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.

Count no statue happy…

Count no man happy till he dies.

Sophocles, Oedipus the King (trans. Robert Fagles)

Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we, as Solon says, see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? […] for both evil and good are thought to exist for a dead man, as much as for one who is alive but not aware of them; e.g. honours and dishonours and the good or bad fortunes of children and in general of descendants.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1 (trans. W D Ross)

In all of the discussion of racist statues one fundamental point is rarely mentioned: Above all, public statues represent the unwillingness of “great men” to simply go away. Those who bestrode their narrow world like a Colossus are loath to let death remove them from the scene, so like the stuffed dodo in a diorama they have their effigies propped up in the public square.

While they lived they received the adulation of the crowds, and the opprobrium of their opponents. If the great one’s supporters need a public icon as a focus for their devotions, the icon will have to continue to participate in the hurly-burly of public life, including the scrutiny of their lives and deeds brought on by shifting ethical standards. If Winston Churchill were alive today he would rightly have paint and rotten tomatoes flung at him by those appalled at his racist ideas and actions. Reasonable can believe that his near-genocidal actions in Bengal, among others places inhabited by darker-skinned people, are more significant than a few well-crafted speeches that bucked up the spirits of the Island Race. Reasonable people did think so during his life. The place where one is beyond praise or blame is called the grave, and no one is suggesting disinterring WC’s bones — though an earlier generation of Tories did exactly that with Oliver Cromwell, after the tide of history turned against him.

His supporters are welcome to hide his statues away in private shrines, or public museums. If you put them up in public you have to accept that people are going to continue to engage with them. Sometimes angrily. Sometimes disorderly.

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.