Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine

Roger Scruton

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009.

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who enjoys, among other things, fox hunting and wine.  He is conservative – more than that, he is a sane and articulate conservative who can speak in terms that the rest of us can follow.  That makes him a rarity among philosophers, if not conservatives.  When Australians who regard themselves as conservatives – often falsely in my view – invoke Scruton, they conveniently forget that he is firmly committed to conserving the planet.  He wrote a book about how to be a green conservative.

This book begins as follows.

This book is not a guide to drinking wine, but a guide to thinking it.  It is a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice.  Its argument is addressed to theists and atheists, to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, to every thinking person to whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment.  I have harsh words to say about the health fanatics, about the mad mullahs, who prefer taking offence to seeing another’s viewpoint.  But my purpose is to defend the opinion once attributed to Plato that ‘nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the gods to man’, and I am confident that all those who are offended by this innocent endeavour thereby give proof of their irrelevance.

Scruton quotes Jefferson as saying ‘wine is the only antidote to whiskey.’  He is an old fashioned purist: ‘To assign points to a claret is like assigning points to symphonies – as though Beethoven’s 7th, Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Mozart’s 39th and Bruckner’s 8th all hovered between 90 and 95’.  Robert Parker did us no favour with this system – it reminds me of judging divers – but Australian critics have loyally gone along with it.

This book is that of a learned man that will not suit all palates.  Scruton does cover a lot of ground – mainly in the European context.

Ancient philosophy, Christian religion and Western art all see wine as a channel of communication between god and man, between the rational soul and the animal, between the animal and the vegetable kingdoms.

Scruton then explores that statement with an analysis of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a critical argument of Kant (who had guests for lunch every day and gave each guest a pint of red wine).

Scruton has trouble with our selling wine by reference to grape variety rather than place.  He says that the Wirra Wirra, in McLaren Vale, is one of ‘the oldest and most beautiful wineries in Australia and that its Grenache and Shiraz is a wine that tastes of Australia – so strong that it resembles a fortified wine, combining the guilty excesses of port with the playfulness of the Australian outback.’  ‘Playful’ is not a term I would use for the outback.  It is a gorgeous killer.  But I am very familiar with the reaction of Europeans to the strength of Australian wines.

And to force Syrah up to 14 per cent or more, tricking it into early maturation, so as to put the result on the market with all its liquorice flavours unsubdued, puffing out its dragon breath like an old lecher leaning sideways to put a hairy hand on your knee, is to slander a grape that, properly treated, as it is on the hill of Hermitage or on the Côte Rôtie, is the most slow and civilised of seducers.

There was a time when we may have sniffed some condescension, if not snobbery, from an Englishman there, but since this book is on the shelf to celebrate the role of wine in my life, and since most of that is Australian, I will say something about our wines.

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia, to the area around what we now call Adelaide, with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines made from Grenache were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub. 

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  Max Schubert spoke of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time…..

The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  survey showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..

 So began an Australian success story.  Penfolds has produced labels including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle, is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world. 

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly failing called ‘the cringe’.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

Passing Bull 287 – The death of English

In a massive Time/Life set of Churchill at war, I found this memo boxed:

A hot discussion is raging in the ATS (women in the army) about whether members who marry should, if they wish, be allowed to quit.  Nearly everyone is in favour of this.  It seems futile to forbid them, and if they desert, there is no means of punishing them.  Only the most honourable are therefore impeded.  Pray let me have, on one sheet of paper, a note on this showing the pros and cons.

If you substitute ‘please’ for the archaic ‘pray’, could the message be simpler?  And could you imagine any of our prime ministers being so direct?

This is not just a matter of style or syntax.  The note shows a state of mind – of someone who can make a decision and give orders appropriately.  That is leadership.  We do not see much of it in our politicians now.

Passing Bull 286 – Why the Bendigo Bank is Bent

This post is written in anger. 

