Here and there – Further thoughts on our present discontents

Generalisations are sloppy, but we do see a malaise in both the U S and the U K that might fairly be described as shocking.  The moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party has been appalling, but I wonder if the acquiescence of so many English people in the gross misdeeds of Boris Johnson leaves them much better off. 

It is a very close run thing about which of Trump and Johnson is the more unfit for high office.  If a majority of Republicans believe that the Democrats stole the election – which is the equivalent of saying that the earth is flat – then the problems with the American education system are a lot worse than we thought.  But then a frightening number of those in Congress are committed to the literal truth of the book of Genesis – which is like saying there is no H or O in water.  And their policy in the Middle East is in some part driven by religious zealots called ‘evangelicals.’  Their contribution to world peace is roughly equivalent to that of the Crusaders – they got their eye in for massacring Muslims by massacring Jews en route. 

How the better people of England – or those that see themselves as such – contemplate the obvious failings of Boris Johnson is beyond me.  He surely could not pass muster for the sturdy readers of Country Life.  It will not have escaped your notice that the worst failures have taken place in those parties that used to call themselves ‘Conservatives.’

Johnson and Trump have at least two things in common.  They thrive on chaos; it follows that each of them gets very uneasy if government does its job and the community is stable.  And each cannot sustain the faith of a wife, but expects to sustain the faith of a nation.  How either could expect anyone who can read or write to believe him is a question that might fairly be put to God.

Not many professors of politics at Manchester University would be card carrying Conservatives.  In Reckless Opportunists, Elites at the end of the Establishment, Aeron Davis gives us fair warning of the direction of the breeze on the first page of chapter 1:

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the leaders of the successful leave campaign, having stabbed Cameron in the back, then stabbed each other.

That looks transcendentally true to me, but I expect that the ‘chaps’ would be expected to apply a gloss – or, in Milton’s language, they could ‘gloze’ like the tempter – the snake in the grass.  But the author does lay out a handy check list of the symptoms of the illness that is infecting England – and, in one form or another, us and others.

Politicians appear to be willing to sacrifice everything to please themselves and to satisfy their own ambition.  ‘All others looked on hopelessly as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson took on David Cameron and George Osborne.  Nothing else mattered more than gaining power over the party – not the voters, not Britain, and not even the party itself.’  Animal acts were committed in public – so reminding us of the observation of Donald Trump about his shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. 

People rightly wondered if David Cameron stood for anything – ‘beyond classic Thatcherism delivered in New Labour–type packaging’ – dolled up by Saatchi and Saatchi.  Cameron looked to me just like Hillary Clinton – they both wanted the job for the same reason that people climb Everest.  Corbyn was instantly recognisable by all Australians – an old time Labor hack devoutly pure, utterly unelectable, and sublimely unfazed by either proposition – a pale old ghost sleep-walking to oblivion.  His type turned Australia into a one party state for thirty years after the last world war.  

Mrs Thatcher is widely loathed.  So is Tony Blair.  If you cross those two off, what is left after Churchill?  Blair is special on three counts.  He has raw animal charm – like Clinton; people were beguiled in the presence of this Western Dalai Lama.  He betrayed his class and then his party.  And he lied his way into war. 

Blair and Cameron did have a lot in common.  Both refashioned their parties to become election winners.  Both were more interested in party management and playing the statesman than policy development.  Both tried to secure the fabled ‘centre ground’.  Both came to spend more time with big funders, media moguls, campaign experts and the more exclusive parts of the Westminster Village than they did their MPs or ordinary supporters.  And in making themselves and their parties ‘winners’, they jettisoned traditional members, voters and core ideologies…The consequences of reinventing themselves as election winners, rather than representative parties, have been predictable.  …the figures for ‘trust’ in politicians and established ‘party identification’ have also continued to decline steadily.  Long-established loyalties to parties have been broken as electoral volatility has grown enormously.

That looks word for word true for us down here.  Who believes that the Liberal or Labor Party here really stands for anything – much less something that separates it from the other, or the ‘centre’, or the prognostications of the guru, or the resident psephology wizard?  Has it all not become just a tedious game of charades played before a bored gallery?

