This bundle of essays has the broad theme of morality. Each deals with a specific writer, all but one of whom inhabitanted the British Isles. The exce...moreThis bundle of essays has the broad theme of morality. Each deals with a specific writer, all but one of whom inhabitanted the British Isles. The exception is the final essay on Lionel Trilling, an American, whose book The Liberal Imagination provided Himmelfarb with the skeleton of her own title. Some of these essays seemed to me little more than padding – for example, those on Austen, George Eliot and the Knox brothers - adding not very much to the book or its themes. Echoing around the others, however, is the desire by the essayist and her subjects to tame an over-simple rational liberalism through an encounter with the more mysterious and complex aspects of humanity.
She starts with Burke’s Reflections. Burke (she actually neglects to mention) was a member of Fox’s Whig Party. He was therefore a child of the English Revolution, and a supporter of the American one, breaking with Fox, however, over the French Revolution. Burke had a distinctive view of tradition as the foundation for society and morality. “Whereas the French sought to create a society de novo, based upon principles dictated by reason . . . the English Revolutionaries . . . wanted nothing more than to preserve our ancient constitution of government which is our only security of law and liberty.” To make of the revolution itself “an inheritance from our forefathers”, the English sought precedence in “our histories, in our records, in our acts of parliament and journals of parliament,” going back to that “ancient charter” the Magna Carta, and beyond that to “the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom”. “The French revolutionaries, on the other hand, in destroying whatever of the past they could, also tried to destroy that most venerable of institutions, the church, thus denying the most basic of human impulses religion.” Notoriously, Burke embraced words like “prejudice” and “superstition” as the only true basis for both religion and society. He therefore turned his back on the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” who were already a major feature of his age.
Dickens equally disliked the “sophisters, economists and calculators”, preferring (in his case) an informal raw humanity whose foundation is fellow-feeling, joy, spontaneity and simple goodness. His Sam Weller, for example, is not be confined by social status. Weller is “independent to the point of impertinence” and his master more of a friend than an employer. Dickens nevertheless knows that a potential for joy can be crushed by inequality, cruelty and power, not least when it is dressed up as crass, utilitarian philosophy. In Hard Times, a contrast is drawn between the “factory” and the “circus”. Himmelfarb finds it ironical that “pleasure” is a key word in the utilitarianism that informs the drab world of Bounderby and Gradgrind. Yet both these men fear and disdain the circus where people find pleasure through self-selected activities in keeping with their own instincts and skills.
Her account of Disraeli considers his peculiarly “Tory Democratic” perspective. The idea that there are “two nations”, rich and poor”, found in Disraeli’s novel Sybil, is still beloved of British politicians. The book resolves the opposition by means of a marriage between the female and male protagonists, the Radical Sybil herself and the Tory Egremont. This marriage found a real-life parallel in Disraeli’s political idea that a Tory elite might become the natural leaders of the working class. In his early career, Disraeli showed some sympathy for the Chartists (he did not, of course, walk behind banners), and he eventually “dished the Whigs” by passing the 1867 Reform Act that gave near-democratic representation to many working men.
The next chapter claims that there are two quite distinct John Stuart Mills. One is the Mill everybody knows, the individualist and liberal rationalist who wrote On Liberty which argues strongly for the freedom of individuals to do whatever does not impinge on the liberty of others. The other, found in his very early work but also later in his Principles of Political Economy and Utilitarianism, criticises Bentham and advocates the importance of intellectual elites and specifically social feelings. These social sentiments, he thought, arose naturally in individuals but they could also be inculcated by education and even by means of (an albeit Comptean and secular) religion.
Walter Baghot is characterized as torn between William James’s two human types, the once and the twice-born. On the one hand, Baghot was a rational political and economic thinker, a man of letters, man-of-the-world and editor, no less, of The Economist. On the other, he had a strong mystical streak, haunted by deeper and sometimes darker realities. Echoing Burke and Disraeli, he thought these more mysterious realities could be discovered in the wise prejudices of the common people. He thought it was a sound statesman who could respecte the Tory masses while thinking clearly with the mind of a Whig or a liberal.
