Here and there – Religious fanatics


When the play Richard II begins, some big-hitting magnates are at each other’s throats.  One character refers to some ‘soon-believing adversaries’ (1.1.101). The Oxford editor gives ‘easy-to-convince’ for ‘soon-believing’. Another word is ‘gullible,’ for which the Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘capable of being gulled; easily duped.’  But Shakespeare’s phrase has a cool feel to it.  It catches the ear, and there is no reference to causation.

We have recently seen a lot of soon-believing or gullible types in the UK and the US.  Many have fallen for snake-oil salesmen like Farage or Trump. But it’s not just mountebanks and cranks who prey on soon-believers.  Religious fanatics just love them.  It’s amazing how fanatics and soon-believers find each other out.

Throughout history, religious fanatics have engaged in murder and terrorism.  A horrifying instance is described by Mario Vargas Llosa in his novel The War of the End of the World.  It is based on events in Brazil near the end of the nineteenth century known as the War of Canudos.

It happened in a very poor part of semi-arid backlands of Brazil and it was driven by poor people who had been left behind.  It took place soon after Brazil became a republic, and shortly after slavery had been abolished.  A charismatic preacher called Antonio Consulheiro, who became known as the Counselor, predicted that the world would end at the turn of the century.  People soon believed him.  He developed a large following.  A lot of these people had been bandits, and they knew about killing. The faithful believed that the Republic was the work of Satan, and they said Brazil had done wrong in seeking to separate church and state.  They liked them fused in the empire.  They settled in a town called Canudos.

The government sought to weed them out, but the fanatics, who did not fear death, repelled three different moves against them by regular troops.  The town, or what was left of it, eventually fell.  The carnage and starvation and cruelty were beyond description.  About 30,000 died. Very few prisoners were taken. The Counselor had died before the fall, but they dug him up, and the photo resembles another murderous mystic, Rasputin.  The remains of Canudos resembled the remains of Mosul.

The novel deals with all this horror around seven main actors.  The three historical fanatics commence with the Counselor. He is a prayerful ascetic who prefers war and death to any kind of religious corruption.  He is, if you like, a Catholic puritan.  Then there is a Scot called Galileo Gall who is a kind of permanent revolutionary. When he tries to indoctrinate the illiterate crazies with a secular socialist vision, the results are entertaining.  Then there is Colonel Moreira César, a career soldier who is a cold blooded killer.  He saves ammunition by throat-slitting and is so named.

There are two political adversaries.  The Baron de Canabrava is old time nobility and a naturally suave politician and leader of men.  His wife Estela is a gorgeous aristocrat not built to face these horrors.  The opposition is led by Epaminondas Gonçalves, a nouveau newspaper man of plastic standards who spins the yarn that Canudos is an anti-republican plot sponsored by England.  He, too, finds plenty of soon-believers.

But the two main characters are I think fictitious.  One is a journalist who works for Gonçalves having worked for the baron.  He wears thick glasses and is referred to throughout as ‘the nearsighted journalist.’  He is intelligent and inquisitive, but nervy, and his nerves send him into spasms of sneezing.  He is locked in at Canudos under siege, and his glasses shatter.  He is therefore effectively blind. For company he has three rejects from a circus, A Bearded Lady, a Dwarf, and an Idiot.  This is high theatre. The near-sighted journalist is a kind of Greek chorus, although as the novel goes on, he gets more involved.

The principal character for me is Jurema.  She is a plain, decent human being who is much put upon and abused.  She represents suffering humanity – and, perhaps, God.  She is like Brecht’s Mother Courage.  The stories of the near-sighted journalist and Jurema form the literary or emotional heart of this novel.

And it is a real epic.  If you wanted to plot it on a literary graph, you might draw a line from Euripides to Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Faulkner to McCarthy to Marquez.  This is a seriously big book.  The Nobel Prize winning author thought it was his best.  It is not to be entered into unadvisedly.  The violence, cruelty, and starvation are awful.  Rape appears to have been a national past-time, as well as an incident if not instrument of war.

This is the baron addressing Gonçalves.

I admit that I have become obsolete.  I functioned better in the old system, when it was a question of getting people to follow established customs and practices, of negotiating, persuading, using diplomacy and politesse.  That’s all over and done with today of course.  The hour has come for action, daring, violence, even crimes.  What is needed now is a total dissociation of politics from morality.

Does that ring a bell?  When did you last hear the word ‘politesse’? Later, the baron says:

Let us keep our Republic from turning into what so many other Latin American republics have: a grotesque witches’ Sabbath where all is chaos, military uprisings, corruption, demagogy…’

Sadly, they’re still there.

Others had to compromise to meet the new order.  When César is ordered to retreat, we get this.

‘You know I had to resign myself to conspiring with corrupt petty politicians.’  Moreira César’s voice rises and falls abruptly, even absurdly. ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’ve lied to the country in vain?’ 

The book might prove that the depravity of war is capable of being described by an artist other than Goya, but the book also reminds of an essential truth.

‘It’s easier to imagine the death of one person than those of a hundred or a thousand’, the baron murmured. ‘When multiplied, suffering becomes abstract.  It is not easy to be moved by abstract things.’

‘Unless one has seen first one, then ten, a hundred, a thousand, thousands suffer,’ the nearsighted journalist answered.  ‘If the death of Gentil de Castro was absurd, many of those in Canudos died for reasons no less absurd.’

Two words that recur in this book are equally revolting – honour and martyr.  Jurema is advised to knock back a proposal from Pajeu, a once vicious soon-believer.

‘But we can’t break the news to him all at once.  We mustn’t hurt his feelings.  People like Pajeu are so sensible that it’s like a terrible malady.  Another thing that’s always amazed me about people like him is their touchy sense of honour.  It’s as though they were one great open wound.  They don’t have a thing to their names, but they possess a surpassing sense of honour.  It’s their form of wealth’.

Exactly – that’s why those who have not got one are so jealous of their citizenship, and so anxious to prevent others getting into their club. It’s their only form of wealth.  Soon-believers are very big on exclusion.  Just look at Trump and Muslims.

The great strength of this book is in its epic architecture.  But even in translation, we come across wonderful writing.  Here is the baron reflecting on his wife Estela and her maid, Sebastiana.

As he saw her settle in the armchair at Estela’s bedside, the thought ran through the baron’s mind that she was still a woman with a firm, beautiful, admirably preserved figure.  Just like Estela, he said to himself.  And in a wave of nostalgia, he remembered that in the first years of their marriage he had come to feel such intense jealousy that it kept him awake nights on seeing the camaraderie, the inviolable intimacy that existed between the two women.  He went back to the dining room, and saw through a window that the night sky was covered with clouds that hid the stars.  He remembered, smiling, that because of his feelings of jealousy, he had one day asked Estela to dismiss Sebastiana; the argument that had ensued had been the most serious one of their entire married life.  He entered the dining room with the vivid painful image, still intact, of the baroness, her cheeks on fire, defending her maidservant and repeating over and over that if Sebastiana left, she was leaving too.  This memory, which had long remained a spark setting his desire aflame, moved him to the depths now.  He felt like weeping.

The gullible are always with us – and inside us.  There’s one born every minute. We often read of people putting their life savings into a gold mine or Bitcoin.  The soon-believers here surrendered body and soul to the Counselor.  They believed him because they wanted what he was offering and they had not been brought up to know better.  The people of the blessed Jesus reviled others as Protestants, Freemasons, and dogs.  For their pains, the whole tribe gets wiped out.  Well, every faith has its failures and cancers, but on the basis of this great novel, it is not easy to see any part of South America being improved by religion of any kind at all.

This is as strong a novel as I have read.

Dickens and America – and Christmas Greetings

(Dickens frequently gets a run at this time of year, but not in this context.  If the note conveys a small part of the pleasure I got from the novel, then I may have contributed to Christmas.  I’m aware that tomorrow will be hard for those who have taken a hit since last Christmas, and Wolf and I offer our best wishes to you.)