The permanent, independent civil service has been disembowelled.  ‘Traditional functions were outsourced to quangos and opaque multinationals.  With each of these steps, objectivity, impartiality, public accountability and service has been eroded further.’  The civil service is half what it was when Mrs Thatcher came to power.  The loss of respect and direction could be seen when the confusion of the states’ and federal coronavirus response made its masterpiece. 

The author heads this section ‘Civil servants outsource democracy.’  An essential part of the Westminster model has been trashed and we are now confronted by cadres of unworldly acolytes lining up for their go at the greasy pole.  Just as corporates have lost their corporate memory, so have government departments.  And instead of getting short, blunt advice from a trusted adviser of long standing, corporate and government managers resort to panels of advisers who are intent on humouring the client and protecting their bums with windy and glossy folderol that goes nowhere.

We are infatuated with wealth and ‘wealth creators’.  ‘Chief executives are more highly rewarded for raising share prices, cutting jobs, and exploiting monopolies, rather than innovating and making long-term investments.  And the new emerging industries of the hi-tech and gig economies make a lot more money by employing less people and avoiding taxes.’  Fund managers compete for the biggest returns and bonuses lock short-termism into the business cycle.  The individual investor – the Mum and Dad investor – is simply irrelevant.  

Trust in the press is at an all-time low.  Cost cutting has hit journalism hard and the author finds that ‘PR was becoming a very useful means for journalists needing to cut corners in a hurry.’  We get a well deserved raspberry.  ‘In the 2005-9 World Values Survey, the UK had the second lowest trust rating of the countries surveyed (the lowest was Australia, where Rupert Murdoch has reigned supreme for decades).’  As if on cue, the present federal government, in conjunction with Rupert Murdoch, wants to castrate the news source, the ABC, that most Australians trust.

And that’s before you look at the way that ‘social media’ is lobotomising minds and manners, and the way that coal interests have bribed enough think tanks, media and politicians to ensure that we do not act rationally to meet the one universal threat of our time.  So that we fire any party leader who gets seriously sane on the subject.  If necessary, twice.  And the world looks down wanly at this sad little duckpond in the Antipodes.  And New Zealanders get tapped on the shoulder and asked if we could borrow their Prime Minister.

And the descendants of convicts and their warders have imported the Eton model in an effort to impart caste and inequality in education, this on the footing that the diaspora clings to shibboleths that have long since faded in the mother country, and a generation that went to university on the free list now makes universities hawk their wares like tarts to foreigners.

Since the white people arrived here in this big and dangerous land, Australians have clung fast to their governments with the clinging attention of a slow, climbing koala.  The myth of the little Aussie battler is just that – moonshine.  In a nation where it is political suicide to suggest any reduction in reliance upon government, the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have signified nothing for generations now.  The term ‘conservative’ has been turned on its head and trashed.  People who acquiesce in the ghastly label ‘progressive’ are at risk of being consigned to effervescence at the margin and being offered up for target practice for the usual suspects at The Weekend Australian.

It’s not pretty – this preference for me to us, and us to them, and now for later.  The result is a falling off of purpose and of trust.  Good football and cricket teams know the rules and consist of players who trust each other.  We are losing that trust, and the upside or answer has yet to present itself.  In many ways we look like a spoiled child.  If so we deserve their paradigms – Trump and Johnson.  God help our future generations – because we aren’t.

Here and there – Thoughts on our present discontents

In The Age, this morning, an article by Peter Hartcher contained two propositions that caught my eye.  One is that the only quarantine station performing as one should in Australia is that which was controlled by the federal government – although it is now handing over control of the facility to the Northern Territory. 

The other is that the current lockdown in Victoria comes from a failure of a hotel quarantine in another state, South Australia (which of course says the system worked as it should; as does the Prime Minister.)  ‘On one occasion, Case B opened his room door to collect his meal; then 18 seconds later, Case A opened his door to collect his meal.  This was during the time Case B was infectious, but prior to staff knowing.’  It looks like ‘adequate ventilation’ had not had time to flush away the virus-laden air exhaled by Case B.  Case A went to Victoria, and we are now shut down again.

On a good day, that might remind us of Groucho Marx before the mirrors in Freedonia in Duck Soup.  But millions of people are hurting, and businesses are going to the wall.  We are taking that pain because the federal government has not taken the lead in quarantine, and because federal and state governments are haggling about the funding of quarantine.  The pandemic is a huge international threat and we have not yet been able to give a coherent national response. 

