Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.

Here and there – Emma Smith – This Is Shakespeare

 

Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare.  Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars.  She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford.  But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor.  In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays.  In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.

The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total.  The order looks to be broadly chronological.  The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.

We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’  Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.

The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’  (That savours a bit of R D Laing.  The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)

There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.

‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’.  (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.)  That is a valuable insight.  But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer.  The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be.  But for modern audiences, some pruning is required.  I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence.  And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version.  (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.)  But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’

A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious.  And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.  (1.2)

For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.  (2.2)

For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’.  And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’  Spot on.  Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means.  The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description.  But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken.  And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers.  Richard II may be my favourite.  Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi.  The problem is that it has no hero.

‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’  Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’  Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority.  Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’  Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.

The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane.  The same goes for money.

The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’  Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.

It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play.  Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex.  To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent.  Not so the author.

But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?

Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question.  Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled.  Nor does Claudio want to be killed.  In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck?  As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls.  Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power.  The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.

While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’  She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’.  That is a curious notion.  She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy.  Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals.  (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)

And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI.  More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages.  She is the nemesis of four plays.  I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright.  They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?  (1.4.70-77)

It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’

About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters.  The lead was played by a Maori.  A lady said she thought the hero was coloured.  The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough.  Race and colour are huge in this play.  The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act.  (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago.  Gertrude was as white as snow.  There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.)  ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’  To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’.  (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?)  Thankfully, the author does not go there.  C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve.  (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?)  The short answer is that none of them existed.  They are creatures of the page.  You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.

When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space.  There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks.  This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago.  He for me is evil made flesh.  He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III.  The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed.  Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’

Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’  Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt.  (Pray do not be dismayed.  I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)

In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’  The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us.  As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero.  And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England.  (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)

What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card.  Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them.  It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:

Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.

Lawyers are used to this kind of bull.  We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation.  Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind.  And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise.  The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.

The book peters out.  From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen.  Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.

But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved.  It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.

MY TOP SHELF – 40 – Maitland

 

[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.]

F W MAITLAND

Sir Geoffrey Elton (1985)

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985; cloth bound in pale grey, with silver titles on spine; white slip case with photo of portrait of subject on front.

I have not for many years past believed in what calls itself historical jurisprudence.  The only direct utility of legal history (I say nothing of its thrilling interest) lies in the lesson that each generation has an enormous power of shaping its own law.  I don’t think that the study of legal history should make men fatalists; I doubt it should make them conservatives. I am sure it would free them from superstitions and teach them that they have free hands.

Frederick Maitland comes down to us a kind of saint of scholarship.  He is at least entitled to be remembered as the scholar’s scholar, if not the historian’s historian.

Maitland came from a family of service.  He went from Eton to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a running blue.  He was smart enough to be elected to the ‘Apostles’ and smart enough not to let it ruin him – it was a self-important group of intellectuals that does not seem to have done anything for the humility or sexual stability of most of its members.  He married Florence Fisher, a niece of Leslie Stephen.  He did not succeed greatly at the bar, but he discovered early that his interest was in history.  He would say that he dissented from all churches.

He subscribed to the view that ‘history involves comparison’ and that an ‘orthodox history seems to me to be a contradiction in terms….If we try to make history the handmaid of dogma she will soon cease to be history’.  Maitland was in love with his job, but not at the cost of subjecting his work to the test of a ruthless common sense.  In the result, as Elton remarked, ‘Criticizing Elton is a dangerous game; so often one finds that he has been here first, and he wrote so much that it is far too easy to miss something.’  His lectures on the refined subject of equity were made into a text-book which has never been surpassed for style – or for anything else.

Since very few who are reading this will have any interest in my chosen discipline of legal history – which is why this book is here – I will just refer to Sir Geoffrey Elton on the style of Maitland.

…..Maitland testifies to the truth that the style is the man.  Those usually short, often vibrating, sentences, the avoidance of learned circumlocutions and even long words as such; the manner in which the royal ‘we’ gathers the reader into the company of the writer; the constant illumination of abstract or general notions by anchoring them in the experience of real people; the frequent (possibly unconscious) echoes from a whole cultural reservoir filled with, among other things, the Bible; the wit which, because it grows naturally from the discourse, remains funny to this day; and the courtesy which renders the not infrequent stabs of the stiletto painless: all these compass Maitland the man, a man both wise and artless.  It seems that Maitland was in no sense a conscious stylist, a careful and particular carpenter of words and architect of sentences: nobody who wrote so much so fast could have been…..whether speaking or writing, he was always talking to the reader as much as to a listener.

