November 10, 2007

Greek Homosexuality

An interesting article about ancient Greek homosexuality. Its interesting- I can't vouch for its accuracy as this is a subject on which I'm woefully ignorant but have always been partly intrigued by given the many references in Plato to the practise. It turns out as you would expect that homosexuality in Greece evolved over the years- particularly by the end of the Athenian democracy you had people who were as the author suggests what we would recognise as homosexuals. Homosexuality for some men was a stage in development between asexual youth and the marriage bed- but others seemed to delight more in the company of men than of women. Its an interesting subject and if anyone knows more please enlighten me as to whether the assessment in the article is right or not.

November 09, 2007

The Tomb of an Emperor

The first Emperor of China is a historical character and his legacy defines in many ways what China is today. He originally was not Emperor of China, but the Prince of a powerful western Kingdom Qin. During his reign as King of Qin, he conquered the other kingdoms which constituted ancient China. The King of Qin became an emperor in 221BC over a vast landmass, stretching perhaps over a third of what is modern China today. His power was extensive- Chinese histories credit him with an almost totalitarian ideology, an aim of unification which stretched to the elimination of any possible rival, including the massacre of 460 scholars and the destruction of older feudal patterns of service and government. He brought in a single currency and connected together the walls that previous Chinese governments had constructed to the north, to build the first defensive Great Wall. The Emperor's dynasty lasted a very short time- within years of his death in 210BC, his son the second Emperor was killed and chaos descended before the rise of the Han Emperors beggining in 202BC.

The Emperor though left much behind him. The Han reigned to some extent in conformity with his principles especially of unity- and the shape of the currency that he had originally drafted remained the same right up until the early 20th Century. Much of our account of his acheivement comes from the Han historian, Sima Qian, who was born in 145BC and whose histories cover the whole of Chinese history from its mythical origins to his own lifetime. Sima Qian was hostile to the Qin Emperor partly because his dynasty replaced that of the Qin, and his history is not a history as we would recognise it in modern terms. Sima Qian writes fables and chronicles and treatises on subjects, the past for him is a set of exempla and a set of dates. He doesn't dwell as we might like him to on subjects relevant to us, but rather has the preoccupations of a Han civil servant: so his book tells us of stories about assassins, stories about how to govern and how not to govern, chronicles of dates and all from a perspective that denegrates the Qin. Despite that Sima Qian is one of the great historians of the ancient world- his name deserves to be up there with the great classical historians.

However we are incredibly lucky when it comes to the Qin Emperor, for in the mid-1970s a peasant in China came across a stupendous find. In the soil his spade hit a terracotta head, and archaeologists coming across to work on the site found not one but thousands of terracotta bodies and artefacts scattered in the soil. Having reconstructed what the site must have been, they worked out that these terracotta bodies constituted a seperate state that the Qin Emperor hoped to rule in his afterlife. At the British Museum in London at the moment, some of those finds are being exhibited. You see all sorts of people that the Emperor required in his afterlife: he has strong men, acrobats, musicians, civil servants, soldiers of all types and even a royal charioteer. Some of these artefacts bring to life stories from Sima Qian's accounts. For example on the Emperor's death, his senior civil servant Li Si kept the Imperial demise secret. He did so by maintaining the illusion that the Emperor was still alive giving orders from his Imperial chariot- and to some extent when one sees the chariot, one can imagine how that worked. The Emperor closeted and secretive and Li Si and a couple of others conspicuously running in and out to receive orders.