This afternoon, I needed access to my accounts online with the Bendigo Bank.  I could not get on their site on this laptop.  I therefore screwed up my courage to ring them.  No one likes ringing a bank or Telstra.  After the usual noughts and crosses games, the computer gave me a quote of a delay time of eight to twelve minutes.  Not good – but bearable.  I then got subjected to that banal repeated propaganda that tells you so much about the mentality of those running these outfits – both banal and grasping.  That lasted thirty minutes before I hung up in disgust.  THIRTY MINUTES – out of my life because a bloody bank can’t get its act together – decently, or at all.

The original quote of delay time was wantonly reckless if not downright fraudulent.  I was not given the option of taking a call back if I wanted it.  And the propaganda kept repeating the same dreadful lie – ‘Your call shall be answered shortly.’ 

The directors of the Bendigo Bank should be deeply and personally ashamed of the way that they manage their bank.  They obviously chase profit so that they mistreat their customers.  That is not good business.  As it happens, I hold shares in that bank.  And I am now deeply offended as a shareholder – because I personally do not want to be a part of a business that is so rude to people and that treats you and me as just means to their ends.  The conduct of these directors sadly reflects the collapse of courtesy and common decency in our public life.  What kind of person would now trust what a bank said?

I repeat – the directors of the Bendigo Bank should be deeply and personally ashamed of the way that they manage their bank.  

And it did not take those bastards long to wash Ken Hayne right out of their hair.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Mark Twain, 1884

The Library of America, 1982; composite volume ‘Mississippi Writings’; bound in cloth boards, and slip case; the volume includes three other works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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.’

Passing Bull 285 – Romancing Anzacs

The government made some bizarre remarks about Anzac Day – after the Prime Minister had said that no Australian soldier had died in vain in wars   The Age today has two wonderful letters. 

Barbara Wertheim of Brunswick begins:

I am the daughter of an Anzac.  My father fought at Lone Pine and died when I was seven from injuries sustained  at Gallipoli.  I grew up in Victory Square, the Prahran War Memorial – 16 houses rented for a shilling a week to war widows.

Maggie Morgan of Northcote came from a father and grandfather who fought in several wars and lost all their friends – yes, all of them.  She grew up in NATO bases in Germany where people were told the truth.

Clearly, neither Mr Tudge nor his colleagues have the moral courage and integrity to accommodate wider perspectives on Australia’s history, whether it be war, colonisation or the genocide of our First Peoples.

These ladies know the truth and are qualified to tell it.

Here and there – No nurses for poor John Keats

During a small hiccup in my departure from hospital this morning, I penned the following note on the back of a most priceless package – my discharge papers.  I penned it twice – a doctor’s quote on time is worth as much as a lawyer’s.

I had taken with me my beautiful Baynton-Riviera binding of the poems of John Keats – olive green leather with gold leaf and a burgundy label.  I saw, I think for the first time, that Keats was born on the same day as me – 31 October (the day that Luther unleashed his thunderbolts).  This poor little Cockney – reviled for being just that – did not make it to 26.  Yet I in my quietude look set to cheat the Reaper to reach 76.  How does God square that?  A young man who could happily walk twenty miles in Scotland before breakfast succumbed to a disease of the lungs more lethal to him that the cancer and emphysema that afflict mine – and which a very short while ago would certainly have killed me. 

Shelley thought that the critics killed Keats with their sneers and snobbery.  That’s as may be, but the end of Keats in Rome was sad and cruel.  It took the poor little bugger twenty-eight days to clear the Channel.  He had no nurses – his good friend Severn nursed him.  In his rotten end, Keats felt worse than unnoticed – he felt despised and rejected.  ‘Here lies one whose name is writ on water.’  That is on the headstone of a grave dug at night for Protestants in Catholic Rome.  (And what does God have to say about that?)

At home, I have a drawing of Keats by a distinguished English cartoonist.  It is in black and white – except for the eyes – which are pale blue.  Eyes beguiled the young poet.  ‘And her eyes were wild’.  ‘Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific – and all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –./Silent upon a peak in Darien.’  And that singular prescription for a coquette: ‘Nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance.’  

This gentle young man, this bright star, was too young to have acquired malice, but he even found time for a sketch of what passes now for politics.

