Here and there – Mrs Dalloway

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.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF 26–DOSTOEVSKY

Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV

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.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF 25–DOMBEY AND SON

Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf

DOMBEY AND SON

Charles Dickens, 1848

Folio Society, 1984.  Bound in illustrated cream boards and slipcased in burgundy.  Illustrated by Charles Keeping.  Introduction by Christopher Hibbert.

When I completed my reading of Dickens’ fourteen novels some time ago, I placed my preferences in five categories: First, Tale of Two Cities.  Second, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Third, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicolas Nickleby, and Oliver Twist.  Fourth, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Pickwick Papers.  Fifth, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Old Curiosity Shop.  That list may look eccentric, and it may change according to the time of day, but it does say that not only was Dickens prolific, but that he had a wide range of subjects and the capacity to appeal to very different tastes.

Paul Dombey suffers from the delusion that success in business might lead to a rise up the social ladder.  (Not so – trade, old boy, just trade.)  His single-minded pursuit of money and fame leads him to neglect his daughter, Florence, and then impose a regime on his son and heir that kills him.  His second marriage is just a financial transaction and it fails for that reason.  Nemesis and ruin come in the form of a trusted manager, James Carker – he of the ‘white teeth’, a demonic jerk, straight into the silent movies.  Dombey survives his ruin to be reconciled to Florence in a scene that might resemble the end of King Lear.  All this takes place with a cavalcade of characters some of whom show how a simple life may be the good life.

The novel begins.

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution was analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.  Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age.  Son about eight-and-forty minutes.

Here is a writer, then,  at the top of his game.  The novel ends with Dombey and grad-daughter Florence.

‘Dear grandpapa, why do you cry when you kiss me?’

He only answers, ‘Little Florence!  Little Florence!’ and smooths away the curls that shade her earnest eyes.

The novel is shot through with the ideas and demons of Dickens’ friend Thomas Carlyle (The French Revolution), especially as found in Past and Present, and the objections to ‘Mammon-Gospel’.

We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation….Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.  We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man…

Hell had become the terror of not succeeding, of not making money….

Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation ….had ‘forgotten God; has remembered only Mammon and what Mammon leads to….Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost….Moral philosophies sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss.

In his illuminating book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg said:

Dombey and Son is a sustained and powerful attack on Victorian Mammonism.  It embodies the nightmare vision that Dickens was coming to have of nineteenth century capitalism and his early recognition of its inborn cruelties, its incompatibility with virtue, and its inherent contradictions.  Dickens courageously places at the novel’s centre one of the new financial tycoons and traces the withering effects of business ethics on his sentiments and his humanity.  In the death of his son, as in the moral bankruptcy of Mr Dombey himself, Dickens presents a stark Carlylean parable on the sacrifice of humanity demanded by the money fetish….Finally he uses the corrective values which Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle,   and Sol Gills offer to the sophisticated sterilities of the Dombey world, to bathe the novel in the gentler perspectives of the New Testament.

To my taste, Dickens is too sloppy with love scenes but wonderful with death scenes.  He is on any view superbly gifted at the crunch.

‘Papa, what’s money?’

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr Dombey’s thoughts, that Mr Dombey was quite disconcerted.

‘What is money, Paul?’ he answered.  ‘Money?’…

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty.  He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘Gold and silver, and copper.  Guineas, shillings, half-pence.  You know what they are?’

‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul.  ‘I don’t mean that Papa.  I mean what’s money after all?’

‘I mean, Papa, what can it do?’ returned Paul folding his arms…

‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’

‘Anything, Papa?’

‘Yes.  Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Anything means everything, don’t it, Papa?’ asked his son.

‘It includes it, yes,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mama? returned the child.  ‘It isn’t cruel, is it?’

You can’t beat writing like that.  Thackeray threw the book down in exasperation.  ‘There’s no writing against such power as this…It is unsurpassed.  It is stupendous.’

This is a book for the ages – but especially the age when Mammon stomps all over God, and the pinnacle of capitalism surrenders to the Golden Calf.

Passing Bull 269 – Deconstructing Clausewitz

The Australian is enjoying a fad about strategy and tactics.  I doubt whether they have read Clausewitz On War.  It is a large book of great substance.  Strategy is the use of engagements for the object of the war.  Tactics involve the use of armed forces in the engagement.  In The Australian of 1 April, there was a lot of comment on our withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Our engagement in my view was what Churchill called ‘a colossal military disaster.’  (He was speaking of Dunkerque.)  Under the heading US support was our only strategy, Greg Sheridan began his note this way:

The Western intervention in Afghanistan has been a strategic failure accompanied by countless tactical successes.

Mr Sheridan may or may not be following the Clausewitz model.  He appears to be saying that the West won some battles but lost the war.  But how do you lose a war when you have lost count of the battles that you have won in that war? 

But the problem gets worse.  Why did we join in this war?

Australia never had a strategic purpose in Afghanistan except to show the Americans we were good allies.  That is not a trivial purpose, but we had no independent strategic ambition at all.

At least two things might be said.  First, if our strategy was to cement our alliance with the US, is the writer saying that we failed in that objective?  He says that the Western intervention was a strategic failure.  I think it was a failure for our limited purpose because of what Mr Sheridan called ‘the weirdly limited way we waged war there.’  This was a simple case of tokenism.  But that is not I think the view of Mr Sheridan. 