The terracotta army itself is shown in all its glory. It is incredible what the craftsmen (probably conscripted) could do. The skill with which the faces in particular are rendered is stunning- the visual impressiveness of what you see makes you reel back, considering that these are faces looking straight at you from thousands of years ago. The picture in particular of a fiery Turkish looking light infantryman stayed in my mind all of last night. The Museum have organised the exhibition in a very proffessional way- first they show you some Qin artefacts and describe the role of the Qin Emperor in Chinese history, avoiding much of the detail but trying to give a non-sinologist a good understanding of what this man was and what he represents. Then you proceed to see the terracotta army and court itself- which is a stunning experience and having it put in context before you see it, it becomes more impressive. The Emperor constructed this army to protect him in his afterlife- it appears they were stationed on the only open access route to his tomb in order to guard it. His tomb itself has never been opened and apart from Sima Qian's fantastic descriptions and some scientific work above the site on concentrations of metals found underneath, noone knows what is there. What we have though is these soldiers- we know they were painted and so their rather mundane colours today aren't as impressive as the gaudy way they were decorated- we know that irises for instance were painted in the eyes and we can tell all this thanks to chemical analysis of the surface of the statues. They are beautifully vibrant and vital. Each has its own character and facial expression, beard and overall look.

China is one of the hardest societies I have ever tried to understand. I have only been there once- but that's once more than most Westerners. Reading its literature and looking at its art is a very foreign experience in the way that reading Islamic literature or even Indian literature is not. Through accidents of history, China seems like another region of the earth from Europe. But its an increasingly powerful and important place- from films by great directors like Zhang Yimou to its economic importance, China is not merely an object of curious interest for the West, it is a place we have to understand. This exhibition therefore is a wonderful opportunity to learn something about China and the way that it was created and its history. The terracotta warriors are so impressive that they are a reminder of the grandeur of Chinese civilisation. They are also an incentive because of their beauty to try and understand more about the culture from which they sprang, seeing their beauty inspired me to buy translated fragments from Sima Qian's history. An exhibition like this is precisely the thing that the world's museums should increasingly engage in- if there is to be dialogue between our cultures then this is a wonderful way of expressing it and I hope some British treasures make their way temporarily to Beijing.

The Museum's exhibition reminds one of the importance of Chinese civilisation and the importance of cultivating an understanding of it. It also reminded me very visibly of the difficulties of historical research. There is so much that we do not know and will never know about the first Emperor. The history that we have is fragmented and written long after the Emperor's death. We have these artefacts but with many of them we are not sure of their use- and we have not yet seen inside the tomb of the Emperor to see what clues lie there.

One thing I do regret about the museum's exhibition is that there was not more outside or inside from historians of the era, Chinese and Western, discussing the Emperor. There wasn't even a good academic biography for sale- an unpardonable lapse! Another gap was that the First Emperor's attitude to religion was left untouched. We were invited to see the army as a simplistic guard for the afterlife or as a manifestation of the Emperor's meglamania: but I would have liked to see something more about what Chinese people of that time beleived about the afterlife and how that connected to what the Emperor did. One interesting question that wasn't touched upon was why none of his successors made this kind of tomb- it could be that they did and the tombs are lost waiting a farmer to discover them, it could be that his example discredited the practice, it could be that beliefs had shifted, it could be that this is one of many such tombs, leaving the exhibition I was none the wiser. One felt like screaming for more information. But having said that, that is possibly the churlish attitude to take. The exhibition is wonderful- the fact that these statues have left China must have been a great diplomatic acheivement and the museum has arranged them suitably well.

The First Emperor is one of those figures whose actions had momentous consequences spreading out through time, doubling and redoubling until his creation, a unified China, became one of the great powers of a globalised world in the 20th Century. Seeing the terracotta warriors, seeing the artefacts he collected around himself in his afterlife, one gets a sense of the immense power that he wielded, the creative wills that bent to his commanding will and the strength of his shortlived imperium.

November 08, 2007

Government minister resigns...

to race cars. Lord Drayson has fallen on his sword in order to join the Le Mans race. I have to say that I have no idea about Drayson's record as a minister but as soon as I saw this, I rejoiced, long live the politicians for whom the hinterland matters more than the greasy pole!

November 07, 2007

Mark Steyn and Culture

Mark Steyn has a way of shocking me by producing some really good articles at times- I think he does this out of spite, he knows that I don't like some of his work and he wants me to be spinning in confusion unsure whether to like or dislike him. Sorry my sense of humour got the better of me tonight!

