MY TOP SHELF

 

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

12

FAUST

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)

Easton Press, Connecticut, 1980, Collector’s Edition; fully bound in burgundy leather, with gold embossing and gold leaf and satin end-papers with gold silk sash; lithographs by Eugene Delacroix.

I am too young to be without desire,

Too old, too old merely to play.

It is healthy to suggest that people get punished if they get ideas above their station.  The greatest pests in history, from Caesar to Napoleon, were those who had to learn the lesson the hard way.  So did Adam and Eve.  So did Icarus.  The Greeks said that hubris would be met by nemesis.  In each case, people are trying to rise above the limits of their own humanity, and in each case the supernatural is involved.  Even in the tragedy of ambition of our greatest author, Macbeth, the fatal aspiration is planted by witches.

The German myth of Faust starts with a wager between God and the Devil (Mephistopheles).  (The great Indian epic Mahabharata starts with a dice game that was loaded.)  Mephistopheles bets that he can lead Doctor Faust astray.  Faust has climbed every intellectual mountain and is bored.  Mephistopheles offers to lend him all his powers if Faust agrees that if he allows himself to say that he is satisfied he will be at the disposal of Devil.  The pact is sealed in blood.  The Devil does his part and Faust is able to seduce and ruin Gretchen (or Margarete), but in doing so he enables Mephistopheles to call in the debt.  In American terms, that is one hell of a price to pay to get laid.

That is Part I of the verse drama of Goethe.  Part II is much longer and more esoteric.  Part I shows almost every style of theatre including commedia dell’arte.  People in Germany and intellectuals outside Germany put Goethe on the same level as Shakespeare.  But that, sadly, is about as far as it goes.  Goethe suffers the same fate as Pushkin – they are writers who are revered and adored at home but who somehow lose it in translation.  People are familiar with the Faust of Gounod, and the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky, but very few outside Germany or Russia have seen the original.

Two passages will show the problem.  This is Mephistopheles:

I am not of the very great

But if you’ll take me as a mate

And go your way through life with me,

I shall willingly agree to be yours on the spot.

I’ll be your comrade to the grave

And if I suit –

I’ll be your servant, be your slave.

This is Gretchen:

I stand before him blushing red

And just say ‘Yes’ to all he’s said.

What a child I am! I cannot see

What he ever finds in me!

In English, that is bad poetry and worse theatre.  Compare these passages from the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

………………..

Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;

Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appeared to hapless Semele:

More lovely than the monarch of the sky

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;

And none but thou shall be my paramour!

This Faustus does not go to the flames like Don Giovanni:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul – half a drop: ah, my Christ!

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him.  O spare me, Lucifer!-

Why then is this book there?  Apart from courtesy to the Germans, there are three things.  This is a very handsome volume that it is a pleasure to hold and read.  The story has a resolutive charm, even if it is the diametric opposite of the resurrection story.  Finally, about 25 years ago, I saw a production of Part I by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Barry Kosky and starring Barry Otto.  It was long but it held the attention of my two quite young daughters.  At the start, the lights were completely killed; two spotlights shot along each of the three aisles, gorillas galloped up and down the aisles to ultra-loud music; they were stopped by a burst of even louder machine-gun fire; the spots went out and down came a single spot on a gorilla out of which emerged Barry Otto as Faust.  It was like 2001, but by a factor of ten, and it never relented or looked back.  It takes balls, but Faust can be riveting on the stage.

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.

 

The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’

MY TOP SHELF

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

11

DON QUIXOTE

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1605)

Random House, 1941; translated by Peter Motteux; illustrated with wood engravings by Hans Mueller; rebound in half-calf buttercup yellow, with cloth boards, and purple label in leather embossed in gold.

Here I am with my name in the history books…..

