Here and there – Envy and Jealousy in Shakespeare

 

 

Cuckoo, cuckoo – O word of fear

Unpleasing to a married ear.  (Love’s Labour Lost, 5.2)

PART I

  1. Introduction

You are jealous if you think that someone you love loves someone else. You envy someone if you think that they are doing better than you.  The OED is more prosaic.  For ‘envy’ we get ‘mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another’s superior advantages.’  For ‘jealous’ we get ‘having the belief, suspicion or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another on account of known or suspected rivalry.’

The two notions or emotions are distinct, but they overlap.  In each case you feel or sense unfairness.  You feel like you have not been treated fairly.  You are not getting what you deserve to get.  You may feel that you have been cheated out of your entitlement.

Envy involves a kind of longing; jealousy involves a kind of fear; and there may be different moral consequences for each emotion.  If I am jealous of someone I love, I fear that they may betray me.  My faith in that person is being put to the test.  I am, in the words of Scripture, sure of what I hope for, but I am not certain of what I do not see.

You will see both envy and jealousy at work if you give two of your children presents for Christmas that are obviously unequal – one feels cheated of your affection, and is upset that the other is doing so much better.  In that kind of family setting, there is an implied premise of fairness, and if that translates to the community at large, you can sense the unease opening up because of the frightful inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

In Paradise Lost, the original sin may have come from Satan’s anger with God for dividing the godhead and by putting his son above the angels.  Satan is jealous of the son, and he envies Adam and Eve for their innocence and beauty.  In the end, in the words of the poet, ‘all hell breaks loose’ because of both the envy and jealousy of Satan.  Both emotions drive him to commit acts of evil.

In Othello, Iago feels jealousy toward both Othello and Cassio for their standing, and for the preferment of Cassio, but he also envies Cassio for his goodness.

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly (5.1.18 – 20)

When Satan is confronted with a good angel, he –

…felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d

His loss; but chiefly to find here observed

His lustre visibly impaired.  (4.847 – 850)

The sight of Adam and Eve has a similar effect.  When he first sees them having it off- ‘Imparadis’t in one anothers arms’ – his first words are ‘O Hell!’  Before we got:

……aside the Devil turned

For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne

Eyed them askance…..(4.502 – 504)

When you are confronted with someone much better than you, you feel diminished.  Just look at how poor Salieri felt diminished by Mozart.  In the worst case of envy, the result may be that the person diminished feels they have no option but to seek to destroy their better.  (Some suspected Salieri of just that.)  The comparison strikes at their very self, their identity, all that they have ever stood for.  In that case, the insult is mortal.  This was the reaction of Satan to the arrival of the Son:

……… he of the first,

If not the first archangel, great in power,

In favor and pre-eminence, yet fraught

With envy against the Son of God, that day

Honored by his great Father, and proclaimed

Messiah King anointed, could not bear

Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain……(5.659-666)

You will notice that in both the envy of Adam and Eve and the jealousy of the Son, the result is that Satan felt ‘impaired’.

In jealousy, there is a felt breach of trust, a sense of betrayal, which inflames as much as it wounds.  If the rival for your affection is a person close to you, then you have a double betrayal.  And the result may well be Vesuvial – as it was in A Winter’s Tale.

We saw that the OED referred twice to suspicion in ‘jealousy’.  Suspicion and intrigue play a bigger part in jealousy, because the move in rivalry is commonly concealed.  Not many circles allow a man to say ‘I want to bed your wife’.  Envy operates on known facts – indeed the envy increases with the spread of knowledge of the seen superiority.  But in either case, there is likely to be a sense of betrayal that leads to bitterness and a felt need for revenge..

And in the case of a man having another man bed his wife, the affront to amour propre can be mortal.  This is deep Freud country.  ‘Have you considered the possibility that not only were you unable to keep her, you were unable to satisfy her?’  Our language has no feminine counterpart to being ‘unmanned’.  And hitting a man below the belt can lead to hurt and injury and collapse in a way that women have no knowledge or experience of.