And where we think that the truth least understood,

Oft may be found in a ‘singleness of aim’,

That ought to frighten into hooded shame

A money-mong’ring pitiable brood.  (Sonnet addressed to Haydon.)

Well, those people have no time for Keats.  But his poetry taught us the rich fullness of life, while his own life showed us its raw brutality.

Here and there – MFB

(Extract from a memoire.  The MFB sued over others. They won’t now).

Some of the cases at the Fire Brigade were out of this world.  A fire truck on display at a charity day for kids dying of cancer rolled over on TV and there was embarrassment and anger at Brigade HQ.  They charged the man driving – who had surrendered the wheel to a mate – and the officer in charge – who was nowhere near the vehicle when it fell over.  I saw no case against him and I dismissed that charge at the close of the evidence of the Brigade.  I had to give a suspension to the man who should have been driving – his name was Whelan.  During the hearing, I got them to take me for a ride on one of these vehicles with both counsel.  As we got going, we passed a handsome woman who had been in the tribunal room.  I was told that she was the wife of the officer who had been charged – and the mother of nine children!  When the hearing resumed, I asked counsel for the Brigade what penalty he would seek if the charges were proved.  Dismissal.  For both?  Yes.  I wondered how this would go down in the people’s daily – a fire brigade officer, with a stainless record after 20 years, and the father of nine children, had been fired for giving of his spare time to attend a charity for kids dying of cancer, for an accident that he had nothing to do with.  I also wondered how long it would be before the comrades returned to work.  The case of Mr Whelan was hardly less interesting.  He had grown up with the guy that he gave the wheel to.  They had been garbos together.  They had both therefore had experience in driving large heavy vehicles.  But while Whelan went from being garbo to firie, his mate went into business and became very successful and very rich.  He also became committed to charities.  He gave evidence before me, and he was very impressive.  I met both these guys twice later.  One was at a football presentation that the union had invited me to.  (It was a VFL function; the comrades are not toffs.)  The secretary was late – as usual.  I was directed to a table.  The guy next to me asked if I knew who he was.  ‘No, mate’.  It was Mr Whelan!  I cursed the secretary for being late, but Mr Whelan and his mate (the charitable ex-garbo) and I got on very well.  The second meeting was at the greatly favoured San Remo.  (Well, the union could not be accused of being duchessed.)  It was a packed house.  It was a living wake held in honour of Mr Whelan before his expected death from cancer.  I told him that I was honoured to have been invited, and I meant it.  It was a very generous and decent gesture of both Mr Whelan and his mate – and the union.  But the UFU decided that it did not want any more of this disciplinary process.  And it was allowed to die.  From time to time, I would tell management that they could get in trouble for doing nothing.  But there was a high turnover of CEOs.  After some years of silence, management got the courage to charge a firefighter with having obscene material on an MFB computer.  The material was vile for its abuse of other races and faiths – including Islam.  There was no defence.  It should have been disposed of in two hours.  It dragged on for days as the government intervened.  The accused did not turn up on day one.  On day two, senior counsel for the accused said the accused had not been there because he had a message from the minister’s chief of staff saying that the matter would be adjourned.  It’s just that no-one asked the tribunal or was told of its hostility to any kind of adjournment.  No-one seemed to question the propriety of this kind of political interference in a statutory process that was meant to be both public and independent.  They all just looked serenely stupefied.  At one stage I asked a simple question of those in charge of the prosecution – six lawyers left the hearing to consult – for quite some time.  This was an appalling fiasco in an essential service.  No one seemed to understand just how serious the offence was relating to Islam.  They seemed more interested in the offence to Nicky Winmar.  (I was sufficiently troubled to refer the issue to ASIO, but when they referred me to the federal police, I gave up.)  The man should have been fired, but I thought that would mean he was paying the price of dreadful incompetence on both sides.  Instead, I was fired.  I then had to sue to recover my retainer, which I did with interest and costs, but only after the Brigade had spent taxpayers’ money in taking every dead point that vacuity could unearth as they trashed any possible suggestion that the Crown should behave properly in litigating with one of its subjects.  Then they had complained that I had acted unethically.  That too was groundless, but it took those responsible about two and a half years to get round to dismissing it.  The whole aura of lassitude and incompetence was very unsettling and demeaning.  By what I saw of the MFB, it must be one of the worst run statutory bodies in the nation.  At one point in the last case a lawyer rang me one night saying that he was ‘a trusted adviser’ of the board of the Brigade.  That was interesting.  Until then, I had not heard of it.  For about twelve years, I was vested with the powers of the CEO over discipline in a statutory corporation of an essential service and not once did any member of the board feel the need to talk to me.