The hero of Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit goes to America, frequently described in the book as the ‘U-nited States’.  The book was published in 1843-4 – after Dickens had visited America and nearly twenty years before the Union fractured into civil war over slavery.  The picture painted of the U S is very far from being pretty.

On the day that Martin first lands in New York, he meets a colonel, who he later ascertains is a conman, who runs a journal that he describes as ‘the organ of our aristocracy in this city.’

‘Oh!  There is an aristocracy here, then?’  said Martin.  ‘Of what is it composed?’

‘Of intelligence, sir,’ replied the colonel; ‘of intelligence and virtue.  And of their necessary consequence in this republic.  Dollars, sir.’

A bit later, there is another backhander.  One American says that he hoped the word ‘master’ was ‘never heard in our country… There are no masters here.’

‘All ‘owners’ are they?’ said Martin.

After describing a lunch in a New York hotel where the men are segregated from the women, Dickens describes the atmosphere among the men.

It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word.  Dollars.  All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars.  Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars.  Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.  The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end.  The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars.  Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft.  Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier.  Do anything for dollars!  What is a flag to them!

Then, still on his first day in this place in the land of Liberty, Martin is forced to disclose to his hosts (the Norrises) at dinner that he had come over in steerage – the worst part of the ship that was reserved for the poorest migrants.

A deathlike stillness fell upon the Norrises.  If this story should get wind, their country relation had, by his imprudence, for ever disgraced them.  They were the bright particular stars of an exalted New York sphere.  There were other fashionable spheres above them, and other fashionable spheres below, and none of the stars in any of these spheres had anything to say to the stars in any other of these spheres.  But, through all the spheres it would go forth that the Norrises, deceived by gentlemanly manners and appearances, had, falling from their high estate, ‘received’ a dollarless and unknown man.  O guardian eagle of the pure Republic, had they lived for this!

It looks as if Dickens had seen what others see on the east coast of the U S – that snobbery based on the dollar can be far, far more venomous than snobbery based on birth.

Later we get a full polemic on slavery.

Again this happy chronicle has Liberty and Moral Sensibility for its high companions.  Again it breathes the blessed air of Independence; again it contemplates with pious awe that moral sense which renders unto Caesar nothing that is his; again inhales that sacred atmosphere which was the life of him – oh noble patriot, with many followers!  – who dreamed of Freedom in a slave’s embrace, and waking sold her offspring and his own in public markets.

How the wheels clank and rattle, and the tram-road shakes, as the train rushes on!  And now the engine yells, as it were lashed and tortured like a living labourer, and writhed in agony.  A poor fancy; for steel and iron are of infinitely greater account, in this commonwealth, than flesh and blood.  If the cunning work of man be urged beyond its power of endurance, it has within it the elements of its own revenge; whereas the wretched mechanism of the Divine Hand is dangerous with no such property, but may be tampered with, and crushed, and broken, at the driver’s pleasure.  Look at that engine!  It shall cost a man more dollars in the way of penalty and fine, and satisfaction of the outraged law, to deface in wantonness that senseless mass of metal, than to take the lives of twenty human creatures.  Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns oppression in its vilest aspect, for her sister.

That is the second insult to the flag – in a nation which does not take kindly to that kind of insult.  The hero then gets into a train which is divided into three carriages – one for the gentlemen, one for ladies, and one for negroes.  The editor tells me that the reference to the ‘noble patriot’ is a reference to Jefferson who, a local poet said, returned ‘fresh from freedom’s councils to whip or seduce his black slaves’.  The word ‘seduce’ is surely wrong there.

All this takes place in a comic novel.  There is an absurd body called the Watertoast Association that appears to have no function other than to celebrate Freedom, a word used and abused ad nauseam.  But a meeting of the Association is brought to a halt by the most ghastly intelligence.  The presiding General tells the meeting that they have been seriously mistaken in a man apparently crucial to the founding of the Association.  The General has just received intelligence that the man has been and is the advocate of ‘Nigger emancipation’.

If anything beneath the sky be real, those Sons of Freedom would have pistolled, stabbed – in some way slain – that man by coward hands and murderous violence, if he had stood among them at that time.  The most confiding of their countrymen would not have wagered then; no, nor would they ever peril one dunghill straw, upon the life of any man in such a strait.  They tore the letter, cast the fragments in the air, trod down the pieces as they fell; and yelled, and groaned, and hissed, till they could cry no longer.

They immediately vote to disband the Association and decide to disburse its funds to appropriate sources – a certain constitutional judge ‘who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man’; a Patriot who had declared from his high place in the Legislature that he and his friends would hang without trial any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit; and to aid the enforcement of those free and equal laws which render it much more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write than to roast him alive in a public city.

Presumably, this novel has not enjoyed its best sales in the South.  This is how Mark Tapley, the faithful follower of the hero, states his views about the Americans after they find out that they have been conned into buying into a swamp.

‘There’s one good thing in this place, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, scrubbing away at the linen, ‘as disposed as me to be jolly; and that is that it’s a reg’lar United States in itself.  There’s  two or three American settlers left; and they coolly comes over one, even here, sir, as if it was the wholesomest and loveliest spot in the world.  But there like the cock that went and hid itself to save his life, and was found out by the noise he made.  They can’t help crowing.  They was born to do it, and do it they must, whatever comes of it.

This is followed by a conversation between Martin and a proud local.

‘How do you like our country, sir?’ he enquired, looking at Martin.

‘Not at all.’

Chollop continued to smoke without the least appearance of emotion, until he felt disposed to speak again.  That time at length arriving, he took his pipe in his mouth and said: ‘I am not surprised to hear you say so.  It re-quires An age elevation and A preparation of the intellect.  The mind of man must be prepared for Freedom, Mr Co.’

Later, Martin has an exchange with a worthy senator.

‘What are extraordinary people you are!…  Are Mr Chollop and the class he represents an Institution here?  Are pistols with revolving barrels, sword-sticks, bowie-knives, and such things Institutions  on which you pride yourselves?  Are bloody jewels, brutal combats, savage assaults, shooting down and stabbing in the streets your Institutions!  Why, I shall hear next that Dishonour and Fraud are among the institutions of the great Republic!’

The response?

This morbid hatred of our Institutions is quite a study for the psychological observer.

There is really nothing new under the sun.  Here is how Martin and Mark comment on the United States as they leave them.

Why, I was a-thinking, sir, that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?’

‘Paint it as like an eagle as you could, I suppose.’

No.  That wouldn’t do for me, sir, I would want to draw it like a Bat for its shortsightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for it is vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thanking nobody sees it – ’

‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices and soaring up anew into the sky.  Well, Mark.  Let us hope so.’

These views are commonly felt by visitors to the States.  They see a certain defensive preppiness; a certain false pride – and a dangerous pride; a continuing obsession with the violence of the frontier and the power of the gun; but ultimately, an engaging candour about their own freshness.

But there is a kind of fetish about patriotism.  We don’t talk much about patriotism here in Australia. The feelings of Dickens were echoed by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville who went to the U S at about the same time as Dickens made his first visit there.  I set out his views elsewhere.

But for whatever reason, patriotism is and has been a continuing subject of interest in America.  It was brilliantly depicted by De Tocqueville in 1838 in terms which can be set out at length because they still ring true.  (We should make allowance for the fact that this is translation and that the notion of a ‘patriot’ had been strained in France after the revolution.)

‘There is one sort of patriotic attachment which principally arises from that instinctive disinterested and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace.  This natural fondness is united to a taste for ancient customs, and to a reverence for ancestral traditions of the past; those who cherish it love their country as they love the mansion of their fathers.  They enjoy the tranquillity which it affords them; they cling to the peaceful habits which they have contacted within its bosom; they are attached to the reminiscences which it awakens, and they are even pleased by the state of obedience in which they are placed.  This patriotism is sometimes stimulated by religious enthusiasm, and then it is capable of making the most prodigious efforts.  It is in itself a kind of religion; it does not reason, but it acts from the impulse of faith and of sentiment.’