Let us then look at some of this in four characters of Shakespeare – Ford, Leontes, Cassius, and Othello.

2.Frank Ford

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a cross between a middle class sit-com and a bedroom farce.  The hold of the middle class then on status was very brittle.  That meant that face was all important.  This may be the only play that Shakespeare did not have a prior source to base his plot on, but the main themes, including that of the jealous husband, had been standard fare since the time of commedia dell’ arte (I Gelosi).  As Tony Tanner remarked, ‘Being robbed, being cuckolded, and being duped are all forms of that great bourgeois dread – theft.’  Everyone in the play ‘cozens, is cozened, or both.’  Falstaff was born to be ‘a cheater’.

In one of his more deranged moments, Falstaff thinks that Ford’s wife has given him ‘the leer of invitation.’  He boasts of this to Ford in disguise as Brooke, and promises ‘You shall have her, Master Brooke…you shall cuckold Ford.’  Not surprisingly, Ford erupts when Falstaff leaves.

What a damned Epicurean rascal is this! My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy?  My wife hath sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at; and I shall not only receive this villanous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong….
Cuckold! Wittol!–Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they
think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect.  God be praised for my jealousy
(2.3. 287 – 308).

There you see the shame of being a cuckold.  Falstaff seeks to use fraud on the wives with an almost lunatic egoism; both Ford and the wives practise fraud on Falstaff; both the wives and Ford are lied to.  But even allowing for the near lunacy of Falstaff, Ford was entitled to suspect someone was after his wife.  Page may have been able to laugh it all off, but could you blame Ford for being different?  The Welsh parson cautions Ford to ‘not follow the imaginations of your own heart.  This is jealousies.’  But, as the saying goes, even paranoiacs have real enemies.

Frank Ford has not had a good press.  He is held up to ridicule.  But jealousy is very natural.  A dog can show it if you invade the space of his master – even more so when it is another dog doing the invading.  A healthy jealousy might save a union; a perceived indifference might kill it.  And you might cause quite a stir if as a tutor on Shakespeare at Cambridge you were to suggest that someone could sleep with your wife and you could feel no sense of jealousy.  That may well sound downright unnatural, and not just among the matrons.

  1. Leontes

There was a western – I forget its name – where a rich bad guy (Ralph Bellamy) hires a professional (Lee Marvin) to retrieve a gorgeous woman (Claudia Cardinale) from other bad guys.  (If they did not include Jack Palance or Eli Wallach, they should have.)  At the end, Marvin welshes on the deal because Bellamy is a jerk.  Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard.  He gets this bell-ringer back.  ‘That’s OK.  With me, it’s an accident of birth.  But you are a self-made man.’

That is exactly the case with Leontes.  His descent into jealousy makes Othello look slack – but Iago had a lot of luck on his side.  His descent is almost entirely self-propelled.  It appears to come from nowhere.

This playwright considered the arrival of a woman between two male friends in Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen.  The invasion of an intimate state can be as testing as a woman marrying an only son.  The occasion is ripe for jealousy of the invader.  But if one of the two male friends marries, and he then suspects his friend of having bedded his wife, then we have double the betrayal and a possible nuclear reaction.

That is just what we get in A Winter’s Tale.  Leontes and Polyxenes have been friends since childhood.  That was their golden age.  Each could have stayed that way forever (‘boy eternal’).  They are like those old boys who regret getting out of short pants.  Leontes has been unable to persuade Polyxenes to extend his stay, but Hermione does so with ease.  Polyxenes romances about their childhood and loss of innocence on growing up.

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did.  Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.  (1.2.81 – 89).

And then, a little later, Hermione makes a wistful reference to Polyxenes as ‘for some while a friend’ and Leontes explodes instantaneously picking up Polyxenes reference to ‘blood’.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?  (1.2.132 – 144)

A throwaway remark and blameless byplay leads to heart palpitations immediately.  And – this is important – the RSC editors (Bate and Rasmussen) say ‘mingling bloods’ is a ‘process believed to occur during sex, since semen was assumed chiefly to be composed of blood.’  So, after four words and one !, we are back among the enseamèd sheets that nearly sent Hamlet mad.

