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 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.

Lecturing is obsolete — and always has been

Pretty much since I became a professional academic two decades ago there has been constant agitation against lecturing as a technology for teaching. Either new research has proven it, or new technology has rendered it, obsolete. Thus I was amused to read this comment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON: ‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.’ Dr. Scott agreed with him. ‘But yet (said I), Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.’ He smiled. ‘You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.’

Early comments by Johnson on the impact of no-deal Brexit

Fully consistent with what the PM is saying now:

There came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the common-place complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined.

JOHNSON (smiling). ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’

This was Samuel Johnson, in the 1770s, who also wrote that

The interruption of trade, though it may distress part of the community, leaves the rest power to communicate relief; the decay of one manufacture may be compensated by the advancement of another…

Johnson, of course, also famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Which may somehow be relevant.

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”

Magic and class struggle

I just started reading the book Magic for Liars by Sarah Galley. I’d purchased it because of a short review, but by the time I got to read it I’d completely forgotten anything about it, so I was bemused to discover that it is sort of a hard-boiled detective murder mystery set in a boarding school for young magicians. It struck me then how odd it is that “boarding school for young magicians” has turned into a whole genre, spanning a range of works for young people and adults, and now starting to colonise completely different genres, like detective fiction.

So far as I can tell this is largely an Anglo-American literary phenomenon (though Harry Potter is certainly very popular throughout the world), and I suspect that it reflects a natural response to the class system and the power that is accrues to elite education. Surely an uneducated Briton, seeing how a mediocrity like Boris Johnson can be elevated to a position of power on the basis of pairing his hail-fellow-well-met demeanour with the Eton-Oxford training can’t really imagine what they’re learning there, but supposes it must be some sort of deep magic. That’s why the spells in Harry Potter are all Dog Latin: Unexceptional people go to these weird schools, learn these dead languages, and end up ruling the world.

Update: I have deleted a comment asserting a common etymology of magic spell and spelling (learning to write). The words (as Maria Christodoulou pointed out) in fact have completely different roots. (I’m not sure where I got this false etymology from. I would have sworn it was Mary Daly, but while Gyn/Ecology has lots of (sometimes dubious) wordplay on spell and glamour, the association spell-witchcraft-learning is not there.

Johnson is our doom

Is there somewhere an ancient manuscript sealed with eldritch lore, on which is inscribed the tale of the final days of Britain, under the rule of a mysterious BJ? I have had the feeling, over the past four years that the real agenda of government has been to evade the doom foretold of the Boris Johnson premiership. And, as in classical tragedy, the steps that are taken to prevent that fate — the Brexit referendum, Theresa May’s selection as prime minister, making him responsible for foreign policy, expelling him from the cabinet, new elections — turn out to be precisely the ones that bring it closer. At this point I could understand if some Conservatives are ready to give up fighting what is obviously a divinely ordained chastisement.

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

“… in line with UK immigration rules”

For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.

— Mark Twain, Autobiography

The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because

It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.

This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.

The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”

I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.

(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)

I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.

Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.