Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

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

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Folio Society, 2000; bound in red cloth with red slipcase; translated by A Colquhoun; illustrated by John Holder.

But I’ve still got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries ‘Gesummaria’?

This beautiful little book was written by a Sicilian prince about a Sicilian prince who had to come to terms with a failure by God, a failure by his wife, and the end of his caste.  It is a beautifully elegiac period piece about old Sicily and the impact on it of Garibaldi.  It is a free standing masterpiece.  It owes nothing to Joyce or Proust.  It is at once plain but eerily nostalgic.  Like the Kesey novel, a great book led to a great film.  It starts this way.

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

The daily recital of the Rosary was over.  For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

That evening, Prince Fabrizio would call on his favourite courtesan, for reasons suggested in the citation, and take the family priest, a Jesuit, into town to accompany him.

A protégé of the Prince falls in; love with the daughter of a very vulgar new man on the make, and they will marry and fuse the classes.  In the wonderful Visconti film, Burt Lancaster plays the prince; Alain Delon the young lover; and Claudia Cardinale his wife to be.  There are great set pieces in the book and the film.  There is the visit to the country estate of the prince, and a mansion so vast that people get lost.  There is the hunting sequence where the prince unburdens himself to one of his men – and then, in a reversion to feudalism, locks him up to prevent his revealing a secret.  There is the ball and a supper.  The film does not treat of the very moving two last chapters.

The author’s princely house had gone broke in two generations.  The aristocrats elsewhere had been more roughly handled a lot sooner.  Lampedusa never left his house without his copy of Shakespeare in his bag.  He kept The Pickwick Papers with him to comfort him on sleepless nights.  He regarded The Charterhouse of Parma of Stendhal as ‘the summit of all world fiction.’

Here is another more or less random sample of the soft and lovely tone of this book.

He got up and passed into the dressing room.  From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell.  Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked stamina to await the rains.  ‘Lucky person’ thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers.  ‘Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.’  This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him.  ‘While there’s death there’s hope,’ he thought, and then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.  ‘Ce sont leurs affaires, après tout’, he thought in French, as he did when his cogitations persisted in playing pranks.  He settled in an armchair and dropped into a doze.

The book caused a sensation in Sicily when it was published not long after the death of the author in 1957.  A Cardinal of Palermo thought that it was one of the three factors that had led to the dishonour of Sicily – the other two were the Mafia and a social reformer.  I suspect that the author would have sympathised with the German scholar who said that the Sicilians had perfected the Counter-reformation – the problem was just that they had never experienced the Reformation.

E M Forster called The Leopard ‘a noble book’.  He said that it was not an historical novel, but ‘a novel which happens to take place in history.’  It does in truth deal with issues we all face, and it does so in a way that is almost musical or painterly.  Like the movie, it is something I can and should enjoy at least once a year.

 

Passing Bull 220 – It takes two to Tango

 

Opinions might vary about whether governance in Australia is as bad as it now is in England or America, but one thing is clear – especially to Australian baby boomers.  For much of the fifties and sixties, Australia was consigned to a form of one party rule because the unelectability of one party made the election of the other party almost inevitable.  The simple truth is that in a two party democracy, governance is only as good as the opposition to the government.

We suffered no great harm in the fifties or sixties because the ruling party practised a soft version of ‘liberalism’ – a benign Tory paternalism – that it combined with agrarian socialism, and the nation was on the up in a quiet phase after two world wars.  The downside was that the cosiness to the Mother Country and royalty left us tugging our forelocks like far away colonials and killed off any movement toward independence.

That relative immunity is not the case now in England or America.  Trump got elected because of the weakness of his opponent.  Johnson may be re-elected for the same reason.  And so might Trump.  Each has done all he can to show that he is entirely unfit for office, but each stays in place because the alternative is so unattractive and inept.  In England, minor parties are scrambling to get ‘Never Johnson – or Corbyn’, and in America, something like panic may induce a billionaire to try to buy a nomination.  It reminds you of the time in the Roman Empire when they put the purple up for auction.

Our current government is hardly any better.  It did all it could to deserve losing office, but it now looks clear that it is still there because the alternative was unelectable.  Sections of the press still chortle over this – even though their preferred man did not get the job – but for those of us who are not tied to either major party, and who are at best cool about the whole lot of them, the result is a very sad failure of governance.

We are left with a prime minister who could be a useful Mayor of Box Hill, but who is way out of his depth in his present office.  He made his name sending armed forces against unarmed refugees; he hugged coal in Parliament; he defended the indefensible in the banks; and he subscribes to one of those evangelical sects of holy rollers that are disembowelling American politics.  The best that could ever be said of this man is that he is Australian mediocrity made visible.  And in the name of God, we know all about mediocrity down here.  It’s what we have aspired to since the English first opened their jail here at Botany Bay.