Don Quixote took it upon himself to free galley-slaves.  Some utterly presumptuous – no, more like it, completely mad – officers of the King took it upon themselves to execute an arrest warrant against the Don for this act of madness.  They tell the Don that he is the King’s prisoner and they call on all present to ‘aid and assist the Holy Brotherhood’.  For their pains, they stop a full fusillade from this manic Castilian knight.  The Don erupts in vituperation at the forces of the law in a manner that all of us have felt at least in part when given a speeding ticket.

Don Quixote smiled at the supposed simplicity of the fellows.  At last, with solemn gravity, ‘Come hither’ said he, ‘you offspring of filth and extraction of dunghills, dare you call loosing the fetters, freeing the captives, helping the miserable, raising the fallen, and supplying the indigent; dare you, I say, base-spirited rascals call these actions robbery?    You are a band of officers; you are a pack of rogues indeed, and robbers on the highway by authority.  What blockhead of a magistrate durst issue out a warrant to apprehend a knight-errant like me?  Could not his ignorance find out that we are exempt from all courts of judicature?  That our valour is the bench, our will the common law, and our sword the executioner of justice?

You are now in the world of what the title page of the book refers to as that Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. He is probably the most loved character in the literature of the world.

Don Quixote was a Spanish gentleman under another name, of middle age.  He read so much about knight-errantry that he became captivated by its mythology.  He went out of his mind and then he went out into the world as a knight errant.  His madness was transparent to all who encountered him, even to his proverbial squire, Sancho Panza.  His most famous exploits were his mounted charges at windmills that his madness led him to see as giants.  As a result, the word quixotic is often translated as ‘tilting at windmills’.

His bizarre and hilarious adventures filled two volumes.  The second contains comments on the first.  He recovers his sanity just before he dies.  The novel was instantly successful and is widely regarded as the first and most popular of the modern novels.  It is frequently voted the best by writers.  William Faulkner read it once a year.

We cannot define the Don.  He comes down to us as a kind of hero, as a kind of clown, and as a kind of saint.  He has his own innocence, like a dog does.  He stands up for the oppressed.  He believes in the Sermon on the Mount, especially that part that says the meek shall inherit the earth.  But he can be philosophical about his mission.  After being trampled by a herd of bulls, he says;

Here I am with my name in the history books, a famous man of arms, courteous in my conduct, respected by princes, sought after by damsels, and just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, I find myself this morning, as a climax to it all, trodden under foot, battered and kicked by a herd of filthy animals.

The only comparable character in literature is Falstaff.  Sir John Falstaff was one of the low company kept in the east end of London by the Prince who went on to become king in Henry V.  He stars in Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Don Quixote was nearly fifty when he went mad.  Falstaff was in his seventies when he died.  He was egregiously fat.  This was one of the principal items of abuse against him.  So far as we can see neither man ever married, although at least one woman claimed to have been on the end of a promise from Falstaff.

Falstaff was loud, boorish and rude.  Don Quixote was quiet, courtly and chivalrous – except when issuing a challenge to a discourteous knight or to the unwashed.  Falstaff was usually drunk – at any time of the day.  Don Quixote hardly touched the stuff.  Falstaff was completely dishonest and unreliable and unable to follow the rules unless it suited him.  It is hard to find anyone saying anything good about Falstaff – except a drunken slut or her importuned madam – even when they think he is dead.  Don Quixote was a man of honour, punctilious, guided by forms and precedents.  He professed to be guided by the behaviour of knights-errant of the past and he thought that he knew the lives of all of them.

Falstaff was a person of gross appetite who would now be diagnosed as someone prone to substance abuse.  Don Quixote was almost ascetic, to the chagrin of the relatively normal Sancho Panza, and felt drawn by the precedents of knights-errant to sleep outside.

Falstaff was an utter coward.  (Some quixotic critics dream the contrary, but they are away with the birds.)  Don Quixote may not have been too brave – because of his madness he hardly knew fear, and to the extent that he contemplated death as a possible outcome, he may have even relished it.  He was a man of faith.  Falstaff could have had none, except perhaps when scared, which was often.  They were both nothing if not resilient and the one vice they shared was excessive pride in what they saw as their virtues.  Falstaff could see things differently because he was bad; Don Quixote had to see things differently because he was mad.

