kind of God, anyway, would want to play favourites?)  So is the ethical consequence.  ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’  That too is so true.  .The author goes on: ‘If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not representative, half of what’s demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he’s achieved a grain of immortality.’

The author is super-bright, but he knows the dangers of intellectuals finding the answer.  He has Yuri saying this: ‘I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life.  To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horse-radish by itself.’  He got that right.  And he also gets right the fearful impact of the revolution on the lives of persons, and not just peoples.  Lara says this to Yuri.

Is it for me a weak woman to explain to you who are so intelligent what is now happening with life in general and why families fall apart, yours and mine between them?….All that’s productive, settled, all that’s connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to wrack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganisation.  All everyday things were overturned and destroyed.  What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end.  And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other.

This is a novel of immense strength, beauty, and humanity.

Nor had I seen the movie, which is very famous, and, apparently, the eighth most seen movie ever made.  It was a great effort by David Lean to get this complex book on to the screen, and it had to be uncomfortably long.  The stars, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, shine very brightly, but they have to stand against two of the best screen actors ever, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger (as the loathsome seducer.)  Steiger is viciously seductive in the power he maintains over Lara throughout the film, and you wonder if she is a kind of allegory for Russia, that just continues to swap real bastards as its rulers.  I might say that for both the book and the movie, Lara was for me the moving force.  It is one thing to be seduced by your mother’s lover while you are still at school – it is another thing to call on a society function on Christmas Eve and try to shoot the bastard.  In some curious way, Lara seemed to me to have a fair bit of Heathcliff in her, but this is not easy to put on screen.  Tom Courtenay is the bespectacled and antiseptic Strelnikov who has the signature line: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia.’

You can see that sad truth now every day in Russia in the ugly face of Vladimir Putin.

*Here is the final paragraph of The Dead, which occurs after the wife of the narrator has just told him in bed that a young man called Michael Fury had in her youth had a crush on her and had died for it.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Passing Bull 238–Execution

 

During the lockdown, a new fad has appeared on footy panel shows.  The panel wear headphones.  Do they want a replay of the Dam Busters? While watching cricket replays I came across another fad.  At a critical point in the game, for batsman (‘batter’ is better left to baseball) or bowler, we get solemnly told that ‘execution’ is essential.  ‘Execution’ there means bowling the ball or playing a shot.  That is what the whole bloody game is about.  The word ‘execution’ adds nothing.  As do those ‘War Room’ analyses where people solemnly intone about tactics and strategy after the event and in a manner that suggests that footballers have boned up on Clausewitz On War.  They occasionally make plausible comments on strategy in Rugby Union, but when they do that for the NRL, we know that we are in Fantasyland.

Bloopers

The MP in question is George Christensen, the Queensland National. It’s no great insight to observe George blows hard. George talks a big game, and here he is, talking a big game on the reddest, hottest, political issue of the moment – Australia’s fraying relationship with our largest trading partner. George has given the matter some reflection, and he thinks ‘we can keep giving in to China’s threats, and selling off our country, or we can make a stand for our sovereignty’ – and he’d very much like you to write him and take his survey.

The Guardian, 23 May, 2020

There you have a politician who is unlovely as it gets.  He has a passion for bull whips, God, and whatever he can get in the Philippines.  And ‘sovereignty’ is the first retreat of the inane.

Passing Bull 237–Category mistakes and the virus

 

What philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ arises when ‘things or facts of one kind or category are presented as if they belonged to another.’  Put differently, it is a mistake to ascribe to some object a characteristic that belongs to objects of a different category.  Such as, this piano has a pink sound, or these mice are neurotic.  Or treating God as human or calling a symphony ‘socialist’ – or ‘capitalist’.  Or using political values to evaluate science.

Some examples appear from the following piece in The New York Times, where reactions to the corona virus, an issue for the objective science of medicine, are treated as if the virus was an issue of partisan party politics and the financial hunger of Fox News.

What are some of the forces driving the split between those who prioritize the economy and those whose primary concern is the physical health of the population?

A W Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, emailed in response to my inquiry:

‘Progressives have grown more likely to embrace a culture of ‘safetyism’ in recent years. This safetyism seeks to protect them and those who are deemed the most vulnerable members of our society from threats to their emotional and physical well-being.’

In the case of Covid-19, he continued,

‘…progressives are willing to embrace the maximal measures to protect themselves, the public, and the most vulnerable among us from this threat’.

In contrast, according to Wilcox,

‘….many conservatives are most concerned about protecting the American way of life, a way of life they see as integrally bound up with liberty and the free market’.

Because many on the political right see the lockdowns as impinging ‘on their liberty, the free market’s workings, and their financial well-being,’ he continued, ‘many conservatives want the lockdowns ended as quickly as possible.’

In addition, Wilcox noted, ‘some (especially male) conservatives see the lockdowns and mask wearing as expressions of cowardice that they reject as unmanly.’

Labels are dangerous enough at the best of times, but when you take them from the wrong box, you get the kind of intellectual mayhem described in the article.

Of course, politics come into it when a government considers what powers it should invoke to deal with the pandemic.  But the first thing to do is to get the best medical advice on how to deal with it.