It is surprising to find John Buchan amidst these luminaries. Buchan for many is a paradigm – a parody even – of “a species of English gentleman now very nearly extinct”, a man of the outdoors, an anti-Semite and a bit of a snob. At first glance, Buchan’s world is one of “cold baths, rousing games, and indifferent sex”, “dismissive of modernist art and literature”, and supportive of nation and Empire. Himmelfarb, however, thinks Buchan more nuanced. Not least, his conventional anti-Semitism faded away as Hitler and Mosley advanced. Moreover, Buchan was not in truth an English gent. He was rather a Scottish Tory, never truly at home in the London club or the English country house. His hero (whose biography he wrote) was Cromwell, a man who sought to found the nation in spirituality but who, nevertheless, rejected “levelling” and embraced social inequality. Buchan turns out to have been an intellectual, who kept his intelligence under control beneath his tweed hat.
Michael Oakshott somehow managed to be Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. For him, the true conservative resists unnecessary change and suffers necessary ones. He set his conservatism against what he called “Rationalism”: his was an impulse to enjoy rather than to exploit. For him, government has the role of the umpire in cricket, administering the generally agreed rules of the game. Governments are not supposed to change anything, except very cautiously. Although this approach takes him in the direction of Burke’s Reflections, he found Burke a little too rational (!) for his own taste, since Burke had a metaphysical belief in religion, natural law and an organic society held together by that “great primeval contract of eternal society”. His book, A Guide to the Classics is subtitled How to Pick the Darby Winner. It reflects his belief that human activities are properly rooted in their own terms and enjoyed for their own sakes, and not subsumed under rationalist categories and made to serve utilitarian ends.
The penultimate chapter is entitled Winston Churchill: “Quite Simply, a Great Man” but it only just manages to find a satisfactory place in the book. Himmelfarb classifies Churchill with Disraeli as a Democratic Tory, one who thinks the upper classes should lead the lower into a national unity that transcended class. It would be churlish, of course, to deny Churchill’s greatness. If he and the United Kingdom did not exactly win the war against Germany, their special acheivement in 1940 was “not to lose”. Though Churchill certainly wrote a lot and could turn a good phrase, he was not, however, a great thinker.
And so to Trilling, whose ideas bob up in most of these essays. Trilling had introduced his left-leaning followers to Mill’s discussion of Coleridge and thence to another conservative and religious thinker, TS Eliot. In much the same manner as Mill had recommended Coleridge as a corrective to Bentham, so Trilling recommended Eliot’s Christianity and conservatism as a corrective to the Jewishness and Marxism of his target New York readership. Trilling, she suggests, was ultimately subversive of liberalism and Marx. Trilling interpreted Freud as pitting the given of human biological nature against the culture that strives to overcome biology. For Trilling, the immutability of human nature provides a salvation against a human culture, which might otherwise become omnipotent. He finds a similar theme in Orwell’s 1984. Social democracy and democracy – and not just Stalinism - tend always towards tyranny unless they confront the “moral realism” based in a human nature that is far from rational.
These essays, then, sympathise with writers who temper abstract and liberal ideals with a peculiarly conservative encounter with social realities, human nature and the supposed traditional wisdom of the people. It’s the kind of common sense view that a caricaturist might locate in a London club or a lounge bar. The essays ultimately represent a rather sentimental conservativism, opposed to liberalism, bean counting and utilitarianism, and favouring instead Evensong, maypole dancing, the Euston Arch and warm beer.
I am wary of this view, however. It is certainly true that versions of liberal rationalism and utilitarianism once provided an enlightened rationale for such things as the tricoteuses and their guillotine, and for the workhouses, factories and Pentonville Gaol. But liberalism and rationalism were never all bad. Nor were these always the only ideologies in town. Only this morning, somebody on my radio longingly described a remnant of racial segregation in the American Deep South as “traditional”. Just like liberal rationality, therefore, musty pipe-and-slippers conservatism, or other kinds of conservatism, based, for example, in one-nationism or “tradition” can provide equally pernicious ideological camouflage for inequality, injustice and mere badness. (less)
Not being American, I was not been brought up hearing the name of H L Mencken. My first awareness of him came from epigrammatic gobbets that got into...moreNot being American, I was not been brought up hearing the name of H L Mencken. My first awareness of him came from epigrammatic gobbets that got into books of quotations. For example, there is the epitaph which (I discover) he wrote for himself in 1921, long before he died in 1956: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have a thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl”. Or, “Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.” Many of these gems are found in the pages of Alistair Cooke’s eclectic collection of his essays, but they do not, in truth, encapsulate the man.