Anyway today Steyn has produced I think an excellent article about popular music and the need for a canon. It is really a wonderful defence of learning for the sake of appreciation. Basically Steyn's point is that you can't understand why the Beatles are great unless you understand why Bach is great. The two go together- to understand the one is to understand the other. He makes a point about the way that in order to understand something's greatness, you have to be able to see it in its context, to see what developed around it, why that move was important. Its crucial that Picasso could paint landscapes and had been trained because then his other paintings developed a meaning, its vital that Duke Ellington could play the classic solos because then he could use them in his own work. I agree completely with him: one of the wonders of artistic knowledge is the way that it supports itself. Every time I watch a new film, or read a new book (those being the two art forms I know) they tell me something about all those previous artworks I've seen and watched. And there is a strict heirarchy of knowledge in art- I would listen to Martin Scorsese for hours on film if I could because he has watched everything, and has interesting ideas about all of what he has seen.

Music is something sadly on which I'm not able to comment. One of the most illuminating moments of my life was sitting with a friend who understood music in a jazz bar in Prague. He described to me the way that what I saw as a cool sound, was actually the product of a complex interweaving of notes, a lattice of harmonies. Suddenly I saw music for a moment as this beautiful structure, which people played with, understood and manipulated- suddenly it became more than a simple nice tune, it became art, something I cared for and might grow to love. I think that appreciation is to be valued. It isn't easy to get to- appreciation of the arts is a real cost. Its something that takes time and effort, its something that you have to struggle to get to and it is something that relies on context. To take writing, its because I understand the history of English poetry that I can appreciate the opening line of the Wasteland, that April is the cruellest month- in that opening line Elliot tells us that everything that has gone before resting on Chaucer is wrong. That April is not the month of gentle showers but the month of cruelty. Poetry and novels are echoing always with previous works- the anxiety of influence was a disease that Harold Bloom diagnosed flowing through each and every author.

The great writers though manage to combine that with accessibility. I learnt to read novels- and I have to say watch films (the great twentieth century entertainment) because I began through enjoying them, I ended appreciating the same books. Most of the early readers started the same way, Jonathan Rose writes illuminatingly about the way that the first Labour MPs for example read Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and others and thought about them in their own way. There is a wonderful novel which really describes this process which unfortunately I can't lay my hands on right now- as soon as I find my copy I'll review it- but what shines through that book is the importance of embibing cultural classics to discovering the world of culture. The route to Austen is the route through Austen, the same goes for all the great writers and indeed for filmmakers from Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz to David Cronenberg. Its when you are bitten with the bug that you know that you have fallen in love and through falling in love you learn to appreciate and to link everything together and understand this lattice of things which all have been created partly for your pleasure.

Steyn is entirely right- you can enjoy the arts (I enjoy Music in this sense) without knowing much, but you enjoy them a hell of a lot more when you have exposed yourself to even more. Part of life is a continual adventure in self improvement- I definitely think that there are 'miles to go before I sleep' and probably will be when I'm dead- and I think that goes for art as well as anything else. There is always something 'further up and further in' to look at, there is always something which can prompt you to understand more or to reevaluate what was once familiar and now is strange. Sometimes I think in modern life we are too comfortable, the truth is that life is an adventure of understanding. For us who lag, it is worth looking up to those who are scaling the heights, but if they are worth looking up to then they are looking in admiration at the next climber. Nobody arrives at the summit, but the effort is what makes everything worth while- because by mastering that interesting novel you suddenly have another angle on human experience. Sitting down and saying no further is surrendering that knowledge and beauty that you might acquire by going up another notch- the world is limitless and its beauties are vast.

Steyn is right. To step back is folly, to stop is folly, and in this quest the canon (the works judged before by others as good) is a useful if not flawless guide. Relaxing in a comfort zone of the works written in your own culture or your own time is a waste- there is more to see and life is too short not to read that Egyptian novelist, see that Iranian film, find out about that twelfth century monk's poetry and listen to some Beethoven before going to watch Belle and Sebastien.