Then there is the problem with experts.  If a doctor is the only thing between you and death, you lap up his or her expertise as gratefully as you can – especially if you do not understand it but proceed on faith.  But if the issue is one for the community at large, then many want us to place our faith on the basis of some ideological divide.  That may just be the biggest category mistake of the lot.

One reason for the aversion of some to expertise is that they fear that it is the gateway to government intervention.

Another reason is, in my view, raw arrogance born of unnerving insecurity.  In professional people, that reaction is lethal.  Among the politically driven, it looks sadly inevitable.

And the worst offenders – serial offenders – are those rigid souls in think tanks clustered at an uncomely part of the spectrum.  Their indoctrination, both emotive and intellectual, means that they see the world through their own made-to-order prism, and the result is that they are both predictable – nauseatingly predictable – and wrong.

Bloopers

I like this stuff. I really get it… People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said ‘How do you know so much about this?’

New York Times, 21 May 2020

The President knows best.  Who needs doctors?

Here and there – English in history

 

The history of England is for me like the history of a good cricket club. They knew each other and they knew what they were doing.  And they used the power of the English language to get on.  They may be the only ones to know the dark secrets in their closet – Ireland is the most gross – but somehow they let the structure of their language portray their growth and the genius of their common law and constitution.  It’s all very clubby – very English – but it is so very readable.

In Macaulay’s History of England, you get the charm of his writing and the vital expression of his subjects.  Let me give a very long citation.  This is in 1685, and the last of the Stuarts is about to show an inane wish to flirt with political death in a manner that will lead to his eviction, and to the settlement of the English Constitution as we know it.

In a few hours, however, the spirit of the opposition revived. When, at the close of the day, the Speaker resumed the chair, Wharton, the boldest and most active of the Whigs, proposed that a time should be appointed for taking His Majesty’s answer into consideration. John Coke, member for Derby, though a noted Tory, seconded Wharton. “I hope,” he said, “that we are all Englishmen, and that we shall not be frightened from our duty by a few high words.”

It was manfully, but not wisely, spoken. The whole House was in a tempest. “Take down his words,” “To the bar,” “To the Tower,” resounded from every side…….

On the same day it became clear that the spirit of opposition had spread from the Commons to the Lords, and even to the episcopal bench. William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, took the lead in the Upper House; and he was well qualified to do so. In wealth and influence he was second to none of the English nobles; and the general voice designated him as the finest gentleman of his time. His magnificence, his taste, his talents, his classical learning, his high spirit, the grace and urbanity of his manners, were admitted by his enemies. His eulogists, unhappily, could not pretend that his morals had escaped untainted from the widespread contagion of that age. Though an enemy of Popery and of arbitrary power, he had been averse to extreme courses, had been willing, when the Exclusion Bill was lost, to agree to a compromise, and had never been concerned in the illegal and imprudent schemes which had brought discredit on the Whig party. But, though regretting part of the conduct of his friends, he had not, on that account, failed to perform zealously the most arduous and perilous duties of friendship. He had stood near Russell at the bar, had parted from him on the sad morning of the execution with close embraces and with many bitter tears, nay, had offered to manage an escape at the hazard of his own life.  This great nobleman now proposed that a day should be fixed for considering the royal speech. It was contended, on the other side, that the Lords, by voting thanks for the speech, had precluded themselves from complaining of it. But this objection was treated with contempt by Halifax. “Such thanks,” he said with the sarcastic pleasantry in which he excelled, “imply no approbation. We are thankful whenever our gracious Sovereign deigns to speak to us. Especially thankful are we when, as on the present occasion, he speaks out, and gives us fair warning of what we are to suffer.”  Doctor Henry Compton, Bishop of London, spoke strongly for the motion. Though not gifted with eminent abilities, nor deeply versed in the learning of his profession, he was always heard by the House with respect; for he was one of the few clergymen who could, in that age, boast of noble blood. His own loyalty, and the loyalty of his family, had been signally proved. His father, the second Earl of Northampton, had fought bravely for King Charles the First, and, surrounded by the parliamentary soldiers, had fallen, sword in hand, refusing to give or take quarter. The Bishop himself, before he was ordained, had borne arms in the Guards; and, though he generally did his best to preserve the gravity and sobriety befitting a prelate, some flashes of his military spirit would, to the last, occasionally break forth. He had been entrusted with the religious education of the two Princesses, and had acquitted himself of that important duty in a manner which had satisfied all good Protestants, and had secured to him considerable influence over the minds of his pupils, especially of the Lady Anne.   He now declared that he was empowered to speak the sense of his brethren, and that, in their opinion and in his own, the whole civil and ecclesiastical constitution of the realm was in danger.

One of the most remarkable speeches of that day was made by a young man, whose eccentric career was destined to amaze Europe. This was Charles Mordaunt, Viscount Mordaunt, widely renowned, many years later, as Earl of Peterborough. Already he had given abundant proofs of his courage, of his capacity, and of that strange unsoundness of mind which made his courage and capacity almost useless to his country. Already he had distinguished himself as a wit and a scholar, as a soldier and a sailor. He had even set his heart on rivalling Bourdaloue and Bossuet. Though an avowed freethinker, he had sate up all night at sea to compose sermons, and had with great difficulty been prevented from edifying the crew of a man of war with his pious oratory. .. He now addressed the House of Peers, for the first time, with characteristic eloquence, sprightliness, and audacity. He blamed the Commons for not having taken a bolder line. “They have been afraid,” he said, “to speak out. They have talked of apprehensions and jealousies. What have apprehension and jealousy to do here? Apprehension and jealousy are the feelings with which we regard future and uncertain evils. The evil which we are considering is neither future nor uncertain. A standing army exists. It is officered by Papists. We have no foreign enemy. There is no rebellion in the land. For what, then, is this force maintained, except for the purpose of subverting our laws and establishing that arbitrary power which is so justly abhorred by Englishmen?”