In an essay headed ‘English Prose’, Sir Lewis Namier quoted from Tristram Shandy: ‘Writing, when properly managed …is but a different name for conversation.’  You might say that a tip that comes with that level of endorsement is worth following – if so, we would agree with you.

Maitland was to become one of the creators of English history, and the father of English legal history.  He brought order out of chaos and he knew that to understand the laws of a community is to understand its ideas and motives.  He constantly warned of looking at the past through the eyes of today. He produced the monumental History of English Law with Pollock.  Although Pollock contributed very little, Maitland put his name on the title page, and with first billing.

His work-rate was unbelievable.  His attachment to history did not preclude him from trying to rid the law of anachronism:  ‘accidents will happen in the best regulated museums’.  But he told Pollock ‘I have no use for modern kings’.   He saw keenly the difference between the lawyer and the historian.  ‘What the lawyer wants is authority and the newer the better; what the historian wants is evidence and the older the better.’  He thought Maine was too prone to make large statements detached from detailed evidence.

His affection for the Germans could have got the better of him.  He named his children Ermengard and Fredegond, and he liked Wagner.  But Florence was strong too.  They had had a Victorian courtship – it was an occasion to celebrate when they were ‘allowed to go about without a keeper’.  Florence did not relate to the wives of other dons, and she did not relish visits from Pollock.  She was a refined pianist – she played for Tchaikovsky before pinning a flower on his lapel when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Maitland suffered bad health all his life. He said he was buffeted by ‘the messenger of Satan’.  He was an appalling subject for photographers, and looks like a haunted version of Wittgenstein.  He had to winter every year in the Canaries and he died there early last century after he caught pneumonia.

He comes down to us now as a truly saintly man, a modest scholar who cast light on our past. It is a measure of his greatness that when we read Macaulay now, we ask – where is the law? Maitland was one of those Englishmen in whom history and literature are fused in life. He was, surely, as true and loyal a chronicler and celebrant of his nation as it has produced.

Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[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.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

Passing Bull 217 – Hearsay

 

Passing on what others say is called gossip.  Donald Trump is addicted to it.

‘They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,’ the president said.

‘CrowdStrike?’ the surprised reporter asked, referring to the California cybersecurity company that investigated how Russian government hackers had stolen and leaked Democratic emails, disrupting Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

‘That’s what I heard,’ Mr. Trump resumed. ‘I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.’

More than two years later, Mr. Trump was still holding on to this false conspiracy theory. (The Guardian, 5 October, 2019)

That’s right, Trump said four times that he had heard something.  Hearsay.

It’s therefore odd to see his loyal lieutenants in the Senate condemning a whistleblower statement as hearsay.  (As it happens, it is far more literate than anything Trump has said – ever.)

It is hard for some – including me – to understand what the whistleblower added to the White House record of the now famous telephone call.  But it is wholly absurd to suggest that the business of government could only be conducted according to the laws that govern what a witness in court might lawfully say in giving evidence.  You cannot, if objection is taken, tender a statement by a witness that another person told him he saw Bob shoot the deceased as evidence of the truth of that assertion made out of court.

But we, including government, all the time act on the basis of the truth of what we are told by others.  For example, it is only hearsay that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Imagine this.  The head of the FBI rings the President to tell him that he has a credible source saying that terrorists are intent on blowing up the White House and killing the President and five world leaders – and the President responds by saying that he is not accustomed to acting on mere hearsay.

And yet – some parts of the infamous base continue to lap up this nonsense.

Bloopers
If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,’ Mr Trump tweeted — sending the Turkish lira down 2 per cent.

Financial Times, 8 October, 2019.

He added he had done it before.

MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

[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.]

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.

Passing Bull 216 – Malicious allegations

 

There is plenty of malice about in London and Washington.  Canberra has always showed some infection.  Politics involves contests, and they can get dirty.

If I see someone disposing of litter illegally, I would not normally be disposed to do much about – in despite of those road signs inviting me to snitch.  But if I saw someone I really had it in for doing it, I might be disposed to dob him in.  My motive would not be to help the law keep the place tidy, but to hurt my enemy.  I would be acting maliciously.  But that says nothing about the worth of the allegation itself.

If the evidence shows a breach of the law, then my motive for setting the law in action is irrelevant.  Socrates ran this argument – and paid the price.  (The law does know of a wrong called ‘malicious prosecution,’ but we can put that to one side.  It is, like ‘conspiracy’, a kind of fool’s gold invoked by silly people who have crawled out of the lions’ den, and want to go back for more.)