It is hard to imagine a more serious yet avoidable breakdown of the federal system.  Those responsible for mocking the very idea of responsible government should be deeply ashamed of themselves. 

If our federal government were responsible within the terms of the Westminster system, we would be looking at least one ministerial resignation.  The silence about this issue shows us that that system is dead.  The NSW Government website is sadly out of date.  It states: The convention of the Westminster system is ministerial responsibility, whereby  ministers administer and bear responsibility for the actions of a department or agency within their control.  Nowadays we don’t even get an apology.

On the facing page in The Age, there is an article ‘The purpose of leadership’ by two professors engaged in dealing with infectious diseases.  They say that we need leadership about the importance of airborne transmission and we must have a national approach to quarantine – ‘We can’t have a piecemeal approach to quarantine across the nation; we are obviously all interconnected as luckless Victorians can attest to.’

Each proposition looks spell-bindingly obvious.  What is the alternative?  Communing with God on the Sabbath at Hillsong?

Underneath that article, there is another headed ‘False prophets fail communities.’  The author looks at Joel Fitzgibbon, a text-book Labor rat, and says that ‘Two-faced politics rarely succeeds.’  The author says that ‘Climate action will be the barometer of leadership this decade, the next and the next….leadership requires levelling with people and working out a plan rather than ducking and punting it.’

This too is so obvious.  But Australia responds by firing leaders who are sensible about this and who are prepared to lead.  That’s how this Prime Minister got where he is.  And that too may explain why he is so obviously not up to the job.  Instead we get what Mr Hartcher says is the complacency of the Prime Minister.

Last night I indulged my little luxury of reading – flicking through – Country Life while soaking in the electric blanket on max.  It is a very sound and warming journal.  I do like its politics – it does not appear to have any, a consummation devoutly to be desired.  In October last year, they handed their government what in AFL terms is called a lacing.

This Government’s greatest mistake is to confuse resolve with obstinacy……What the nation feels instinctively is that this is a government out of its depth…At present, however, they’re strong only in their words and there’s little confidence that they will carry those words through to effective action…They insist that their response to the coronavirus crisis is based on the science, but they refuse to detail the expert advice upon which they claim to act.  Trust us, they say, but don’t hold us to account.  Trust depends on being counted…Agovernment should know what it’s about and communicate that understanding to the nation it leads.  The tougher the times, the clearer must be the signal.  That is the lesson Mr Johnson should learn from his hero, Winston Churchill….Trying to justify mistakes, batting off reasonable criticism and refusing to budge when your argument is ill founded – that is all mere obstinacy…We need neither soundbites nor photo opportunities.  We need leadership.

That looks to me almost word perfect for us down here now.  The reference to Churchill reminds us of the Satanic depth of our Fall.  As a friend of mine observes, what would-be leader would now say ‘The news from France is very bad’? 

The federal government has ceded what cannot be called leadership to the states, and empowered their premiers to strut and fret their hour upon the stage – and orchestrate a lethal disunity within the federation.  As best as I can see, the only premier to avoid glutinous vote chasing is Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales.  What a falling off was here.

The malaise of democracy across the world is evidenced by the weary yawns that greeted Dom Cummings’ account of moral mayhem in Downing Street.  Cummings is the ultimate rat and he is loathed with glee.  But Johnson like Trump must be assessed by the company he keeps, and Cummings was certainly correct on one point.  A nation that offers a choice between Jeremy Corbin and Boris Johnson has real problems.

We need not be smug about that.  How much better off are we with a choice between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese?

Our failure to deal with the virus as well as we could have done is a failure within our federal system that we should have avoided.  It confirms that the two party system only works well if the two parties are doing their job.  At the moment, the Liberal and Labor Parties in New South Wales are neck and neck in proving who is the more viciously inept.

And the moral havoc unleashed by Trump in the U S and Johnson in the U K provide Australian politicians with cover to acquiesce in that course of political conduct that has blighted this nation from the start – a cosy acceptance of bland mediocrity.  Under the benign if wan smile of a fading, foreign head of state.

And behind them all lies Rupert Murdoch and his limpid minions lolling about in their very own bought chasm of vacuity.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


PLAYS (circa 410 BC)

The Franklin Library, 1976.  Nine plays, variously translated.  All green leather, gold embossing, humped spine, god leaf, navy moiré and ribbon, etchings by Quentin Fiore.