Secondly, our government has never admitted what our limited purpose was, and it will not do so now.  It is no comfort to those who have lost loved ones – 41 died in combat – to be told that they died just to keep on side with Uncle Sam.

Nowhere did I find in the paper a reference to the number of soldiers who later killed themselves because of their involvement in this now lost war.  They far outnumber those killed in combat.  The ABC says there have been at least 500 such suicides.  And they are continuing.  You have to take that into account in determining just how badly our governments have let us down.

Bloopers

‘Our response will be guided by the principles of simplicity and clarity to make the law easier for Australians to understand and access’, a spokesman for Senator Cash said yesterday.  ‘It is important to reiterate that the government’s response is driven by simplifying the current legal and regulatory environment for victims of sexual harassment.  This doesn’t, however, absolve employers of their current obligations to make their workplaces safe for everyone and free of sexual harassment.’

The Age, 10 April, 2021.

This interesting contribution to simplicity and clarity involves more than failures of grammar – it is bullshit – World’s Best Practice.

Passing Bull 268– A nonsense job

A well-known figure has pulled down a job with a US mental health coaching company called BetterUp Inc.  The aim of the company is ‘to help create impact in people’s lives’ and help people become the ‘best version of ourselves. ‘Proactive coaching provides endless possibilities for personal development, increased awareness and an all-round better life.’  The employee is a prince estranged from his family – which is an interesting way to increase awareness and find an all-round better life.  We are solemnly assured that the role of the prince will be ‘meaningful and meaty’ – but that he won’t manage employees – nor presumably will he proactively counsel clients about estrangement.  ‘He’s synonymous with this approach of mental fitness and really investing in yourself.’  BetterUp uses an app to link people with personal coaches for counselling and mentoring.  The prince had an app – presumably to help with the estrangement.  The prince said his mentor was ‘awesome’.  ‘This is about acknowledging that it isn’t so much what is wrong with us, but more about what has happened to us…..I want us to move away from the idea that you have to feel broken before reaching out for help’.  And handing cash over to BetterUp.  

Crikey.

You will say that this is bullshit.  But let me tell you that my whole world view has changed since our Prime Minister, possibly inspired by Hillsong, introduced us to the notion of empathy counselling for MPs who make pigs of themselves.

Just think how the whole course of world history may have been changed if Stalin, Hitler and Mao had had access to empathy counselling under the guidance of a benevolent prince.

Here and there – A Degree in Western Civilisation?

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.  Flaubert to Turgenev.  (Cited by Simon Leys in a speech, The Idea of the University.)

1

Parents, and now grandparents, can well recall the wail from the back seat of the car on a summer’s day – ‘Are we nearly there yet?’  We might ask the same about ‘Western Civilisation’.  But first we might stop to ask what we mean by either ‘civilisation’ or ‘western.’  Most Australians could not give a hoot about either, and that’s just as well, but in a discussion about learning, it may be as well to pause to think, even if just occasionally. 

Set out at the end of this note is an attempt that I made elsewhere to say what the word ‘Civilisation’ may mean. 

What about the word ‘Western’?  West of what?  There is no great consensus except for Europe and the U S.  Russia appears to be out of bounds on most views, but how the U S and some other former parts of the British Empire get to be included in ‘the West’ is a mystery.  What about the West Indies?  What about the America south of the Panama Canal?  What about other European empires?  We may have different views of the impact of France on Egypt or of England upon India, but there is not much room for doubt about how parts of Africa, Asia and South America think about their roles in the Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish empires – the feeling is generally one of contempt, fear and loathing.  What could the people of the Congo tell us about the civilising instincts of the Belgians?  You don’t see too many European versions of the Commonwealth Games.  

The inference you might draw is that in this context, ‘western’ means ‘white.’  But how can a civilisation, however defined be white, black or brown?

If the civilisation of the West was so calamitous in the East, how civilised was it anywhere?  Is there any part of the East that is better off as a result of the empires of the West?

And if you confine Australian students of civilisation to that of the West, how do you explain a blanket denial of any contribution to our civilisation of the people who were here for 60,000 years or so before the Europeans bothered to show their faces?  Do we Europeans still just prefer to proceed on the footing that the best thing to do with our Aborigines is just to ignore them?

If you went to the beach at Manly or Portsea, and you came across a barrier ‘People from the West to the Left and People from the East to the Right’, you would conclude that the authority who put the sign up wanted to segregate bathing at the beach by reference to whether they came from the West of the world or the East.  Presumably the authority concluded that that is what most people using that beach would want or that that kind of segregation accorded with government policy.  Having determined the sense or purpose, of the segregation, you could then go on to consider its decency.  But before you get to the decency of segregating sources of civilisation between those coming from the West and those coming from the East, what sense or purpose could you give for this form of segregation in sources of learning at a university?

Well, with either the term ‘western’ or ‘civilisation,’ there is a lot smoke and haze.  There is not enough to support a rational rubric.  You may or may not be able to develop a logically defensible construct of something called western civilisation, but it will not be defensible as a criterion for teaching something that is inevitably a construct of both East and West.  When the omelette is made, you cannot reproduce the eggs as they were.

Nor can you fall back on Kenneth Clark’s elephant test – I may not be able to define civilisation, but I know it when I meet it.

As labels go, therefore, ‘western civilisation’ is as misleading and deceptive as the other labels subscribed to by those wedded to this one, like ‘elites’, ‘identity politics’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘virtue signalling.’  We may decently regard each one of those labels as a sign pointing to bullshit.