Jeffreys spoke against the motion in the coarse and savage style of which he was a master; but he soon found that it was not quite so easy to browbeat the proud and powerful barons of England in their own hall, as to intimidate advocates whose bread depended on his favour or prisoners whose necks were at his mercy. A man whose life has been passed in attacking and domineering, whatever may be his talents and courage, generally makes a mean figure when he is vigorously assailed, for, being unaccustomed to stand on the defensive, he becomes confused; and the knowledge that all those whom he has insulted are enjoying his confusion confuses him still more. Jeffreys was now, for the first time since he had become a great man, encountered on equal terms by adversaries who did not fear him. To the general delight, he passed at once from the extreme of insolence to the extreme of meanness, and could not refrain from weeping with rage and vexation.   Nothing indeed was wanting to his humiliation; for the House was crowded by about a hundred peers, a larger number than had voted even on the great day of the Exclusion Bill. The King, too, was present. His brother had been in the habit of attending the sittings of the Lords for amusement, and used often to say that a debate was as entertaining as a comedy. James came, not to be diverted, but in the hope that his presence might impose some restraint on the discussion. He was disappointed. The sense of the House was so strongly manifested that, after a closing speech, of great keenness, from Halifax, the courtiers did not venture to divide. An early day was fixed for taking the royal speech into consideration; and it was ordered that every peer who was not at a distance from Westminster should be in his place. 

On the following morning the King came down, in his robes, to the House of Lords. The Usher of the Black Rod summoned the Commons to the bar; and the Chancellor announced that the Parliament was prorogued to the tenth of February.    The members who had voted against the court were dismissed from the public service. Charles Fox quitted the Pay Office. The Bishop of London ceased to be Dean of the Chapel Royal, and his name was struck out of the list of Privy Councillors.

This might be a proceeding at White’s or one of those other snooty clubs at St James – affably snooty.  What is certain is that we will see nothing like it.

Here is one of those passages where the English turn their noses up at what happens across the Channel.  James II wanted to restart an inquisitorial body like the High Commission.  That body stands very high in their demonology.

The design of reviving that formidable tribunal was pushed on more eagerly than ever. In July London was alarmed by the news that the King had, in direct defiance of two acts of Parliament drawn in the strongest terms, entrusted the whole government of the Church to seven Commissioners…The words in which the jurisdiction of these officers was described were loose, and might be stretched to almost any extent. All colleges and grammar schools, even those founded by the liberality of private benefactors, were placed under the authority of the new board. All who depended for bread on situations in the Church or in academic institutions, from the Primate down to the youngest curate, from the Vicechancellors of Oxford and Cambridge down to the humblest pedagogue who taught Corderius, were at the royal mercy. If any one of those many thousands was suspected of doing or saying anything distasteful to the government, the Commissioners might cite him before them. In their mode of dealing with him they were fettered by no rules. They were themselves at once prosecutors and judges. The accused party was furnished with no copy of the charge. He was examined and cross‑examined. If his answers did not give satisfaction, he was liable to be suspended from his office, to be ejected from it, to be pronounced incapable of holding any preferment in future. If he were contumacious, he might be excommunicated, or, in other words, be deprived of all civil rights and imprisoned for life. He might also, at the discretion of the court, be loaded with all the costs of the proceeding by which he had been reduced to beggary. No appeal was given. The Commissioners were directed to execute their office notwithstanding any law which might be, or might seem to be, inconsistent with these regulations. Lastly, lest any person should doubt that it was intended to revive that terrible court from which the Long Parliament had freed the nation, the new tribunal was directed to use a seal bearing exactly the same device and the same superscription with the seal of the old High Commission. 

Macaulay of course had his hates.  His treatment of Penn and Churchill was such that the Folio editor felt bound to add a note of redemption at the end.  Well, God spare me from a historian who says he has no hates.  Here are some swipes – coat-hangers in AFL terms – at Churchill (of Marlborough fame).

Churchill, in a letter written with a certain elevation of language, which was the sure mark that he was going to commit a baseness, declared that he was determined to perform his duty to heaven and to his country, and that he put his honour absolutely into the hands of the Prince of Orange. William doubtless read these words with one of those bitter and cynical smiles….

Of that conspiracy Churchill, unrivalled in sagacity and address, endowed by nature with a certain cool intrepidity which never failed him either in fighting or lying, high in military rank, and high in the favour of the Princess Anne, must be regarded as the soul……

Churchill, who was about this time promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, made his appearance with that bland serenity which neither peril nor infamy could ever disturb…….

Churchill left behind him a letter of explanation. It was written with that decorum which he never failed to preserve in the midst of guilt and dishonour…

It’s all so effortless.  And now we are surrounded by pygmies.

