The dreamtime of a ghost-seer – I

A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot

Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn

I

‘Shifty’ may just be the best word for it.  The Cardinal has the power of the Inquisition, but the exercise of that power haunts him.  What happens if that power gets to be used against him?  He is both suspicious and suspect.  Every revolution brings the risk of a counter-revolution.  In the result, El Greco brings you face to face with the magic of art – there is something there that commands our attention, but which we cannot adequately spell out in words.  What, if any, is the difference between this inquisitor and a Communist commissar?  Has this sometime holy man sold out to Mephistopheles?  El Greco is one of my favourite painters.  He comes down to me like Turner – just so far ahead of his time.  His shimmering images reflect the edginess of faith.  But if he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation, what was he doing by investing a prince of the Church with a pained countenance of doubt, if not downright guilt?  I have seen and I am moved by the paintings by El Greco of Christ dealing with the money lenders at the National Gallery in London and the Met in New York.  For me, they are like Mozart in oils on canvass.  (And did El Greco really use his mistress as a model for the Madonna?)  Well, shifty is the word comes to mind whenever I see Vladimir Putin.  It is just as well that he never set out his stall as a used car dealer.

*

Princess Park, the home of Carlton, was, I thought, different as a footy ground for being reputed to be larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  I have a reasonable recollection of John Lord, a solid six footer who wore number 4 for the Demons (the Melbourne Football Club), kicking a goal from a set shot from inside what would now be the centre square through the goal at the east end – with a drop kick!  Unbelievable.  I think this was in 1965.  (About a generation later, Malcolm Blight would become famous for kicking a goal after the bell at the other end of the ground – from a point not far from the centre of the ground.  Like a certain paint product, it just kept on keeping on.)  The significance of 1965 is that this was the first time Melbourne had met Carlton since Barassi switched from Melbourne to Carlton.  They had won six premierships under Norm Smith before the old brigade at the MCC decided to sack him.  The Demons have not won a flag since then – it is like the curse that descended on the Red Sox – the Demons are the Redlegs –when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  For people of my generation, the move of Barassi to another club entailed a frightful loss of innocence – and an end to the simple loyalty of boyhood and youth.  God only know what we may have done had he gone to Collingwood.  We had had to endure a similar challenge to faith when national heroes of tennis – like Hoad and Rosewall after Sedgman and McGregor– turned pro.  The Davis Cup was tarnished.  We felt diminished – sold out.  We would feel a worse sense of national betrayal when we learned that our government had taken us to war under false pretences.  Twice.

*

My cooking can, I think, fairly be described as Socratic.  That is, I have a profound grasp of my own limitations and failings.  I therefore stick with the tried and the simple.  A friend told me that the first time he tried a béarnaise sauce was the night a well-known cooking identity came to her place for dinner.  That could not happen to me.  For the most part, I only serve meals for guests that I have prepared a day or so beforehand.  Like lamb shanks or ox-tail slow cooked in a low oven in the French blue Le Creuset pot that is an essential part of my life and not just its furniture.  There is somethinguplifting about taking the pot from the oven and lifting the lid and savouring the effect of the heat, the herbs and the wine on the meat on the bone.  Do vegetarians really want to go without this?  The trickiest thing I do is a cassoulet.  Depending on the season, you may find it hard to get one nowadays in Paris.  It was I think Julian Burnside who said that mine was the best he had had south of Lyons.  Well, from a given point in the evening dinner, barristers are prone to a certain level of romance.

*

Wittgenstein said: ‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’  What if he was right?  Well, as I suspect Wittgenstein may have said: In order to consider that question, you would have to ask what was meant by the terms ‘Christianity’ and ‘the truth’.  Neither question is small.

*

We got to Tel Aviv at dusk and took a car to Jerusalem so that we arrived at the King David Hotel in darkness.  We got up the next morning, took breakfast with the big Jewish mommas and some revolting milk, and asked the cab driver to take us to Gethsemane.  (Can you blaspheme by giving directions to a cab driver?)  I looked out the window and saw the parapets of what looked like a castle wall.  I immediately thought: ‘Look – there is King David’s city.’  The recognition was instantaneous, but it came from nowhere.  It was an unnerving case of déjà vu.  It is curious that I get the same feeling at St James’ Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and Central Park in New York.  They are all names to conjure with, but I get an odd sense of belonging to each when I go into it.  Each is like a beating heart to what is deservedly known as one of the great cities of the world.  For some reason, I do not get the same reaction at the Tuileries in Paris, although my reading probably takes me more often to them than the others.  But to return to the cab driver in Jerusalem, at least when I was there those cabbies were reputed to be rapacious – as some that I found in Rio or Prague.  Which reminds me of the time when Gavin Forrest, a partner of mine, and I took a client to lunch at the Melbourne Club.  He was a charming man – a German lawyer working for a very big Japanese company.  Naturally, we joked about not mentioning the war.  We were later joined by a partner, Charles Brett, who was not a party to that preparation in etiquette.  Something came up about foreign cabbies and I mentioned the trouble I had had at Prague, Rio and Jerusalem.  Charles said: ‘Do you know that there is a hotel in Paris that some cabbies will not go to?’  ‘No – why is that, Charles?’  ‘The Lutetia.  It was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war.’  Well, there you go.  Your whole life until then flashes before your eyes, and you hope that your frozen wide-eyed immobility masks the fearful din within.  Eat your heart out, John Cleese.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 15

[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.]