Consider then the following.

‘Allegations have been brought to the attention of the monitoring officer that Boris Johnson maintained a friendship with Jennifer Arcuri and as a result of that friendship allowed Ms Arcuri to participate in trade missions and receive sponsorship monies in circumstances when she and her companies could not have expected otherwise to receive those benefits,’ a GLA statement said.

Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, said the allegations were politically motivated. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday morning, she said: ‘I think this whole thing has been blown out of all proportion’.  (Financial Times, 29 September, 2019)

This is serious bullshit.  There is not even an allegation of malice.  The motivation is ‘political’.  What other motivation would there be for a political act?  Impeachment is a political act.  Does that mean its invocation is necessarily flawed?

Yet, on the weekend journalists who know nothing of the law lined up to criticize the U K Supreme Court for making a decision in a ‘political matter.’  If a government could avoid scrutiny by the courts just by saying ‘political’, you could kiss good bye to administrative law and indeed the rule of law.

Still, the erstwhile associate of the Prime Minister was up to it.

In a statement last week, Ms Arcuri said: ‘Any grants received by my companies and any trade mission I joined were purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman.’ (Financial Times, 3o September, 2019)

I wonder why the lady felt the need to qualify the final noun in that way – or at all.  Of course the transaction was merely commercial.

Bloopers

The idea that Trump’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart justifies this [impeachment], uniquely in the annals of all US presidential history, is utterly ridiculous.

The Saturday Australian, 28-29 September, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

Mr Sheridan evidently shares the inability of Mr Trump to perceive that the abuse of a public office for personal gain is a serious breach of the duty of good faith.  You wonder whether some had the same view of the priesthood.  You also wonder what Mr Trump has on Mr Murdoch.  But, then, Mr Sheridan was one of those getting into British judges.  That suited his current songbook.

Here and there – A glimmer of hope at long last

 

As with any label, ‘populist’ is dodgy.  But in two people – Trump and Johnson – we have two of them.  Each is frankly vicious, and liked by some people for that very reason.  No decent person would allow either of them into their house – much less leave him in charge of their children.

Who support them?  We are speaking of people who are happy to chant ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send them back,’ or who believe that another rich heir will stand up for the ordinary bloke in the street, even though this spoiled fop got the full treatment from Eton and Oxford and, probably White’s, and has only ever come across blue collars by accident.

Johnson was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an all-male dining club for Oxford boys in drag, that indoctrinated him in how to trash common decency.  Speaking of those times, Johnson said:

This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.  But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.

That is a fair statement of the cast of mind, if such it may be called, that led to the events of 14 July 1789.  No sane person could have spent more than five minutes at one of those functions before throwing up.

In the last few years, we have witnessed an alarming moral and intellectual collapse in both England and America.  The scale of that collapse, coming from people who once claimed to be conservatives, suggests to me that our current model of government may not have long to live.

Our version of democracy must be premised on some degree of respect, tolerance and acquiescence – all of which are denied by political thugs who appeal to people who have lost all interest and faith.  Any democracy must sit above some level of reasonableness, but we are watching it all go down the drain – noisily and rapidly.  In the beautiful words of Yeats:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And it just keeps getting worse.  Trump and Johnson are like Ponzi schemes – they have to keep fuelling their own furnace.  And the bitterness and division then lead sensible people to extremes.  The Financial Times is now in something like a state of war with Johnson in the same way that The New York Times is with Trump.  But how else do you respond to a lying oaf who is content to incite murder of his opponents – who were barred by their sex from Eton or the Bullingdon Club?

This descent into the gutter of previously decent people resembles the descent that occurred in Europe a century or less ago.  My guess is that a lot of the disenchantment, especially of younger voters, comes from our failure to halt a galling inequality; to deal with those people whose greed and crookedness nearly brought us all undone in the Great Financial Crisis; the insecurity that comes with the technological revolution; and the farcical and selfish failure to deal with climate change.  I suspect that the chief of these is inequality.  And if you had to give one word for what the French and Russian Revolutions were about, that would be it.

In looking at Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, Simon Kuper in the Financial Times made some very acute observations about where we are.  I will set some out at length.

Helped a little by that book, inequality has soared up the left’s agenda, especially in the particularly unequal US and UK.  Now Elizabeth Warren has a shot at becoming the most redistributionist US president since Franklin D Roosevelt, while an electable post-Corbyn Labour leader could achieve similar in Britain….