Passing Bull – 284 – Hypocrisy writ large

Some years back I did an online course in religion on God – is there one?  I was struck by the venom in the discussion.  The worst came from the faithful.  God fearing doubters like me were more relaxed.  One episode caused great disquiet on all sides.  Pascal had suggested that doubters might pray to God just in case he was there.  That looks like offensive hypocritical nonsense to me.  To our horror, the tutor appeared to support the idea.  That brought to my mind the remark of Groucho Marx- he would want to join any club that would have him as a member.  And that is how I see the discussion about the Lord’s Prayer in parliament.  A leading Catholic apologist, Kevin Donnelly, supports retaining the ritual.  He says we do it for the blackfellas and we should do it for the most popular religious figure among the white people.  The problem is that most of those taking part do not believe one word of any of it.  For them it is bullshit.  For the rest of us it is pure hypocrisy.  For Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, it is a sad colonial relic.  It is a mystery why the people who claim to front for God want so badly to defile him.

Here and there – Shakespeare’s Promethean Fire

According to the massive Concordance that Barbara Sharpe referred me to, and which hourly stress tests an Ikea plank here at home, Shakespeare made four references to Prometheus.  Here is one of them.

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

They are the ground, the books the academes,

From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.

(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3.301 ff)

So, the fire that Prometheus stole from heaven is what lights our minds – not back then in those days what distinguishes us from the apes, but what precludes us from being mindless drones in a hive.  Shakespeare, or more likely Berowne, was so attracted to the idea that he rehashed it fifty or so lines later almost word for word.  This time we are told that the sources of learning ‘show, contain and nourish all the world.’  (One of Shakespeare’s characters would speak of stealing from heaven – but this time it was courtesy, as a father lectures his son on being a king: I Henry IV, Part 1, 3.2.50.)

Here then is a large notion – Prometheus is our great liberator, if not our protector and father.

Someone once remarked that ‘The Melbourne Club I have no problem with.  It’s just the members I can’t stand.’  That’s about where I stand now with religion – all or any of it.  God is fine, if that’s your go.  It’s just the people who claim to represent him that I have trouble with.  The clerics, preachers, priests, pastors, mullahs, Brahmins, and shamans – the whole dusty and shady lot of them. 

Two sorts really get to me – the so called evangelicals who support Donald Trump, and those who say that the dogma of their faith take some issues – like abortion or assisted dying – right off the political table.  But if I had to choose between those and a mullah who sanctions the ‘honour’ murder of a girl in Afghanistan, that would be above my pay level.  And they are all now joined by blind sectarian zealots who want to defile God each morning in our parliament by having people go through a mindless ritual in the name of God – which most of them don’t believe in.  And while sectarian differences have mostly vanished here, they or ecclesiastic issues lie behind so many wars, including those we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And the real die-hards now seek to impose their cruel, medieval views on sexuality upon all of us.

Kant said this about ‘priestcraft’:

Between a shaman of the Tunguses and the European prelate who rules over both church and state…between the wholly sensuous Wogulite, who in the morning lays the paw of a bearskin over his head with the short prayer, ‘Strike me not dead!,’ and the sublimated Puritan and Independent in Connecticut, there certainly is a tremendous difference in the style of faith, but not in the principle….The one aim which they all have in common is to steer to their advantage the invisible power which presides over human destiny…..