We can follow all this.  The author then says that in some countries the monarch was recognized as personifying the country.  This was so in France – hence the problem when there was no monarch.  This also shows the glittering respect shown to the President in the U S.  But what about the considered type of patriotism, that of someone ‘who exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country’?  This comes with the spread of knowledge – ‘it is nurtured by the laws, it grows by the exercize of civil rights, and, in the end, it is confounded with the personal interest of the citizen.’

‘But I maintain that the most powerful, and perhaps the only means of interesting men in the welfare of their country, which we still possess, is to make them partakers in the Government…….in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity.’

Cupidity might, for the lack of a better word, be greed, as in the famous ‘Greed is good’ of Gordon Gekko – which you choose might be a matter of taste or grace.

‘As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself.’

The French observer has then set us up for this bell-ringer:

‘Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans’.

There is something close to the heart of America here.  The upside is ambition, drive, and personal and communal responsibility; the downside is Salem, McCarthy, and Gordon Gekko – and that nonsense about the lapel pin of Barack Obama.  In some sense, the feeling of communal responsibility and participation does seem to rest well with American patriotism; so does their prickliness if you happen to query in passing something close to American hearts.  The Americans tend to be more committed and involved in America.  The film The Godfather begins with a product of Italian immigration saying ‘I believe in America.’  Australians are not so serious about all this kind of thing, and open discussion, much less profession, is not encouraged.  If they see it in Americans, they might mumble something about people wearing their hearts on their sleeve.

Those observations of America still hold good.  What Dickens saw as an obsession with the dollar, and a readiness to keep whole peoples in subjection may well become manifest in the next President.

The anger of Dickens over slavery and what he saw as their hypocrisy is not hard to follow.  Lord Mansfield had effectively outlawed slavery at common law in the previous century.  In the current century, the British parliament had heroically banned the trade by statute in one unimpeachable crusade by Christianity.  The trade would only be ended in the U S by the deaths of more than half a million white people in the Civil War.

This is how the greatest American of all described the redemption in an address, his second, inaugural, that is now one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  It was given not long before the speaker was gunned down in public by a vile nutter disporting his Second Amendment rights.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

As I have said elsewhere:

Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’.   The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood.  Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins:  ‘With malice toward none ….’

We might finish on a lighter note.  Seth Pecknsiff is one of the greatest shits in our letters.  When Anthony Chuzzlewit calls him a hypocrite, the latter says this to his daughter Charity:

Charity my dear, when I take my chamber candlestick tonight, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit; who has done me an injustice.

Toward the end of the novel, there is something of a showdown.  Mark Tapley is the hero’s faithful and sensible follower.  He is very much in the model of Sancho Panza.  During the showdown, Mark had blocked a door to hold in the revolting Pecksniff.

‘A short interview after such an absence!’  said Martin, sorrowfully.  ‘But we are well out of the house.  We might have placed ourselves in a false position by remaining there, even so long, Mark.’

‘I don’t know about ourselves, sir,’ he returned; ‘but somebody else would have got into a false position, if he had happened to come back again, while we was there.  I had the door already, sir.  If Pecksniff had showed his head, or had only so much as listened  behind it, I would have caught him like a walnut.  He is the sort of man,’ added Mr Tapley, musing, ‘as would squeeze soft, I know.’

The phrase ‘the sort of man as would squeeze soft’ is worth the price of the book – and a bloody expensive edition at that.

Carlyle, Dickens and the Strange Death of Liberal America – Part II

[This is the second part of a note on what Carlyle and Dickens may tell us of events in 2016.  You may recall that Carker was the character in Dombey and Son who lusted after revenge for the humiliation that he suffered all his life.  Both writers saw the decline of religion and the worship of money.]


The word ‘revolution’ is much abused, but we do appear to be going through something very like that with technology.  In any revolution, people have to get hurt.  Mao Zedong said that ‘A Revolution is not a dinner party’.  He should have known – if he had had a conscience, he would have been haunted by tens of millions of dead souls.

During the recent US election season, Donald Trump campaigned on Twitter – a device made for people who have trouble thinking or writing, and part of the ‘revolution’ that is closing minds and forbidding manners, both processes that are hallmarks of demagogues.

It was the fear of revolution that led England in the 19th century to abandon laisser-faire and to intervene across all markets by legislating to protect the young and the weak and the infirm.  They were legislating against the darker downside of capitalism, and the emergence of Karl Marx would spur them on.  England saw a vast reform movement that would culminate in the final containment of the powers of the British aristocracy in the House of Lords.  What was in truth a constitutional crisis was provoked by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  In the People’s Budget of 1909, Lloyd George said:

These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal. They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.

Well, this doctrine, called New Liberalism, certainly looked revolutionary to the aristocracy, and for a moment the nation came close to a real revolution.

The English version of New Liberalism has never been accepted in the US.  Indeed, it is anathema to a large part of the Republican Party.  It was however reinforced by the Welfare State after the horrors of two world wars, and it is now in principle applied across the Western world except in the US.  As a result, the State became larger and larger and more expensive.

So, in the 1980’s, there came reactions.  In both the US and the UK Conservative governments sought to reduce the role of the State and to reduce taxes.  The movement was led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  They wanted to go back to laissez-faire.  They did not see themselves as winding back the clock.  They thought that government should defer to the markets.  They said their programs would help create wealth for all.

Well, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may have helped people get wealthy, but they certainly didn’t help to spread the wealth around.  The fruits of all the growth in the West from free trade, immigration, and technology have mostly tended to go to those at the top of the tree.  In the UK, Mrs Thatcher was said to have been cruelly indifferent to those who lost jobs or who otherwise missed out under her.  Statistics are not always helpful, but two are critical to our present problems.  The first is this from the OECD: between 1975 and 2012 around 47% of total growth in US pre-tax incomes went to the top 1%.

Most would say, I suggest, that this result shows that during that time the US was badly governed.  Some would go further and say that the new regime of Ronald Reagan was badly flawed and ultimately cruel.  Very many certainly said the same about Margaret Thatcher.  But whether or not you agree with either of those propositions, there had to be a reaction – a revolt, if not a revolution.

So, we get Donald Trump elected on a demand to end laissez-faire.  The Americans now want their government to intervene in the markets and to give relief to the jobless and to the poor.  They want something like the People’s Budget of Lloyd George.

The people voting for Trump are, we are told, feeling vengeful and humiliated.  In a piece in The Monthly, Richard Cooke said:

The persistent thread linking those I speak to is one of humiliation….  Overwhelmingly, they want some sort of revenge.  On those who told them otherwise.  On those who should know their place.  On those who don’t belong here.  And they have chosen a bully to enact that revenge.

They are in short, John Carker writ large.

But why should people feel humiliated because the world has passed them by?  Because Americans like winners and they have little time for losers.  Hell for them is what Carlyle saw: ‘the terror of not succeeding; of not making money.’

The Americans have really dug themselves into a very deep hole.  And the worst is yet to come.  This brings us to our second relevant statistic.  There is a body of opinion that claims to be informed to the effect that over the next ten years, about 40% – two out of five – of present sources of employment will disappear because of disruption by technology.  It would I gather be unsafe to proceed on any other footing.

But we are not just speaking about humiliation.  The failure of the United States to implement the Welfare State has not stopped many Americans from blaming their government for all their woes.  (This is very Australian, but our history is very different – dependence on government is part of our DNA, even when the money’s run out.)   Too many Americans feel cheated.  The glaring wealth and contentment of the Clinton dynasty fuels their conspiracy theories.  The poorest of the two candidates was worth north of $100 million.

Many Trump voters are oblivious to the mainstream press, which are part of the chosen few that they are revolting against, and they are content with what they get from their soulmates on Facebook or Twitter. One horrifying statistic was that 44% of Trump voters were content to get their news from Facebook.

And if you have been cheated, who better to look to for revenge than a cheat?  Trump is not just a compulsive liar – he cheated on the draft and he cheated on tax.  When he was called out for not paying tax because he had failed in business, the revolting Rudy Giuliani said that Trump was a genius.