Now to a layman this looks like an illness – it looks pathological – and it is one of those dreadful illnesses where the victim cannot see that he is ill – that is all part of the infection.  (I have a recollection that before Anthony Sher played the part, he consulted psychiatrists who said that the symptoms described by Shakespeare were spot on.)  As Jonathon Bate remarks, the dramatic interest is in ‘the tendency of human beings who have fallen into holes to dig themselves ever deeper’.  For that reason alone, some adviser to the present President of the U S (November, 2019) should suggest that he heed the advice of Clausewitz On War and avoid reinforcing a losing position.

MY TOP SHELF -45 – RUSSELL

 

[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.]

A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY

Bertrand Russell

George Allen & Unwin limited, 1961; rebound in half red morocco, with sage title and author, and floral boards.

Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.

Bertrand Russell may not have been a very pleasant man, but he was very, very bright, and he could expound difficult concepts in a way that even those who are not experts or who have not been exposed to philosophy at university can understand.  This book is in my view a classic of that kind of exposition.  I have used it as a reference book for nearly fifty years, but recently I read it for the first time from cover to cover.  I wish other scholars would use it as a model of the kind of book that can be read by the general reader.  When asked about his style once, Russell said that it should be a mixture of the prose of Milton and a Baedeker Guide.  That was very good advice.

The book is large.  Its 800 pages, with a very full index, cover the ambit from the beginnings of Greek civilization to the time at which Russell wrote.  The book may therefore serve as a very good introduction to the history of the West because Russell never hesitates to put his subject in a wider political or social context.  Here, for example, are two passages on the relative claims of ancient Greece and Rome.

These [Greek] cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes [admirers of Greeks], and did not destroy what they had conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done.  The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilisation which they governed but did their utmost to preserve.

The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture, and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy.  The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion.  The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but the latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted for a long time.

I have probably spent more time reading this book than any other non-fiction book on the shelf.  It has been beautifully rebound, and it is a pleasure to both hold and read.  I just fear that if I start picking out slabs to quote, I may not serve the cause of getting it read.  It does if nothing else show the danger of judging a book by its author.

 

Passing Bull 222 – What is a hoax?

 

The President of the United States trashes everything he touches.  His latest target is the U S Navy.  The Republican fall from grace is complete when its leaders tolerate an attack on their navy – and an attack that may well imperil its members.  The President, of course, does not understand the military.  His cowardice and corruption led him to evade service to his country.

And he does of course trash the English language every time he opens his illiterate mouth.  He says that the impeachment inquiry is a hoax.  What is that?  ‘A humorous or mischievous deception with which the credulity of the victim is imposed upon.’  You get it in commedia dell’arte and the Marx Brothers.  It’s what the merry wives of Windsor did to Falstaff (as had Prince Hal done two plays earlier – Sir John was born to be hoaxed).  It’s what NATO leaders and royals may like to do to President Trump, but they presently content themselves with laughing at him behind his back.

But whatever else the impeachment process is, it is not a hoax or any other form of joke.  The fact that this oaf can make that claim shows what in my view is the main ground for his impeachment – the man simply has no idea of the duties that come with his office: he is quite unable to see, much less accept, that he has committed a great wrong.

His other response is his general fall back – witch hunt.  According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, this is in political usage ‘the searching out and exposure of opponents alleged to be disloyal to the State, often amounting to persecution.’  Now, whenever someone in authority criticises Trump, the spoiled child in him – and there is not much else – says he is being persecuted.  But that delusion is not enough to create a witch hunt.  It is also true that about six people close to Trump are in jail for conduct in or arising from his election, but that does not mean that there is a witch hunt, any more than that the Nuremberg trials were a witch hunt.

The people of Salem knew what a witch hunt was.  So did McCarthy, and his pet lieutenant, a B grade actor named Ronald Reagan.  So did the Australian government that spent a fortune of our money over about a decade pursuing John Elliott and associates for party political purposes and no result.  But that was nothing like what is going on in Washington at the moment.