Can anyone think of a way to ‘impeach’ an opposition party?  If you look around the world, democracy is in trouble everywhere, and disenchanting those coming after us.  New Zealand looks OK, but even Germany and the Scandinavian nations are showing signs of stress.

Democracy, too, may hang on, again for the want of a better alternative, but it is hard to resist the impression that we are on the cusp of lasting change, and the question then becomes whether we will get it by evolution or revolution.

Bloopers

Perhaps because so many on the left were in some measure compromised in their attitude to communism, and the left dominates cultural production in the West, the crimes of communism go substantially unmourned and the heroes of anti-communism are never afforded heroic status.

The Weekend Australian, 9-10 November, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

It is sad in 2019 to see a man viewing the world through a sectarian prism of 1959, but Mr Sheridan gives the Pope some of the credit for the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  As he does with Ronald Reagan.  It is curious to see commentators of that ilk give any credit to human agents for the death of communism in Europe when they are committed by their ideology to the conclusion that communism was doomed to death by the iron laws of economics.

Can anyone think of a way to impeach the press?

MY TOP SHELF – 42 – THUCYDIDES

 

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

THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides

Everyman, 1910; translated by Richard Crawley; rebound in quarter navy calf with gold embossed tangerine title on French blue boards.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.

The war described in this great work of history is the war between Athens and Sparta about four centuries before the birth of Christ.  This is sometimes said to have been the time of the flowering of Greek civilization.  We need to bear two things steadily in mind.  There was no such thing as a Greek nation – there was only a bunch of city-states generally at war with a number of the others, and held together only by an unashamed arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world who were dismissed as ‘barbarians’.  Secondly, the relevant notion of ‘civilization’ may be one that exists mainly in the heads of Oxbridge dons who have never been out in the real world.

The Greeks treated outsiders with contempt and their women as doormats; they routinely buggered young men; their economy was based on slavery; their religion involved sacrifices to very personal gods who treated humanity like wanton boys treat flies; Athens ran a protection racket that it called an empire, and it did so ruthlessly; the Athenians were saints beside the Spartans, who were a military caste that would make the Prussians look like a Lutheran Sunday school.

The life of a Spartan was devoted to the State; this was required in order to hold down a conquered people called helots; if a child survived eugenic testing, it was consigned to the care of a state-officer at the age of seven; at the age of twenty he went into barracks; as part of his military training, he would go out and hunt and kill helots.  To Plato, the Spartan approach was close to ideal, and in The Republic he set out a blueprint for the fascist state.  A war between Athens and Sparta was likely to be very ugly and terminal to the ability of the warring states to hold out foreign predators.

This great work of history commences in this way.

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past.  (All citations are from Rex Warner in the Penguin version.)

In the course of a debate at Sparta at the start of the war, the Athenian envoy says:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so – security, honour, and self-interest…it has always been a rule that the weak should  be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power….now, after calculating your own interests, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong.

That is the law of the jungle, and it is not now espoused by Athenian envoys in Berlin.  The Athenians display the same realpolitik much later in the war in the debate over Melos.

We on our side will use no fine phrase saying we have the right to our empire because we defeated the Persian….since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

The people of Melos accept that ‘you force us to leave justice out of account and confine ourselves to self-interest.’  They just want to be friends.

No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.

Hitler, Stalin and company thought like that – exactly?  But did they ever say so in public?  Athens’ war-time leader, Pericles, riffed on the imperial theme in one of his orations.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.  Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some who in a mood of sudden panic actually think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do.  Your empire is now like a tyranny; it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go….those who are politically apathetic can only survive if they are supported by people who are capable of taking direct action.  They are quite valueless in a city which controls an empire, though they would be safe slaves in a city that was controlled by others.

In this brutal world according to Darwin, could a democracy – another question – run an empire?  Not so, according to Cleon, in words that might be born in mind by those regimes that have to stand tough to hold down subject peoples.

Personally, I have had occasion often enough to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others….because fear and conspiracy play no part in your personal lives, you imagine this is so with your allies, and you do not see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision, and when you give way to your own feelings of compassion, you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them love you any more.  What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercized over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests to do them a favour; your leadership depends on your superior strength and not upon their goodwill.

The Spartans did not bother with so much talk.  The author remarks that ‘Spartan policy with regard to helots had always been almost entirely based on the need for security.’  One time they announced the helots could choose those who had done the most for Sparta implying that freedom would be theirs.  About 2000 were selected and they put on vine leaves.  But the Spartans reasoned that the ones who showed most spirit and stepped up to claim their freedom were the most dangerous to Sparta – so they killed them ‘and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed.’