They died from a disease they caught from their father.  (Medea)

The Australian artist Tim Storrier, two of whose (numbered) works I have at home likes painting fire and water, and the stars and pyramids.  He has, therefore, a taste and feel for the elemental.  So it was with the drama of the ancient Greeks.  It is as black and white as ‘High Noon’, a little like ‘Neighbours’, but up very close, and very in your face and very, very terminal.  The Greeks liked keeping their murders in house.  Euripides is probably the most accessible on the page or on the stage for modern audiences.

I saw Medea in London played by Diana Rigg – no ordinary avenger.  It was first produced in about 431 BC (during the Peloponnesian War).  It can sound strikingly modern.  Here is how the hero states her condition.

Of all things which are living and can form a judgment

We women are the most unfortunate creatures.

Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required

For us to buy a husband and take for our bodies

A master.  For not to take one is even worse.


A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home,

Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom

And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.

But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone

What they say of it is that we have a peaceful time

Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.

How wrong they are!

Truly does the Bible say that there is nothing new under the sun.  When her husband rats on her, Sir Paul Harvey in the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (which it is handy to have around when reading or seeing these plays) says: ‘The desertion and ingratitude of the man she loves rouses the savage in Medea, and her rage is outspoken.’  The savage in us all is what Greek drama is largely about.  Since she kills her successor and her father, her children will die:

No!  By Hell’s avenging furies it shall not be –

This shall never be, that I should suffer my children

To be the prey of my enemies’ insolence.

In case you are asking, we hear from the children offstage before they go, and their mother then unloads the mordant pearler that stands at the head of this note.  What we not give to know how audiences reacted to all this all that time ago?

In some ways, The Trojan Women is even tougher.  The women and children are given up to the victors after the fall of Troy.  Their names have been burnt into our consciousness through The Iliad and these plays and opera.  A child is sacrificed over the grave of Achilles.  Cassandra is given to Agamemnon ‘to be joined with him in the dark bed of love.’  Hecuba is to be ‘slave to Odysseus.’

To be given as slave to serve that vile, that slippery man,

Right’s enemy, brute, murderous beast,

That mouth of lies and treachery, that makes void,

Faith in things promised

And that which was beloved turns to hate.  Oh, mourn,

Daughters of Ilium, weep as one for me.

This is like the Old Testament.  Andromache drops these great lines:

Death, I am sure, is like never being born, but death

Is better thus by far than to live a life of pain,

Since the dead with no perception of evil feel no grief…

But the widow Hector comes crashing back to earth as she reflects that she has been given to the son of his killer.  Will she defile Hector’s memory?

Yet they say one night of love suffices to dissolve

A woman’s aversion to share the bed of any man.

The Orestes here is not in the same league as that of Aeschylus.  It is very long, although the dialogue can be crisp, as in this exchange between Menelaus and Orestes.

I am a murderer.  I murdered my mother.

So I have heard.  Kindly spare me your horrors [!]

I spare you – although no god spared me.

What is your sickness?

I call it conscience: The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime.

You speak somewhat obscurely.  What do you mean?

I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

We will return to ‘conscience’, but the play is about the dilemna at the dawn of our law.

Where, I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it never end, in fact,

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge.

No, our ancestors handled these matters well

……………….they purged their guilt

By banishment, not death.  And by so doing,

They stopped that endless vicious cycle

Of murder and revenge.

If art reflects on the human condition, these old Greek plays are in at the beginning.  This is their looking at us, tiptoeing around the rim of a volcano, and hoping that we do not fall in.  Have we changed at all?

Passing Bull 273– You don’t have to be dumb to be wrong

Keynes began with outrageously impulsive adventures in art and currency, switched to cyclical equity investments on the theory that he could forecast the business cycle and, finally, abandoned cyclical forecasting in favour of the kind of long-term value investing made famous by Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett.


But the play (Richard III), which featured more than 50 characters, defeated me.  As I lacked knowledge of the text, the long speeches quickly became tiresome.  I left at intermission.

AFR Weekend, 10-11 April, 2021, Aaron Patrick.

This is a curious admission from a journalist who is not receiving a standing ovation for his work on Samantha Maiden.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Albert Einstein

Folio Society, 2010.  Bound in figured boards, with photographs and slip case.