Sir Anthony Quayle described Falstaff as a man who was ‘frankly vicious’.  We do not have the same problem with Don Quixote.  Whether or not he is out of his mind, we do not see him as a threat to others.  He is entitled to be the patron saint of those who are off-centre, in a way that Falstaff could never be.  It is not just that we have to get over our fear of madness – it is just as important that we get over our distaste for the odd.  A brush with the off-centre can be liberating for people of all sorts.

Shakespeare launched Falstaff as an attack on the establishment.  Our modern sensibility cannot now accept that the English caste system could treat other humans as cannon fodder in the way that Falstaff did – a trait that the English maintained until 1918 – but we find no negative forces like that in Don Quixote.  He represents a surer celebration of humanity.  The Asian Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote concluded its editorial by saying that the book –

… will continue to have important things to teach us about the impulses that animate mankind.

Writing in The Times on the same anniversary, Simon Jenkins said that 1605 also saw the first publication of the full text of Hamlet.  He said that both figures lead from the Middle Ages to introspection and the modern era.

But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder, the loftier mind and the better conversationalist.  His dialogues with Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the most enchanting in literature.

Mr Jenkins expresses the view that if Einstein had not existed physics would have invented him, but if Cervantes had not existed there would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.  It is hard not to agree.

Of course, people of all sorts have gone overboard over Don Quixote (as they have over Falstaff).  The first published work of Ortega y Gasset was a series of Meditations on Don Quixote which appeared in 1914.  Its temper is apparent from the following, which is anything but silly; it is, among other things, Latin, informed, graceful and spiritual.

In a certain way, Don Quixote is the sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighbourhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them.  Whenever a few Spaniards who have been sensitised by the idealised poverty of their past, the sordidness of their present, and the bitter hostility of their future gather together, Don Quixote descends among them and the burning ardour of his crazed countenance harmonises those discordant hearts, strings them together like a spiritual thread, nationalises them, putting a common racial sorrow above their personal bitterness.  ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name’, said Jesus, ‘there am I in the midst of them.’

The two characters reflect the simple proposition that the impulses that animate mankind are the same for a mad knight and his squire as they are for an old-fashioned gentleman, or a waggoner bearing lions to the King of Spain, and they are the same for a drunken knight and his drunken slut as they are for a guilty king and his calculating son, the Prince of Wales.  Since it is the function of art to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition, the persistence of these two reflections is a testament to their creators.  Between them, our two heroes, we have our protest against Bible-bashers, bully-boys, ego-trippers, footnote-fetishists, God-botherers, hair-splitters, hangers-on, killjoys, logic-choppers, nail-biters, name-droppers, place-fillers, possum-stirrers, shadow-boxers, shilly-shallyers, smart-alecs, tax-dodgers, time-stretchers and title-claimants – bull-artists one and all.

Don Quixote saw his mission simply. It was to relieve the losers.  As it happens, that mission was defined for an English court at that time in these terms: ‘…the refuge of the poor and afflicted; it is the altar and sanctuary for such as against the right of rich men, and the countenance of great men, cannot maintain the goodness of their cause.’

There is a consensus that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on about the same day, 22 or 23 April 1616.  If that is so and there is a Heaven, and these guys made it, some would be entertained by the prospect of calculating the possible accretion to a literary Paradise.

Like Falstaff, Don Quixote is a self-portrait of our own absurdity, and unless we can laugh at ourselves, we may as well turn our toes up – as well as our noses.  Above all, when you put this book down, you will do so with a feeling of loss of innocence that you have not felt since you put down The Famous Five or Biggles, The Secret Seven or The Saint.  This is Spain’s great gift to the world.