2

Hardly any nation in the West could even begin to be described as civilised in any tenable sense of that term until near the end of the nineteenth century.  Since that time was followed by two world wars, the depression, the holocaust, and the bomb, we are not looking too solid. 

If civilisation is so hard to come by, and to hold on to, why impose a form of geographic exclusion?  Why impose any form of exclusion?  That, as a Danish prince observed, is the question. 

What decent reason can we in the West offer to those in the East for maintaining that our seats of learning should offer our students a course of study of the world that has as a central premise the assumption that the contribution of the East to the civilisation of our world is not worth teaching or learning?  Can we seriously look people in the eye and say that our exclusion of most of the world is not based on hostility, if not superiority?  In a nation that lies under Asia, is it a good idea to say that Asia not worth the look?  What is it about us that drives us to say that we are different? 

If John says to Betty ‘Mine is different’, he is rarely saying that Betty’s is better.  Au contraire.  John remarks upon the difference in order to assert his superiority.  So it was with Kenneth Clark and the African mask and Apollo.  ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask’.  Of course not; one is from Europe; the other is not.  It is from Africa, but implicit in the comment of the white man is the premise that the criteria of ‘civilisation’ are universal.  Is that premise itself not just another manifestation of the white man’s conceit?

If you have ten people in a room and you say that you will speak to only five of them, you straight away get off side with the other five.  Division, especially segregation, leads to friction.  And if your chosen five have any brains, your penchant for division will leave them unready to show you their backs.  They doubt whether you can be trusted.  It is not a function of a university to dabble in communal friction.

If the primary goals of education are to teach tolerance and the need to see all sides of any question, how do we answer the suggestion that this proposed exclusion looks set to frustrate both objectives?

3

Part of the problem comes from the mistiness of Kenneth Clarke and Oxbridge.  When it comes to this fancy concept called civilisation, they lose their hard nose for evidence – what we call empiricism.  They just ripple on like Erroll Garner playing Misty.

Empire and slavery alone disqualify Greece and Rome from being described as civilised.  That’s before you look at their failure to respect the sanctity of human life, or their failure to find a decent form of governance – a failure that dogs them even now.  If anything, Greece was worse on governance than Rome, but very few leaders of the republic or empire of Rome died in their beds.  Gibbon said:

Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same.  A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.

Yes, the Renaissance produced great art, but the republics that produced it were unspeakably cruel, corrupt, unequal, and degenerate; and the David that Kenneth Clark rhapsodised over is for others a gruesome trailer of fascism.  Clark saw in that David ‘a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that we call civilised life….It is the enemy of happiness’ and ‘one of the great events in the history of western man.’  That’s fine for an English aesthete, but I see in that pose the rich man’s Harvey Weinstein.  Recent events in the U S have taught us to look differently upon uppity spoiled brats who want to cast themselves into some heroic mould.

Then, apparently, even some Catholics get dewy eyed about the Reformation, although the continuing failure to reform celibacy still sees horrifying breaches of trust perpetrated on the children of a dying congregation.  People advocating the proposed exclusion of Eastern learning refer to the Reformation as if it were a blessing.  It was not.  Religious schism brought generations of war and misery – as it has and does in the East. 

You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that any division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  ‘Heresy’ might just be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  In about 1948, they were asked what the worst war the Germans had endured was.  They had two examples from the deepest hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.  And that’s before you get to those crimes against humanity called original sin and predestination.

(We can for the moment put to one side the intellectual schism of longer standing between the rationalism, theory and codes of the Continent, and the empiricism, practice and common law of England – except to note that in any history of the West, that difference is fundamental.)

Other people get misty about the French Revolution.  Yes, some high ideals were proclaimed; the French finally got the Church off their backs; and caste took a hit before coming back in spades as class for Balzac, Flaubert and Proust.  But that’s about it.  The horrors led inexorably to the strong man; Napoleon left five million dead in his wake, plus a nation in ruins; and recent events in Paris suggest that France has still not recovered and may yet bring Europe undone.  About one hundred years before the Holocaust, Carlyle foresaw how the horror of the Terror prefigured another disaster for mankind. 

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more:  the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon.  Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald.  Or they may work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect?  Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.  ….  Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; … ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses.  The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’  Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

There is not much that is civilised in making a chamois from the skin of a decapitated dissident or applying to a scalp some mockery of ‘a rather cannibal sort.’

Then of course there is our darling of the New World, the Declaration of Independence.  It, too, expressed fine ideals, but it led to war crimes in a vicious civil war that reminded Churchill of the agony in Ireland, but which does not feature now on the Fourth.  The Declaration contained two callous lies.  The first was that all men were created equal.  The second is less well known.  No history of America has been given that agrees with Jefferson’s list of the reasons for the rebellion.  The Americans rebelled because they did not like paying tax.  They still don’t.  They believe that public money grows on trees.  It is no accident that the loudest non-payers of tax in the U S call themselves after the Tea Party or that the darling of the motley that they elected as their President (Trump) rejoices in not paying tax.  Yet Jefferson sought to bury this issue deep down in a document of self-serving claptrap that might induce a blush even now in a Californian attorney for a grasping plaintiff.  And even then he lied.  He accused the English king of imposing the tax when the whole point of the English Revolution of 1689 was that only the parliament could impose a tax.  Well, whenever someone proudly announces the discovery of a self-evident truth, we know that bullshit is not far away.

(Australians don’t go in for self-evident truths in politics.  They find it so hard to find any form of truth in politics that any proclamation of a self-evident truth just has to be bullshit.)