There was a time during the French Revolution when people at the bottom of the tree felt that the only thing they had in life was their French citizenship.  One of the worst parts of the Terror involved government agents or informers stripping suspected people of their citizenship or at least of their rights as French citizens.  (They got over this under Napoleon and then they decided to spread the benefits of the revolution around – even though Robespierre had correctly warned them that no one likes ‘armed missionaries’).  In America, this preciousness means that many American citizens do not want to share their only and priceless asset with others.  Sadly, we see the same process here.  A large part of human history involves those getting into the cubby-house slamming the door on those coming after them and kicking away the ladder.

Trump supporters rejected both parties.  They rejected the Republicans as much as the Democrats.  Rejection of major parties is all the go around the world – but in the US a president wearing a Republican label will try to be seen to implement a policy for what used to be the electorate of the Democrats.

We have seen enough to see the contradictions.  The rejected poor are looking to a billionaire egotist to save them.  Do they really expect that his tax cuts will suit them?  Has any Republican economic scheme ever suited them?   How many of these people rely on government entitlements which it is the object of Republicans to abolish?  How on earth could Trump ride to the relief of these people on the back of ‘small government’?

Trump’s supporters say that he is an outsider; the downside is that he doesn’t know what he is doing or what he is talking about.  God knows that he has not been backward in advertising that fact.  (One European leader said that they will waste two years while Trump finds his way around.)  And we may be sure that he will be surrounded by sycophants and place seekers like Giuliani and Christie.  And of course his family – the revolt against dynasties will not preclude Trump from perpetuating that error.  The Americans have an 18th-century English view toward sharing the spoils of election wins.  (It is not far removed from that which prevails in Kenya.)

A party that is dedicated to free trade and laissez-faire is being asked to legislate to reduce inequality and help those who missed out.  Protection may or may not lead to trade wars, but it will lead to higher prices.  And about the only part of the Republican platform that Trump has accepted is the abolition of healthcare of the kind that the rest of the western world has enjoyed since shortly after the end of World War II.  How will that help those who led the revolt?

This party prided itself on a repellent form of patriotism.  (Is there a form of patriotism that is not repellent?  Do you recall when Obama was chastised for not being a patriot because he turned up one day without a flag in his lapel?) This party is now being fronted by a draft dodger and tax dodger who admires, and who has just got a ‘beautiful’ letter from, the KGB stooge who is the head of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire?  And you will recall that Mr Reagan suggested to the Russians that they should tear down a wall.  How many real Republicans, or Reagan Republicans, want to cosy up to Putin?

And a party that makes a lot of play with God is in bed with the most ungodly man on the planet. Between them, they fuel a suspicion  that the evangelical Christianity espoused by many politicians in the US is just so much bullshit.

The Republicans themselves are in large part responsible for this diabolical mess.  They have idolised Ronald Reagan.  I thought that he was an idiot before he was elected and I did not see much evidence to the contrary while he was in office.  But I have to admit that I am biased – I don’t like people who rat on their mates for their own political well-being.  But whether or not Reagan is to blame for the massive movement of wealth toward the rich, a large part of his program will have to be reversed if Trump is to even look like he might be trying to deliver what he has promised.

The Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of Obama and led an unprincipled and unscrupulous opposition that was aped here by Tony Abbott (and even he now admits to regret at his part in lowering the tone of politics).  You can see the lack of principle in the Republicans in their point-blank refusal to follow the Constitution, a document they purport to admire, in appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court to replace the loaded gun called Scalia.  You could see it with the suggestion of Trump that if he lost the election would be rigged.  (Now, his campaign leader says that the current President is not doing enough to stop the protests about the election result.)  You can see it in their determination to stack the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion, an issue which is beyond the reach of Congress. They will debauch the judiciary to get what they want – the fact that the other lot are not stainless on this does not help the disenchanted.

How will decent Republicans react when the hard-heads flirt with fanatics of the Right?  Mr Stephen Bannon has a lot of form for racism.  He is set to be the leading hate-figure or punching-bag of the new regime.  He has already invited Marine Le Pen – who gushed over the election result – to see what they can do ‘to work together’.  On what?   The campaign manager defended his appointment.  He was ‘the general’ of the campaign, a former naval officer with a Harvard business degree.   Presumably he is not one of the rejected.  Has the nation of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman come to this?

The truth is that the Republican Party has brought every aspect of this disaster on itself, and the gormless hypocrites at the head of that party now stand, if that is the term, fawning on the man they had reviled.  And remember this – that during a large part of the primaries, Ted Cruz was seen as a bigger threat to the US than Trump – by the Republican Party.

Now, Carlyle and Dickens may have foreseen all this, or something very like it.  It may after all be just another cycle, and one the like of which we have seen before.  But it also looks to be pregnant with some of the horrors that those two great writers were so apt in describing.  They both wrote of the death of God and the idolatry of wealth.  We see the apotheosis of both in Donald Trump – the deposition of God and the coronation of the dollar.  This is far and away the scariest and the saddest thing I have seen.

But we are told that we should respect the outcome of the election.  This means that Americans should not behave in the way Trump threatened to.  If any American reacts unlawfully against the new President, they can be dealt with by the laws of the US.  But that’s all that it means to say that people should respect the result.  It would be absurd to suggest that the election means that anyone should respect Trump.  For some years the most popular politician in the history of Europe, if not the world, was Adolf Hitler – and it stayed that way until he was seen to fail.

Perhaps we might go back to Mommsen and let him have the final word.

On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.

The Bible may be right – there is nothing new under the sun.



Having just read Anna Karenina for the third time, I will set out what I said about it a few years ago after reading it for the second time, and then add a few observations.  The book is a great work of art, and it may cast its spell in different ways on different viewings.


So, how did the most famous affaire of western literature start?

Her bright grey eyes which seemed dark because of their black lashes rested for a moment on his face as if recognizing him, and then turned to the passing crowd evidently in search of someone.  In that short look, Vronsky had time to notice the subdued animation that enlivened her face and seemed to flutter between her bright eyes and a scarcely perceptible smile which curved her rosy lips.  It was as if an excess of vitality so filled her whole being that it betrayed itself against her will, now in her smile, now in the light of her eyes.  She deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it shone in spite of her in her faint smile.

You cannot put that on the screen.  It is the pure magic of genius.  How might lover-boy, Count Vronsky, react?

Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility.  Not only did he dislike family life, but in accordance with the views generally held in the bachelor world in which he lived [ as an aristocratic officer in the army], he regarded the family, and especially a husband, as something alien, hostile, and above all ridiculous.

Lover-boy gets worse.  He knows his attentions to her at the opera will be obvious and commented upon.

He knew very well that he ran no risk of appearing ridiculous….in the eyes of Society people generally.  He knew very well that in their eyes, the role of the disappointed lover of a maiden or of any single woman might be ridiculous; but the role of a man who was pursuing a married woman, and who made it the purpose of his life at all cost to draw her into adultery, was one which had in it something beautiful and dignified and could never be ridiculous……

How does the beautiful Anna Karenina fall for such a cheap and hollow devotee of human blood sports?  She had married an older man, a dry, didactic civil servant who spoke to her superciliously, a devoted civil servant and father, a man of God, who had no soul at all.  He was not really a man.  Anna muses to herself.

They do not know how for eight years he has been smothering my life, smothering everything that was alive in me, that he never once thought I was a live woman in need of love.  They do not know how at every step he hurt me and remained self-satisfied.  Have I not tried, tried with all my might, to find a purpose in my life?   Have I not tried to love him, tried to love my son when I could no longer love my husband?  But the time came when I understood that I could no longer deceive myself, that I am alive, and cannot be blamed because God made me so, that I want to love and live.

This is a primal cry for release.  We already know that Vronsky may not be the man to carry the load, but now we know that Karenina will be a cold implacable enemy who will not even seek a duel, but will seek to rein in and humiliate an errant wife with all the power at his male disposal – including his power over his son.  How would Vronsky’s code rule his conduct toward Karenina?

