Anglophone exceptionalism

Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not like the new French film Deception, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, based on one of Philip Roth’s many pseudo-autobiographical novels. And one of the things he really doesn’t like about this French film is that… it’s French.

Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

C’est pas vrai! A French director cast French actors in his film, and let them (I’m trying not to hyperventilate here) speak FRENCH! How could this be allowed to happen? He seems to have gotten the Hollywood rule, that European characters (of whatever nationality) are always supposed to be played by British actors, exactly backward!

Could you imagine a critic commenting on a film by a British or American director set in a non-English-speaking country, that complains that the director cast British or American actors speaking English, which completely misses the nuances of dialect differences?

Spielberg doesn’t change any nationalities. His Schindler is still supposed to be Moravian, and his antagonist Amon Göth is still Austrian. But Spielberg casts British people, speaking English. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and Ralph Fiennes is the Austrian Nazi.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

I mention this particular example because I do recall seeing a German review of Schindler’s List that did complain about the dialect issue, but only as an issue about the dubbing by the regular German representatives of those particular British actors, speaking their regular high German. No one would have suggested that an American director really should have made his film in German to begin with.

Last and First Antisemites

There’s something fascinating about 19th and 20th century English antisemitism. In continental Europe hatred of Jews was seen as fundamentally political, hence controversial, and was viewed with some distaste by many bien-pensant intellectuals.

Not so in England, where anti-Semitism was never so passionate or violent, but also never particularly controversial until the Nazis went and gave it a bad name. It’s all over the literature, hardly seeming to demand any comment, as I noted with some surprise a while back about the gratuitous anti-Semitism in The Picture of Dorian Grey.

Anyway, I just got around to reading for the first time Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. It’s a remarkable piece of work, barely a novel, giving a retrospective overview of about a billion years of human history from the perspective of the dying remnant of humanity eking out its last days on Neptune. And the early parts, at least, are blatantly antisemitic. Chapter 4 tells of a time, still only thousands rather than millions of years in our future, when all racial and national distinctions have vanished through intermixing of populations and the creation of a world state. There is just one exception: the Jews. They are still there, defining themselves as a separate “tribe”, that uses their native “cunning” — specifically, financial cunning — to dominate their weaker-minded and less ruthless fellow humans:

The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil… Thus in time the Jews had made something like “a corner” in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world… In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence.

Finding the mitochondrial Na’ama

I was having a conversation recently about Biblical ancestry and the antediluvian generations, and it got me to thinking about how scientists sometimes like to use biblical references as attention-grabbing devices, without actually bothering to understand what they’re referring to — in this case, the so-called “mitochondrial Eve”. The expression was not used in the 1987 Nature paper that first purported to calculate the genealogical time back to the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all present-day humans in the female line, but it was a central to publicity around the paper at the time, including in academic journals such as Science.

The term has come to be fully adopted by the genetics community, even while they lament the misunderstandings that it engenders among laypeople — in particular, the assumption that “Eve” must in some sense have been the first woman, or must have been fundamentally different from all the other humans alive at the time. The implication is that the smart scientists were making a valiant effort to talk to simple people in terms they understand, taking the closest approximation (Eve) to the hard concept (MRCA), and the simple bible-y people need to make an effort on their part to understand what they’re really talking about.

In fact, calling this figure Eve is a blunder, and it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the biblical narrative. Eve is genuinely a common ancestor of all humans, according to Genesis, but she is not the most recent in any sense, and suggesting that she is just confusing. The MRCA in the Bible is someone else, namely the wife of Noah. Appropriately, she is not named, but if we want a name for her, the midrashic Genesis Rabbah calls her Na’ama. She has other appropriate characteristics as well, that would lead people toward a more correct understanding. To begin with, she lived many generations after the first humans. She lived amid a large human population, but a catastrophic event led to a genetic bottleneck that only she and her family survived. (That’s not quite the most likely scenario, but it points in the right direction.) And perhaps most important — though this reflects the core sexism of the biblical story — there was nothing special about her. She just happened to be in right place at the right time, namely, partnered with the fanatic boat enthusiast when the great flood happened.

Plagues and statues

I’ve been reading Camus’ La Peste, hoping to obtain some insight into one of the great crises of the present, and finding him commenting on a completely different one. At the height of the epidemic of the novel, the narrator comments on the aspect of the silent, immobilised city, and expresses resentment toward the statues that are permanently in that condition.