Now, we don’t call barbaric people civilised just because they do pretty pictures or make nice speeches.   Even before we white people got to them, our first inhabitants were creating art that sells very well now in New York and Paris, and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany had fine sounding declarations of rights – but there are obvious issues about seeking to apply any variation of the theme of civilisation to any of those instances.

It was the insight of Thomas Carlyle that civilisation, however defined, is a very thin veneer.  It can dissolve quickly and reveal the barbarian in us all.  Put differently, we are like Hottentots tip-toeing around the rim of a very live volcano.  One false step and that’s it – with extreme prejudice.

4

Now, these failings and fault lines are obvious, and by and large they are accepted by those who wish to inflict segregation at universities by excluding from a degree course the teaching of the wisdom and beauty of the Orient.  But is not the best way to assess our failures – if ‘our’ is the correct term – to compare that experience with what happened elsewhere? 

In looking at the failures of Greece and Rome – and both their crashes were awful – might we not learn from looking at what happened in, say, Egypt or Persia?  In looking at the flowering of art in Italy and Germany, might we not learn from looking at similar effusions in China or India – or our Aborigines?  Might we reflect on the impact of Japanese art on our Impressionists?  In looking at the misery inflicted on humanity by Christianity in the West, might we not learn from the misery inflicted on humanity by Islam in the East – and now in the West as well?  In looking at the damage wrought by the French Revolution, might we not learn from the damage wrought by what is still called the Indian Mutiny or the Russian Revolution?  In looking at the hypocrisy of the Athenian Empire – which they spun as the Delian Confederacy – might we not look at the hypocrisy of the British Empire?  In assessing the grandeur of Lincoln, Churchill or Bonhoeffer, might we not learn from looking at Ghandi, Mandela, or Ho Chi Min?

In short, in trying to assess the ups and downs of that shifting notion called western civilisation, why should we abandon the process of thought – suck it and see, aka empiricism – that underlies our bodies of learning called science and the common law?  At what point in the course does the university apologise for wanton cultural vandalism and intellectual castration?

Let me take a brief look at what the students might miss from China.  A mate who knows China gave a quick thumb sketch.

The finest public service the world has ever known or dreamed about over a period of more than a thousand years.  A foreign policy that spurned invasion of foreign countries or interference in their affairs.  An intellectual life as rich as the Greeks – Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, and so on.  An unmatched artistic life – poetry, calligraphy, painting, novels, and essays.  A belief system centred on family values and no Godcentric nonsense.

He was speaking of China before the intervention of the West, and he later added that he had forgotten tea.  I’m not sure about gunpowder.  Or the distinct cooking on our former gold fields, but which derives from the family values referred to above.

5

It may be that those who seek to promote this constriction of our learning think that we can detect a theme of progress as mankind moves forward.  This proposition is, I gather, firmly contested.

In some ways we can see mankind undergoing a series of ‘progressive’ liberations.  We got free of kings (or at least those of the absolute variety).  We cut free of the supernatural of witch doctors and priests.  We developed sources of knowledge like science and the law that obliterated the monopoly that some kings and priests had lorded over us.  We finally got rid of the aristocracy, although social snobbery is incurable.  It is curious that people who champion western civilisation celebrate what is called the Enlightenment with such passion when that movement was just another phase of our liberation from the supernatural – which for present purposes is represented by that other apple of their eye, Judaeo-Christianity.

Down here, we still think that the best at this were the English because that’s how we were brought up.  They started toilet training their kings, nobles and priests in about 1215 and over the next 700 years they brought them into line.  (In contrast, Russia is still getting over the shock of lighting the fuse in 1917, and the French still invoke the right to revolt that they wrote into their Declaration of Rights in 1789; as mentioned, the American Declaration of 1776 had its own failings.) 

Macaulay said this:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.  In both cases, the spirit of innovation was at first encouraged by the class to which it was likely to be most prejudicial….In both cases, the convulsion which had overthrown deeply seated errors shook all the principles on which society rests to their very foundations.  The minds of men were unsettled.

6

These propositions are large, but until recently I sympathised with the notion that we might be moving upwards. 

In the past few years that faith has taken a big hit.  In that time, two pinnacles of what is called western civilisation have succumbed to the tocsin of the gullible and surrendered power to people who are opposed to most of what those invoking the term civilisation are said to stand for.  I am referring to the U K and the U S.  If Nigel Farage or Donald Trump is the product of western civilisation, we are in real strife.  If either is an answer, then the question doesn’t bear thinking about.

Well, accidents can happen in the best of families, but what is deeply troubling is the role played in the descent to the underbelly by those who should know better – those people who had claimed, falsely as we now know, to be conservative. 

The cowardice of the Republicans and the bitchy inanity of the Tories are faintly mirrored in the Antipodes by the impotence of what is called the Coalition.  The three political parties, and their minders in the Murdoch press or Fox or Sky News, have two things in common.  One is an addiction to ideology that is as false to our Anglo-Saxon and common law heritage as you can get.  The other is that their jealous pride in their own ignorance allows them to bet the planet on their prejudices.  Their betrayal of conservatism is now complete.

Angela Merkel said:

Sometimes my greatest fear is that we have somehow lost the inner strength to stand up for our way of life.  To which we can only say: if we have lost that, then we might also lose our prosperity and success.

And we are reminded of the remark of Sebastian Haffner about the failure of the better people to deal with Adolf Hitler.