Mencken’s essays convey an aroma of whisky and cigars. One imagines him, when not actually writing, regaling friends with acid anecdotes. He is wildly opinionated, able to hold forth on any topic.
He has, for example, a disdain for adultery, condemning one Theodore Dreisden who believed that a “strong, successful man” would ordinarily have several women in tow. Menken gives, in refutation, a list of “strong, successful men” who were monogamous.
Menken writes with approval of George Washington who was a “land-grabber, a promoter of stock companies, and exploiter of mine and timber’. Washington was also a lover of whisky who today “would be ineligible for any office of honor or profit”.
Menken praises the police, from whom he has learned “that sharp wits can lurk in unpolished skulls”. “Their one salient failing, taking them as a class, was their belief that any person who had been arrested, even on mere suspicion was unquestionably and ipso facto guilty.”
Permeating everything is his florid language. For example, his essay, “Star-Spangled Men” considers the chests of military men that bear glittering medals of “every hue in the rainbow, the spectroscope, the kaleidoscope – imperial purples, sforzando reds, wild Irish greens, romantic blues, loud yellows and oranges, rich maroons, sentimental pinks, all the half-tones from ultra-violet to infrared, all the vibrations from the impalpable to the unendurable”. The medals, he speculates, “tell of butcheries in foreign and domestic parts – mountains of dead Filipinos, Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans, West Virginian miners, perhaps even Prussians”. As with the military, so with civilians. “Rank by rank, (Americans) became Knights of Phthias, Odd Fellows, Red Men, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, Patriarchs Militant, Elks, Moose, Woodmen of the World, Foresters, Hoo-hoos, Ku Kluxers – and in every new order there were thirty-two degrees, and for every degree there was a badge, and for every badge there was a yard of ribbon.” Thus the words pour out.
Though he had his causes, Menken marched to his own drum. Cooke's selection does little to steer the reader to discover what might be his overarching views. One does not find here the same single-minded coherence that permeates the writing of his contemporary, George Orwell. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that Menken’s final essay, written just before he fell sick, should oppose a “relic of Ku Kluxery”, an attempt to stop the black citizens of Maryland playing tennis with the white ones. “A free citizen in a free state,” he wrote, “has an inalienable right to play with whomsoever he will.” If a theme does emerge, therefore, it is Menken’s preference for tolerance and personal freedom, and his dislike of humbug.
This collection of essays was compiled by Alistair Cooke as a tribute by one great writer to another. It is worth a look.(less)
One feature of the Marxist tradition, I have always enjoyed, is that of using the arguments of opponents in one’s own case.
Lenin’s essay on Imperialis...moreOne feature of the Marxist tradition, I have always enjoyed, is that of using the arguments of opponents in one’s own case.
Lenin’s essay on Imperialism is maybe the best example of this. Lenin takes the views of the early 20th century avowed imperialists who claimed that, unless the western powers engaged in foreign conquest, then capitalism would collapse. He then argues that this shows the worthlessness of both capitalism and imperialism. It’s a nice turning of the tables.
(I don't need to add that the arguments on both sides seem terribly dated: we justify foreign conquest quite differently today.) (less)
Since ancient times, human beings have killed, maimed, enslaved and otherwise mistreated each other. Nevertheless, the atrocities of totalitarian regi...moreSince ancient times, human beings have killed, maimed, enslaved and otherwise mistreated each other. Nevertheless, the atrocities of totalitarian regimes between the wars do have a peculiarly dreadful quality. This collection of intelligent essays reassesses Hannah Arendt, a major post-war commentator on human cruelty, looking particularly at her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Here, Arendt emphasized the uniqueness of totalitarianism, finding its origin in pre-First World War colonialism which “boomeranged” to create racist and non-democratic theories and practices in Europe itself.