The code categorically determined that though the card-sharper must be paid, the tailor need not be; that one might not lie to a man, but might to a woman; that one must not deceive anyone except a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, and so on.  These rules might be irrational and bad but they were absolute, and in complying with them, Vronsky felt at ease and could carry his head high.  Only quite lately, in reference to his relations to Anna, had he begun to feel that his code did not quite meet all circumstances, and that the future presented doubts and difficulties for which he had no guiding principle.

One such doubt or difficulty might be Anna’s becoming pregnant.  What did the code of the military nobles say about pregnancy?

The novel starts with the well-known line: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’  Prince Oblonsky thinks that his wife is passed it – at thirty-four after a few kids – and he has been caught playing around.  Ironically, it is Anna, his sister, who persuades his wife, Dolly, to forgive him his lapse.  Does Oblonsky learn his lesson?  Not a bit of it.  Nothing like a tumble in the hay with the staff to get out the cobwebs.  We get this 600 pages later:

‘Why not, it’s amusing?  Ca ne tire pas a consequence.  My wife won’t be the worse for it, and I shall have a spree.  The important part is to guard the sanctity of the home!  Nothing of that kind at home; but you needn’t tie your hands.

It reminds you of the defence of prostitution by Saints Augustine and Aquinas as the shield of marriage.  A bit on the side may be good for you.  It is almost like the defence of necessity.

The Russian nobility was useless and doomed.  God and his Orthodox Church were corrupt and dying.  The bourgeoisie were no better – and they were about to show that they could not pick up the political baton.  Men were exploring the difference between immorality and amorality.  Women were just left to rot.  The whole rotten edifice would expire under the seething ego of Lenin and the lust for power of that sadist, Stalin.

It was the tragedy of Anna Karenina that having married a cold man, she then fell in love with an empty man.  Vronsky was not fit to tie her laces either as a character or as a person.  But they have to be condemned by Society.  They knew that.  They are like Adam and Eve cast out of Eden.  The sex is hot and guilty and they have no future.  After they go to bed together for the first time, we get this:

Then, as the murderer desperately throws himself on the body, as though with passion, and drags it and hacks it, so Vronsky covered her face and shoulders with kisses.

She held his hand and did not move.  Yes!  These kisses were what had been bought by their shame! ‘Yes, and this hand, which will always be mine, is the hand of my accomplice.’  She lifted his hand and kissed it.  He knelt down and tried to see her face, but she hid it and did not speak.  At last, as though mastering herself, she sat up and pushed him away.  Her face was as beautiful as ever, but all the more piteous.

‘It’s all over,’ she said.  ‘I have nothing but you left.  Remember that.’

‘I cannot help remembering what is life itself to me!  For one moment of that bliss….’

‘What bliss?’ she said with disgust and horror, and the horror was involuntarily communicated to him.  ‘For heaven’s sake, not another word!’

This is high-voltage writing, indeed.  Vronsky is not up to looking after Anna as the gates of a duplicitous society are shut in their faces.  This is how Dolly laments the raw injustice of it all.

‘And they are all so down on Anna!  What for?  Am I better than she?  I at least have a husband whom I love.  Not as I wished to love, but I still do love him; but Anna did not love hers.  In what was she to blame?  She wishes to live.  God has implanted that need in ourselves.  It is quite possible I might have done the same.  I don’t even know whether I did well to listen to her at that terrible time when she came to me in Moscow.  I ought then to have left my husband and begun life anew.  I might have loved and been loved, the real way.  And is it better now?  I don’t respect him.  I need him,’ she thought of her husband,’ and I put up with him.  Is that any better?  I was still attractive then, still had my good looks,’ she went on, feeling that she wanted to see herself in a glass.

Another primal lament.

The disintegration of the union – the end of the affair: anything except that weasel word, ‘relationship’ – is etched in acid.  As happens when lovers fall out, the degradation is mutual.

‘I don’t want to know!’ she almost screamed.  ‘I don’t!  Do I repent of what I have done?  No!  No!  No!  If I had to begin again from the beginning I should do just the same.  For us, for you and for me, only one thing is important: whether we love each other.  No other considerations exist.  Why do we live here, separated and not seeing one another?  Why can’t I go?  I love you, and it’s all the same to me,’ she said, changing from French to Russian, while her eyes as she looked at him glittered with a light he could not understand, ‘so long as you have not changed toward me!  Why don’t you look at me?’

He looked at her.  He saw all the beauty of her face and of her dress, which suited her as her dresses always did.  But now it was just this beauty and elegance that irritated him.’

What was that argument about?  Whether they should be seen together at the theatre.  She goes – and she gets cut – brutally.  She is the fallen woman – Eve – incarnate.

The other story is about Levin and Kitty who strongly resemble Pierre and Natasha in War and Peace.  It is comparatively prosaic and for our tastes now, too preoccupied with the emancipation of the peasants, Russian agriculture and the death of God.  And their story is up and down.  It may remind you of T S Eliot on Hamlet ‘Emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear.’  You can edit a lot of the politics out – as in War and Peace.

There are pieces of bravura writing, as in the ball scene, the steeple chase, and the duck shooting.  We get realism from minute detail.  Here are snippets from the wedding of Levin and Kitty – you have heard it all before.

‘Why is Marie in lilac?  It’s almost as unsuitable at a wedding as black.’

‘With her complexion, it’s her only salvation,’ replied Princess D.  ‘I wonder why they are having the wedding in the evening, like tradespeople.’

‘It is more showy.  I was married in the evening too’, answered Mrs K and sighed as she remembered how sweet she had looked that day, how funnily enamoured her husband then was, and how different things were now.

A count is chatting to a princess ‘who had designs on him.’

She answered only with a smile.  She was looking at Kitty and thinking of the time when she would be standing there beside the count, just as Kitty now stood, and how she would then remind him of his joke…….

All the details of the ceremony were followed not only by the two sisters, the friends and relatives, but also by women onlookers who were quite strangers, and who – breathless with excitement and afraid of missing anything, even a single movement, and annoyed by the indifference of the men – did not answer and often did not hear the latter when they jested or made irrelevant remarks…..

‘Now hear how the deacon will roar” Wives obey your husbands.”’

It was ever thus.  The girls swoon and the boys turn green.  Have you never seen a secretary parade the ring, then the album, and then the baby – and the rest go gaga?  Someday all will this be mine!  It is just the look that ensainted barristers get on their face at a judicial welcome.

The quarrels get worse.  Anna is on drugs.  The end comes like a kaleidoscope.  The final descent into what now seems the only possible outcome for this star-crossed lover is written – it is composed – with murderous power.  They first met on a railway station and it will end at one.  Anna sets out on her last journey.  She looks outside her horse-drawn carriage.

‘They want that dirty ice cream, that they do know for certain’, she thought, looking at two boys stopping at an ice cream seller…  ’We all want what is sweet and tasty.  If not sweetmeats, then dirty ice cream.  And Kitty’s the same – if not Vronsky, then Levin.  And she envies me, and hates me.  And we all hate each other.’

She gets to the station.  She is somehow drawn to a platform.  A goods train approaches.  This is how it all ends.

But she did not take her eyes off the wheels of the approaching second truck, and at the very moment when the midway point between the wheels drew level, she threw away her red bag, and drawing her head down between her shoulders threw herself forward on her hands under the truck, and with a light movement as if preparing to rise again, immediately dropped on her knees.  And at the same moment she was horror-struck at what she was doing.  ‘Where am I?  What am I doing?  Why?’  She wished to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down.  ‘God forgive me everything’, she said, feeling the impossibility of struggling….A little peasant muttering something was working at the rails.  The candle, by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief, and evil, flared up with a brighter light, lit up for her all that had been before dark, crackled, began to flicker, and went out forever.

I think that Tolstoy loved Anna.  I first read this book forty years ago when I was plainly too young.  This time, I was half in love with Anna myself, but she was never going toward an easeful death.  For me now, Anna Karenina is the largest female hero in all our literature (specifically including Shakespeare for this purpose).