The word Einstein now stands for genius, just as Hoover means vacuum cleaner, but it was Einstein who once and for all put science beyond all but the select.  Before Einstein, people with a good general education could come to grips with the laws of science on which the world revolved.  But they could not do so after Einstein rewrote the whole book.  Now for most of us science is, at bottom, like God or Mozart, something that we must take, if at all, simply on trust.  It would be fair to hazard the assertion that the mind of Einstein has had more effect on the world than any other mind.

Einstein was born of Jewish parents in Ulm, a small city on the Danube in the south of Germany.  He at first attended a Catholic elementary school, and then attended the local Gymnasium.  He was introduced to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the age of about ten – which is like saying that Mozart started composing at the age of five.  He took his tertiary education in Switzerland and got employment as an examiner in the Swiss Patent Office.

The work of Einstein led him to conduct thought experiments about the nature of light and the relation of time and space.  He was crossing the borders of existing knowledge.  In 1905, he published four revolutionary papers, one on special relativity.  He then developed his general theory which was later verified.  He was the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, and a professor at Humboldt University from 1914 to 1932.  He won a Nobel Prize in 1921.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was in America.  He stayed there – back home they burnt his books and put a bounty on his head.  He then warned the U S that Hitler might be te first to get the Atom bomb.  This led Roosevelt to implement the Manhattan Project.  Einstein later wrote a manifesto with Bertrand Russell on the dangers of nuclear weapons.  His total scientific output was staggering.  It does not bear to think what might have happened had Einstein returned to Germany in 1933 and provided the means for Hitler to be the first to get, and most certainly use, the bomb.

Einstein had a mature view of religion.  Towards the end of his life he said ‘I very rarely think in words at all’.  He thought in pictures, in his thought experiments, and mathematically.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  When Einstein adhered to this dictum and said that God does not play dice, the rejoinder of Nils Bohr was: ‘Einstein, stop telling God what to do!’

Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were out to get him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

In a paper headed The World as I See It, published in 1931, Einstein said:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge, and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.  I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves.  Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.  I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

You can see why Einstein poses a challenge to religion as it is usually practised.  It is not just the rejection of a personal God and life after death – he finds a source of wonder and mystery from contemplating the world as he finds it.  In a paper published in Germany in 1930, Einstein had affirmed that man could get by ethically without God.

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible….Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust.  A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.  Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Elsewhere he made a strong allegation: ‘The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods.’

He knew how to take a stand.  Here is his advice on a 1953 inquisition.

What ought the minority of intellectuals do against this evil? Frankly, I can only see the revolutionary way of non-co-operation in the sense of Ghandi’s.  Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i. e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country.

However, this refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution.

If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful.  If not, then the individuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

That was written by someone proscribed by Nazi Germany.  He could prescribe very high standards.  Here he is on human rights in 1954.

The existence and validity of human rights was not written in the stars…There is however one other human right which is infrequently mentioned, but which seems to be destined to become very important: this is the right or the duty of the individual to abstain from cooperating in activities which he considers wrong or pernicious.  The first place in this respect must be given to the refusal of military service.  I have known instances where individuals of unusual moral strength and integrity have, for that reason, come into conflict with the organs of the state.  The Nuremberg trial of the German war criminals was tacitly based on the recognition of the principle: criminal actions cannot be excused if committed on government orders; conscience supersedes the authority of the law and the state.

The last clause is potent.  Finally, this is what he had to say to Mahatma Ghandi in 1944:

A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority: a politician whose success rests not upon the craft nor the mastery of technical devices, but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility, armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

Those words were spoken by the man who referred to Jesus of Nazareth as ‘the luminous Nazarene.’  This book is a big clean window into one of the most powerful minds the world has known.

Here and there – Mrs Dalloway


Virginia Woolf

Grafton Books, 1976.

Virginia Woolf was very bright but she led a very tough life, which she ended herself.  How much of her found its way into Mrs Dalloway?

Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred. Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo, she had seen them all lit up once; and remembered Sylvia, Fred, Sally Seton — such hosts of people; and dancing all night; and the waggons plodding past to market; and driving home across the Park. She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?

Reading Virginia Woolf is like reading poetry in prose – the stream of consciousness of Joyce wrought by the acrid chisel of T S Eliot.  This book came out in 1925.  (Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922.)  All three flourished at the same time, although hardly with a hymn to happiness.