They were the same in war.  The enemies of the people of Plataea persuaded the Spartans to put to each man in the defeated city: ‘Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in this war?’  (Couthon had a similar question during the Terror.)  ‘As each man replied ‘No’, he was taken away and put to death, no exceptions being made.  Not less than 200 Plataeans were killed in this way…The women were made slaves’.  But that was war, and in war, Athens was no better.

When the author deals with the coup of the oligarchs near the end of the war, he records that the Four Hundred appeared accompanied by 120 ‘Hellenic youths’ who looked after the rough stuff, the precursors of the Brownshirts.  Fashions rarely change for fascists.

But it is in describing the civil war at Corcyra that this historian shows writing of astonishing power.

There was death in every shape and form.  And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it.  There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there…..

In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards….But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances…

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.  What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely one way of saying that you were a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership….Revenge was more important than self-preservation.

Has there ever been a better picture of Paris under the Terror or of Berlin under the Nazis?  But our author is not finished.

Love of power, operating through greed and personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils…It was in Corcyra that we saw the first examples of the breakdown of law and order.  There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed rather than wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, who wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions carried out by men not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions.  Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend, even where laws exist showed itself proudly under its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for he pernicious power of envy, men would not have so exalted vengeance above innocence, and profit above justice.

Those who have trouble coming to grips with the barbarous denial of humanity achieved under people like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis, Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler can accept this insight into our perilously fragile condition at the rim of a live volcano from this Greek historian writing these words thousands of years ago.  This book, as it seems to me, is one of the great breakthroughs for the human mind.

 

Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.

Here and there – Emma Smith – This Is Shakespeare

 

Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare.  Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars.  She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford.  But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor.  In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays.  In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.

The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total.  The order looks to be broadly chronological.  The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.

We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’  Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.

The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’  (That savours a bit of R D Laing.  The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)

There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.

‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’.  (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.)  That is a valuable insight.  But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer.  The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be.  But for modern audiences, some pruning is required.  I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence.  And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version.  (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.)  But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’

A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious.  And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.  (1.2)

For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.  (2.2)

For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’.  And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’  Spot on.  Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means.  The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description.  But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken.  And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers.  Richard II may be my favourite.  Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi.  The problem is that it has no hero.

‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’  Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’  Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority.  Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’  Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.

The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane.  The same goes for money.

The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’  Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.

It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play.  Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex.  To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent.  Not so the author.

But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?

Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question.  Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled.  Nor does Claudio want to be killed.  In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck?  As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls.  Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power.  The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.

While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’  She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’.  That is a curious notion.  She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy.  Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals.  (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)

And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI.  More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages.  She is the nemesis of four plays.  I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright.  They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?  (1.4.70-77)

It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’

About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters.  The lead was played by a Maori.  A lady said she thought the hero was coloured.  The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough.  Race and colour are huge in this play.  The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act.  (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago.  Gertrude was as white as snow.  There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.)  ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’  To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’.  (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?)  Thankfully, the author does not go there.  C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve.  (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?)  The short answer is that none of them existed.  They are creatures of the page.  You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.

When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space.  There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks.  This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago.  He for me is evil made flesh.  He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III.  The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed.  Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’

Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’  Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt.  (Pray do not be dismayed.  I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)

In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’  The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us.  As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero.  And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England.  (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)

What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card.  Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them.  It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:

Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.

Lawyers are used to this kind of bull.  We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation.  Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind.  And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise.  The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.

The book peters out.  From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen.  Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.

But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved.  It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.

MY TOP SHELF – 40 – Maitland

 

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

F W MAITLAND

Sir Geoffrey Elton (1985)

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985; cloth bound in pale grey, with silver titles on spine; white slip case with photo of portrait of subject on front.

I have not for many years past believed in what calls itself historical jurisprudence.  The only direct utility of legal history (I say nothing of its thrilling interest) lies in the lesson that each generation has an enormous power of shaping its own law.  I don’t think that the study of legal history should make men fatalists; I doubt it should make them conservatives. I am sure it would free them from superstitions and teach them that they have free hands.

Frederick Maitland comes down to us a kind of saint of scholarship.  He is at least entitled to be remembered as the scholar’s scholar, if not the historian’s historian.

Maitland came from a family of service.  He went from Eton to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a running blue.  He was smart enough to be elected to the ‘Apostles’ and smart enough not to let it ruin him – it was a self-important group of intellectuals that does not seem to have done anything for the humility or sexual stability of most of its members.  He married Florence Fisher, a niece of Leslie Stephen.  He did not succeed greatly at the bar, but he discovered early that his interest was in history.  He would say that he dissented from all churches.

He subscribed to the view that ‘history involves comparison’ and that an ‘orthodox history seems to me to be a contradiction in terms….If we try to make history the handmaid of dogma she will soon cease to be history’.  Maitland was in love with his job, but not at the cost of subjecting his work to the test of a ruthless common sense.  In the result, as Elton remarked, ‘Criticizing Elton is a dangerous game; so often one finds that he has been here first, and he wrote so much that it is far too easy to miss something.’  His lectures on the refined subject of equity were made into a text-book which has never been surpassed for style – or for anything else.