November 06, 2007

The End of Greek Asia Minor

At the end of the First World War, the great empires of Eastern Europe, the Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Ottoman all collapsed and were replaced with a variety of successor states. Some of those states were carved out by the treaties like Lausanne and Versailles after the war, others were essentially created by military facts on the ground- and in most cases the treaty recognised what had already happened. Its worth remembering that most of the territorial changes in Europe occurred far away from the areas in which the dominant powers at Versailles- the US, UK and France- had their troops- ie the North East corner of France. Look at a map of Western Europe in 1914 and the frontiers haven't changed really that much up to today, look at a map of Eastern Europe and the world is completely different.

What happened in 1918 in order to accomplish that, and happened in 1945 as well, was the massive transfer of populations across frontiers. We often think of that as a fairly harmless process- it wasn't. To take one example, for centuries, for millennia, numerous Greeks had lived in Asia Minor. Thales one of the first philosophers, if not the first, lived for example in Miletus on the coast of modern day Turkey. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, those people calling themselves Greeks still lived there- still constituted a large minority in cities like Istanbul, Smyrna and other places. In the period after World War One the Greeks and Turks battled over the frontier between their states, in 1922 the Greeks finally lost and withdrew from Asia Minor and as they did, the Greeks living there were forced out as well. I thought of this when I first heard of it, doing my history GCSE, as a fact of history, a bloodless fact- in fact of course it wasn't- there was great brutality.

Just to appreciate how horrible that process of ethnic movement was, its worth looking at some of the accounts from Greeks at the time. Thalia Pandiri has collected some and published translations in the International Literary Quarterly- I suggest you go and have a read, but what she describes is truly horrifying. Women with sticks driven through their bodies till they emerge coming out of their mouths. Some of the stories are equally horrifying for the poverty they display- women feeding children flour in water for example or walking for miles with a bag gripped between their teeth and a child in each hand. When they arrived in Greece, many of them found a less than hospitable reception awaiting them as well. Many of them afterall looked not to the new Greece but to the Russian Tsar, traditional protector of orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, as their prince.

Bringing up old atrocities has more purpose to just wallowing in misfortune. The experience of Greeks moving from Asia Minor to European Greece was horrific, but it is relatively unknown. It highlights something though of worth to consider- that moving populations is always difficult. You encounter the fact that people don't want to leave their homes, you encounter the fact that newcomers aren't always welcome when they arrive. That is even true, when unlike say in Palestine, the moving population are in the end absorbed by another population- as in the Greek case where most of the immigrants report that they did eventually become successful Greeks. Ultimately though the experience of the Greeks moving across from Asia to Europe reminds us of two things: firstly that we should not be blase about moving populations around the globe- should for example climate change result in the destruction of Bangladesh we would see the events of Asia Minor on an even greater scale even if we found somewhere for those people to go. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, it reminds us of our own powerlessness. By the end of World War One, there was barely an army around apart from those of the Western Allies and even then in Eastern Europe, it was the facts on the ground that mattered, not the pious declarations from Paris, London and Washington. International politics requires modesty as well as ambition.

November 05, 2007

Al Qaeda targets 15 year olds

An interesting piece in the Guardian reports comments from the MI5 head, Jonathan Evans, that increasingly Al Qaeda is targetting its recruitment efforts at younger and younger Muslims. In particular the organisation is looking to young British Muslims in their teens. Obviously the teenage years are amongst the prime years for people to form adult identities. One of the issues surrounding that is that people in their teenage years are often uncomfortable or unsure about where they are and what they are. They are thus prime for recruitment by groups like Al Qaeda which offer a strong identity and a purpose to life at a time when most people are going through confused emotional tempests.

Part of the problem of course is what we do about this- ultimately it comes down in part to a working education system which isn't segregated (segregation is a wonderful way to manufacture resentment from afar). No doubt, youth workers, youth organisations, parents and mosques (as well as a host of others that I've forgotten) can help as well but the spectacle of the teenage suicide bomber may grow depressingly familiar as we go into the future.