The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding’.  This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial….  At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed.  They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown….  The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line.  No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler had to intervene.  All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law. 

The fear is that what was built up over a millennium may wash away inside one generation.  Have we been unwise enough to build our house upon the sand?

7

Those events have shaken whatever faith I may have had in what is called western civilisation.  But then it gets worse.  The people behind the recent ideological disruptions in this country are aligned with, if not personally a part of, the movement to exclude the teaching of the East and to put blinkers on our universities in the manner under discussion. 

We are speaking of what might be called the radical fringe of the Liberal Party and their well-paid cheer squads in the Murdoch press, Sky News After Dark, and the Institute of Public Affairs.  (Sky News After Dark is the pale rider’s version of Fox News.  Rupert Murdoch really does have a lot to answer for.)  They bang on so interminably about western civilisation that you wonder if it is a Masonic code for something else.  These people forego sensible discussion to make rude and unprofessional remarks about the ABC. Fairfax and CNN, which on a bad day get labelled as the ‘love media.’  The effluent is at its worst when coming from those brought into the media by politicians or think tanks.  And they celebrate their parochialism from afar by championing Brexit to the death.  Gustave Flaubert or George Eliot would have gazed with wonder on their provincialism.

My country does not have a pantheon for prime ministers – or at all.  (Since we currently average about one P M a year, our abstention might be prudent.)  When I spoke of ideologues off side with our historical roots, I had in mind John Howard and Tony Abbott. 

We can put the latter to one side.  Mr Abbott has spent his life in loving subjection to two foreign potentates – the Queen of England and the Pope in the Vatican.  Given that the English Constitution bars any Catholic from wearing the English Crown, that is a remarkable contribution to what John Keats called negative capability.  Unfortunately for him, us, and the Ramsay Centre, Mr Abbott now is a sad unreformed joker who has overstayed his welcome after being fired for knighting a duke – although the damage that he personally has exposed the planet to should not be overlooked or forgiven.  (And when you think of it, is it not rich for someone posing as a statesman to allow his personal prejudice to stand in the way of safeguarding the welfare of the nation?)

Mr John Winston Howard joined George W Bush and Tony Blair in declaring war on a nation that had nothing to do with us, much less than pose a threat us.  They did so on the basis of at least one premise that was false.  It is hard for the leader of a nation to commit a greater sin than to lead their nation into war on a false basis.  We are still paying a fearful price.  As a result George W Bush and Tony Blair are widely rejected if not reviled at home.  Not so with Mr Howard.  Perhaps no-one noticed him.  Perhaps his plain ordinariness saved him.  He might come within the description that Balzac gave to his leading character:

……he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy.

There is more.  As I said elsewhere, putting to one side the Tampa and the babies:

Can’t say sorry to the aborigines.  Can’t say goodbye to the British.  Can’t say no to the Americans.  A hemisphere out of place; a century out of date; and not a principle to be seen.  The spiritual heir of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Mr. Howard, is a relic lost among the cobwebs of the colony he cannot escape from. 

That reminds me that Mr Abbott was described as the god-child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.  Her taste for low flying in helicopters now sees her on Sky News After Dark serenading people who believe people like Hanson or Trump, but who rejoices in the right of the people to protest, at least to the extent that the protests that she led with Tony Abbott saved us from the carbon tax.  (And the godmother shows her title to the team jersey by dropping dark hints on live TV about the deep mystery of George Soros.)

And in between strutting and fretting about the world stage in gold and green pyjamas, and posing as a connoisseur of cricket, and looking righteously concerned under an Akubra hat, Mr Howard appointed his ideological soul mates to the board of the ABC, including Michael Kroger and Janet Albrechtsen.  Mr Howard does not think that this nation can be trusted to survive on its own without the British Crown, but he is prepared to trash a national institution for party political purposes.  What damage might he do then if we let him lay his hands on a decent university?

7

So what? 

The Ramsay Centre put those two Australian politicians on its board of directors.  Its website gushes about their political successes and it does not blush about the political dreams and aspirations of the late Paul Ramsay.  Mr Ramsay had a mission.

He also wanted to create over time a cadre of leaders – Australians whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values, of the challenges that have confronted leaders and people, with that broad heritage in the past, would help guide their decision making in the future.

Parents may have different views about trusting schools to train their children as ‘leaders,’ but would you want your child trained to be one of a cadre of leaders of this nation’s heritage and values?  ‘Cadre’ has a militant if not military ring to it.  A cadre is there for a cause.  The Compact OED has ‘a small group of people trained for a particular purpose or profession’ and ‘a group of activists in a revolutionary organization.’  Fowler is to a similar effect. 

Good grief, is your son being drafted into the Jesuits?  Of course, not.  We can safely put to one side the word ‘revolutionary’ here – that is emphatically not Mr Howard’s shtick.  But, good heavens – activists!  In the label laden lexicon of the political warriors promoting the Ramsay Centre, you don’t get much lower than activist.  And what does the word ‘Western’ do for the blackfellas?

The word ‘cadre’ there surprised me.  For some reason that word in this context brought to mind some observations about Loyola by the Reverend J M Thompson (in his Lectures on Foreign History, 1494-1789):

….the romantic and crusading spirit of the Spaniard, the fanatical and medieval piety of the Catholic, the soldier’s belief in discipline and organisation.  We find them all in the Constitution of the Order….But if one stops to think, how does the Jesuit training differ, unless perhaps in conscientious intensity, from that of West Point or Saint Cyr?….As for liberty of thought, there is no more room for patriotic agnosticism in West Point than for religious agnosticism in a Jesuit College.