That seems spot on to me – and although the issue of clerical power did not present quite like that to Homer or Prometheus, that thought of Kant would have appealed to them, too.  The sad truth is that most people of faith think that their creed is somehow different, somehow better – when most of the rest of the world think that they are away with the birds.  It follows that most people of faith are held back by fetters that most of the rest of the world believe to be illusory and self-inflicted.  And what are we to say of creeds that gave the world caste, the Taliban, or ethnic cleansing in Myanmar?

If then you see the progress of mankind as lying in its liberation not from the supernatural, but from those who claim to be the gatekeepers – and generally the exclusive gatekeepers – of the road to human fulfilment – then we might look again at what Prometheus did for us. 

In considering Prometheus as the bearer of enlightenment, we might recall what Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another…religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.

There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that looks like our local state faction fighters at play.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to relieve the fate of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look very unjealous, just won’t cop this.  He binds Prometheus to a rock during his pleasure.

Zeus is a dead-set shocker.  As the hero in the Aeschylus version says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’  We have just had sickening reminders of that kind of ratbag.  Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’  Ditto.  And the arrogance is constant.  When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’, Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’  Like our politicians and kryptonite – or the word ‘sorry’. 

‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger, when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus exercised his will ‘to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’  So, when Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease our lot, he has to face the wrath of a very personal god.  (And you wonder why other models of God remain so stubbornly personal – so utterly less than divine.)

The Aeschylus play – and it is a play – ends in a fiery exchange between Hermes and the hero.  Insults are exchanged that Kim would have warmly saluted.  The conflict is alarmingly modern.  (It reminds me of the immortal Ralph Gleeson in The Honeymooners.)  Hermes accuses Prometheus of ‘self-conceit’ and says ‘you the clever one’ are ‘too sharp in your sharpness.’  He is like a colt before being broken in.  Prometheus says Zeus will never find out how he Prometheus will overthrow the dictator.  (‘Tyrant’ was a loaded word in ancient Greece.)  Hermes says Prometheus will remain in agony until ‘a god appears to take upon himself your load of suffering.’  The blood stays bad right until the end.

There you have two views of this myth – the contest between enlightenment and the darkness of mindless oppression; or divine intervention to bring redemption and to free mankind from a fate brought on after spite in the godhead.  The second is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The first is dominant in Aeschylus – and, we will see, Shelley and Byron.

If the gods ran the ancient world, the Church claimed total governance in the medieval world.  There were then three types of people – those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked.  And the Church dictated the terms for all of them.  Trust in the Church was mandated and total.  They could burn you at the stake for daring to want to read Scripture in your own language.  You just had to take their word for the whole lot.  And they had the power over life and death – for eternity.

Achieving liberation from this mindless servitude was the work of the movements known as the Renaissance and Reformation.  It was in truth a job for Prometheus.  Macaulay wrote:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty. 

Prometheus was, then, a rebel; but unlike Jimmy Dean, he had a cause.  So did our other great rebel, Satan.  (The great mystery in our letters for me is – how did Milton not think that we would be bored to death by the Father and Son, mildly diverted by Adam and Eve, and completely seduced by Satan?)  Let’s take the views of two other poets who cast themselves as rebels – even if we think they may have been a bit twee in doing so.

Shelley got all fired up about all this in Prometheus Unbound, and humility is not the term that comes first to mind with this version of titan.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest…. Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

He should have stuck with the poetry.  Is it any wonder these guys were called ‘Romantic’?  This is the kind of stuff that idealists in Germany were then mooning over.  And Shelley keeps on going to the end of the Preface to Prometheus Unbound.

My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

Percy Bysshe Shelley sounds like a fop not cut out for the terraces of Melbourne Storm.  But Jupiter is the bad guy needing to be tamed by Prometheus, and Shelley gives the hero some lines of raw majesty:

Evil minds

Change good to their own nature.  I gave all

He has; and in return he chains me here

Years, ages, night and day…

Whilst my beloved race is trampled down

By his thought-executing ministers….

Kindness to such is keen reproach, which breaks

With bitter stings the light sleep of Revenge.

Submission, thou dost know I cannot try:

For what submission but that fatal word,

The death-seal of mankind’s captivity,

Like the Sicilian’s hair suspended sword,

Which trembles o’er his crown, would he accept,

Or could I yield?  Which yet I will not yield.