Madame Bovary is very different.  The book is an exquisite indictment of the French bourgeoisie –as damning as Tolstoy’s indictment of the Russian nobility.  The book has no sympathetic characters, but for me at least, Emma has none of the heroic grandeur of Anna – even down to her tawdry, protracted, and melodramatic suicide.  Emma is just a bored housewife with a spending problem and an inept way of putting it about.

(Turgenev introduced Flaubert to Tolstoy.  ‘Sometimes he seems Shakespearean.  I cried aloud with admiration as I read….In any case, he has balls!’  Flaubert complained that Tolstoy repeats himself and philosophises.  Turgenev replied that Flaubert had put his finger on the spot – Tolstoy ‘has also conceived a philosophical system at once mystical, childish, and arrogant: this has doubly spoiled his second novel (Anna).’)

Anna Karenina is a stunning, colossal achievement of the human spirit.  As with Joyce, you are left wondering how a man could get into the head of a woman (unless you are one of those poor, blind, drab souls who think that men and women are the same.)  If you ask me whether Anna was a hero in Shakespeare’s mode – one whose end follows from some flaw in her character – my response is that you are begging the question posed by the whole bloody book.

That question is simple enough.  Could Anna have a life?


The analogy with the fall of Adam and Eve still holds good for me – the woman takes the hit, and the consequences of the original sin are inexorable.  But rather than look to Madame Bovary, which was written about twenty years before Anna Karenina, we might look rather at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which came out at about the same time and caused a sensation across Europe.  Nora has a hollow marriage like Anna – to a shallow man who looks upon her as a kind of doll.   In the end, Nora does the unthinkable – she repudiates the marriage, and walks out – slamming the door.  (Hedda Gabler’s repudiation is more extreme.)  Tolstoy tells us this of Vronsky:

For the first time he vividly pictured to himself her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes; but the idea that she might and should have her own independent life appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away.

That is Nora’s husband, word for word.  Anna says of Karenin, ‘He does know what love is.’  Neither does Vronsky.  During one of their first tiffs, we are told that Vronsky ‘felt something rising in his throat, and for the first time in his life he felt ready to cry.’  Anna says of her husband ‘He is not a man but a machine, and a cruel machine when angry…..I am like a hungry man to whom food has been given.’  When Anna confesses to her husband, his only thought is of Society.  ‘The one thing that preoccupied him was the question of how he could best divest himself of the mud with which she in her fall had bespattered him….’  You can’t get meaner than that.  We saw a similar reaction from Nora’s husband.  When the affair disintegrates, Anna asks of Vronsky ‘What did he look for in me?  Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity.’  There is a lot of Vronsky in Donald Trump, the quintessence of self-centred shallowness.

Both of these works are fierce protests at the miserable standing of women and at the hypocrisy and emptiness of the responsible ‘Society’.  The author pulls no punches on the misery of women in child bearing and rearing.  Dolly Oblonsky is well and truly unattractive at 34, and Anna has to take steps to stop going the same way.

‘Altogether,’ she [Dolly] thought, looking back at the whole of her life during those fifteen years of wedlock, ‘pregnancy, sickness, dullness of mind, indifference to everything, and above all disfigurement.  Even Kitty – young pretty Kitty, – how much plainer she has become!  And I when I am pregnant become hideous, I know.  Travail, suffering, monstrous suffering, and that final moment – then nursing, sleepless nights, and that awful pain!’

The social debates at the other end – with Levin – can get wearing but you might strike gold.  There is a discussion about why Russia is in a Serbian war.  Someone says this was a case where ‘the whole people directly expresses its will.’

‘That word people is so indefinite,’ said Levin.  ‘Clerks in district offices, schoolmasters and one out of a thousand peasants may know what it is all about.  The rest of the eighty millions….not only don’t express their will, but have not the faintest idea what there is to express it about.  What right have we then to say it is the will of the people?’

So much for Rousseau and the ‘theory’ of the French Revolution.  Tolstoy says the problem here is ‘pride of intellect.’  He was dead right, and this is still a very great book.  It is as elemental and doom-laden as Greek tragedy.

It is not possible to do justice to this book on film; I have seen two good ballet productions; but in my view it is best taken as opera – straight off the page.

Turgenev on Hamlet and Don Quixote


On 10 January 1860, Ivan Turgenev gave a speech to the Society for the Aid of Needy Writers and Scholars.  He began by observing that the first edition of Hamlet and the first part of Don Quixote appeared in the same year.  (Later he remarked that people then thought that both authors died on 26 April 1616 – so that Anzac Day this year would be the eve of a big anniversary – if you accepted those dates.)  The substance of Turgenev’s views was as follows.

Don Quixote is entirely committed to ideals for which he will give anything, including his life.  He opposes himself to ‘the forces ranged against humanity – magicians and giants – which is to say oppressors.’  These ideals may come from what we call madness, but there is no self-interest.  There is only a ‘benign resignation’ that does not constrain him.  ‘He knows little – but then, he does not need to know much.’  This is because he knows what he is here for.  Half measures are not for him.  He is an enthusiast.  And Turgenev offers a startling insight in parenthesis – ‘notice that this mad wondering knight is the most moral element in his universe.’

Hamlet is consumed by his analysis of himself.  He is centred on himself.  He worries about himself and not his obligations.  ‘He is a sceptic – and he eternally struggles with himself….Doubting everything, Hamlet understandably does not spare even himself; his mind is too well developed to be satisfied with what he finds within himself.’

Don Quixote is ridiculous; Hamlet has an attractive appearance.  But while it is hard to like Hamlet – he does not like himself – it is harder to dislike the Don.  We sympathise with Hamlet – the bond we share with the Don is of a different order.

We can assess their reaction to the people – ‘the masses’ – by looking at Polonius and Sancho Panza.  Hamlets do nothing for the people – they are removed from the common people.  ‘They are vulgar and dirty; Hamlet by contrast is an aristocrat, and not by birth alone.’  But Don Quixote is a true hidalgo.  His simplicity comes from his want of self-regard.  ‘Don Quixote is not self-absorbed, and yet he has respect for himself and others.’  He does not show off, but Hamlet has the airs of a parvenu.  His feel for refinement is almost as strong as the feel for duty in Don Quixote.

Putting to one side the fox and the tortoise, the two characters reflect different types – the force that considers itself the centre of creation and sees everything else as relating to it; and the contrasting view under which all things exist in order to benefit something else.  There is the spirit of the north – ‘a spirit of reflection and analysis, a ponderous gloomy spirit, one deficient in harmony and bright colours.’  The spirit of the south is bright, cheerful, naïve, and receptive, one not plumbing the depths of life, but brightly reflecting all its aspects.

Don Quixote respects all institutions while ‘Hamlet scorns kings and courtiers – and is in essence oppressive and intolerant.’

Now, these large views or types may appeal to some more than others, but they offer a kind of prism to reflect on probably the two most famous characters in our letters.  I offer a couple of observations.

The madness of Don Quixote is real and essential to his role; the madness of Hamlet is not real, and I find it hard to come to terms with this pose.

The Don is madly in love with Dulcinea, and is ready to die for her.  There is no Dulcinea.  How do things stand between Hamlet and Ophelia?  The great Russian novelist says that we have Shakespeare’s word that Hamlet only pretended to love Ophelia.  That is what you take from the Hamlet feigning madness in the third act.  But what, then, are we to take from the histrionics of the forty thousand brothers of the fifth act?  Was this all show too, and if so, for whose benefit?  Either way the hero’s treatment of ‘an innocent creature, pure to the point of saintliness’ is very hard for us to take.  Is this uncertainty part of the charm of the show on the stage?

The people of Spain look on Don Quixote with an almost religious devotion that we rarely see with Shakespeare.  The madness is a real part of this.  I wonder if Don Quixote is our champion against those forces that oppress all of mankind.  I wonder if the Don is a celebration of freedom, and the right of each of us to be different.  I wonder if this mad knight stands for the dignity that each of us claims just because we are human.

These thoughts are prompted by these beautiful lines of Turgenev.