We are talking about two politicians from the same party, not about Victor Trumper or Phar Lap.  These two politicians are both widely seen as failed Prime Ministers.  They are the source of deep division and no little revulsion in our community.  It is hard to think of a better way of getting up the noses of any decent Australian University than by saying, with a straight face, that we come with the blessing of these two politicians – but that there are no politics involved; none at all.  It is just a pure accident of history that your benefactor chose two controversial – perhaps partisan, even – party political people to represent him.  We just want to confer our disinterested benefit on you for the academic benefit of the university and the nation.

Balls. 

Messrs Howard and Abbott are missionaries, people with a cause.  They are out to recruit cadres to that cause.  This is their finale in the cess-pit called Australian politics.   It’s as if all their life up unto this time had been but a preparation for this trial.  Just look at the middle name of John Howard.

Our missionaries could of course have got up the nose of the Chancellor if they simply overturned a truck of snuff on the Chancellor’s desk, or they could have beetled into Cambridge or Oxford waving a wad of cash and saying that it comes with the blessing of the late Mrs Thatcher – and then watched the inmates choose the window for the inevitable defenestration.  (I here speak from personal knowledge.)

So, this tawdry affront to our intellectual heritage looks to be little more than a crass political stunt by a very wealthy man who got some very bad political advice.  Whoever got the idea of launching this ship of state with these two political warriors at the helm was not too bright.  The ship deserved to sink as soon as it hit the water.  Because the project was politically charged, it is intellectually maimed.

And are we not put out by the suggestion that the education of our youth should be left to these two faded relics of a vanished empire?

8

May I go back to my first question?  West of what? 

The Israelis may get shirty because they are on the wrong side of the Bosporus.  They might fairly respond that so were Moses and Jesus, and that therefore the West cannot claim the heritage of any of their teaching.  Moses and Jesus were of, by, and for the East.  They were at least as Asian as Mohammed or Mao Zedong.  Wagner, and many of his ilk, never forgave Jesus for being Jewish – but not many of the painters of Jesus put an uncomfortable level of colour into his visage. 

This may be why the exclusionists are so hot for Augustine and Aquinas.  They took the teaching of a simple Jewish holy man and purged it of every last bit of Asia by drenching it in Plato and Aristotle and locking it safely away beyond the reach of the merely vulgar.  (I may say that any suggestion that Augustine or Aquinas might go into some kind of ‘great books’ selection would be hilarious for many reasons – even for that minority of students that has God.)

Is, then, Russia, or too much of it, on the wrong or east side of the Urals?  Many have problems with describing Russia as civilised, but we know that they would say that that is just our European prejudice for rejecting the high place in the history of mankind of the great people who stopped the two greatest predators – Napoleon and Hitler – known to mankind after Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.  Well, if we still exclude Russia, a list of ‘great books’ that leaves out, say, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov is going to look like a sad bastard mutant.

9

Well, others may say that all that is silly.  I would agree entirely, but it is a silliness that flows from a stated position of an arbitrary and unnecessary division of the world.  It is very hard to split the world into East and West and not have each pooh-pooh the other.  Indeed, the division of the world for the purposes of ‘Western civilisation’ now looks so arbitrary that you cannot help but think that it is driven by a sentiment of exclusion that is at least as old as the Old Testament but which now dares not speak its name.

It is, then, hard to make sense of the term western civilisation.  It is even harder to justify employing that term – in any relevant sense – to exclude from our education sources of knowledge, wonder, and beauty from the East or from our Aborigines.  The process of exclusion or segregation is itself bad because it leads to conflict.  That’s why, for example, many object to clubs that exclude women – or people of colour or a different faith – or people from the East.  Australian universities are not there to close Australian minds or to foster division within and hostility without the nation. 

It follows in my view that those who have had the benefit of an education at an Australian university should regard any attempt to promote a sponsored degree in western civilisation as a threat to the integrity of that university.  In my view, we should actively resist that threat – not least because it is being sponsored by politicians who have a lot of form for engaging in nasty, harmful, and unnecessary ideological bunfights. 

The threat is also sponsored, or at least promoted, by that part of the press that follows two dicta: you must say something different even if it is silly; but it’s OK to be predictable, as long as you stay on a war footing and preach to the faithful.  Those drivers may look to be contradictory to the novice, but they bear a worrying reflection in the proposed degree.  All these sponsors may operate on the fringe, but that fact offers no immunity to the centre.

And many, if not most, supporters of the Ramsay Centre have indulged in a point blank if sulky denial of learning, at least as it is manifested in what we call science.  They have stood squarely against what a university stands for.  Their version of logic was expressed by Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe it.’  Their version of voodoo is a little more difficult to explain.  Mr Abbott is the very public champion of this denial of learning.  He is not a man that you would want to give any power to in a place of learning.

These people routinely slaughter both language and logic.  Here is a sample.

…citizens and entire nations are judged according to their professed loyalty to PC dogma.  Open borders, multicultural ideology, minority fundamentalism and casual antipathy to Western civilisation are common values of Eurocratic elites….Its cadres denounce democracy when the tide of public opinion is against them…They have so little regard for the truth that politically correct ideology is presented as fact.  They dismiss the Western tradition because its basis in public reason means the peasants can speak truth to power.

That is bullshit.If you take out the clichés, you are left with what Louis XVI put in his diary on 14 July 1789.  Rien.  Thank God for the East.