Speaking of the NATO shambles, have you noticed that whenever Trump meets a world leader who is smarter than him – that is, any other world leader – he looks ‘alone and palely loitering’ – with his head down and his hands between his knees, in his ludicrously predictable attire, which he is incapable of doing up, like an estranged ourangatang who has been force fed in the jungle on industrial strength Prozac?

As for witch hunts, I like the remark that an English judge passed a long time before the English started settling here – there is no law against flying.

Bloopers

‘He’s still very young in his Test career,’ said Chris Silverwood, the head coach, after stumps.  ‘Jofra’s learning about himself and the game of Test cricket. And, equally, Joe is learning to captain him as well. From a holistic point of view we’re growing together, really.’

The Guardian, 23 November, 2019

Contributions to the pre-conference blog claimed ecosystems could be a silver bullet, they ought to have a value chain — or possibly even be part of one — they should be ‘leveraged’ to ‘maximise value and achieve competitive advantage’ or ‘populated with new addressable customers’. ‘If you orchestrate it and tie the ecosystem on to a platform, you’re really resolving the customer problem holistically,’ enthused one panellist.

Financial Times, 3 December, 2019

Even for addressable customers in Byron Bay, ‘holistic’ is a rock solid guarantee of bullshit of Himalayan proportions.

MY TOP SHELF -44 ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

 

[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.]

ABSALOM! ABSALOM!

The Southern Classics Library, 1978; fully bound in brown morocco, with gold inscriptions, raised spine, marbled endpapers, and silk ribbon.

-You are my brother.

-No I’m not.  I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister.  Unless you stop me, Henry.

There is something spare, dark and elemental about the great novels of William Faulkner, and Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of a novel.  It is a novel told through voices built up like a Bach fugue, but at its heart is a Greek tragedy – a house subject to a curse that runs through the generations until a kind of moral equilibrium obtains, and it’s time for a new cycle.  Faulkner may have shared the human failings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – for both booze and skirt – but for me his offerings are so much more substantial.  Ask not who the more clever writer was, but who had the deeper insight into the human condition.  Absalom, Absalom! was written by man from the Deep South – Oxford, Mississippi – but it is not just about the South or, for that matter, the American Dream – it is about us, all of us.  That is what makes it a truly great novel, a work of very high art.

William Faulkner was raised in Mississippi.  He started writing as a poet and wrote short stories throughout his career.  He had a lifelong battle with the bottle.  He may also have lost count of his affairs.  He also wrote for the screen.  When he first went to MGM – a contract worth $500 a week in 1932 – he told them that he wanted to do either Mickey Mouse or newsreels, ‘the only movies I like’.  He worked with Bogart and Bacall on The Big Sleep.  He once had a long discussion with Howard Hawks and Clark Gable about literature.  Gable asked him to nominate the kind of writing that Gable might read if he wanted to become literary.  When Faulkner responded, Gable asked him if he was a writer.  Faulkner replied that he was, and asked Gable what he did for a living.  His best known novels include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary and Go Down Moses.  Greek tragedy recurs throughout his work which is frequently described as either Gothic or apocalyptic.

The story of Absalom, Absalom! is told through different voices, in a narrative more layered than those of Conrad, and people and events are seen in different lights, and through different prisms.  It can be very difficult to follow, and you should make full use of the chronology at the back.  But the fugal structure is essential to reflect our partial and fragmentary understanding of our past and our condition.  The plot unfolds through three extended conversations.  The differences in the recall of the narrators, and their perspectives, give you a sense of walking around the main characters and events.  You reach the story in the same way that you peel an onion.  To quote our management speak, the reader gets to take ownership of the problems.  In reading the book we seem to participate in its construction.  We become part of the story, although the process of reading it is both hard and wearing.

This is the first sentence.

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being  flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Miss Coldfield sat there –

Sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation invoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Writing like that is not taught – it only comes from someone who has insight and the gift to express it – and the courage to keep going.