 

MY TOP SHELF

 

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

8

A BOOK OF MEDITERRANEAN FOOD

Elizabeth David (2005)

Folio Society; green cloth with gilt lettering in green slipcase; decorations by John Minton; watercolours by Sophie MacCarthy; preface by Julian Barnes

For some reason, we do not often use that good and complimentary word ‘urbane’ to describe a woman.  Well, Elizabeth David was nothing if not urbane.  She came from a very wealthy and elevated family, and it showed in manner that could be woundingly waspish.  She had a flaky way about her that showed in failed romances and difficult business arrangements.  She could just be difficult.  But she changed the way that the English and others thought about food cooking and wine.  The liberation was felt as far away as Australia.

Elizabeth David lived with a French family while studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne.  Having seen out World War II in comfort and style in Egypt, she was appalled at the hardship and dourness that she found on her return to England.  She set out to master the fundamentals of cooking and to study it on site in France, Italy, and Greece, and around the Mediterranean.  She published many books and was a journalist writing on food for the best journals in England.  This book contains one of the cooking books and some extracts from her journalism published under the title An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. 

Auberon Waugh said of her ‘if I had to choose one woman this century who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life, my vote would go to Elizabeth David’.  She may or may not have been a natural cook, but she was certainly a natural writer.  Vogue, to which she contributed, said: ‘Her pieces are so entertaining, so original, often witty, critical yet lavish with their praise, that they succeed in enthusing even the most jaded palette.’  She did, in fine, make a real contribution to our civilisation.

Here she is on an Edwardian gourmet, Colonel Newnham-Davis, at the time that gave rise to great hotels – the Savoy, the Ritz, the Carlton, and Claridges.  (Do you recall the supper scene in Chariots of Fire?)

Mrs Tota and her husband George were friends from the Colonel’s Indian Army days.  George, it has to be faced, was a bore; he grunted and grumbled and refused to take his wife out to dinner on the grounds that the night air would bring on his fever.  So the Colonel gallantly invited Mrs Tota, a maddeningly vivacious young woman, to a select little dinner for two.  She was homesick for the gaieties of Simla, the dainty dinners and masked balls of that remarkable hill station.  ‘We’ll have a regular Simla evening’, declared the colonel, and for this nostalgic excursion, he chose to dine in a private room in Kettner’s, which still exists today [1952], in Romilly Street, Soho; after dinner they were to proceed to a box at the Palace Theatre, return to Kettner’s, where they arranged to leave their dominoes, and thence to a masked ball at Covent Garden.  The meal, for a change, began with caviare, continued with consommé, fillets de sole a la Joinville, langue de boeuf aux champignons with spinach and pommes Anna (how agreeable it would be to find these delicious potatoes on an English restaurant menu to-day) followed by chicken and salad, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and the inevitable ice.  They drank a bottle of champagne (15 s. seems to have been the standard charge at that period, 1 s. for liqueurs).  Mrs Tota was duly coy about the private room decorated with a gold brown and green paper, oil paintings of Italian scenery, and gilt candelabra (‘very snug’, pronounced the colonel); she enjoyed her dinner, chatted nineteen to the dozen, and decided that Room A at Kettner’s was almost as glamorous as the dear old Chalet at Simla.

Well, those times have all gone, and they will not come back.

Here is a vignette from The Spectator in 1961.

A military gentleman I know who used to run a club once told me that one of his clients was asking for the kind of dishes ‘which are practically burnt, you know.’  After some investigation, I tumbled to what was wanted and it seemed it wasn’t so much a question of the breakfast toast as of that method of cooking which is so typically French, the method whereby gelatinous food such as pigs’ trotters and breast of lamb is coated with breadcrumbs and grilled to a delicious, sizzling, crackling crispness, deep golden brown and here and there slightly blackened and scorched.  At the same time the meat itself, usually pre-cooked, remains moist and tender…..To achieve the characteristic stage of doneness in this kind of dish needs a bit of practice and a certain amount of dash.

The words ‘doneness’ and ‘dash’ are very much Elizabeth David.