But what you need to notice is the fear held for Western civilisation or tradition and the consequent resentment.  The sense of victimhood is almost palpable.  Why do we fear broadening our mind, or expanding our intellectual of cultural platform?  Do we not fear and reject regimes who seek to do just that?

10

Norma and Mac, my mum and dad, never got to university.  As was common among those coming of age during the depression, they left school to go to work at about the age of thirteen.  They sent me to a state school and then a private (public) school.  They both worked for that purpose.  The Commonwealth of Australia then picked up the tab for my five years at Melbourne University. 

Like many of my age, I am appalled that a government that consists in large part of men who had the benefit of that kind of funding of universities now turns the tap off for the next generation.  Bugger you, Jack, I’m OK.  That sadly is so very Australian now.  Are we really so poor or so mean?

This conduct of our government defies both logic and decency in a young and wealthy nation that has an obvious interest in staying ahead of the mob.  Now, having converted our universities into common street walkers, like sluts in white boots, the politicians are supplying the procurers to pay them off for selling themselves short in what many would see as little more than debauchery. 

They may well think that those universities that are weak enough to roll over might have some latterday Baden Powell or Cecil Rhodes who may come within the spirit of that old gag that they used to tell on World of Sport ­about a young footballer going out on his first date with Raquel Welch – he thought that something wonderful might happen, but he wasn’t quite sure how.

Well, Mac and Norma may not have had a university education, but they had an earthier grip on the facts of life than a lot of my generation do now.  They knew the truth of the saying that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.  The mighty dollar has eroded the truth of that proposition for far too many of us.

Here we are, in my view,in the territory of Caesar’s wife.  Not only should a university not put its integrity at risk, it should avoid any conduct that might be seen to do that in parts of the community at large 

One way that the beneficiaries of a good university – its former students – might encourage that university to follow that policy would be by making any gift to that university expressly subject to a condition prescribing the failure or withdrawal of the gift if the university later agrees to accept funding in a way or from a source that the person making the gift thinks would compromise the integrity of the university.  That is the course that I propose to follow. 

If that idea were to take hold – if the alumni were to engage in communal action – if they were to become activists – we might see the dollar sign shining brightly on the other side of the ledger as well.  We might hope that the dollar power of past students between them could match the dollar power of Messrs Murdoch and Ramsay. 

11

We might recall that at its birth, the Commonwealth of Australia had as much if not more passion than the Ramsay Centre about preserving its heritage.  Our heritage then was described as our British heritage.  Some blushed at the notion that we would exclude Orientals.  Others were not so coy.  Our first Prime Minister, the jovial and clubby ‘Toss-pot’ Barton, said: ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’  We Australians would not be trapped in the same lie as the Americans about equality.  We would call a spade a bloody spade, Mate, and a Chinaman a bloody Chow. 

That nice Mr Deakin, another P M, was educated enough to wish different peoples ‘to associate without degradation on either side,’ but he too insisted ‘on a united race’.  In the end we used a cheap and dishonest ploy to discriminate against Orientals, and when the founder of the Liberal Party, ‘Pig-iron’ Bob Menzies, another P M and former Wesley student, was asked to ease the immigration policy because it was discriminatory; he replied with the assurance of a pukka sahib: ‘Good thing too – right sort of discrimination.’  (Sir Robert, as he would later surely become, was prone to inflict high Tory dismissals from under his lofty eyebrows.  When I hear his name now, I think of the glorious line in Henry V of Montjoy, the French herald, before Agincourt: ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial’.)  

To round off on our Liberal P M’s, Mr Howard was wont to say that our level of Asian immigration was too high – he thought that multiculturalism was ‘aimless, divisive.’  But, then, Mr Howard was often eager to wound but afraid to strike, and he would dismiss these musings with a cliché about black armbands; his psyche has no room for either mourning or for saying sorry to the blackfellas.

Well we have got over our hang-ups about British heritage and of excluding coloured migrants under the cover of insisting on migrants having a European heritage.  We as a nation are immeasurably better off as a result.  Are we now to agree to go backwards and seek to preserve our intellectual heritage by excluding learning that is not European?  And are we to do just that in the halls of our higher learning? 

The mere suggestion is revolting – but what decent explanation can be given for another exclusion of the Orientals?

What I may call my university should not, in my view, take any step that might in any way be reasonably seen by some as inviting any form of return of any aspect of the White Australia Policy.  There may be room for argument on that point, but there can be no doubt that the policy of segregation of the Ramsay Centre involves discriminating against the ideas and values of the East. 

I regard that form of discrimination as wrong in itself.  That in my view should be the end of it.  I simply refuse to apply the ultimate denigratory label to discriminating against people and ideas from different parts of the world.  That term is both inflammatory and abused.  Rather, I base my opposition to the Ramsay Centre on two grounds set out above.  First, it is bullshit.  Secondly, it is pernicious.

Excerpt on Civilization

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’.  People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ obviously use the word in this final sense.  They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery or their many-godded naturalistic religions.  They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life that is at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’.  Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

In his wonderful TV series and book, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark asked what civilisation is.  He said: ‘I don’t know.  I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet.’  He then compared a tribal African mask to a sculpture of the 4th century B C, the Apollo of the Belvedere.  He said ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask.’  He supported that claim in this way.