 Whereas Marx saw history as class struggle, Piketty sees it as a battle of ideologies.  Every unequal society, he says, creates an ideology to justify inequality.  That allows the rich to fall asleep in their town houses while the homeless freeze outside….

Piketty recounts the justifications of inequality that recur throughout time:

‘Rich people deserve their wealth.’  ‘It will trickle down.’ ‘They give it back through philanthropy.’ ‘Property is liberty.’ ‘The poor are undeserving.’ ‘Once you start redistributing wealth, you won’t know where to stop and there’ll be chaos’ — a favourite argument after the French Revolution. ‘Communism failed.’ ‘The money will go to black people’ — an argument that, Piketty says, explains why inequality remains highest in countries with historic racial divides such as Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Another common justification, which he doesn’t mention, is ‘High taxes are punitive’ — as if the main issue were the supposed psychology behind redistribution rather than its actual effects.  All these justifications add up to what he calls the ‘sacralisation of property’….

There’s a growing understanding that so-called meritocracy has been captured by the rich, who get their kids into the top universities, buy political parties and hide their money from taxation.

Moreover, notes Piketty, the wealthy are overwhelmingly male and their lifestyles tend to be particularly environmentally damaging. Donald Trump — a climate-change-denying sexist heir who got elected president without releasing his tax returns — embodies the problem…..

Millennials are especially suspicious of success.  More American adults under 30 say they believe in ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism’, report the pollsters Gallup.  This generation owns too little property to sacralise it.

Centre-right parties across the west have taken up populism because their low-tax, small-state story wasn’t selling any more.  Rightwing populism speaks to today’s anti-elitist, anti-meritocratic mood. However, it deliberately refocuses debate from property to what Piketty calls ‘the frontier’ (and others would call borders).

That leaves a gap in the political market for redistributionist ideas. We’re now at a juncture much like around 1900, when extreme inequality helped launch social democratic and communist parties.  Piketty lays out a new redistributionist agenda.  He calls for ‘educational justice’ — essentially, spending the same amount on each person’s education.  He favours giving workers a major say over how their companies are run, as in Germany and Sweden.  But his main proposal is for wealth taxes.  Far from abolishing property, he wants to spread it to the bottom half of the population, who even in rich countries have never owned much.

To do this, he says, requires redefining private property as ‘temporary’ and limited: you can enjoy it during your lifetime, in moderate quantities.  He proposes wealth taxes of 90 per cent on billionaires.  From the proceeds, a country such as France could give each citizen a trust fund worth about €120,000 at age 25.  Very high tax rates, he notes, didn’t impede fast growth in the 1950-80 period.

Warren (advised by economists who work with Piketty) is proposing annual taxes of 2 per cent on household fortunes over $50m, and 3 per cent on billionaires.  She projects that this would affect 75,000 households, and yield revenues of $2.75tn over 10 years.  Polls suggest most Americans like the idea.  Paradoxically, the plutocratic US may be ideal terrain for a wealth tax…..[Emphases added.]

This is the most sensible discussion of our current condition that I have seen.  It oozes good sense for me.  One test of a political proposition is the extent of its rejection by Rupert Murdoch.  This is not just anathema – it is schismatic heresy and capital treason.  And I may add that I have long suspected that the prime driver of Trump was the belief of most of his followers that far too much of America had gone to people of colour – including the White House.

Perhaps, after all, Elizabeth Warren may have the answer.  (‘Educational justice’ – now there’s a phrase that has a whiff of 1789 about it.)  And could we get Aeschylus to provide the script for Donald Trump going down to Pocahontas?

My impression is that unless democracies get their act together and do something ‘deep and meaningful’ about inequality, then, in the language of rugby league, things could ‘get very ugly.’

Here and there – The Grace of Macaulay

 

Language didn’t just pour out of Gibbon or Macaulay like music did from Mozart or Schubert.  They worked on it, polished it, and read it loud.  They left us enduring works of art.

This simple proposition came back to me on re-reading the last volume of Macaulay’s History of England. The politics of England in the 18th century were deliciously corrupt, personal, and English.  They offer a glorious mine for Macaulay to exploit for seams of gold.

He did not think much of a courtier called Sunderland.