It grieves me that so many people will shuffle off without having sampled this largesse.  It is like having Mount Everest outside your back door – and refusing even to open the bloody door.

And just watch out next time some dude ghosts up with a look of ‘bland serenity.’  Canberra is full of them.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 8

 

[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.]

DEBATES WITH HISTORIANS

Peter Geyl, 1955

B T Batsford, London, 1955; rebound.

The Dutch have earned a reputation for tolerance and enlightenment.  In the 17th century, they offered sanctuary to great European thinkers like Spinoza and Locke – Spinoza died there; Descartes also sought protection there.  Holland has also produced great historians.  One of them was the late Pieter Geyl (1887-1966).  Don’t just take my word for it.  A J P Taylor said: ‘If I were asked to name the historian whom I have most venerated in my lifetime, I should not hesitate for an answer.  I should name Pieter Geyl.’

Every now and then – it is not very often – you come across a writer who soon puts you at your ease.  There is a breadth and depth of learning; there is an absence of arrogance or waspishness; and there is some compassion, some generosity of spirit, too.  We may not be able to call someone ‘wise’ unless we can see something on top of a very fine mind – something like humanity, for the want of a better word.

The late Professor Geyl qualifies on all counts, in spades.  He was trained in Holland but spent a lot of time teaching and writing in England and in the States; he also spent some time in Germany, something that I will come back to.

The first essay in Debates with Historians comes from about 1952 and is called ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe.’  A Times Literary Supplement piece had in the eye of Geyl suggested that Ranke by his ‘political quietism’ been a pioneer of National Socialism – the ‘Catastrophe’ of the title.  (In the fashion of the time, the article was unsigned.  Geyl referred to its ‘vehement one-sidedness’ and had said that in ‘this case it is not difficult to guess who is the writer’.)  Geyl was intent on defending the German historian against this charge, a very decent undertaking for a Dutchman so soon after that war, you might think.

There are two things.  One is the great insight of Ranke that ‘Every period is immediate to God, and its value does not in the least consist in what springs from it, but in its own existence, in its own self.’  This to me sounds like Bonhoeffer.  It is to preach humility to historians – and some of them could do with the sermon.

Then there is the magisterial closure to the refutation of the charge that Ranke had prefigured National Socialism.  It contains the following.

If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis.  But the impressiveness and straightness will be of our own constructing.  What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment.  We can learn a truer wisdom from Ranke’s phrase that it should be viewed ‘immediate to God’, and he himself, too, has a right to be so considered…..Comprehension, a disinterested understanding of what is alien to you – this is not the function of the mind which will supply the most trenchant weapons for the political rough-and-tumble….To understand is a function of the mind which not only enriches the life of the individual; it is the very breath of the civilization which we are called to defend.

God send us more people who can think and write with that largeness of spirit – and consign our mediocrities to the dustbin that they deserve.

The second essay is about Macaulay.  He is the complete opposite of the ideal of Ranke.  He refuses to ‘look at the past from within…to think in the terms of the earlier generations’.  Macaulay looked on the past as the culmination of his view of Progress, of those ‘on the right side’ no less.  Geyl finds that ‘this mental attitude toward the past is in the deepest sense unhistoric.’  Elsewhere he uses the more homely term ‘cocksure.’  But let us not forget that in writing the Whig view of the Glorious Revolution, Macaulay had a lot to be cocky and sure about.  His team had won – hands down.  And as they say at the footy – winners are grinners; the rest make their own arrangements.

The next essay is about Carlyle and ‘the spirit of the Old Testament that seems to be present, coupling anathematization with adoration.’  It is about Carlyle’s ‘impatience with baseness and cowardice, his feeling of being out of place in a world of superficial sentiment and mediocre living……the babbling of lifeless religiosity or the sham assurance of modern idealism.  Instinct, intuition, the myth, these were his challenge to the rationalists and glorifiers of science who (unappeasable grievance) had made the Christian certitude of his childhood untenable for him’.  Carlyle was impatient with those in thrall to logic.  ‘Yea friends, not our Logical, Commensurative faculty, but our Imagination is King over us.’  That is not the least of Carlyle’s appeal.

Geyl, as it seems to me, gets the sadness in Carlyle exactly right: ‘the sentimental tie to a spiritual heritage which his intellect rejected, the painful reaction against the false teachers who gave him nothing in exchange for what they had robbed him of.’  That condition is very common now – it may define our time, as the time of the claimed death of God, but the author concludes on Carlyle: ‘and the perception of that tragic quality makes it possible to accept gratefully that which is vivifying in his work and serenely to enjoy its beauties.’  Would that other professional historians might be so generous with this poetic and prophetic lightning-conductor from the north.

Then follows an essay on Michelet, the first great historian of the French Revolution.  I have read Michelet, mostly in translation, the better to understand the loathing of the French for the church and, for many of them at one time or another, the English.  His father was an unsuccessful printer – as Professor Burrow reminds us, ‘exactly from the stratum from which the revolutionary crowds were chiefly recruited.’  But, Professor Geyl instructs us, business was bad under Napoleon, and ‘the memory of the Revolution was thus, in that poverty-stricken family, allied to detestation of the Corsican despot.’  It helps to have the inside running on the local knowledge of some historians.