Eliza von Jeoden-Forgy starts by giving a flavour of German South West Africa, writing of the rapes, massacres, trophy beheadings and casual executions and floggings that culminated in the near-extinction of the Herero people between 1904 and 1907. She claims that “colour-coded racism”, not only removed native peoples from the protection of the ordinary law, it also helped insulate an essentially humane German identity from colonial brutality.
In a not-dissimilar argument, Robert Bernasconi claims that Arendt wanted to insulate the western and especially the Kantian tradition from the taint of imperialism and totalitarianism. Unfortunately, he says, Arendt’s claim that racism is incompatible with the Western political and moral standards of the past does not bear close scrutiny, for even Kant had declined to oppose slavery and had supported racial segregation. In this context, I also enjoyed Marcel Stoezler’s more straightforwardly historical account which relates the unfolding of anti-Semitism to the decline of the guilds and the rise of liberal capitalism.
Though Arendt was centrally concerned with Nazism, she also considered the Stalinist atrocities. Richard Shorten notes, however, that Europeans, particularly on the Left, for many years failed to recognize the crimes of Stalin. Even now, there are unseemly competitions to emphasize one set of atrocities more than another. Ned Curthoys says that writers such as Camus, Bourdieu and Feraoun were dismayed the atrocities perpetrated by Algerian revolutionaries just as they were by those of the French state, but that others - including Sartre and Fanon - gave the revolutionaries unqualified support.
Several writers, indeed, allege that Arendt herself believed racism towards Africans was more excusable than that towards Chinese, Indian or Jewish people. This is most directly addressed in a piece by Stephen Douglas Maloney, who discusses Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock which questioned the wisdom of sending schoolchildren to oppose segregation in schools. Interestingly, he notes that in writing about America, Arendt was much influenced by Montesquieu and Tocqueville.
Robert Eaglestone addresses Arendt’s famous association, as her teacher and lover, with Martin Heidegger. Her Heideggerian inheritance reveals itself in the way she sees imperialism, racism and totalitarianism as part of the “subterranean stream” of European history. Heidegger, notes Eaglestone, traces the way in which productionist metaphysics turns the world into a world of use. Arendt, however, understands totalitarianism to take this further in the project of changing human nature itself.
Two articles consider the place of Darwinism in relation to racism and imperialism. André Duarte claims that this “biopolitics”, by regarding the life of the individual, the race, the people or community as the supreme good, by a paradox made it possible for politics to become murderous in the struggle for survival.
Tony Barta asks if it is “fair to draw the gentle scientist Darwin into the history of genocide?” concluding that Darwin did indeed accept the “extinction of less improved forms” of human beings. He similarly finds that Marx talked sufficiently about the “transcendent progress of history” to justify the excesses of a Stalin or a Mao.
Vlasta Jaluic revisits Arendt’s celebrated consideration of Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” as he committed unspeakable crimes. She claims that, since this kind of “thoughtlessness” is a widespread human trait, then the Holocaust must be seen as eminently repeatable. She proves her point with reference to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and their worst single atrocity, the massacre at Srebrenica.
I have a few complaints. Most of the Nazi leaders were old soldiers, Germany and Austria having reacted differently in defeat to the way Britain and France did in victory. War, in its own way, exemplifies the expendability of people (both friends and foes) for the greater good, so it is surprising that there is no mention of the Great War. Mussolini, Franco and other dictators are similarly absent, yet it is plain that Hitler, to some degree, modelled himself on Mussolini. Other points could have been expanded. For example, Germany and Russia were small players in the late nineteenth century scramble for Empire; whereas the largest imperial powers, Britain and France remained stubbornly democratic. It is also clear that the much older empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia had had a ramshackle version of totalitarianism – replete with autocracy, bureaucracy, racism and a secret police - long before Hitler and Stalin.
Nevertheless, these essays are a useful testimony to an important thinker writing on a subject that has lost none of its topicality.
Collections of essays are often curates’ eggs, and so it is here. This book asks the question, “How to build civility while maintaining the cultural u...moreCollections of essays are often curates’ eggs, and so it is here. This book asks the question, “How to build civility while maintaining the cultural uniqueness of the different groups that make up - - - the wider society?” It identifies as a crucial stratagem “multiculturalism”, which embraces equality and equity but also the “right to be different”. The essays are mostly educational or social psychological and are centrally concerned with Israel and Germany.