Many of her recipes assume that the recipient is at home in the kitchen.  They are not for beginners, or boys.  Beginners of either sex require much more detailed and structured tuition – of the kind that Jamie Oliver gives.  If you go to some of the classics in French Provincial Cooking, the book that made Elizabeth David’s name in 1960, you will find a lot that gives you so many options to get it wrong.  If you go to her recipes for the famous cassoulet, you will find a very detailed version from the French and another shorter version, neither of which would be good for amateurs.  Neither uses duck, but the French one gives a useful tip for the water used to cook the beans the purpose of which cooking ‘is to make them more digestible and less flatulent’:

Throw away the water out of doors, not down the sink; its smell infects the kitchen for twenty-four hours.  In the Languedoc the housewives keep this liquid in well-corked bottles and use it for removing obstinate stains on white and coloured linen.

Again, those days are gone.  Here is a Swiss recipe for Tranches au fromage by Docteur Edouard de Pomiane which David says ‘is the best kind of cookery writing.’

Black bread – a huge slice weighing 5 to 7 ounces, French mustard, 8 oz. gruyere.  The slice of bread should be as big as a dessert plate and nearly I inch thick.  Spread it with a layer of French mustard and cover the whole surface of the bread with strips of cheese about ½ an inch thick.  Put the slice of bread on a fireproof dish and under the grill.  Just before it begins to run, remove the dish and carry it to the table.  Sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Cut the slice in four and put it on to four hot plates.  Pour out the white wine and taste your cheese slice.  In the mountains this would seem delicious.  Here it is all wrong.  But you can put it right.  Over each slice, pour some melted butter.  A mountaineer from the Valais would be shocked, but my friends are enthusiastic, and that is good enough for me.

As David remarked, ‘enthusiastic beginners’ might add olives, parsley or red peppers, and the ‘school-trained professional might be tempted to super-impose cream, wine, mushrooms upon this rough and rustic dish.  That is not de Pomiane’s way.  His way is the way of the artist; of the man who could add one sure touch, one only, and thereby create an effect of the pre-ordained, the inevitable, the entirely right and proper.’  It is in truth the case of a professional having the nerve to back his own judgment – and forget about white wine in the Alps, the dish looks just right to me to have with red wine in front of a fire and the rugby on a Friday or Sunday night.

A restaurant on Mont-St- Michel was famous through all France for its single menu – an omelette, ham, fried sole, lamb cutlets, roast chicken and salad, and dessert.  The omelettes were the talk of all France.  What was the secret of the cook’s magic?  She revealed it in 1932 in a letter to La Table:

Monsieur Viel,

Here is the recipe for the omelette; I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly.  I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.

Annette Poulard

Let’s face it – the French have style.  But David lamented the decline in French provincial cooking in her time.  She looked back on a lunch at a pension de famille run by three ladies in the Vosges in 1968, two thin and spinsterish, the third a young and graceful niece.  First came a quiche Lorraine (which had no cheese in the filling and was baked in a tart tin).  It was served with a salad of crisp green leaves.  Then came coarse country sausage poached with vegetables.  One of the thin ladies apologised that they did not have the trout that day – so they went straight to the roast – braised pigeons with whole apples cooked in their skins which by some trick were still rosy red.  Then came the local cheese with caraway seeds.  Then came another cartwheel of pastry.

It was the normal meal expected by the factory owners when they invited guests to eat with them.  The food was good honest food, honestly cooked.  There was no pretension and not the least ostentation about it.  All the same what a misguided meal.  The quiche and the salad, both of them delicious and combining perfectly, would alone have been enough.

You can understand why some people keep this as bedside reading.  It conduces to peace and well-being.  But as someone remarked in The Guardian on the centenary of her birth:

But someone once told me Jamie Oliver had sold more copies of just one of his books than have been sold of Elizabeth’s entire oeuvre, and what can you say about that? 

Good luck to Mr Oliver – but what about civilisation as we know it?