La grande cité silencieuse n’était plus alors qu’un assemblage de cubes massifs et inertes, entre lesquels les effigies taciturnes de bienfaiteurs oubliés ou d’anciens grands hommes étouffés à jamais dans le bronze s’essayaient seules, avec leurs faux visages de pierre ou de fer, à évoquer une image dégradée de ce qui avait été l’homme. Ces idoles médiocres trônaient sous un ciel épais, dans les carrefours sans vie, brutes insensibles qui figuraient assez bien le règne immobile où nous étions entrés ou du moins son ordre ultime, celui d’une nécropole où la peste, la pierre et la nuit auraient fait taire enfin toute voix.

The huge, silent city had become nothing more than a collection of solid, inert cubes, where the taciturn effigies of forgotten benefactors or ancient great men were suffocated forever in bronze, evoking a solitary, degraded image of what man had once been. These mediocre idols, enthroned under a thick sky, in the lifeless crossroads, unfeeling beasts that symbolised well the immobilised realm we had entered, or at least its ultimate order, that of a necropolis where plague, stone, and night would have finally silences any voice.

I’ve commented before on how odd it is that, just because some of our ancestors chose to cast their images in heavy bronze or marble and plonk them down at significant sites in our cities, that we should feel obliged to keep them there. But I assumed that the current attacks on statues of racists was unrelated to the pandemic situation, mere coincidence of crises, except perhaps that the lockdown left people with lots of pent-up energy.

But maybe there’s something about coping with an epidemic that inspires iconoclasm?

The conspiracy conspiracy

I was just listening to physicist Sean Carroll’s podcast interview of epistemologist Quassim Cassam. The interview mainly concerned Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political, but at the end it touched on his new book Conspiracy Theories. He remarked on the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are becoming increasingly widespread, and politically influential, and then made this Chomskyan comment

leaving aside the question of whether conspiracy theories are more or less prevalent, it’s true that conspiracy theories are popular and influential across the world and particularly in the US…. I’m actually much more interested in the idea that conspiracy theories or at least the sort of big ticket conspiracy theories are really forms of political propaganda, that what they really do is to advance a political agenda and that’s really their role.

So, you may think conspiracy theories are just arising naturally, but actually there are dark shadowy figures manipulating belief in conspiracies for their nefarious ends.

One small point: Carroll started the interview by remarking “I know a little bit about epistemology, not that much”. Which struck me as a deeply ironic remark, to which I yearned in vain for Cassam to reply “You may know more about it than you think you do.”

The coronavirus spectre

This article about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on air travel mentions social-media criticism of millennials (of course!) for ignoring public health advice by taking advantage of lowered airfares for inessential travel. It occurred to me, though, that the well-publicised observation that the virus seems hardly to affect children and young people at all may create different incentives for different age groups.

And that reminded me of The Subtle Knife, book 2 of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials about Oxford scholars (and children) exploring the multiverse. A significant portion of that book is set in a parallel world that has been overtaken by “spectres” that attack and devour the minds of adults, but leave children unharmed. So children run wild and the few remaining adults are in hiding.

No further comment…

“Zelensky loves your ass”

There’s a lot of competition for the weirdest moments in the Ukraine bribery-extortion-political meddling affair that underlies the current impeachment hearings, but for me there’s not much that can compete with the testimony of diplomat David Holmes that he overheard hotel-magnate-cum-ambassador Gordon Sondland telling Trump that Zelensky would “do anything you ask for” because Zelensky “loves your ass”.

My first reaction on reading this — I may have understood it differently had I heard it spoken — was that it was most bizarre for a head of state to be commenting (favourably or unfavourably) on the intimate anatomy of the US president. And that Trump didn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned about his toned glutes.

I quickly realised that this is not actually an erotic compliment, but rather an application of the somewhat gangster argot that uses “ass” as a general intensifier. I am reminded of the section of Gravity’s Rainbow titled “On the phrase ‘ass backwards’”, where the literal-minded Berlin drug dealer Säure Bummer asks a group of AmericanS

Why do you speak of certain reversals — machinery connected wrong, for instance, as being “Ass backwards”? I can’t understand that. Ass usually is backwards, right? You ought to be saying “ass forwards,” if backwards is what you mean.