You will understand the deeply emotional and personal approach of Michelet if you recall that his initial work was on medieval France and that he thought that the English in destroying Joan of Arc – whom he saw as incarnating ‘the self-consciousness of France’ – ‘thought they were deflowering France’!  (God help him if he ever got to see what Shakespeare put in the mouths of her English tormentors.)

Michelet has the exclamatory style of Carlyle, and a Romantic mind-set, but, as we saw, their differences come in two words.  Michelet talks of the ‘people’ – le bon peuple – while Carlyle speaks of the ‘mob’.  Or, rather, as Geyl tells us, it is the people when it is good – the storming of the bastille; but when they are bad – massacring the inmates of prisons until the streets ran with blood – it is not ‘the people’ but ‘three or four hundred drunks.’  If the awful Terror was an awful weapon, it only had to be employed because of the evil English without, and the traitors within – ‘the people’ and France were guiltless.  (Do you recall Francois Mitterrand saying of Vichy France that ‘The French nation was not involved in that; nor was the Republic’?  Did they all come from Mars?  Have you heard a Russian say that it was not Russia that invaded Afghanistan – it was the Soviet Union.)

On the one hand, Michelet dislikes Robespierre for the lack of that ‘kindness which befits heroes’; on the other hand, the moderates, who literally lost their heads, lacked ‘that relentless severity which it seemed that the hour required.’  Only seemed, Professor?  When people walk on egg-shells like that, they are protecting someone.

And the treacly chauvinism – no, imperialism – defies the patience of the Dutchman.

France the country of action.  Love of conquest?  No, proselytism.  What France wants above all is to impose her personality upon the vanquished, not because it is hers, but because she holds the naïve conviction [yes, naïve conviction] that it represents the type of the good and the beautiful.  She believes that she can render to the world no greater benefit than by presenting it with her ideas, her manners, and her fashions.

Professor Geyl feared that the cult of the Revolutionary tradition may even now be a danger in the hands of propagandists of absolutist politics.  ‘It began with the detestable league against Justice entered into by army and church in the Dreyfus affair.’  I agree, and very many otherwise decent French people then averted their gaze to save the honour of France, but then I look down at the footnote.  ‘I must apologise for speaking the language of the supporters of Dreyfus, in which the personifying metaphors undeniably have the usual effect of effacing transitionary shadings or exceptions.’  It is very, very rare, is it not, to find a professional man apologising for dropping his professional guard?

There are four papers on Arnold Toynbee – but we have seen enough to gauge the quality of this fine book.  Professor Geyl represents something very, very fine about the European tradition.  He came from a nation that holds some of the title deeds of western civilization, to adopt a phrase of Churchill’s, a nation renowned for its tolerance.  His was a Europe that had just been convulsed in an appalling war, for the second time in a little more than a generation, but this historian is able to analyse its history in a way that does great honour to his calling.  In those essays, he had defended one German historian charged with being a step-ladder for the Nazis, and he had sought to understand what he saw as the ‘catastrophes’ that had befallen both France and Germany in different centuries and with different dictators.

I mentioned that Geyl had spent some time in Germany and that he wrote the Dutch version of the Talleyrand essay during the German occupation of Holland.  For thirteen months, Pieter Geyl, even then a most distinguished Dutch historian, had been kept at a place that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago.  Its emblem was Jedem das Seine, ‘To Each his Own’.  We know it under a name of unspeakable horror – Buchenwald.

On his release from Buchenwald, Geyl was kept in a Dutch prison by the Germans until the end of the war.  And, yet, in the period following that war, he was able to write about Europe, and the world at large, in the terms that I have indicated.  This, surely, was a colossal achievement, and one that humbles us.  Professor Geyl has produced work that helps us come to terms with our humanity, and that is I think the proper purpose of the world of learning, or, as I would prefer to say, men and women of letters.  Or as A J P Taylor is quoted as saying in the blurb on this book, ‘Geyl is one of the few living men whose writings make us feel that Western civilisation still exists.’

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – Part II

Part 2

The historical and contemporary comparisons with Cade and the mountebank of Sir Lewis Namier are obvious from these remarks of that most formidable historian.

They thought that because he [Napoleon]  was intellectually their inferior, they would be able to run him or get rid of him; the German conservatives – Junkers, industrialists, generals, Nationalists – thought the same about Hitler.  [And the Italians thought the same about Mussolini.] ….Self-expression, self-glorification and self-commemoration are one motive…..The careers of Napoleon III and Hitler have shown how far even a bare minimum of ideas and resources, when backed by a nation’s reminiscences or passions, can carry a man in the political desert of direct democracy’…..There was in him [Napoleon III] a streak of vulgarity.  He was sensual, dissolute, undiscriminating in his love affairs: his escapades were a form of escapism, a release…He talked high and vague idealism, uncorrelated to his actions.  He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star.  Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.

That is not just a comparison – it is a word perfect portrait.

So, there in that very early play (Henry VI, Part II), we get chapter and verse on the worst kind of populist.  It may look to be shockingly overdone – until we recall those regimes of terror that I have referred to – and, for that matter, if we just look round about us now.  The populist is considered more clinically in later plays.