This Folio edition does not have enough from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  It does however display the style of the author across the Med, and it deals with meals we take for granted like souvlaki or kebabs.  Julian Barnes gives a good example of how a short and apparently simple recipe left him bamboozled.  He was better off than the guy who responded to an instruction ‘Separate the eggs’ by moving them further apart on the bench!  Barnes also tells us that when E D collected her OBE, the Queen asked her what she did.  ‘Write cookery books, Ma’am.’  The Queen replied: ‘How useful.’

Elizabeth David left her own testament to grace, style, and food.  If I were to ask God whether, say, Kant or El Greco have had more influence on me than Elizabeth David, the result might be a close run thing.  But while I do not have to do logic or like art, I do have to eat.

MY TOP SHELF : 7

 

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

7

SONNETS

William Shakespeare (1609)

The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ed A Douglas, Martin Secker 1933; rebound in half red Morocco and cloth, with gilt label and humped spine.

Love is too young to know what conscience is;

Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?

This volume stands on this shelf for all the work of Shakespeare, but in particular the plays.  They have had more effect on me than any other source of literature.  I have written about them separately.  This note can then be brief.

This very handsome book was presented to me by an English friend and colleague after we had finished a long hard case.  My friend has a dry sense of humour.  He was aware of my infatuation with the playwright, and he thought that this edition was just right for me.  It was compiled by Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie to Oscar Wilde.  His Lordship was moved to effect the compilation for this purpose:

The present writer, while accepting it as perfectly obvious and indisputable that the great majority of Shakespeare’s incomparable Sonnets (which comprise among them the finest poetry that has ever been written in this or any language) were written to, or about, a boy whom Shakespeare adored, utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist.

Now, some Loony Tunes think that Shakespeare was a spook, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden; here he is defended by Bosie against charges that he was queer.  I wonder whether the playwright shared these views of Bosie:

Any honest man who has been at public school or university must know perfectly well that young men and boys are liable to fall in love with other young men and boys, and they must also know equally well that some of these relationships are innocent and some are not…..If Shakespeare is to be convicted of homosexuality on the evidence of his sonnets to Mr W H, then David, the Psalmist, who is venerated by Catholics as a Saint and one of the precursors of Christ, must be equally convicted on the strength of his lament for Jonathon.  Would anyone in his senses make such a contention, unless he were an ‘eminent counsel’ speaking for his brief.

Well, whatever else it was that lured Wilde to Bosie, it was not the refinement of his intellect.

Here are some typical lines.

When to sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:

Then can I drown an eye unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe,

And moan the expense of many a banish’d sight.

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’

 

My Top Shelf – Chapter 2

 

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

2

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

MY TOP SHELF – WUTHERING HEIGHTS

 

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

1

WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Emily Brontë (1847)

Folio, 1991, bound in boards covered in green moiré, with slip-case; wood engravings by Peter Forster.

… and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.  It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same….

Wuthering Heights has passages like this that some English ladies – and I do mean ladies – that you might meet at Oxford know by heart.  It has become part of the English psyche.  It was the first and only novel of a young woman from Yorkshire who had probably scarcely been kissed by a man, and it fairly raises the question: just what did they put on the porridge of those young girls up there back then?

Emily Brontë was brought up in Yorkshire with a Celtic ancestry of an Irish father and a Cornish mother.  Her father was an Anglican minister and the parsonage was the centre of the life of the family which included a sister, Charlotte.  The girls went to a harsh Curates’ Daughters’ School but they had the run of their father’s library so that their education in literature was so much better than what modern children get – the Old Testament, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest.  The children’s mother died young, as was common in that time, and their aunt had a fiercely Calvinist view of the world.  The children began creating their own tales and legends and creating their own worlds for those legends.  They spent some time in Europe but they were unhappy away from the parsonage.  The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte came out two months before Wuthering Heights.  They are very, very different books.