A car carrying a very important person behind blinds passes before Mrs Dalloway and her florist on the day she is giving a party.

Gliding across Piccadilly, the car turned down St. James’s Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back who, for reasons difficult to discriminate, were standing in the bow window of Brooks’s with their hands behind the tails of their coats, looking out, perceived instinctively that greatness was passing, and the pale light of the immortal presence fell upon them as it had fallen upon Clarissa Dalloway. At once they stood even straighter, and removed their hands, and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon’s mouth, as their ancestors had done before them. The white busts and the little tables in the background covered with copies of the Tatler and syphons of soda water seemed to approve; seemed to indicate the flowing corn and the manor houses of England; and to return the frail hum of the motor wheels as the walls of a whispering gallery return a single voice expanded and made sonorous by the might of a whole cathedral. Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer — a bunch of roses — into St. James’s Street out of sheer light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable’s eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman’s loyalty. The sentries at St. James’s saluted; Queen Alexandra’s policeman approved.

My edition has White’s, not Brooks’s.  No matter – any writer who knows either knows the English upper class.  I have never been invited to either (and an American spell-check questioned this rendition of the latter.)

This is a curious novel.  It is a sustained meditation on the state of England after the Great War.  We see the nation through the eyes of many people other than Mrs Dalloway – whose lot does not appear to be any more happy or defined than that of her nation.

The author may or may not have been assured socially, but she was not shy politically.  The ‘rights of women’ (‘that antediluvian topic’) were right in vogue just then. I remarked elsewhere on the consequences of the German execution of Edith Cavell.

Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on.  It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war.  So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly?  That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. 

That aside, it was the girls who armed the nation.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf said:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

This book is great read, but it can be dense as well as dark, and I was reminded that someone said of Paradise Lost that no one ever wished that it was longer.  And is it possible to be a little too clever?  Sensible lawyers say that it is.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

Folio Society, 1964; bound in illustrated boards with slipcase; drawings by Nigel Lambourne

Wagner and Dostoevsky had a lot in common.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, is a case in point. In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.   We are familiar with Ivan’s biggest problem.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it ….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  The Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes the bell-ringer.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Passing Bull 272– Jefferson’s Bible

Thomas Jefferson prepared a version of the gospels that was confined to what Jesus was said to have said and uncontroversial allegations of fact – no divine participation or miracles.  He had been much affected by the writings of Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.  Here are three extracts that fairly state some of my difficulties in part with scripture but more in what the clergy have done since with that scripture, Greek philosophy, and large imaginations – like the Trinity (which, in common with Newton, Jefferson, and Keynes I could never understand).

There are gross defects, and palpable falsehoods, in almost every page of scriptures and the whole tenor of them is such as no man who acknowledges a supreme, all-perfect being, can believe it to be his word.


If the redemption be the main fundamental article of the Christian faith, sure I am that the account of the fall of man is the foundation of this fundamental article.  And this account is, in all its circumstances, absolutely irreconcilable to every idea we can frame of wisdom, justice, and goodness. 


Can any man now presume to say that the god of Moses, or the God of Paul, is an amiable being?  The god of the first is partial, unjust and cruel; delights in blood, commands assassinations, massacres, and even exterminations of people.  The god of the second elects some of his creatures to salvation, and predestinates others to damnation, even in the womb of their mothers. 

Jefferson said:

….I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists [followers of Plato, the Greek philosopher after Socrates] who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogma’s from what its Author never said nor saw.

I do not know the answer to that last clause. In my view, the notion of original sin is as objectionable as that of predestination.  Since we know that the events in Genesis could not have occurred as alleged, why don’t we take our myths from Richard Wagner? 

Finally, the U S claims God.  Where does he stand with their current horror?

Passing Bull 271– Identity politics – says Alice

People who call themselves ‘conservative’ are wont to say that what they call ‘identity politics’ is bad for us politically – that is, they say that people who practice identity politics are damaging the way our democracy operates.  I have not understood what they mean by ‘identity politics’ or how such behaviour causes us harm.

The term is defined in Wikipedia as follows.

