Bergson and Brexit

Once it became clear that I would be staying indefinitely in the UK, I had long planned to apply for UK citizenship. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I thought it would be the good and responsible thing to vote and otherwise take part in politics.

Then came Brexit, and this, naturally, led me to think about Henri Bergson. Born to a Jewish family, Bergson moved gradually toward Christianity in his personal life, he considered himself a Christian from the early 1920s. By the 1930s he was making plans to convert formally to Catholicism, but held off because of solidarity with the increasingly threatened Jewish community. A few weeks before his death, Bergson left his sickbed — having rejected an offered exemption from the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy — to stand in line to register as a Jew.

He wrote in his will:

My reflections have led me closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment of Judaism. I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted.

For a while, then, I deferred applying for citizenship, out of solidarity with my fellow migrants. And then I went and did it anyway. The stakes are obviously much lower than they were for Bergson. And while I regret having to renounce the migrant identity, which suits me well, I also see that this isn’t an entirely noble inclination, as it also excuses me from taking a citizen’s responsibility for the nation’s xenophobic turn. It’s easy to blame those dastardly “British”. The permission to acquire citizenship reflects the growing responsibility for the society that one acquires merely by living here.

I also can’t resist noting that Bergson’s first publication was the solution of Pascal’s problem in Annales des Mathématiques, for which he won the first prize in mathematics in the Concours Général. On learning that he was preparing for the École normale supérieure entrance examination in the letters and humanities section, his mathematics teacher reportedly exclaimed

You could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher.

Brexit planning in a mysterious tribal dialect

Among the many recurring farcical features of the Brexit morass has been the British government’s willingness (as I discussed two years ago) to proclaim, that its Brexit plans and negotiating position needs to be kept secret from the UK public because, in its favoured gambling vernacular, its ability to bluff would be fatally undermined by showing its cards. In recent weeks we have learned that no-deal Brexit is easily managed, nothing to be frightened of; and yet, the EU will truckle at the whiff of grapeshot, once it is clear that Parliament cannot rescue them from this terrifying fate. That proroguing Parliament changes nothing, and yet will persuade the EU that the UK has thrown its steering wheel out of the car in its game of diplomatic chicken.

What is odd is not that the government might have a public posture (e.g. no-deal Brexit is easily manageable) at odds with its private beliefs (e.g. no-deal Brexit will be hugely destructive). It is that they openly and persistently proclaim these contradictions, using poker metaphors to justify their contradictions. As though their diplomatic counterparties in Brussels would not also read their allusions to bluffing and draw the appropriate conclusions.

I am reminded of an anecdote in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris, an American writer who lived many years in France, describes the conversation of two American tourists who were crammed in close to him in the Paris Metro:

“Peeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby.” He removed one of his hands from the pole and waved it back and forth in front of his face. “Yes indeed,” he said. “This little foggy is ripe.”

It took a moment to realize he was talking about me.

The woman wrinkled her nose. “Golly Pete!” she said, “Do they all smell this bad?”

“It’s pretty typical,” the man said. “I’m willing to bet that our little friend here hasn’t had a bath in a good two weeks. I mean, Jesus Christ, someone should hang a deodorizer around this guy’s neck.”

It’s a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever… An experienced traveler could have told by looking at my shoes that I wasn’t French. And even if I were French, it’s not as if English is some mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals. They happen to teach English in schools all over the world. There are no eligibility requirements. Anyone can learn it. Even people who reportedly smell bad…

I wanna hold your (geopolitical) hand

The trans-Atlantic romcom goes into its next season. We recall the highlight of last season, when Theresa and Donald were sharing a personal moment in their “special relationship”.

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At the start of the new season, Melania confirms that she really would rather hold almost anything than Donald’s hand:

Theresa was dancing around Number 10, like, “I can have him all to myself.” But then this French dude came into the picture.

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They look so happy together. Macron is even boasting about their “very special relationship”. And Theresa is saying, but Donald, I thought our relationship was the special one. I left Europa for you…

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Unusual honesty from the tabloid press

The response to the French election in the nationalist UK press is unusually revealing. The Daily Mail left it off the front page entirely, though it had touted Le Pen after the first round. The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror published headlines that present Macron’s election as a setback for Britain’s Brexit plans. The Telegraph wrote “France’s new hope puts cloud over Brexit”, while the Mirror had “Why the new French leader could be bad for Brexit deal”. (The Daily Mirror, it should be noted, opposed Brexit.)

If the only thing that could be good for Brexit would be for France to elect a fascist president, doesn’t it kind of make you wonder about the wisdom of the whole project?

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.