When you think of Wuthering Heights, think not of a novel.  Think of Shakespeare – the passionate young Hamlet jumping into the grave in defiance of convention to embrace the dead body of a woman who went mad and then killed herself when Hamlet so coldly and cruelly rejected her; think of King Lear, plunged into madness by his sustained rage at being rejected by the one woman he loved; think of Othello, tipped over the brink of madness by the thought that the young, white woman he loved was not true to him; think of Macbeth, who allows the woman he loves to push him so that his ambition sends him and her to their respective hells; think of Malvolio, who is cruelly tricked into believing that his lady loves him and then is even more cruelly accused of being mad; think of Prospero, who uses his powers of magic to bring together those who had wronged him and then brings them undone – and then buries his magic.

Think of opera.  Think of The Flying Dutchman, and the thumping romantic drive of the music of the sea by Wagner, and the story of a rejected loner doomed to roam alone until he finds redemption.  Think of painting.  Think above all of La Tempesta by Giorgione.  Against a nocturnal European landscape, with sawn off pillars and odd buildings, and lightning in the sky, a young man in contemporary costume stands calmly watching over a nude woman suckling a child.  Have you ever seen anything so enigmatic?  What on earth can it mean?  Or are we simply impertinent to seek to put into words what this great artist put on canvas?  Well, then, why not just enjoy it?

Wuthering Heights is the story of a man despised and rejected of men, who is then rejected by the woman he loves, and who sets out to and does get revenge upon the whole pack of them, but who then, in the emptiness of his achievement, is reconciled to the memory of the woman he loved.

Catherine and Heathcliff get close roaming the wild moors, exulting in nature and their momentary freedom.  One day they raced down to look in on the Grange.  Heathcliff won the race.  Catherine went barefoot.  It is four miles each way.  Heathcliff says that they peeked through a window and ‘we laughed outright at the petted things’.  Were they really wild ones?

Cathy tells Nelly of her love for Heathcliff in the passage set out above.  When Heathcliff overhears her saying she will marry Edgar Linton he quits the house.  Cathy then goes on, speaking to Nelly in what might be the crux of the novel:  ‘Who is to separate us, pray?  They’ll meet the fate of Milo!….  Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars?  Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother’s power.’

Heathcliff returns after many years, rich and powerful.  Edgar Linton has very good reasons to fear Heathcliff.  Cathy is desperate for Edgar to receive Heathcliff, and we have one of the few funny moments in the book.  Edgar thinks it will be appropriate for the servant (Heathcliff) to be seen in the kitchen.  Cathy says she cannot sit in the kitchen but Nelly could set two tables, one for Edgar and Miss Isabella, ‘being gentry’, and the other for Heathcliff and herself, being ‘the lower orders’.

The scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff on his return are the most blazing.  ‘I meditated this plan just to have one glimpse of your face – and a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.’

In their final argument Heathcliff looks to Nelly like a mad dog foaming at the mouth.  There is a level of sustained hysteria not seen outside Dostoyevsky.  Heathcliff and Cathy flay and lacerate each other like mad monks.  It is like crossing Medea and Now, Voyager.

Has any other English writer unleashed emotional power – passion – like this?  The fury that Heathcliff unloads on those who should have been close to him – for example his wife and his son – must unsettle any reader.  Heathcliff twice refers to Cathy as a ‘slut’.  Nelly got it right when she said they were ‘living among clowns and misanthropes’.  But the more revenge and power that Heathcliff gets, the more empty becomes the shell of his life, and then we see that the second Cathy is looking to change things by being civilized.

For Heathcliff, God and Satan are one, and equally irrelevant, but somehow he manages to induce his own death, so that he can be at one in the ground with his Cathy.  The novel ends in this way: ‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor –…I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.  It is so English, and so wild.