Since very few who are reading this will have any interest in my chosen discipline of legal history – which is why this book is here – I will just refer to Sir Geoffrey Elton on the style of Maitland.

…..Maitland testifies to the truth that the style is the man.  Those usually short, often vibrating, sentences, the avoidance of learned circumlocutions and even long words as such; the manner in which the royal ‘we’ gathers the reader into the company of the writer; the constant illumination of abstract or general notions by anchoring them in the experience of real people; the frequent (possibly unconscious) echoes from a whole cultural reservoir filled with, among other things, the Bible; the wit which, because it grows naturally from the discourse, remains funny to this day; and the courtesy which renders the not infrequent stabs of the stiletto painless: all these compass Maitland the man, a man both wise and artless.  It seems that Maitland was in no sense a conscious stylist, a careful and particular carpenter of words and architect of sentences: nobody who wrote so much so fast could have been…..whether speaking or writing, he was always talking to the reader as much as to a listener.

In an essay headed ‘English Prose’, Sir Lewis Namier quoted from Tristram Shandy: ‘Writing, when properly managed …is but a different name for conversation.’  You might say that a tip that comes with that level of endorsement is worth following – if so, we would agree with you.

Maitland was to become one of the creators of English history, and the father of English legal history.  He brought order out of chaos and he knew that to understand the laws of a community is to understand its ideas and motives.  He constantly warned of looking at the past through the eyes of today. He produced the monumental History of English Law with Pollock.  Although Pollock contributed very little, Maitland put his name on the title page, and with first billing.

His work-rate was unbelievable.  His attachment to history did not preclude him from trying to rid the law of anachronism:  ‘accidents will happen in the best regulated museums’.  But he told Pollock ‘I have no use for modern kings’.   He saw keenly the difference between the lawyer and the historian.  ‘What the lawyer wants is authority and the newer the better; what the historian wants is evidence and the older the better.’  He thought Maine was too prone to make large statements detached from detailed evidence.

His affection for the Germans could have got the better of him.  He named his children Ermengard and Fredegond, and he liked Wagner.  But Florence was strong too.  They had had a Victorian courtship – it was an occasion to celebrate when they were ‘allowed to go about without a keeper’.  Florence did not relate to the wives of other dons, and she did not relish visits from Pollock.  She was a refined pianist – she played for Tchaikovsky before pinning a flower on his lapel when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Maitland suffered bad health all his life. He said he was buffeted by ‘the messenger of Satan’.  He was an appalling subject for photographers, and looks like a haunted version of Wittgenstein.  He had to winter every year in the Canaries and he died there early last century after he caught pneumonia.

He comes down to us now as a truly saintly man, a modest scholar who cast light on our past. It is a measure of his greatness that when we read Macaulay now, we ask – where is the law? Maitland was one of those Englishmen in whom history and literature are fused in life. He was, surely, as true and loyal a chronicler and celebrant of his nation as it has produced.

Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

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

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

Passing Bull 217 – Hearsay

 

Passing on what others say is called gossip.  Donald Trump is addicted to it.

‘They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,’ the president said.

‘CrowdStrike?’ the surprised reporter asked, referring to the California cybersecurity company that investigated how Russian government hackers had stolen and leaked Democratic emails, disrupting Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

‘That’s what I heard,’ Mr. Trump resumed. ‘I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.’

More than two years later, Mr. Trump was still holding on to this false conspiracy theory. (The Guardian, 5 October, 2019)

That’s right, Trump said four times that he had heard something.  Hearsay.

It’s therefore odd to see his loyal lieutenants in the Senate condemning a whistleblower statement as hearsay.  (As it happens, it is far more literate than anything Trump has said – ever.)

It is hard for some – including me – to understand what the whistleblower added to the White House record of the now famous telephone call.  But it is wholly absurd to suggest that the business of government could only be conducted according to the laws that govern what a witness in court might lawfully say in giving evidence.  You cannot, if objection is taken, tender a statement by a witness that another person told him he saw Bob shoot the deceased as evidence of the truth of that assertion made out of court.

But we, including government, all the time act on the basis of the truth of what we are told by others.  For example, it is only hearsay that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Imagine this.  The head of the FBI rings the President to tell him that he has a credible source saying that terrorists are intent on blowing up the White House and killing the President and five world leaders – and the President responds by saying that he is not accustomed to acting on mere hearsay.

And yet – some parts of the infamous base continue to lap up this nonsense.

Bloopers
If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,’ Mr Trump tweeted — sending the Turkish lira down 2 per cent.

Financial Times, 8 October, 2019.

He added he had done it before.