But here [where the Don is trampled on by pigs], Cervantes was ruled by the instinct of genius – and beneath the very ugliness of this adventure lies a profound truth.  In the lives of Don Quixotes, swine trample their legs all the time – especially just before those lives end.  This is the final tribute such individuals must pay to coarse randomness, to indifferent, insolent incomprehension.  This is the scorn of the Pharisee.  Then Don Quixotes can die.  They have passed through all the fires of the crucible.  They have won immortality for themselves – and it opens up before them….

There may be an allusion to the holy man who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, but the one word that you would hardly apply to Hamlet is humility.


Freud said this about Don Quixote.

Don’t you find it very touching to read how a great person, himself an idealist, makes fun of his ideals?  Before we were so fortunate as to apprehend the deep truths in our love, we were all noble knights passing through the world caught in a dream, misinterpreting the simplest things, magnifying commonplaces into something noble and rare, and thereby cutting a sad figure.  Therefore we men always read with respect about what we once were and in part still remain….

Reading books again


Over the summer break, I read nine books that I had read before.  I did so because I knew I would enjoy each one, and because with most of them I had a new edition, generally from the Folio Society, to enjoy – and I thought that I might give them some authenticity on the shelf by reading those copies.  After owning a Kindle for 18 months, I finally got it started.  I have used it on a novel by Modiano, which I enjoyed, and SPQR, by Mary Beard, which I did not enjoy – I thought it was expensive and trite.  I have always liked to read a book with pencil at hand to note passages that appeal or that I may wish to remember – even in novels and poetry – and I have reached a stage of life where I enjoy just the feel and look of the book – and its pictures!  For example, I bought the new Folio War and Peace expressly for the purpose of reading it again (this time for the fourth time.)  Those two very handsome volumes cost a tick under $200 – which is a lot – but which is also about the price of the best seat at the Opera.  And this set remains as a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Since I have written about all but two of these nine books elsewhere, I will just make some brief comments on each.

War and Peace is hopelessly flawed.  Tolstoy cannot help himself with the bullshit about Napoleon, heroes, and free will – the greater the writer, the thicker the thinker – and I had forgotten that it just keeps getting worse as the book goes on.  Then I remembered touring the Kremlin, and I remember the guy pointing to a gate and saying ‘that is the gate that he came in’ and point into another ‘that is the gate he went out’.  When we look at the crooks in charge of Russia now, we might remember that it was the Russian peasant who stopped both Napoleon and Hitler.  But after this reading, I have come to the settled view that this is the greatest novel for me that has ever been written.  It has a sweep and a kind of grandeur all of its own.  Gibbon is the only comparison.

I read Don Quixote again, also for the fourth time.  This time I used some editorial discretion on some of the tales – the structure of the book now reminds me of Canterbury Tales – and I focused on the dialogues between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   It reminded me of how good the Philip de Souza reading is on Naxos.  There is a saintliness about the Don that I know of no match for, but Tolstoy can come out with these eruptions of El Greco and Beethoven that are spellbinding.

Old Goriot, in part a take on King Lear, is as close to perfection as the novel can aspire to.  This is one to read about once a year.  Each time something new hits you right between the eyes.  These daughters are up there with Goneril and Regan – I groaned aloud when they sent their carriages and footmen to the funeral of the father that they had killed.

The Leopard is a beautiful elegy.  So is the Visconti film.  This is another once a year job – both book and movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another great book that produced a great film – I think the Big Nurse is up there with Nicholson in the movie.  I had forgotten that it is the Indian who is the narrative.  That was gutsy – one outcast writing about others.  A previous note on this book is at the end of this note.

People turn their noses up at Kim.  Kipling was an imperialist.  Get over it, as they say – there happened to be an empire, back then, and we were part of it – and if you would rather be having this discussion in French, German, or Flemish, let me know.  This book could not have been written by someone who did not have a complete affection for and knowledge of that beautifully corrupt place called India.  Where does this book stand for me?  It is the one I enjoy most.  This book is for everyone – but especially for us boys.

With some writers you are at ease before you finish the first page.  People who are good at their job put you at ease.  Turgenev is in this class – he is the writer’s writer.  On the eve is a beautiful love story that is not buried in the kind of neurotic self-analysis that the Russians went in for then.  This book too is c lose to flawless.  It is worth reading just for the visit of the two lovers to the opera in Venice to see Traviata, a love story that ends with the death of the consumptive heroine.

The other two were Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.  I don’t know what they sprinkled on the porridge of those Brontë girls, but the passion still burns.  This was my fourth reading, and it may be the last.  The structure is tricky and there is bit of an Eroica or Bohême problem – when Cathy goes, there is a long way to go, and Heathcliff is not loveable.  As against that, the other rose in my estimation on this the third reading.

Someone once said that there are only three plots in Hollywood movies.  One of them is the love triangle.  That conflict is at the heart of Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.  In each the heroine falls in love – fairly madly – with the hero, and then marries another man who is less desirable romantically but more desirable socially.

Cathy and Heathcliff are very much in love but Cathy expressly rejects Heathcliff for a man who is socially more acceptable, but who is not nearly as attractive – she says that she will use the marriage to help raise Heathcliff up.  (Cathy is very impressionable.)  Daisy falls for Gatsby and then marries a rotter, who happens to have a lot more social standing and money than Gatsby, but whom she never loved as much as Gatsby.  (Daisy too is bit flighty – it is just as well one of these books was written by a woman.)  The split here is not just for social reasons – the absence of Gatsby after the war is a catalyst.  (As in An affair to remember.)

Both Cathy and Daisy are previous and precocious.  Both Heathcliff and Gatsby have dicey pasts.  Heathcliff is a foundling who looks like a gypsy.  Gatsby came from the other side of the tracks, but a fluke of history enabled him to rise, at least on the surface.  He lies entirely about his past – for reasons that seemed good to him.  He also lies about his present – he is a crook.  Heathcliff is not a crook and he does not lie about his past.  The crowd that Gatsby attracts are not inclined to query his past or present.  Heathcliff has cut himself off from caring about what the world thinks.

Heathcliff is brutal, and we might have trouble now in seeing just how far his brutality was simply a feature of the way people, and in particular men, acted back in those days and in those places.  Gatsby is not brutal, at least physically, but it looks like his money derives entirely from crime – although prohibition, which enabled him to become rich, did lead to a lot of crime.

The brutal man in that novel is Daisy’s husband Tom.  He is not only brutal but hopelessly unfaithful in his marriage.  He comes from a caste that promotes marital infidelity and racism, and he is of a type that can easily hit a woman, particularly if she is socially inferior, and compromised by being his mistress.  Heathcliff and Tom are both studies in what we now call the epidemic of domestic violence.

Both of the rejected lovers become obsessed to the point of madness by the termination of their great loves.  They both acquire fortunes – we are only given a general idea of how Heathcliff gets his – perhaps with the express purpose of trying to retake the women they loved.  They both buy expensive properties and move house to be close to their prey.  Heathcliff pursues some kind of dynastic revenge and strikes out at all those associated with people who have got in his way in a manner that is terrifying.  Gatsby is far less intent on creating what we call collateral damage.

Each of the heroes establishes a kind of reunion – it was probably physical in the case of the later model, because it had been before – but the reunion does not last.  It is as if the forces of a Greek tragedy preclude the lovers from living happily ever after.  Romeo and Juliet is of course the template.

Cathy dies in love with Heathcliff although he had been cruel to her in the reunion.  Gatsby is murdered on a false premise arising from two trains of deceit.  Heathcliff dies in a kind of slow suicidal delirium still obsessed with the dead Cathy.  Daisy survives when Gatsby is killed as the fall guy.  She appears to be reconciled to her husband, Tom.  That is punishment enough, because he is a rolled gold Fascist, the other product of the Jazz Age.

Well, I suppose we knew that there are endless combinations within a triangle.  One of the other plot themes is that of the hero undergoing trials to save the world, as in Star Wars.  I am not sure about the third.