The first section, the “Overview”, provides three theoretical essays. Gordon Mitchell describes an evolving new understanding of “Democracy Education” through a series of consultative workshops in which “gender democracy” and “post colonialism” emerge as central ideas. Rosemarie Mielke explores ethnic stereotyping via a social psychological model which takes account of goals and motivation found within world views to explain the different ways we categorise people.
The best article of the three is by Juliane House. House uses Goffman and Gumpertz to explore six types of misunderstanding that arise in social intercourse. I enjoyed her discussion of Grice’s cooperative and Levinas’s selfish models of talk. Her argument is bolstered with a transcript of a conversation – usefully full of misunderstandings - between a German and an American student.
Some of the best articles are found in the second section which deals with ethnicity in Israel, and indeed it is to students of Israel that I would recommend the book. After a shaky start, Majid Al-Haj gives an interesting account of the asymmetry found in successive history curricula and school books in Arab and Jewish schools in Israel. He suggests, for example, that Arab narratives tend towards a fair and dispassionate approach which however fails to address popular Arab conceptions of history. He finds Jewish ones, in contrast, partisan and Zionist. Schirin Fathi, in another good article, looks at Palestinian historical narratives in school text books and elsewhere, considering Holocaust denial and a pervasive competition between Jews and Arabs to impute “Nazism” to their opponents. She considers more recent attempts by Arab intellectuals to overcome denial and to enter into serious historical dialogue with the Jewish “other”. Yet another interesting essay, by Badi Hasisi, shows that a lack of proper policing in Arab areas has led there to the growth of a culture detached from the Israeli legal system. This supposedly “benign neglect” originates in a belief that the enforcement of certain kinds of law in the minority community has a price. Not only might it lead to immediate conflict, but it might even undercut the hegemony of the majority community.
Eran Halperin, Daphna Canetti-Nisim and Ami Pedahzur look at Jewish xenophobia. Questioning the widespread assumption that low socio-economic status is straightforwardly associated with xenophobia, they show how “threat perception” is a more significant factor. Oz and Temar Almog write about their “Multimedia Cultural Lexicon Project” intended to allow Israelis better to understand the cultural differences found in Israel. Marilyn Safir, Shimrit Flaisher-Kellner and Amir Rosenmann look at personal satisfaction with body image claiming that, in Israel, ethnic background does not influence body satisfaction; but that gender and age do.
Amalia Sa’ar takes a fiercer tone, when she examines what she calls the “Liberal Bargain”. This is the bargain by which oppressed peoples, genders, classes try to reap benefits by identifying with their liberal oppressors’ values. “Blacks”, she argues should “think black” in order to liberate themselves. For racialized peoples to “think white”, she says, implies a loss of identity.
The final group of chapters deal with Germany. Joana Duarte gets off to a bad start by asserting that cultural intermingling did not exist before the fifteenth century. Her work is concerned with Portuguese migrants to modern Germany. As one might perhaps expect, first-generation migrants tend to keep to themselves, but second-generation ethnic Portuguese are opposed to segregation. Olga Visbal’s ethnographic research in bilingual classes perhaps unsurprisingly reveals that non-native German-speakers tend to defer to native German speakers when their language-mistakes are corrected. Melissa Lamson argues that foreign management consultants working in Germany should develop their inter-cultural competence. She analyzes interviews with consultants in German companies. I liked an article by Inke DuBois who emphasises the “constructed” nature of identity, considering the way American migrants tried to reconstruct their national identity in the face of German hostility to the “war on terror”.
Like many such collections, this one contains some good essays, but also some that are wordy, portentous and dull. The book would also have benefitted from a more strenuous editorship to stop clumsy phrases, infelicitous ideas or even howlers from escaping into the wild.
This book was written in 1908, when the world was being shaken by the newly self-confident masses. Women were propagandising for the vote; the Irish w...moreThis book was written in 1908, when the world was being shaken by the newly self-confident masses. Women were propagandising for the vote; the Irish were demanding Home Rule; the Trade Unions were showing their strength. Socialism theatened. A spectre was haunting Europe, and particularly England.
Wind in the Willows is an elegant parable about class struggle, about the dangers of decadant country-house-living in the face of powerful revolutionary forces.