This version of the American dream starts in the Appalachians where people were equal, and noone looked down on anyone, except the Indians, and ‘you only looked down at them over your rifle sights.’  It was different in the Tidewater.  People were measured by their skin colour and their land.  As a young man, the hero, Thomas Sutpen, goes up to a big white house with a message from his lowly father, and he is turned away from the front door by a black butler.  He goes to Haiti to make his fortune, but colour gets in the way even there.  He returns to carve out his revenge on this slight to his manhood.  He is innocent in the sense that Oedipus is innocent – he does not know what fate awaits him.  With ‘innocence instructing him’ he resolves that ‘you got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with.’  He strikes into the jungle like an Old Testament prophet in a tale told with language to match that scars the page as Thomas Sutpen wounds the earth.

Out of the quiet thunder-clap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a school-prize water color, faint suphur-reek still kin hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts and half-tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect, with his hair grim, ragged, and tatter-ran.  Immobile, bearded and hand-palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.  Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and  formal garden violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm mobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s hundred…

This attempt to forge a mighty dynasty involves, almost by definition, what the Greeks called hubris, and the unfolding of the curse that Greek tragedy, in the form of nemesis, puts on the House of Sutpen is what the novel is about.  You can gauge just how lethal and Greek that curse was from the Freudian inscription at the head of this note.  The rise and fall of the House of Sutpen might be thought to mirror the rise and fall of the Old South itself.  At the end, the final narrator is sitting in the ‘cold air, the iron New England dark’, and he is asked why he hates the South.  The book ends with these words: ‘I don’t.  I don’t!  I don’t hate it!  I don’t hate it!

The hero has no room for God.  He has no room for women either. One item that is missing from the novel is a contented woman.  The function of a woman in this patriarchy is to produce a male heir.  That way Sutpen can cheat God if not death.  The Haitian wife is discarded because her disclosed colour took her out of the design.  Once Ellen has produced the heir, she flits around like a useless butterfly and expires after being cheated of being at her daughter’s wedding ‘at the absolute flood-peak of her unreal and weightless life’.  The mother of Clytie does not even get a name.  Rosa is offered marriage conditional on producing an heir.  Milly Jones is treated as being worth less than a horse.  At least Clytie gets to burn down the mansion and the son who would have been the heir as she incinerates herself.

The contempt for humanity does not therefore stop at negroes and Indians.  This is how the three castes of women are described:

… the virgins whom gentlemen some day marry, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity – not this to Henry, strong blooded, victim of the hard celibacy of riding and hunting to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man, to which he and his kind were forced to pass time away, with girls of his own class interdict and inaccessible and women of the second class just as inaccessible because of money and distance, and hence only the slave girls, the housemaids neated and cleaned by white mistresses or perhaps girls with sweating bodies out of the fields themselves and the young man rides up and beckons the watching overseer and says ‘Send me Juno or Missylena or Chlory’ and then rides on into the trees and dismounts and waits.

So, the world of Sutpen is one of stolen people, stolen land, and abused people.  He knows it is a jungle.  He has taught himself to put a bullet through a playing card while cantering on his horse twenty yards away.  That keeps the whites at bay.  He wrestles with the ‘niggers’ to show that he is boss. Presumably he tumbles a nigger occasionally for practice – they, like the courtesans, are the guardians of white female purity.

Here is the doomed pride of the hero.

‘You see, I had a design in my mind.  Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent that this would indicate….

The mistake of the hero in the design was to think that he could impose it and himself on the world.  White freedom meant black subjection, and Sutpen brings with him his own caste system, and he is haunted by crossings of the boundary in his past.  All that talk by Jefferson about all men being equal was phoney.

In Light in August, Faulkner boasted that he had created a Nazi before Hitler did.  In her fine book on this author, Carolyn Porter said that ‘Light in August is an angry novel, angry at the people who succumb to the comforts of hatred and the titillations of violence’  The author is ‘so infuriated at the spiritual poverty informing the hunger for violence at the heart of the society he is portraying.’  Well, our novel is at a different, and possibly deeper, level.