Ken Kesey (1962)

Folio Society, 2015; bound in cloth blocked with a design by the artist David Hughes, in mustard slip-case; introduction by John Sutherland.

You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns.  You are touched  …and Zap!   It is a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless as it happens so fast, but no one ever wants another one.  Ever.

This was a protest moment in a protest book published in a time and place preoccupied with protest and drugs, the US in the early 1960s.  The start of the book One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest must also have grabbed attention when it was first published in 1962.  ‘They’re out there.  Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them’.  Ken Kesey dedicated the book to someone ‘who told me dragons did not exist, and then led me to their lairs’.  Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  They leave one egg in each nest.  The newly hatched cuckoo therefore feels free to throw out the others.  This is the dark side of Darwin’s natural selection.  Should we be above that?

Kesey was brought up on a dairy farm in Colorado.  He was a star wrestler and drama student at Oregon.  He took part in government drug tests.  He was paid $75 to take LSD and mescaline.  He was in with the beat crowd and he became a kind of priest of psychedelic culture.  He got into trouble with marijuana and he did time for getting up the nose of the cops.  He worked a night shift at a hospital for vets and this led him to our novel, his first.

The mental ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is for Kesey what Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were for George Orwell – the threat posed by ‘them’ to ‘us’.  It is a story of a power struggle between two people told by a third, an immensely tall and large Indian called Chief Bromden.

Nurse Ratched is a very, very evil character, as evil as any referred to in this present book.  She is a 50-year old single former Army nurse.  She has a practised sexlessness that seems to threaten men with its very sterility – in the male language of the time, she is a ‘ball cutter’; she could feed their jellies into a garlic crusher.  It is not so much that she is puritanical as that she is matronly – the word could have been invented for her.  ‘Precise, automatic gesture.  Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils – everything working except the colour on her lips and finger nails, and the size of her bosom.  A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would have otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.’

Remember that the US is coming out of McCarthyism, and that Kesey would have been a front-line target for a body like the HUAC.  The Big Nurse has the perfect technique for crushing weakened male inmates (classed as ‘Acutes’ or ‘Chronics’).  She does not accuse; she does not need to.  She insinuates.  She has a genius for insinuation.  And she insinuates that her charges are at fault, and weak, and that they are only safe when they submit to her control and are at peace with the matron.  If the phrase ‘control-freak’ had not been invented, she would have required it.

And she puts on this front that she is doing it for their benefit, and she requires them to submit to this too.  It is a lie.  She is doing what she is doing because her mission in life is that of the bully – to dictate and to control, to ‘stand over’ in truth – those who are weaker than she is – and that is everyone in the ward, because the patients are patients – voluntary or committed – and because she selects and breaks the staff and only allows doctors who go along with her regime.  She disciplines, bullies, tranquillises and sedates – and punishes with shock therapy.  An immovable case gets the worst kind of head job, a lobotomy.

This is how one of the nuts – that is the term used in the film – previews her retaliation after they have been enjoying themselves:  ‘We shall be all of us be shot at dawn.  One hundred cc’s apiece.  Ms. Ratched shall line us all against the wall, where we’ll face the terrible maw of a muzzle-loaded shotgun which she has loaded with Miltowns!  Thorazines!  Libriums!  Stelazines!’  The book was in many ways prophetic.

Into this drug induced still-pond under the fog comes lightning.  It comes in the form of a rude, loud, slippery petty crook.  Randall P. McMurphy faked his madness to get out of gaol where he had had to work.  Barrel-chested and red-haired, he is a conman and an excitement machine and a myth-maker.  He wins the confidence of the nuts even as he takes their money.  And he realises instantly that it is Big Mack versus the Big Nurse; the Lord of Misrule v The Badge of Chastity; Anarchy v Law – and the World.  The ward –and the world – is not big enough for both of them.

Big Mac and Falstaff have some things in common.  They are dishonest, they have front, and they have a kind of forbidden allure that attracts, and even inspires, others.  But that is all they have in common.  Falstaff could never have done and would never have tried to do what McMurphy does.  McMurphy has courage as well as front.  Falstaff is a coward.  McMurphy also has remarkable endurance.  He can intimidate and wear down opponents in a way that Falstaff never could.  Falstaff was always a bit player, but Big Mac is ready to put himself on the line for the main event.  Falstaff would never have attempted what McMurphy did because there was too much risk and not enough fiscal return at the margin.  And Big Mac would never have had airs like a knighthood.  McMurphy has balls, and Nurse Ratched wants them.

The Chief saw McMurphy as ‘a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine’.  The Chief would also say that ‘I’m just getting the full force of the dangers we let ourselves in for when we let McMurphy lure us out of the fog’.  The Chief would have got on with Don Quixote.

Was McMurphy a real liberator of the oppressed?  Or was this just another con?  Possibly, but what matters is that Nurse Ratched knew that she was in for the mother of all battles and that the nuts were ready to go and stay with McMurphy if he was good enough.

Kesey’s decision to cast the narrator as an Indian – Chief Bromden – was courageous, but he had had experience with Indians.  When he was leading a round-up with his father, an Indian with a knife between his teeth deliberately ran into an oncoming diesel truck that was bringing piping to a dam project.  Kesey had witnessed a man who had been willing to make the greatest sacrifice in honour of a way of life, a way of life that no money could buy.  The dam had represented the destruction of a way of life.  The Indians, too, were outcasts lined up against the Combine.  They had learned that the most pervasive and lethal drug of death of the paleface is alcohol.  McMurphy reminded the Chief of a time when the Indians used to spear salmon in some waters but then gave up their rights – under duress – for money.

The Chief has a lot of the Greek Chorus and Shakespeare’s Fool.  He is also the Epilogue, although more active than most, and the part is equally attractive in the book and the film.

So, the trial of strength starts. The power plays involve the volume at which the music is played in the ward, basketball practice, whether they can get to watch the World Series on TV, a fishing expedition, bringing grog and hookers on to the ward.  It is exhilarating reading (and viewing in the film).  We are looking not so much at liberation as what we – even we men! – have learned to describe as empowerment.  The Combine does not like people who are different.  Since people are different, the Combine is a problem.

The fishing expedition was a huge leap of faith and a great step forward for the nuts.  McMurphy then gets punished with successive doses of shock treatment, but he is still there on the night that the whores turn up with the booze. The drama surges around the cast like the finale of the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky.  The scenes with the nuts and sluts are very high drama.  When the Big Nurse finds Billie, locked away by his mother, in bed with Candy – ‘Good morning, Miss Ratched, this is Candy’ – she reacts with the venom of a taipan.  ‘She got the response she was after.  ‘Billie flinched and put his hand to his cheek like he had been burned with acid.’  The venom is lethal, and McMurphy is pushed over the brink.

There are only ten pages of the novel left.  If there is a novel with a more powerful finish, I am not aware of it.

The film came out in 1975 and won five Oscars.  A large part of its success was due to the Czech director, Milos Forman.  East Europeans and Latin Americans are good with off centre stories.  Louise Fletcher is stunning as the nurse and deserved her Oscar at least as much as Jack Nicholson.  (Brando and Bancroft knocked back the parts.)  She can inflict and receive pain unflinchingly and unwittingly.  Among the highlights of this great American movie are the Chief striding up and down the basketball court, and, at the end, bringing his own form of peace to the closure.  The Chief is serene.  The film could be a homage to his nation.

The book is not so much about madness and freedom as our capacity to tolerate differences in others and our readiness to resist the mediocrity of the conformists.  We deprive some insane people of their liberty by incarcerating them; we can do as much with medication.  When the time came to write the biography of the mad man who started the Oxford English Dictionary, the author was driven to ask whether we would get the same result now because of the way we medicate those whom we call mad.  And who is to deny that more light may enter a cracked mind than one that is sealed?

1962 was the year Doctor Martin Luther King said: ‘And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.’  Dr King said to coloured people what Mc Murphy was saying to the nuts.  This book is one of our little triumphs, something to treasure.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those books that make you want to stand up and punch the air and shout out loud.  Like The Graduate, here too was a movie to define a generation.