In truth, his countrymen were unjust to him. For they thought he was not only an unprincipled and faithless politician, which he was, but a deadly enemy of the liberties of the nation, which he was not.  What he wanted simply was to be safe, rich, and great.  To these objects he had been faithful through all the vicissitudes of his life. For these objects he had passed from Church to Church and from faction to faction, had joined the most turbulent of oppositions without any zeal for freedom, and had served the most arbitrary of monarchs without any zeal for monarchy; had voted for the Exclusion Bill without being a Protestant, and had adored the Host without being a Papist; had sold his country at once to both the great parties which divided the Continent, had taken money from France, and had sent intelligence to Holland.  As far however as he could be said to have any opinions, his opinions were Whiggish.

As with any of these great portraits by Gibbon or Macaulay, they immediately call to mind contemporary parallels.  Was the son of the Earl any better?

His knowledge of ancient literature, and his skill in imitating the styles of the masters of Roman eloquence, were applauded by veteran scholars.  The sedateness of his deportment and the apparent regularity of his life delighted austere moralists.  He was known indeed to have one expensive taste, but it was a taste of the most respectable kind.  He loved books and was bent on forming the most magnificent private library in England.  While other heirs of noble houses were inspecting patterns of steinkirks and sword knots, dangling after actresses, or betting on fighting cocks, he was in pursuit of the Mentz editions of Tully’s Offices, of the Parmesan Statius, and of the inestimable Virgil of Zarottus.

A footnote shows that his lordship paid the massive amount of £46 for the Virgil of Zarottus.  That sum could have got him a lot of attention from some unseemly houses in Covent Garden.

The ministers found that, on this occasion, neither their honest nor their dishonest supporters could be trusted.

The stiletto can go in fast.

Another was the late Speaker, Trevor, who had from the chair put the question whether he was or was not a rogue, and had been forced to pronounce that the Ayes had it.

Then back comes the Earl.

The whole enigma of his life, an enigma of which many unsatisfactory and some absurd explanations have been propounded, is at once solved if we consider him as a man insatiably greedy of wealth and power, and yet nervously apprehensive of danger.  He rushed with ravenous eagerness at every bait which was offered to his cupidity. But any ominous shadow, any threatening murmur, sufficed to stop him in his full career and to make him change his course or bury himself in a hiding place…But his ambition and avarice would not suffer him to rest till he held a high and lucrative office, till he was regent of the kingdom.  The consequence was, as might have been expected, a violent clamour; and that clamour he had not the spirit to face.

The gentry resented taxes.

Was it reasonable – such was the language of some scribblers – that an honest gentleman should pay a heavy land tax to support in idleness and luxury a set of fellows who requited him by seducing his dairy maids and shooting his partridges?

It’s hard to be more Tory than that.  At another point, our author speaks of someone trying to make ‘what is, in the jargon of our time, called political capital.’  Then there was a First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

With all his ability, he had not the wisdom to avert, by suavity and moderation, that curse, the inseparable concomitant of prosperity and glory, which the ancients personified under the name of Nemesis.  His head, strong for all the purposes of debate and arithmetical calculation, was weak against the intoxicating influence of success and fame.  He became proud, even to insolence…..Great wealth, suddenly acquired, is not often enjoyed with moderation, dignity and good taste…He contrived, it was said, to be at once as rich as Crassus and as riotous as Mark Antony.  His stud and his cellar were beyond all price.  His very lacqueys turned up their noses at claret.  He and his confederates were described as spending the immense sums of which they had plundered the public in banquets of four courses, such as Lucullus might have eaten in the hall of Apollo.  A supper for twelve Whigs, enriched by jobs, grants, bribes, lucky  purchases and lucky sales of stock, was cheap at eighty pounds.

Here is Paterson, a Scot who conned the Scots into investing in a hell hole at Panama called Darien.

To be seen walking with him in the High Street, to be honoured by him with a private interview of a quarter of an hour were enviable distinctions.  He, after the fashion of all of the false prophets who have deluded themselves and others, drew new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples.  His countenance, his voice, his gestures, indicated boundless self-importance.  When he appeared in public he looked…like Atlas conscious that a world was on his shoulders.  But the airs which he gave himself only heightened the respect and admiration which he inspired….In truth, of all the ten thousand bubbles of which history has preserved the memory, none was ever more skilfully puffed into existence; none ever soared higher, or glittered more brilliantly; and none ever burst with a more lamentable explosion.

And since we speak of Trump and Johnson, someone objected that Parliament was flying in the King’s face.

To fly in the King’s face!  Our business is to fly in the King’s face.  We were sent here to fly in the King’s face.

We know all about the kind of mountebank who draws ‘new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples’.

This is history as high theatre.  The French have Michelet and Taine.  The Germans have Ranke and Mommsen.  But history as theatre is to England what opera is to Italy.  They are all treasures of the world.