Conspiring with them Liberal Lefties

Well the Liberal Left Conspiracy came to the internet today- obviously as a group it has existed for a long time- liberals and lefties, the gay mafia, the illuminati and the free masons not to mention commies and various others have been conspiring for years which is why they have been quite so successful on both sides of the Atlantic in maintaining their control over the world. I am one of the conspirators as anyone looking at the roster will know- and I have to say I'm proud to be. The right has organised brilliantly on the internet- and Conservative Home is a really good clearing house for rightwing ideas- I know some of the best rightwing bloggers like say Matt Sinclair have written there. There isn't really any equivalent place to meet leftwing people and discuss politics on the net- Labour home is not as good as Conservative Home, its often too insular and focused in on Labour party internal affairs, other places are dominated by different sectional interests- its time the left came together in the UK on the net- and this is one option, lets hope it succeeds for doing that.

Ok lets turn to the whole idea of the liberal left- what does it mean to be on the liberal left and why do those words fit together. Lets define them first: broadly speaking I think that to be on the left is to be concerned about equality, and that to be liberal is to be concerned about freedom. The point about equality is that it produces freedom. Wealth is power- money would be nothing unless it had a value and that value is the goods and services it commands. The more wealth that someone has and the more independent that wealth from the interference of others, the freer they are to gain what they want in life. Rightwingers believe that the only obstacle to a free will is a state: they are right that the state can be a significant obstacle to the exercise of a free will, noone with any knowledge of this century could deny that and many on the left stood against the state as it limited the freedom of will (Orwell is a great example) but rightwingers are wrong to say that it is only the state which obstructs freedom. Corporations do too- and even the wealthy can obstruct liberty- both can use the state as well in their own interests- you could argue that that is what the British libel laws do.

Equality is married to freedom thus at a fundamental level- because without equality I cannot be free. Its encapsulated in that old piece of wisdom that beggars can't be choosers- something that the right tend to forget. This isn't an argument for state socialism, it could be but it isn't. It isn't an argument for any particular vision of society. But it is an argument that you cannot have real freedom without having equality, that you cannot be concerned about liberal things, without being concerned about leftwing things. And that goes as well for many of the other battles that the left are involved in, freeing women from the dominion of their husbands, freeing homosexual people from the legal restrictions of those that don't share their morality, freeing the innocent from the tyranny of a despot who would rather hold us all in jail than listen to any of us. All these things are both leftwing and liberal- how they are achieved is a totally separate issue but they can only be acheived if we think about equality and freedom together and try to acheive both through our policies.

That's why I'm conspiring for the liberal left (though I have to say this blog will remain basically what it has always been)!

November 04, 2007

Cultural Amnesia

Clive James is a figure unlike most others in our world- James has made a career of being an omnivore. From the chatshow couch to the comic circuit to the learned essay, James has succeeded everywhere he has gone. Writing and broadcasting, he has turned his natural wit to good account and provided a series of sparkling memoirs to furnish the bookshelves of the learned with. Cultural Amnesia, his latest book, is a fine effort to capture the unique folds of James's own mental landscape- he provides a short essay on over 100 cultural characters mainly from the last century. All the essays come out of a single quote- and often James doesn't even pause to ponder the life, instead pondering the importance of that quote.

The quoted range from Duke Ellington to Hegel, Federico Fellini to Margerate Thatcher, from Tacitus and Edward Gibbon to Coco Chanel and Adolf Hitler. The range is astonishing- though the absense of any scientists is equally astonishing. James mentions an Albert Einstein but its the musician not his more famous namesake and relative the physicist. Indeed science is one of the leading absenses from the collection which is biassed very much towards the arts. Analytical philosophy is also underepresented- we have an essay on Wittgenstein but characteristically in it philosophy students are dismissed for giving him the 'credit for everything that would have struck them if they had ever been left along with the merest metaphysical lyric from the early seventeenth century.' The Wittgenstein that matters to philosophers is the one that 'they can prove only to each other' and what James is interested in is the Wittgenstein that matters to the writer- to the humanist.