There are maybe four generations in the story. There is the young man Ratty, a gentle sort of chap who spends his time messing about in boats. He is joined by the younger, less experienced Mole. Mole may even be petty-bourgeois, but he proves himself to be stout-hearted for all that. Mr Toad, however, has come into his inheritance, and lives in his country house. Toad is an irresponsible figure, taking up foolish hobbies of which, in the story, the most fateful is the motor car. The older man is Badger, and it is he that casts cold water on this irresponsibility.
But where is all this irresponsiblity going to lead? Outside this cosy comfortable setting, lie the dangerous forces in the Wild Wood. Mr Toad, besotted by his motor car, is arrested and sent to gaol. His defences down, his house is quickly occupied by the weasles and stoats who live in the Wild Wood.
To the rescue comes Mr Badger, who is wise enough to see that if Toad is to regain his valuable property, he must forsake idleness and frivolity and stand up to the people of the Wild Wood. So the band of gentlemanly heroes take up arms and re-establish the shaken social order.
"We shall creep out quietly into the butler's pantry -", cried the Toad,
"- with our pistols and swords and sticks - ", shouted the Rat,
"- and rush in upon them -", said the Badger,
"- and whack 'em and whack 'em and whack 'em - ", cried the Toad in ecstasy.
This is, then, a cautionary tale, a warning to the propertied classes to take up, if necessary, arms against the lower classes and to stop living lives of decadent indolence. (less)
“He saw that the water continually flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, c...more“He saw that the water continually flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this?” (Hesse, Siddhartha)
“We have to think pure flux, opposition within opposition itself, or contradiction” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind)
Lawrence Wilde’s rather technical book is trying to track down whether Marx was consistent in his use of the word “contradiction”, and, indeed, what precisely he meant by it. He concludes that, according to Marx, all kinds of theoretical and practical contradictions exist and are more or less susceptible to resolution. However, when social conditions contradict an essentially cooperative human creativity, no eventual resolution is possible without human liberation. Human beings, Marx claims, are creative, cooperative beings, and this creativity will keep breaking out until it is finally liberated.
Even though Karl Marx had repudiated philosophical idealism in favour of materialism, he had retained from Hegel the notion of dialectic. Marx liked the critical perspective inherent in a philosophy which saw contradiction at the heart of every category. He also liked Hegel’s emphasis on motion. The established formal logic, inherited from Aristotle and St Thomas - based on “identity”, “non-contradiction” and the “excluded middle” - carried an unspoken implication that the object described would remain the same. Hegel, however, had noted that an object in motion (say, an arrow) was both present and not present at the same moment, and that similar contradictions could be found everywhere. Marx also liked the idea of totality, which was necessary for a proper understanding of contradiction.
Wilde differentiates between “existential” and “essential” types of contradiction in Marx’s thought. As examples of ‘difference of existence’, Marx cited north and south as opposite aspects of the polar essence, and men and women as opposite genders of the human essence. In these cases mediations were necessary, and Marx commented that in the case of man and woman ‘man is born only though the unifying of their polar differences’. (Marx thought there were entirely "illusory" contradictions between opposed but purely theoretical notions)
Essential contradictions however, were more central to Marx’s understanding. In contrast to other commentators, Wilde lays particular emphasis on Marx’s conception of the “human essence”. Marx explains that, unlike animals, human beings are creative. Whatever human beings do, and especially, whatever they make, they first create it in their minds before they begin production. This feat is entirely beyond even apparently creative animals, such as spiders or bees. “Essential” contradictions, therefore, are those which contradict or stifle the creative essence of human beings. Marx also makes clear that human beings are also essentially social beings.
Whenever practical conditions contradict human creativity, then any final resolution of that contradiction must remove the obstacle to that creative essence. The greatest obstacle to human liberty, claims Marx, is the division of society into opposed classes, formed in turn by the diverse relations people have to the means of production. Temporary resolution of these contradictions between classes is sometimes possible. Thus, for example, a particular industrial dispute or a particular economic or political crisis may be temporarily resolved. But if the contradiction between social circumstances and the creative essence of the worker is not resolved, then this essential contradiction will continue to surface. Capitalism, therefore, which is founded on the stifling of human creativity, must inevitably collapse.