Let others flatter Crime, where it sits throned

In brief Omnipotence…

What would Churchill have made of that?  We are a world away from Gethsemane, but it is all drop-dead gorgeous – and ‘thought-executing ministers’ is so apt for Mr Zuckerberg and all of his frightful ilk.

We get another picture from a poet with a clearer title to the status of fop – Lord Byron.  This is from his Prometheus:

Titan! To thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven

And the deaf tyranny of Fate

The ruling principle of Hate

Which for its pleasure does create

The things it may annihilate,

Refused thee even the boon to die

The wretched gift eternity

Was thine – and thou has borne it well.

So, the carrot of immortality has become the stick of eternity.  But Byron then gives us a walloping celebration of humanity for the sake of it.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,

To render with thy precepts less

The sum of human wretchedness,

And strengthen man with his own mind…

The poem ends with themes we grapple with in King Lear – ‘unaccommodated man’.

….And Man in portions can foresee

His own funereal destiny;

His wretchedness and his resistance,

And his sad unallied existence;

To which his Spirit may oppose

Itself and equal to all woes,

And a firm will and a deep sense,

Which even in torture can descry

Its own concenter’d recompense,

Triumphant where it does defy,

And making Death a Victory.

This is all very large, indeed.  We are what we are and we need no snake oil salesman or voodoo purveyor to tell us otherwise.  We can make it on our own.  The humanity of our ‘unallied existence’ is good enough in and of itself.  And it took a theatrical impresario from Stratford, the son of a glover, to teach us to see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman.

And is that not so much more fit for our purpose than all that old guff about Eve and the bloody apple?  What a fearful sword did the Holy Men then wreak, not just for the subjugation of women, but for the subjection of all mankind?  Prometheus stuck it right up all those big hitters in religion with tickets on themselves.  He asked for nothing and he promised nothing.  He just did it for us. 

Well – that’s enough already of our creeping guiltily around the dark garden behind our fig leaves for fear of offending the Holy Men.  We want a champion who will steal fire from the whole bloody lot of them.  We want a trust-buster to blow up the monopoly.  Whose team would you rather be on?  Milton’s, where we cringe at our humanity because we are taught that God was just in punishing a woman because she dared to seek knowledge that was reserved for God and denied to us?  Or Shakespeare’s, where we walk taller because our hero dared to defy the gods to give us knowledge so that we can see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman?


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Ivan Turgenev, 1862

Franklin Library 1984.  Translated by Constance Garnett.  Illustrations by Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese.    Half navy leather, embossed in gold, with ridged spine; marbled end papers, gold edges to pages, and satin ribbon.

Is Bazarov a worse case than Raskolnikov?  Bazarov is the bane of us all – the young man who knows better than those who came before him.  He has found out the answer – and there can only be one answer.  So sure is his faith, that he knows that to implement his answer and lift the clouds of bondage and ignorance from the eyes of his countrymen, the end justifies the means.  He is, in short, a fanatic, or zealot – and in Russia he prefigures the horror of Communism.  The commentaries say Bazarov was a nihilist.  I looked that term up in Professor Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

A theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes.

When you think about it, if you subscribe to that theory – that you believe in nothing – you are involved in a contradiction in terms.  ‘I believe that I don’t believe anything.’  That is like repudiating Cogito; ergo sum.  But triumphal hell-raisers are not confined by refinement.

Some writers are described as the writers’ writer or the novelists’ novelist – the latter was the term applied by Henry James to Turgenev.  Turgenev has as good a claim as any to the title.  His writing is easy, graceful and detached.  It is not long before you know that you are in the hands of a master.  It’s like getting into a car and realizing that you are in a Bentley.  It comes as a change from those great Russian writers who could explode into exclamation marks at the drop of a hat. 

This uncommittedness was as important in Russia then as it is today.  At that time, Russian fiction was intensely political.  In his Open Letter to Gogol, written in 1847, Belinsky had given a radical creed for the next generation – for the sons rather than the fathers.  It showed the way to would-be revolutionaries.  Dostoevsky read it to a private gathering and was condemned to death.