Everyone is familiar with the speech of Antony when he came to bury Caesar.  And for all of its devilishly sinister appeal, it is pure political duplicity.  Antony expressly repudiates undertakings given to that prince of naivety named Brutus.  It is a wonderful speech.  Brando relished every syllable.  But we get the highest form of political theatre immediately before and after the speech.  When Antony has to confront the murderers he has to walk on eggshells.  The nobles may be politically backward, but they have the power, and it takes peerless judgment on the part of Antony to get the chance to swing people gainst the status quo.  This is theatre at its highest.  As is the scene that immediately follows the big speech.  (It is remarkable that some productions leave on or other out.)

Here, then, is how our playwright shows the reaction of the mob, which is wonderfully played with diverse English accents on the Argo CD.  Act 3, Scene 3, in its entirety is as follows:

Cinna:                     I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, And things unluckily charge my fantasy. I have no will to wander forth of doors, Yet something leads me forth.

First Plebeian:       What is your name?

Second Plebeian:   Whither are you going?

Third Plebian:        Where do you dwell?

Fourth Plebeian:   Are you a married man or a bachelor?

Second Plebeian:   Answer every man directly.

First Plebeian:       Ay, and briefly.

Fourth Plebeian:   Ay, and wisely.

Third Plebeian:      Ay, and truly, you were best.

Cinna:                     What is my name?  Whither am I going?  Where do I dwell? Am I married man or a bachelor?  Then, to answer every man directly and briefly, wisely and truly: wisely I say, I am a bachelor.

Second Plebeian:   That’s as much as to say, they are fools that marry: you’ll bear

me a bang for that, I fear. Proceed directly.

Cinna:                     Directly, I am going to Caesar’s funeral.

First Plebeian:       As a friend or an enemy?

Cinna:                     As a friend.

Second Plebeian:   That matter is answered directly.

Fourth Plebeian:   For your dwelling, briefly.

Cinna:                     Briefly, I dwell by the Capitol.

Third Plebeian:      Your name, sir, truly.

Cinna:                     Truly, my name is Cinna.

First Plebeian:       Tear him to pieces!  He’s a conspirator.

Cinna:                     I am Cinna the poet!  I am Cinna the poet!

Fourth Plebeian:   Tear him for his bad verses!  Tear him for his bad verses!

Cinna:                     I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Plebeian:   It is no matter, his name’s Cinna pluck but his name out of his

heart, and turn him going.

Third Plebeian:      Tear him, tear him!  [They attack him.]  Come, brands, ho!

Firebrands!  To Brutus’, to Cassius’! Burn all! Some to Decius’ house, and some to Casca’s; some to Ligarius’! Away, go!

Now you know what a lynch mob looks like.  It is a complete denial of humanity.

In Coriolanus, we are in the middle of the class war that disfigured the republic of Rome for centuries.  The tribunes are the representatives of the people – the lower orders.  The tribunes might for some resemble officials of a punchy trade union.  (Do you wonder what the word ‘militant’ might mean in this context?)  They are a very cold self-preserving cadre of string-pullers and puppeteers.

SICINIUS

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t…(2.1.232-237.

 

SICINIUS

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people—…..(2.1.259 – 261)

It matters not the ‘soaring insolence’ of Coriolanus is more than matched by that of the tribunes.

SICINIUS

What is the city but the people?

Citizens

True,
The people are the city.(3.1.198-199)

The conflict becomes electric when a plebeian uses a verb in the imperative mood to a noble.  This is too much for Coriolanus who explodes.

SICINIUS

It is a mind
That shall remain a poison where it is,
Not poison any further.

CORIOLANUS

Shall remain!
Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you
His absolute ‘shall’?  (3.1.88ff)

But this mob is as fickle as that of Cade.  When the tide turns, they compete with each other to see who can turn tail the fastest.

First Citizen

For mine own part,
When I said, banish him, I said ’twas pity.

Second Citizen

And so did I.

Third Citizen

And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very
many of us: that we did, we did for the best; and
though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet
it was against our will.
(4.6.140-146)

When it comes to politics, then, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 7

 

[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.]

CULTURE AND VALUES

Ludwig Wittgenstein

University of Chicago Press, 1977; rebound.

The father of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father was a wealthy Jewish wool merchant from Hesse.   He converted to Christianity – of the Protestant variety – and married the daughter of a Viennese banker.  Their son Karl was well educated but took off for America while still a youth.  He returned to Vienna, studied engineering, made a fortune and became one of the leading industrialists of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His wife Leopoldine was also the daughter of a banker. She loved music, as her son Ludwig was to do.  Brahms and Mahler regularly visited the family.  She was Catholic, and Ludwig was brought up as a Catholic.

Karl had the children taught at home until they were fourteen.  When Ludwig left school he was not qualified to go to university.  He was sent to a technical school in Berlin.  He did not like it there, but he got an interest in aeronautical engineering which he decided to pursue at Manchester University. This is not blue ribbon stuff for high scholarship.

Wittgenstein actually played with the beginnings of jet engines, but his interest in engineering led to mathematics and then to philosophy.   Wittgenstein read the Principia Mathematica of Bertrand Russell and in 1907 Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to study with Russell. He spent only five terms there, but that was enough. Wittgenstein enlisted for the Army of Austria in World War I.  At the end of the war, he gave his share of the family fortune to his brothers and sisters.  They were able to use their wealth to escape being murdered by the Nazis.