Wilde’s book is erudite, persuasive, and, of its type, readable. I have long thought that any satisfactory anthropology must finally rest upon ideas of a common human essence. It is also transparent that human beings do indeed have creativity as part of that essence. This book asserts the point with great clarity.(less)
The first time I read this book, as a teenager, I could not see the point. So I put it down without finishing it. Now I see it as one of the great boo...moreThe first time I read this book, as a teenager, I could not see the point. So I put it down without finishing it. Now I see it as one of the great books. The character of Svejk is straight out of folklore. He is the foolish man who somehow kills the giant, gets the princess and claims the gold. Except that here is no fairy tale, but a story of war and a story of bureaucrats and officialdom.
Specifically, we at first witness Svejk, a bumbling lower class oaf who has been recruited into the army, and who, in consequence, daily encounters a sequence of bumbling upper class oafs, his officers. These latter individuals are running a totally disastrous war, the Great War for Civilization, which is destroying their own country of Austria Hungary.
Svejk, however, is not moderately stupid. He is very very stupid. Indeed, he is so very stupid that he somehow manages to keep himself out of trouble and out of danger. Gradually, we wonder whether Svejk might actually be quite a clever man, who knows how to handle himself in the face of arbitrary power, bureaucracy and bone-headed idiocy. Finally, because the war's stupidity is actually quite a serious matter, we make another discovery. By an imperceptible transmogrification, Svejk ceases even to appear to the reader as a fool. Instead, we discover him to be a quiet, intelligent hero, the model, indeed for the Czechoslovak hero who emerged from the old Empire to found a new society.(less)
All history is local history. In Northern Ireland, there has long been a lively tradition of local historical studies. This particular booklet is a go...moreAll history is local history. In Northern Ireland, there has long been a lively tradition of local historical studies. This particular booklet is a good example of the genre. David Cargo is Grand Lecturer in the Royal Arch Purple Chapter and co-author of the history of that body. His booklet is well-researched and thorough.
It has two claims to fame. One is that it is unusual in covering such a wide range of brotherhoods in a local history society publication. The topic is one that has unfortunately been avoided, not least because many of the brotherhoods found in Ireland are controversial and sectarian.
The other is that it is one of the very few publications to mention the Royal Black Knights of Malta. The Knights of Malta now have a relationship to the Independent Orange Order similar to the relationship between the Black and the Orange Institutions. I have indeed myself visited an Independent Orange / Knights of Malta hall where I was shown items of their regalia. They are indeed an organisation of considerable historical interest. Now, however, they are virtually forgotten, even by professional historians. I was aware that they had had a considerable provenance in the Newtownards area, so it is gooo that they should be rediscovered in this booklet. (less)
Eric kindly sent me a copy of the title essay, but I must certainly have a look at the entire book.
The phrase “paranoid style” has been bandied about...moreEric kindly sent me a copy of the title essay, but I must certainly have a look at the entire book.
The phrase “paranoid style” has been bandied about in discussions of American politics ever since Hofstadter wrote his article, back in the 1960s. It points to an irrational fearfulness directed by the American right towards such people as communists, socialists, liberals and ethnic minorities. The article specifically pinpoints hostility to Catholics and Freemasons, which I never really thought to be particularly prevalent in the USA. If it had been written today, he would have written about Muslims who conveniently stepped into a disagreeably empty communist-shaped hole.
I quite like his notion of a paranoid “style”, for it helps delineate an important distinction between the sensible and the daft. The fact is we are all sensibly scared of criminals, terrorists, aggressive nations, and those people generally who would do us harm. We all feel at least some minor apprehension when we come across those who are radically different from us. It's why we lock our back doors and put our money in banks. The paranoia comes in when we have elaborate and loopy fantasies about people and when our fears are disproportionate and extreme.
Hofstadter wisely says that paranoia is not confined to America. He's right. Where I live is a positive paranoiac’s paradise. Members of my government think the Pope is an Antichrist, and that Rome is “Mystery, Babylon the Great”. And there are many who share the kind of views about Masonry described in Hofstadter’s piece.