The hero of Absalom, Absalom! brought his doom upon himself by trying to play God, and in the end, all that is left is an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

William Faulkner was as elemental in his reading as he was in his writing.  He took with him wherever he went a one volume Shakespeare and he read Don Quixote once a year.  Absalom, Absalom! is a great big bloody red diamond of a book.

At the end of King Lear, these lines occur:

……we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.

At the end of this great novel, one of the narrator’s, Quentin Thompson, says ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.’

 

Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in nay large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.

Passing Bull 221 – Warped minds at Westpac

 

Some of the folks at Westpac remind me of Messrs Trump and Giuliani on their shakedown of the erstwhile comedian who is now the President of the Ukraine.  (Have you noticed this tendency of comedians to go into politics to lead their country?  It says a lot about the other clowns.)  They cannot see that they have done anything wrong.

The Chairman, Mr Maxsted, says that ‘we have not seen anything that is case for his [Mr Hartzer, the CEO] dismissal.’  That is presumably some kind of opinion on the options of the company at law.  If he is right, he may wish to have a chat with the lawyers who wrote the relevant employment agreement.  If presiding over years of a course of conduct that brings the bank into disrepute, if not contempt, does not allow the bank to fire the massively overpaid CEO for failing to discharge his office, then the bank is in more trouble than we thought.

Then Mr Maxsted is reported to have gone from expressing what looks to be a legal opinion to expressing what looks to be a commercial judgment.  ‘He qualified that by saying he was yet to meet with some large shareholders and that could change ‘if there isn’t investor support’ for Mr Hartzer.’

Just who is running this bank – the board or a coterie of large shareholders and investors?  As a small shareholder, I have some interest in that question.  Is corporate governance like our political governance – just a crude numbers’ game bereft of merit?

Mr Hartzer says he accepts responsibility?  ‘As CEO I’m ultimately responsible in the chain of command for everything that happens in this company.’  How can he say that while retaining the office that he has failed to fulfil?

Mr Maxsted says: ‘We accept that we have fallen short of both our own regulators’ standards and are determined to get all the facts and assess accountability.’  ‘Accountable’ is even more weasel than ‘responsible’ – they just get overpaid spinners in to do that.

But in any event, it looks like Mr Maxsted is saying that as presently advised he does not have enough facts to ‘assess accountability.’  This is what is called the Volkswagen dilemma – the directors either knew or ought to have known what was happening for years in the company whose business they manage.  And we might hope that Mr Maxsted has not forgotten that the courts may have their answers to the questions that now pain him so much.  And thank heaven for that.

The well-known line of Horatio comes to mind.  ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Bloopers

Mr Henry Herzog of East St Kilda may or may not have a different view of the world to me, but I enjoy his letters to The Age.  That of today is a pearler.

I’m taking the Morrison approach: Since my contribution to the Good Friday appeal is less than 1 per cent of the total raised, there’s no point in giving.

Truly, it looks as if Mr Maxsted shares the mystical capacity of Mr Morrison to switch trams in the middle of nowhere – say, just outside the Birdsville pub.  The capacity of our P M for inanity is transcendental.  Like the time he bore coal in the parliament; or, even better, the times he said we did not need a royal commission into banks because there was an honest cop on the beat.  From Keystone.

Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

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

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

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

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

Select your target

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

…..He holds me well

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

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

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

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

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

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

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

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

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

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

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

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

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

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

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

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

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

Maintain deniability and a false front

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

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

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

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

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

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

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

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

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

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

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

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

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

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

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

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

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

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

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

Embroil others in your schemes

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

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

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

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot of that about, too.

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

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

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

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

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

MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

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

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

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

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

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

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Passing Bull 220 – It takes two to Tango

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloopers

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

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

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

Can anyone think of a way to impeach the press?

MY TOP SHELF – 42 – THUCYDIDES

 

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

THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides

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

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

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

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

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

This great work of history commences in this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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