After a typical digression about umlauts and helicopters Seaman Bodine replies

“‘Ass’ is an intensifier, as in ‘mean ass’, ‘stupid ass’ — well, when something is very backwards, by analogy you’d say ‘backwards ass.’”

“But ‘ass backwards’ is ‘backwards ass’ backwards,” Säure objects.

“But gee that doesn’t make it mean forwards.”

I’m still not exactly sure what “he loves your ass” actually means and, in particular, whether it conveys an erotic charge.

Pierre Menard and Jack Malik

I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.

One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”

The strange and disturbing life of Hugo Bettauer

I’ve become fascinated by the early-20th-century Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, author of the prescient satire on antisemitism Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews). It’s a fascinating look at how Nazism (and allied antisemitic movements) appeared, a decade before it came to power in Germany, when it still seemed a tolerable subject for humour. Among the more striking features of the novel: The Austrian chancellor who proposes the law describes himself as a great friend and admirer of the Jews, in a frighteningly devious speech. The middle-class Viennese women, in Bettauer’s depiction, are distraught at the loss of the Jewish men, with whom most of them were having sexually adventurous and lucrative extramarital affairs. The Jews themselves are portrayed as essentially indifferent to their expulsion (with one important exception), and many of them move to the obviously more tolerant and cosmopolitan Germany. And when the Jews are ultimately allowed to return it is not because anyone has any sympathy for them, but only because it has become clear how useful they are for the economy, and how boring life in Vienna is without them. In one of the weirdest bits of rhetoric, an elderly lawyer, speaking to the salt-of-the-earth waiter in the now empty (because mainly Jews used to populate the cafes) traditional Viennese cafe, remarks

Wien versumpert, sag’ ich Ihnen, und wenn ich als alter, graduierter Antisemit das sag’, so ist es wahr, sag’ ich Ihnen! Ich wer’ Ihnen was sagen, Josef. Wenn ich gegessen hab’, muß ich, Sie wissen’s ja am besten, immer mein Soda-Bikarbonat nehmen, um die elendige Magensäure zu bekämpfen. Wenn ich aber gar keine Magensäure hätt’, so könnt’ ich überhaupt nichts verdauen und müßt’ krepieren. Und wissen S’, der Antisemitismus, der war das Soda zur Bekämpfung der Juden, damit sie nicht lästig werden! Jetzt haben wir aber keine Magensäure, das heißt, keine Juden, sondern nur Soda, und ich glaub’, daran wer’n wir noch zugrund’ geh’n!«


Vienna is rotting, that’s what I say, and when an old dedicated antisemite like me says that, you can believe it. Let me tell you something. After I eat, you know I always have my little bit of bicarbonate of soda, to fight the stomach acid. But if I didn’t have any stomach acid, I wouldn’t be able to digest anything, I’d just croak. And you know, antisemitism was just the soda to fight against the Jews, so that they didn’t get too annoying! But now we have no stomach acid, that is, no Jews, but only soda, and I think we’re all going to perish.

Curious about his life, I had a look in Wikipedia, and found numerous brief remarks that each seemed like there was material for a feature-length movie hidden behind it, if not for a whole miniseries. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Bettauer ran away from home at the age of 16 to Alexandria, “where the Austrian Consul sent him straight back again”.

In Zürich he married the love of his youth, Olga Steiner, with whom, after the death of his mother, he emigrated to the United States. During the crossing, in a disastrous speculation Bettauer lost his entire fortune.

Unable to find work in the US, despite acquiring US citizenship, Bettauer and his wife moved to Berlin, where he became a prominent journalist.

In 1901 after the suicide of the director of the Berliner Hoftheater, whom he had accused of corruption, Bettauer was expelled from the Kingdom of Prussia

Following a divorce and then remarrying during another eventful crossing to America, and half a decade as a journalist in New York, he returned to work for the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, where he was then excluded from army service in WWI because of his US citizenship. In one of the oddest turns,

In 1918, after an altercation caused by a defective typewriter, he was fired from the Neue Freie Presse.

He went on to become a prominent and controversial novelist — Greta Garbo’s first international film was based on one of Bettauer’s novels — until he was assassinated by a Nazi dentist in March 1925. The assassin was declared insane, and released after 18 months in a psychiatric clinic.

Hugo Bettauer

“Spirit of innovation”

I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.

Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such

amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.

I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.