So one should never forget that nice biblical quote about “motes” and “beams” (or is it “splinters” and “planks”?) There is always a risk that, in getting paranoid about paranoiacs, one may just be getting paranoid oneself. (less)
I read Rights of Man in my first year as an undergraduate, and most of the others at a later date. Paine's writing both benefits and suffers from the...moreI read Rights of Man in my first year as an undergraduate, and most of the others at a later date. Paine's writing both benefits and suffers from the fact that he drank huge quantities of brandy before putting quill to paper. He is scarcely a great philosopher, but an old libertarian socialist like me would be hard put not to love him. He nearly brought democracy to England a hundred or more years before it actually arrived. The great appeal of Rights of Man came from arguing (and apparently proving with dubious arithmetic) that by getting rid of jobbery and corruption in Parliament, one could establish free health benefit. Seditious talk indeed! (less)
I don’t suppose the Congo basin was ever a very nice place to live, but the arrival of the Belgians and capitalism did nothing to improve it. The Belg...moreI don’t suppose the Congo basin was ever a very nice place to live, but the arrival of the Belgians and capitalism did nothing to improve it. The Belgian escapade was scandalous from the first, and it continued to be scandalous up to what was laughably called independence. Heaven knows what has gone on since then. Conrad’s account of greed and barbarity could have been written today. All that has changed is the technology. “The horror, the horror”. That’s about right.(less)
One of the best pieces of reportage I have encountered. Orwell discovers the English working class and, with kindness but without sentimentality, he d...moreOne of the best pieces of reportage I have encountered. Orwell discovers the English working class and, with kindness but without sentimentality, he describes what he sees. (less)
An historical account of the dark politics which led to and accompanied the Benin expedition of 1897. Rob Home uses images from Conrad's Heart of Dark...moreAn historical account of the dark politics which led to and accompanied the Benin expedition of 1897. Rob Home uses images from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to conjure the atmosphere and explain the thinking of those involved. The actual battles in which simple "Dane guns" were pitted against sophisticated Maxims, are graphically described. Benin city - the eponymous "City of Blood" - was found littered with the bodies of executed bodies, including those of victims sacrificed in the closing stages of the siege. The author argues, however, that the horror stories that emerged into British newspapers at the time were exaggerated, and that tales of crucifixion were untrue. The city was burned to the ground, apparently by accident and not, as elsewhere, as a deliberate punishment. It is a bleak account from which few emerge with very much credit. Nevertheless, the author describes it as "one of the more successful Victorian small wars". He writes with authority as an author with few illusions about West Africa.(less)
Sartre shows how wicked were the Nazis to pin a Star on Jews’ clothing, thus making their Jewishness the only relevant fact about them. Importantly, t...moreSartre shows how wicked were the Nazis to pin a Star on Jews’ clothing, thus making their Jewishness the only relevant fact about them. Importantly, the Star poisoned even the generous acts of the well-meaning. By tiptoeing around the stigmatised status, the liberal-minded hoped to treat Jews as if they were just like their own friends, almost resembling those quite ordinary people who lacked this stigmatized status. Belonging to an ethnic minority myself, I feel all of this, fortunately not as strongly as French or German Jews, however. An important book, I think.
It's the first time I have really looked at Yeats's poetry. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found the famous ones the most enjoyable. Some, of the other I...moreIt's the first time I have really looked at Yeats's poetry. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found the famous ones the most enjoyable. Some, of the other I found remarkably clumsy and poorly expressed. Perhaps this is why they didn't become famous. He sometimes takes to mentioning or even listing people's names and place names as though this were evocative or impressive. Part of my problem is that I am rather out of sympathy with the man and his period. An interesting exercise nevertheless. I liked Jeffares' introduction, which was clear and intelligent.(less)
This is a useful introduction. Given that it is part of a series intended for the non-specialist, it might have been better to intersperse the analysi...moreThis is a useful introduction. Given that it is part of a series intended for the non-specialist, it might have been better to intersperse the analysis with a bit more historical and biographical narrative. It explores Yeats's "sensibility" examining it via the notion of power. Yeats indulged in a kind of disillusionment that (as with many in the 1930s) eventually arrived at a species of rather unhealthy authoritarianism. Ultimately, I am out of sympathy with the man. (less)