Wittgenstein appears to have remained deeply spiritual all his life.  Such a war as the one he fought in must have etched all kinds of things on a mind like Wittgenstein’s.  He was taken prisoner for a time and he had in his kit the manuscript of what would be his first book, Tractatus – Logico Politicus.   He taught at a school for a while and again thought of becoming a monk.  He tried his hand at building design before returning to Cambridge in 1929. He got a Ph.D. – which Oxford and Cambridge looked down on then – for his Tractatus.  He did not enjoy university life.  His rooms at Cambridge were like barracks.  He did not have a single book, painting, photo, or reading lamp.  He sat on a wooden chair and he wrote on a card table.  There were two canvas chairs and a fire-safe for his manuscripts.  This room served as study and class-room.  He kept a cotton stretcher in the second room.

People were rarely neutral about Wittgenstein. They either loved him or they seriously disliked him.  He was about five feet six inches tall, had given up wearing a tie long ago, and had a gaze with the same transfixing power as that of one of his primary school classmates, Adolf Hitler.

Wittgenstein served his acquired home in the Second World War in hospitals – he had become a British national  After it, he developed what would now be called a cult following.   After a short visit to the United States in 1949 he learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady. Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers. That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity.

Wittgenstein believed that the essence of religion lay in feelings and action rather than beliefs.  The book called Culture and Value is a collection of notes kept as a form of Commonplace Book by Wittgenstein from 1914 to 1951.  It contains observations on music and on the limitation of thought as well as religion.

What is good is also divine.  Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.  Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.

You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other.  The good is outside the space of facts.

This book [Philosophical Remarks] is written for those who are in sympathy with the spirit in which it is written.  This is not, I believe, the spirit of the main current of European and American civilisation.  The spirit of this civilisation makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author.

I am sure Bruckner composed just by imaging the sound of the orchestra in his head, Brahms with pen on paper.  Of course this is an over-simplification.  But it does highlight one feature.

What would it feel like not to have heard of Christ?

Religion as madness is a madness springing from irreligiousness.

Reading the Socratic Dialogues one has the feeling, what a frightful waste of time!  What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?

Amongst ‘Jews’, ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.  Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented.  (Myself for instance.)

The strength of the thoughts in Brahms’ music.

The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospel seems to have froth on it in Paul’s Epistles.  Or that is how it seems to me.  Perhaps it is just my own impurity ….  But to me it’s as though I saw human passion here, something like pride or anger, which is not in tune with the humility of the Gospels.   All I want to ask – and may this be no blasphemy:  what might Christ have said to Paul? A fair rejoinder to that would be:  what business is that of yours?  In the Gospels – as it seems to me – everything is less pretentious, humbler, simpler.  There you find huts, and poor [the poor in] church. There all men are equal and God himself was a man; in Paul there is already something like a hierarchy;  honours and official positions – that is, as it were, what my ‘nose’ tells me.

For instance, at my level the Pauline doctrine of predestination is ugly nonsense, irreligiousness.

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says:  now believe!  But not believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, but rather:  believe, through thick and thin, which you can only do as the result of a life.  Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives!  Make a quite different place in your life for it.  There is nothing paradoxical about that!

Queer as it sounds:  the historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this:  not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believing it (i.e. lovingly).  That is the certainty characterising this particular acceptance – as true, not something else.

One might say:  ‘Genius is talent exercised with courage’.

We could also say:  ‘Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other.  Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.

I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a ‘creator of language’ rather than a poet?  I can only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.

A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists.  But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.  Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way.  So, if you want to stay within the religious sphere you must struggle.

These are the limits that a great thinker put on the power of his mind when it comes to God (and music). These jottings of Wittgenstein may remind many people of the thinking of God of another great German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   What we have here is not just the humility of knowledge, but its distilled wisdom.  In his Commonplace Book, Bonhoeffer had written: ‘Spinoza:  Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.’

 

Passing Bull 236–Other causes

 

In a book about how to think and how to write (as yet unpublished) Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I said:

One form of fallacy recurs all the time in political argument.  ‘The State should not worry about the welfare of children being brought up by same‑sex parents – just look at the mess that so many heterosexual parents make of bringing up their own children.’  ‘Don’t worry about dying of lung cancer from smoking – you can just as easily die from heart or liver failure from drinking.’  If the argument is that it is good to avoid harm of a certain kind flowing from one kind of conduct or cause, it is immaterial to that argument whether the same or a similar kind of harm may flow from another kind of conduct or cause.  One of the arguments against the English abolishing slavery was that if the English did not do it, others would.  Coal miners say that if we don’t dig it up, others will.  When you state the position like this, the argument is obviously a fallacy – but you hear it all the time. 

It is astonishing to see how many people pursue this fallacy with a view to putting economics above people with Cofid-19.  We are solemnly told more people die in car accidents or, in the States, by gunshot wounds.  It is worse than astonishing – it is revolting.

Bloopers

Regarding the decision to block Fauci from appearing in Congress, a White House spokesman, Judd Deere, said: “While the Trump administration continues its whole-of-government response to Covid-19, including safely opening up America again and expediting vaccine development, it is counterproductive to have the very individuals involved in those efforts appearing at congressional hearings.