Eichmann in Jerusalem,

A Report on the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt

Penguin, rebound in slip case.

This book was first published in 1963.  It was serialised in The New Yorker.  In it,Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key participant in the Final Solution.  Arendt was a German Jewess of great learning who had fled from Nazi Germany, and Vichy France, and had become something of a rarity in the West – a respected intellectual.  The book is obviously the work of a very fine mind, but its publication caused great controversy – and grief within the Jewish community.  Some said that Arendt was too judgmental and insensitive – especially about the role of Jewish people in their own immolation.  But a huge controversy erupted, and can still be felt, about the subtitle – ‘the banality of evil.’

When Arendt arrived and first looked at the accused, she felt a kind of shock.  The ‘man in the glass booth’ was nicht einmal unheimlich, ‘not even sinister’ – certainly not inhuman or beyond comprehension.  She began to experience what she would later call her cura posterior, her cure after the event.  Her very astute biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, says:

Many people who read her five article series in the New Yorker – and many more who heard about the series secondhand – concluded that Hannah Arendt was soulless, or that she lacked what Gershom Scholem called Herzenstakt, sympathy.  They thought that Arendt felt no emotional involvement with the fate of her people.  She, on the other hand, thought that she had been finally cured of the kind of emotional involvement that precludes good judgment.

Well, her awakening may not have been as blinding as that of Saint Paul or Martin Luther, but she certainly blew the fuses of many people who were open to the suggestion that they were subject to ‘the kind of emotional involvement which precludes good judgment.’

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. 

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

But the suggestion that the war criminal was ‘normal’ was hardly novel.  In looking at reigns of terror during or after the French and Russian revolutions, historians have struggled to understand how ‘ordinary people’ can become mass murderers.  In a book first published in 1941 (The Year of the Terror, Twelve Who Ruled France, 1793-1794, 3rd Ed., 220), the American historian R R Palmer made this observation about Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat-load in the Vendée, and who after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

In what way, if any, was Carrier morally different to Eichmann?  As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

We might also reflect on what Berthold Brecht said of Hitler (in his notes to The Resistible Rise of the Man Arturo Ui, also published in 1941):

The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.  They are not great political criminals, but people who committed great political crimes, which is something entirely different.  The failure of his enterprises does not indicate that Hitler was an idiot and the extent of his enterprises does not make him a great man.  If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history.  That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook, and that what he does has great consequences, does not add to his stature….One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.

These are vital questions.  (And they bear on at least one prominent crook in the U S today.)  But, you might ask, what branch of human knowledge was Carrier, Brecht or Arendt invoking.  Tucked away in a footnote near the end of the biography of Young-Bruehl, we find that in his book Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974) the psychologist Stanley Milgram said:

After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth that one might dare imagine.  This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

For myself, I don’t know how anyone looking at the mass murders in various reigns of terror can come to a different conclusion.  These regimes have awful corrupting power, but when Arendt saw Eichmann in the flesh, she thought that she had overrated the impact of ideology on the individual.  The conclusion of Arendt about Eichmann looks to me to be consistent with the insight of Carlyle on the worst excesses of the French Terror:

What, then, is this Thing called La Révolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading [drowning], fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins?…..It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.  In this man, it is, and in that man; as a rage, or as a terror, it is in all men.  Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be truer reality. 

After recounting how the French Terror extracted goods to trade in from its dead victims (such as using the skins of the guillotined to produce chamois or their hair to produce wigs), so prefiguring the horror of the Nazis, Carlyle said:

Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

Many good judges wonder what is the point or moral basis of our whole criminal justice system.  What does punishment achieve?  Who but God could aspire to measure it fairly?  Arendt felt the same doubts.  According to her biographer, ‘she did not abandon her opinion that extreme evil, whether thought of as radical or banal, is unpunishable and unforgivable.’  The person she sought to untangle this with was W H Auden.

It is in my view very dangerous to try to come to grips with the greatest lapses in the history of mankind by suggesting that somehow some inherent characteristic of either the evil-doers or their victims was in some way a cause of the relevant crime against humanity.  Saying that some people are marked by birth as different to other people is in my view as close as we can get to the notion of original sin.  And Hannah Arendt was far too acute to think that labels help.