Turgenev came from a family that at least pretended to aristocratic roots.  There is more than a whiff of condescension in some of his writing.  But Turgenev was nothing if not urbane, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky distanced themselves from a man who looked to prefer Europe to Russia.  For his part, Turgenev was close to Flaubert and thought that the other two Russians were too preoccupied with religion.  That looks to us to be understandable, but things got so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to an uneventful duel.  They did not speak for seventeen years.  Writing in Russia then was combustible.

Turgenev is best remembered, and read, in the west for On the eve and Fathers and Sons.  In the latter, the author, who admired Hamlet, looked again at the inevitable conflict between the generations – that underlies so much of Hamlet.  It is about the personal and political coming of age of two young men – Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov – and the grief that this brings to their fathers.  A connecting agent in the story – which looks to have been destined for the stage – is an attractive and wealthy widow, Madam Anna Odintsova.  The older generation has what may be called liberal views about the still medieval condition of the serfs in Russia – the Russians were at least six hundred years behind England – but the new generation has lost patience and rejects the lot of them.  As with all annihilators, they are light on about what to put in place after the revolution.  Like our politicians now, they are also shy of hard experience of life in the raw.  Although the author was far from being a radical, the reaction to Fathers and Sons was such that he thought it was as well to leave town for a while.

We are introduced to Bazarov in a sequence that Chekhov would have read.  We are told that he had ‘a special faculty for winning the confidence of the lower orders, though he never pandered to them and indeed was very offhand with them.’ Well, people who profess to love ‘the people’ often go to water or ice if they meet the real thing. 

But Bazarov is not one of those.  He is a young man of science – medicine – and his superiority lies there.  Arkady takes him home to meet his father and uncle.  Before breakfast the next day, Bazarov goes out to collect frogs – for science.  It does not take long for Bazarov to get well and truly under the skin of the uncle.  For Pavel Petrovich, a man who recognises nothing respects nothing.

Pavel Petrovich spoke with studious politeness.  He was secretly beginning to feel irritated.  Bazarov’s complete indifference exasperated his aristocratic nature.  This son of a medico was not only self-assured: he actually returned abrupt and reluctant answers, and there was a churlish, almost insolent note in his voice…… ‘He has no faith in principles, only in frogs.’

This is Madam Odintsova.

Anna Sergeyevna was a rather strange person.  Having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong conviction even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life.  She had clear ideas about many things and a variety of interests; but nothing ever completely satisfied her; indeed, she did really seek satisfaction.  Her mind was at once probing and indifferent; any doubts she entertained were never smoothed into oblivion, nor ever swelled into unrest.  If she had not been rich and independent, she might perhaps have thrown herself into the struggle and experienced passion…..But life was easy for her, though tedious at times, and she continued to pursue her daily round without haste and rarely upsetting herself about anything.  Rainbow-coloured dreams occasionally danced before even her eyes, but she breathed more freely when they faded away, and did not regret them.  Her imagination certainly ranged beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible by conventional morality; but even then her blood flowed as quietly as ever in her fascinatingly graceful, tranquil body….Like all women who have not succeeded in falling in love, she hankered after someone without knowing what it was.  In reality, there was nothing she wanted, though it seemed to her that she wanted everything.

Here then is man at home with you and me – and with his pen.  Could Goya have improved on that portrait?  How would this widow react if one of these virile but unworldly young radicals fell for her?

Underlying all this conflict between the generations is a question that immediately came to the fore in France after 1789, but which is barely touched on in this book.  If you are going to rid yourselves of the caste of serfdom, why not get rid of the caste of royalty and the aristocracy?  That is always the big question.  Where and when will it all end?  And, more importantly, how will I be placed when the carousel comes to rest?  In Russia, the crushing answer came with Lenin.

This novel is a graceful reflection on our humanity, and we are blessed to be able to enjoy it and be enriched – even if it does prefigure the misery we are faced with by the Institute of Public Affairs.

This Franklin edition is a joy to hold and read.