“We are committed to working with Congress to offer testimony at the appropriate time.”

An unnamed senior administration official told the Washington Post the White House was “not muzzling” Fauci, because he is expected at a Senate hearing about testing the following week.

The Australian, 4 May 2020.

And they will continue that whole-of-government response by getting rid of the Task Force, that is, people who know what they are doing and who are not dishonest.

Here and there – but the centre did hold

 

Well now, you have every right to complain about the way I bang on about labels, or the repetition of that line that labels are what you put on soup cans.  My only excuse is that I keep getting provoked.  A lot of the labels get rolled out in what are called ‘culture wars’, and I gather that a female civil servant is about to get what my father called ‘the rounds of the kitchen’ for a remark about Captain Cook that reminded me of a wonderful line from a lecture in Cambridge.  It was to the effect that those who sailed from England as part of the empire were ‘water-borne parasites’.  That truly was a line for the ages.

The word ‘socialist’ is still loaded in America.  Well, they do things differently there.  But what use can we make of it here and now?  We believe, and we have believed since well before I was born, that it is the business of the State to deal with the sick, the aged, and the unemployed.  The phrase ‘the business of the State’ comes from Lloyd George.  He and Winston Churchill introduced the welfare state to England in 1909.  We have followed them.  Since we no longer organise our primary production through state owned corporations, what work is there left for the term ‘socialism’ in Australia?  That question may be more pointed during a pandemic, when even the most entrenched ideologues are begging the State to do all that it can to look after them.

The English don’t often say that they are following in the steps of others, but in 1909, they looked at what Bismarck had done in Germany.  Could it possibly be the case that the Iron Chancellor, the man of blood and iron, that fierce Prussian conservative, was in any way, much less in a liberal way, ahead of England?

I have mused on this question reading a book on Bismarck written by a Fellow of All Souls in 1920 by C. Grant Robertson.  That was an interesting time to publish a book about the man who unified Germany, but it has the advantage of being written when major events were within living memory.

Socialism was a fraught term in Germany in and after 1870.  Germany was the birthplace of Karl Marx, and his teaching was anathema to Prussian Junckers like Bismarck.  The Germans passed a law against them in 1870.  Socialists could be banished from their homes.  Mr Robertson offered some acute observations.

But the National Liberals by their action threw the earth on their own coffin.  The program of Social Democracy has always terrified middle class Liberalism more than any other party…..When National Liberalism had ceased to exist as a solid phalanx the way would be open for a reactionary Conservatism.  National Liberalism was to learn the wholesale lesson that when parties prefer tactics to principles and opportunism to conviction, the funeral service with their antagonist as the officiating minister is at hand.

All Souls is special, but do not these words, written more than a century ago, throw a frightening light on the United States of today?

Mr Robertson went on to remark that ‘Criticism that is successful is always ‘offensive’ to autocrats and bureaucrats.’  (And, Boy! do we not see that every day in Washington?)  And, of course, the Social Democrats thrived under persecution.

So, how did the man of iron, by far the leading statesman in the entire world then, respond?  He engaged in a huge program of reform in a nation that had just been just born and for a people not renowned for radicalism.  Every part had to be fought over hard, not least the comprehensive legislative code creating for the industrial workers compulsory insurance by the State against accidents and sickness, and establishing old-age pensions.

The broad result of these nine years of feverish effort and strenuous controversy was completely to alter the economic and political structure of Germany….But he [Bismarck] was a realist and opportunist and he recognised that change must continually be taking place….The problem was essentially one of political judgment, knowledge, delicacy of method, and elastic adaptability – a perpetual compromise which conceded details but never allowed fundamentals to be questioned or weakened…A Conservatism that lacked the political instinct and the true political judgment was as useless as….Socialism…

Mr Robertson went on to say that in one sense every act of a State is ‘socialistic’, and that ‘bargaining over principles is always a failure.’

Hence coalitions in a country where party systems rest on principles are usually failures, and always hated by the country as a whole. But bargaining over interests is simply an affair of political and economic arithmetic.

So, what did that arithmetic suggest?  The socialists might sulk and call this ‘bastard Socialism,’ but – and this is what it’s all about – ‘Bismarck’s ‘socialistic’ policy was the minimum of blackmail that the ruling classes would pay in order to strengthen their own political power.’

That rings dead true.  It’s about politics, numbers and not dreams, dear boy, so shut up, and eat your sauerkraut.

So, when you ask if America is about one and a half centuries behind, say, Germany, here is what Herr Otto von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenberg and Prince of Bismarck, told the German people way back in 1884.

Give the working man the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, and assure him maintenance when he is old.  If you do that and do not fear the sacrifice, or cry out at State Socialism – if the State will show a more Christian solicitude for the working man, then I believe that the gentlemen of the Social-Democratic program will sound their bird calls in vain…..Yes, I acknowledge unconditionally a right to work, and I will stand up for it as long as I am in this place.

Heavens above!  Can you imagine the bird calls – the shrieks, even – coming out of that house of all labels, the Institute of Public Affairs?  To see just how awful it may be, you need to conjure up an image of the eternal victim – the ‘terrified middle class Liberalism.’