This book comes up at us like a novel of Christina Stead – like a rough uncut diamond.  It is all rawness, and it is found in Yorkshire, of all places.  Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet come at us from the mists of the past.  (Charlotte found her male lead in Rochester in Jane Eyre – those Brontë girls sure liked their men strong and tough.)   Our novel is altogether more modern.  Heathcliff is the original angry young man who comes undone because his girl is not ready for him – Cathy prefers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, with a little bit of bovver on the side.

Well, who could blame her?  Heathcliff was a gypsy and he had all the makings of a real bastard.  And yet we know that neither was ever going to find peace above the ground.  How come, then, that Geoffrey Boycott was so boring?

Here and there – How guilty was Brutus?

 

Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario. 

Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives.  They are also close friends.  Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two.  Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part.  That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.

But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers.  They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head.  They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo.  They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down.  They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause.  He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest.  They approach Bob.  Seduction is their aim.

Bob is in two minds.  He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill.  But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend?  In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill.  Bob is finally won over.

Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces.  Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill.  Bob positively fawns on Bill.  When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs.  ‘You, too, Bob?’  Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators.  His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.

Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately.  It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.

So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus?  The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell.  Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell.  What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?

Let us deal with Dante first.  This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas.  Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation.  If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever.  But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.

Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch).  He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic.  On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.

It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas.  One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable.  It would be very hard to argue against that position.

But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler.  Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?

We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar.  There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful.  You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing.  And Judas had no grand ideological plan.  He just took the money.  They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers.  Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.

So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus?  It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.

It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar.  Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

Thy honourable metal may be wrought

From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete

That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.308-312)

Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus?  Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble?  For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?

Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general.  He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10-14)

So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?

… And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing he is,

Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,

Would run to these and these extremities

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg

Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,

And kill him in the shell.  (2.1.28-34)

We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous.  We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.  (2.1.62-65)

Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man.  He will offer a veneer of respectability.  An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.

And they pay very dearly for handing over to him.  He makes three mistakes that doom them all.  He says an oath is beneath them.  He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162).  Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods.  (2.1.171-2)

Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend.  (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.)  He does not want to get his hands dirty.  (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)

The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage.  Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump.  Game over.

There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S.  The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic.  The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs.  This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries.  This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob.  All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap.  In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’.  You can’t get much more up to date than that.

But our playwright had not done with Brutus.  The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine.  The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar.  The Judas kiss.  You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times.  Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.

And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them.  As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’

*This appears to be the verdict of history.  In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:

The Liberators knew what they were about.  Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome].  They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order.  Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words.  They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.

Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.

MY TOP SHELF

 

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

FOREWORD

An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle.  The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity.  For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’  Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’.  Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.

My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room.  It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off.  I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire.  Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf.  When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.

There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin.  I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times).  Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.

All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased.  Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere.  Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf.  This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare.  The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room.  The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.

For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.

The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves.  With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking.  Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said.  I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music.  That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe.  I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.

This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references.  I have written about most of these subjects before.  Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them.  Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.

Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then.  (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?)  The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates.  Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.

For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding.  The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.

For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West.  It is not a Top Forty.  There is no such thing.  My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out.  If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple.  This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.

Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there.  As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book.  You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes.  I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind.  The following pages tell why.

 

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

2015

Here and there – Huckleberry Finn

[This is an extract from a follow up on great books in ‘Top Shelf’ which is currently being put together.]

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

That’s how this novel starts.  Huck then has supper with the widow.

After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men.  They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief.

The hypocrisy shocks us now.  One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim.  Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.

Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is.

On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan.  And he was more than just a fan.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction.  The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment.  So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.

Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder.  Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.

Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors.  They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’  That really winds up the locals.  (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)

But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?

He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it.  He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days.  Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see.  Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –

Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.

And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam.  Jim was satisfied.

Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that.  It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like.

Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’.  It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels.  It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India.  The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation.  Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it.

The two novels have a lot in common.  The hero of each is a boy.  He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world.  They embark on a journey, physically and morally.  The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story.

However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix.  So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.

Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.

What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man.  It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….

And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:

‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.

I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’