Identity politics is a term that describes a political approach wherein people of a particular gender, religionracesocial backgroundclass or other identifying factors, develop political agendas that are based upon theoretical interlocking systems of oppression that may affect their lives and come from their various identities.  Contemporary applications of identity politics describe peoples of specific race, ethnicity, sex, gender identitysexual orientation, age, economic class, disability status, education, religion, language, profession, political party, veteran status, and geographic location.  These identity labels are not mutually exclusive but are in many cases compounded into one when describing hyper-specific groups, a concept known as intersectionality.  An example is that of African-Americanhomosexualdemi-boys with Body integrity dysphoria, who constitute a particular hyper-specific identity class.

There appear to be three characteristics: (1) shared political beliefs; (2) a shared sense of grievance that members of this group are unfairly treated or of aspiration that they may be better treated; and (3) something other than their shared political belief that sets them apart – such as race, age, sex, faith or sexuality.  The sense of grievance – point (2) –is what drives those of a shared belief – point (1) – to become politically active.  But those two factors are indistinguishable from what drives the members of the two parties that are the foundation of our parliamentary democracy.  They also underlie trade unions and feminist groups – or our system of class actions.  You might turn your nose up at that, but more than twenty years ago, a lecturer at Harvard said these accounted for most of the progress in civil rights in the past half century.  So, people with just the first two characteristics are not just harmless, but essential parts of our body politic.  And that is before you even get to career ideologues – like the IPA or the devout relics of the DLP on The Australian.

That raises two questions: How does this kind action become bad just because the members of the group have something in common apart from their shared belief?  And, who says so? 

The Prime Minister says ‘identity politics’ are dangerous.  ‘Throughout history, we’ve seen what happens when people are defined solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess.’  He said this while identifying with the life and teaching of a Jewish son of a carpenter and a group whose presence is as mystical as that of the Trinity – ‘quiet Australians.’  Well, if people are not just free to but encouraged to see that their political aspirations are met, what does it matter if in addition to their shared beliefs, they have in common that they are black, white, female, hungry, desperate, exiled, Catholic, Muslim, atheist, deist, physically or mentally handicapped, wine growers, sheep farmers, trade union members, returned service men or women, the filthy rich or desperately poor? 

And if the PM’s escape valve is the word ‘solely’ in the passage quoted – so that he is talking about only those who define themselves ‘solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess’ – then he is confessing to another straw man.  Such people are away with the birds – or, better, with Alice in Wonderland.  When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’  ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’  ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ 

And while you are at it, you might wonder how you might go if after take-off for London, you are sipping on your Scotch, and the man in the next seat puts down his bible and says ‘Would you excuse me for not joining you?  You see, I am a Pentacontelist.  May I ask what identity you possess?’

It’s like that time we said we would jail any Australian trying to come home – remember our other anthem ‘I still call Australia home’?  This was thought to be a far too literal reprise on the First Fleet, which might impair the natives’ enjoyment of Australia day, so we then said that no bastard would be silly enough to believe us.  And that’s like what another dude said – fair suck of the sauce bottle, Mate.  Twice. 

No – all this blather about identity politics is bullshit – brought to us by the usual suspects.

Here and there – Foreign policy in Hamlet

The commentary on Hamlet is oceanic, but very little of it touches on foreign policy issues which this playwright thought were worth putting into what has become his most famous play

In the beginning, we are told that Fortinbras (‘strong arm’) of Norway, from an excess of pride, had challenged the king of Denmark to combat – just one on one it seems – with the winner taking some territory of the loser.  This compact was made to have the force of law.  King Hamlet of Denmark killed Fortinbras and occupied the territory that then became forfeit to Denmark. 

Now, at the start of the play, the son of Fortinbras, also called Fortinbras, has formed an army with a view to recovering the lands lost by his father.  This would look to us to be an unjustified war of aggression.  In response, Denmark is arming itself with arms forged at home or bought from abroad.  (We know that Danes go to Germany or Paris and stay there for some time to further their careers – as we would call it.)  The present king of Denmark sends envoys to Norway to ask the uncle of Fortinbras to call the young Fortinbras off.  That uncle is ‘impotent and bedrid’ and had thought that Fortinbras was getting ready to attack Poland.  But after listening to the Danish envoys, the uncle gets young Fortinbras to vow never to attack Denmark.  Instead, he is to use his aggression against Poland.  (It was not the first time and would not be the last time than Poland got caught between two warlike states.)  The envoys return to Claudius with this news and a request from Fortinbras for permission to be able to cross over parts of Denmark for the purpose of enabling them to attack Poland. 