You know that the left think I am conservative and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or a maverick or God knows what.  And I must say I couldn’t care less.  I don’t think the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination from this kind of thing.

Passing Bull 247 – Management speak

A company called Cleanaway Waste Management said this of its CEO, Mr Bansal:

The board of Cleanaway takes allegations of misconduct in the workplace very seriously.  Mr Bansal had some issues with overly assertive behaviour in the workplace and has acknowledged that he needed to address them.  The board is disappointed in the circumstances but has taken appropriate action.  We have noted the committed and sincere manner in which Mr Bansal has responded.  The board will not tolerate any further instances of unacceptable conduct.

After the board was advised of claims made about workplace behaviours involving Mr Bansal, a thorough independent investigation was conducted into the issues raised.  Following this investigation, the board implemented a range of measures including executive leadership mentoring, enhanced reporting and monitoring of the CEO’s conduct.  Mr Bansal has acknowledged that his behaviour should have been better and expressed contrition.  He has discussed this openly with the board and with his colleagues and has embraced changes in his approach.

Mr Bansal said:

I accept the feedback and remain to totally committed to creating a progressive culture at Cleanaway while executing on our strategy and delivering ongoing financial performance.

(The Australian, 15 September, 2020)

The outsider might ask: ‘What the hell was all that about?’  The lawyer might ask: ‘If these statements were made purportedly pursuant to some legal imperative, what is it that triggers the requirement of something being noted pursuant to that imperative, and do these utterances fulfil any such obligation?’  And their author might be informed that for some, including this newspaper, ‘progressive’ is a term of abuse.

Passing Bull 246 – Betting

The Financial Times carried a report:

The Japanese conglomerate had been snapping up options in tech stocks during the past month in huge amounts, fuelling the largest ever trading volumes in contracts linked to individual companies, these people said. One banker described it as a ‘dangerous’ bet.

Most forms of investment involve laying out money in the hope that you will be better off for having done so.  To that extent, investing may be said to involve betting.  If instead of putting my cash under the bed, I deposit it with the bank, I am hoping that the bank will repay that deposit on demand with interest.  I am betting that the bank will not run out of money before I make that call.  If instead of depositing the money as a customer and lender, I buy shares in the bank, I am making a forecast, and backing it up with money, that the bank will carry on business at a level of profit that will give me a greater return on my money as a shareholder than it would give to me as a customer and depositor.  That after all must be the premise on which the directors of the bank manage its business.  Their job is to run the business so that it gives a better return to its shareholders and investors than it gives to its depositors and customers.  That is the very essence of the business.  And most people understand that the greater the rate of return you get, the greater is the risk you take.  So, any investing can be seen as a type of betting.  It is therefore hardly illuminating to describe investing as betting.  It’s a bit like saying that a dog is canine.  But the word ‘dangerous’ does add something.  This bet is thought to carry more risk, and presumably therefore a higher rate of return.

As it happens, the press this morning carried a report that Tom Waterhouse – of betting on horse-racing fame – is going into the business of investing in the stock market – he will have ‘funds under management’ of companies involved in gaming.  If you choose to invest in those funds, you might be looking at three levels of betting.  The first level consists of the gaming companies Mr Waterhouse invests in making a profit; the second consists of Mr Waterhouse making a profit; and the third consists of your ending up better off with this form of investment compared to others. 

There are epithets for those who pursue the last line of investment.  ‘Credulous’ is one of the more polite epithets.  And that’s before you ask if the house always wins or that the business of Mr Waterhouse is likely to be structured on the premise that he gets more out of it than you will.

Bloopers

Trump is a hot but threatening politician, exuding a primitive albeit vicious power.  Biden, by contrast, is a cool politician, a decent man, but, compared with Trump, he looks weak, even fragile.  This election is a civil war over what constitutes virtue.

The Australian, 2 September, 2020, Paul Kelly

The last politician I can think of who used the word ‘virtue’ in  a political context was Robespierre – and he did not meet a good end.  But if this election is between a man who is decent and one who is not, ‘virtue’ could know only one winner.  You might get more sense from Superman.

Passing Bull 246 – Idolatry

Trump’s most devastating line: ‘No one will be safe in Joe Aiden’s America.’  This echoed Pence’s killer line from the night before: ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.’

The Weekend Australian, 29-30 August 2020, Greg Sheridan

The article was captioned: ‘Normalised’ Trump flicks switch to discipline and leaves Biden looking weak. 

Speeches by Donald Trump and Mike Pence marked a very effective Republican convention.

What you got in this Republican convention was a normalised Trump, disciplined and effective, and a normalised Republican Party.

The Australian is on par with Fox News.