There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.  But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something.  It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these quantities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.  He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways – through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the physical world.  The children of the imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

It is curious that Clark made no reference to ‘the arts’, ‘enlightenment’ or the ‘refinement’ of the OED – they are most emphatically what his series and book were all about.  We find there very few references to myths, music, dance, or philosophy.  Instead, we now hear of a quest for ‘an ideal of perfection’ which will apparently do enough to balance ‘the superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world.’

There are at least three issues with the notions identified in the OED or by Kenneth Clark.  First, most people could not give a hoot about and do not appreciate the kinds of enlightenment or refinement referred to; indeed, most people in a pub would have trouble in following just what Clark was saying. 

Then the relative terms are in any event very plastic.  Views may differ on what is art, what is refined, or what is enlightened, or what might be seen as an attempt to reach the ideal of perfection.  What if a member of the tribe represented by the African mask did not think much of the Apollo of the Belvedere?  By what criteria might a product of the Western Establishment say that the black man was wrong?  What might we say about the adverse reaction of a slave from the sweat of whose brow the Apollo was wrought?  I might say that if I were choosing art for my home or place of work, I would much prefer the African mask to the Apollo of the Belvedere; but, then, I like aboriginal art, which would have been foreign to Clark, and pop art, which would have appalled him.  The fact that the Apollo is a ludicrously idealised and stylised portrait of a vain pagan god that Napoleon looted from the Vatican does not add to its charms.

And, finally, it is not much good having a refined ear for Mozart’s Requiem if you can be murdered in your bed, or your having a Ph D for analysing the downward smile of the Mona Lisa of Da Vinci if you can be cast into prison forever on the mere say so of a prince or a bishop – or if you just cannot get enough food or water to live.

In my view, most people in the West now have a different view of what the word ‘civilised’ should mean.  They would, I believe, go along with something like the following.  In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met. 

  • It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group. 
  • It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure.  (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
  • It observes the rule of law and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members. 
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption. 
  • It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others. 

Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.

You will have seen that my definition makes no reference to refinement or enlightenment or to ‘the arts’ or the ‘ideal’.  This is because I view government much like I view education.  The object of education is to teach people reading, writing, and arithmetic – any grace, taste, or faith they may get from that source will be a bonus.  I see government as there to protect us from each other and from itself – any refinement or enlightenment is, for the most part, a matter for us and not government. 

On the other hand, I can imagine people wanting to refer to religion in their criteria – historically, at least, the first of my criteria is based on religion – and also to some kind of social equality and a refuge or safety net for those who do not do so well, but I am conscious of the difficulty in getting agreement at these edges.  The requirement of ‘legal equality’ does, however, come in under the rule of law.

If a definition like that set out above were to be applied, then no state could have been regarded as civilised until about the beginning of the twentieth century, and then only in the West.  I do not think that such a suggestion would seem odd to men and women in the street today in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York.   I think that public opinion in the West has moved on since the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and that we attach more weight to the protection of human rights and dignity, and from our own annihilation, than some impossibly enlightened and refined works of art whose real secrets are not revealed to the unwashed.

In any event, you can make up your own mind on when in your view any nation ought or ought not to be able to call itself ‘civilised.’  No historian can play God.  But you may wish to bear in mind the different meanings of civilisation, or the weights to be given to its parts, and you might ask this question – did either ancient Athens or ancient Rome satisfy any of the five criteria set out above?  How many do you think that either satisfies now?

Passing Bull 267–Bloviating

My Oxford English Dictionary has not got to ‘bloviate’ yet, but I gather it means to talk windily or wordily – if there is such a word.  Greg Sheridan used it once or twice, but then I think he stopped using it.  Perhaps because his paper makes an art form of it.  Here are the starts of two articles in The Australian the other day.  One is by Paul Kelly.

In the contemporary world, politics follows culture.  But what has happened in Australia over the past month is that culture is not predetermining politics – it is devouring it.  Scott Morrison confronts a long seeded cultural change originating in the everyday experience of women, yet an ideological movement filled with revolutionary dimensions.  Fifty years ago, most people saw sexual relations as a private issue – but sexual relations are now a political issue, indeed a frontline political issue.  The Liberal Party struggles to manage this – just as conservative parties around the world are struggling with such a revolutionary change.  It arises from two events – the almost mundane demand of feminism that women be treated with genuine respect in every aspect of life and the rise of the politics of the self, the politicisation of feelings and of psychological oppression no longer to be tolerated.

The other was by Dennis Shanahan.

Scott Morrison has strategically moved to broaden the issue of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women into a societal problem that is not restricted to Parliament House or the Liberal Party.  Simultaneously, Labor has tactically sought to microscopically concentrate on the Prime Minister, his reactions and responsibility for despicable sexualised behaviour that is being revealed.

Well, if you know the distinction between politics and culture, you will have no trouble with the distinction between societal and social, or sexual and sexualised, and no problem in seeing how Clausewitz would have distinguished between the strategic response of the government and the tactical approach of the opposition.  (Naturally, in the Murdoch press, it is Labor that is demeaned.)  But from what was Prime Minister Morrison moving so strategically?  Apart from a certified moron, and the ghost of Chairman Mao, does anyone on earth believe that the problem of sexual harassment is ‘restricted to Parliament House or the Liberal Party’?  And what is the ‘revolutionary change’ that people are struggling with – as against ‘the long seeded cultural change’?  And what could be ‘private’ about an allegation rape in the office of a Federal Minister involving two people on my payroll?

There’s a much older word than ‘bloviation’ for this stuff.  It’s bullshit.