Then Claudius is troubled by the apparent madness of Hamlet – a loose cannon is the last thing this fratricide needs at home in Elsinore – and he resolves to send Hamlet ‘with speed to England for the demand of our neglected tribute.’  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have in effect being spying on Hamlet at the request of Claudius.  They will accompany Hamlet to England.  It is a form of undeclared house arrest – and Hamlet puts no trust in either of them. 

After Hamlet kills the courtier Polonius, Claudius thinks that he could have been the victim – and so does Hamlet.  Claudius then asks England to kill Hamlet – without apparently telling the two envoys going with Hamlet.  The soliloquy Claudius gives about this speaks of England with ‘free awe’ that ‘pays homage to us’, and implores England not to ‘coldly set our sovereign process’.  Well, whatever may have been the kind of submission that the author contemplated between England and Denmark, it could hardly require England to commit murder at the mere request of the Danish king – not least when the proposed victim is the son of the queen and the heir to the throne.  (Despatching a couple of courtiers would be another matter.)

The connections to Norway and England come together when Hamlet, en route to England with the two courtiers, runs into the army of Fortinbras.  He seeks the promised licence to cross Denmark to confront Poland ‘to gain a little patch of ground’ not worth five ducats.  Hamlet is ashamed that this young Norwegian prince is going to war on a point of honour, while he weakly vacillates about avenging the murder of his father.

Hamlet discovers the secret request of Claudius to England to execute him and substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the victims.  In the letter he forges for this purpose, he describes England as the Danish king’s ‘faithful tributary.’

So, when the house of Denmark lies desolate and headless under the mark of Cain, Fortinbras ‘with conquest come from Poland,’ is on hand to clean up the mess.  He can ‘embrace my fortune’ since ‘I have some rights of memory in this kingdom’ and which he is now in a position to claim.

The wheel has turned full circle.  It is hardly surprising that a royal house that devours itself, as grossly as some did in Greek tragedies performed two thousand years before, leaves its people prey to another nation.

There are some oddities of time here.  Trial by single combat to determine boundaries of sovereign nations has an early medieval if not fantastic air about it.  We know that this Denmark subscribes to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and that the Danes go to other European cities for advancement.  The atmosphere feels like the Renaissance.  It must have been a long time after England paid any kind of tribute to Denmark – to hold off the Vikings?  And the ‘conquest’ of Fortinbras in Poland must have broken the land speed record.  But they are trifles. 

It is at best impertinent and at worst impious to second guess a genius, but the significance of the international background may be found in the soliloquy where Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras. 

Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!  (4.4.4ff)

There you have the madness of all Europe in August 1914.  It does not take Waterloo, the Somme, Hiroshima, or Nui Dat for those words of Hamlet to die on our lips. 

Nor should we be surprised that our understanding of a great work of art alters with changes in the way that we see the world.  Many of us now would prefer the remark of a statesman who could not be regarded as a soft touch speaking on behalf of a weak nation.  In an address to the Reichstag in 1876, Otto von Bismarck said that German intervention in a Balkan war was not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier.  Thirty eight years later, his successors did not apply that wisdom, and millions were slaughtered in the worst war that mankind had known.

For a hero who is said to have been weak and indecisive, Hamlet has racked up quite a score by the end.  He has directly killed Polonius, Laertes and Claudius.  He has procured the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He is morally responsible for the death of Ophelia, and we may doubt whether Gertrude could survive many more nights with her deranged son like that after he had killed Polonius.  (The performance of Penny Downie in that role against David Tenant in the Doran RSC film is thrilling in a way that Freud would have found positively electrifying.)  The poisoning of Laertes was accidental.  On any view, the killing of Claudius was warranted.  But, it is hard to see a defence to a charge of murder against Hamlet for his role in the deaths of Polonius – ‘I’ll lug the guts into a neighbour room’ – or the two courtiers.  He was downright cruel to Ophelia, and in his treatment of his mother, he would nowadays risk being branded as a misogynist on national television.

And while it may be true that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow (5.2.220), it is also true that when it comes to matters of state between sovereigns, the writ of the Sermon on the Mount is banished from sight as a kind of curious relic whose reach has been long since passed.