For that is what this book really is, a monument to what we might call humanism. A humanism that sees the limits of the human as surely as it does the extent of his range. James is limited- but to stress that is to undermine really his acheivement here- which is to gather and express particles of knowledge and understanding across many fields and many languages. He gets some judgements wrong- he dismisses Edward Gibbon as a poor stylist. James tells us that 'what he [Gibbon] wrote rarely lets you forget that it has been written'- possibly that's true but its also Gibbon's virtue and not to see that is to miss what Gibbon was trying to do and therefore to criticise him by a standerd he wasn't attempting to reach. James doesn't get Gibbon's historical breadth or depth either- doesn't see that the styllistic tics are made up for by the fact that Gibbon was another such as James who spanned centuries in a massive project that will probably never be attempted let alone completed again.
Quotation has this feature that it inspires you to seek out the epigram- the fragment that illuminates rather than the rolling cadence of prose. Martial the great Latin poet is perhaps the most eminently quotable of Latin poets in that what he wrote was bitchy and short, James in these essays has the same quality. Like the greatest essayists he can skewer wonderfully. He can also at his best capture real nuance- his description of Edward Said in this sentence is perfect, 'As a critic and man of letters he has an enviable scope but it is continually invaded by his political strictness'. It captures the many sidedness of Said- the political lack of nuance which led him to some cartoonish descriptions of orientalists and of the orient but also the greatness- for Said who always recognised Israel and wanted Palestinians to recognise the sorrows of the Jews was a great man. James is able to capture that and through a quotation of Said's about the Battle of Algiers, bring to life the double sidedness of Said.

But this book is not all nuance. James is more often than not on the good side and vows war against those who cravenly boosted tyranny. He writes eloquently about the Manns- Heinrich, Thomas and Golo- all of whom resisted Hitler from outside the boundaries of exile. Of all the praise though it is that devoted to Sophie Scholl which most resonated with me. Scholl, James tells us, 'was probably a saint' and died in complete silence. What James wants to do with praise is make us think- he points to the fact that in his judgement despite the fact that there is a perfect actress for the role alive today (Natalie Portman) Scholl should never be portrayed by Hollywood. The finality of her end is her tragedy- far better for it to be a more obscure German film starring the unknown Julia Jenstch to portray her for the public so that they too understand the finality of the fall of the ax upon her neck shut out one of the true heroines of the twentieth century and sent her to darkness.

If Scholl volunteered to die, despite the fact she did not have to, to make a point against an odious regime, then James rightly eviscerates those who have supported those odious regimes. Though Sartre is his betenoir- he hates Sartre's evading of responsibility, hates the fact that 'Sartre was called profound because it sounded if he was either that or nothing' but ultimately his essay on Sartre is not the most interesting. Rather I think it is the essay on a much slighter figure- Peirre Drieu La Rochelle- a leading intellectual of Vichy that really made me think. For what he captures in that essay is the moment of victory in 1945, when the Germans were driven out and La Rochelle committed suicide. The key fact for James though is to evaluate the hysteria- a hysteria he informs us drily that Sartre backed and that Camus (who actually had a resistance record) disdained (though Camus thought there ought to be a reckoning). He leaves us in no doubt of the guilt of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle- but also paints a picture of France in those years which is terrifyingly accurate.

Totalitarianism is one of the foci of this book- James argues long and hard against it. Whether it is Communist or Fascist, he suggests it is deeply repugnant and you get the sense that he thinks that clear writing, thinking and reading are its enemies. As he said recently to Stephen Colbert, intellectuals get things wrong all the time- but they get them wrong less than those who don't open themselves to intellectual pursuits. In reality this book is a book about heroes- but it is not a book about heroism. The essay structure enables there to be a convincing absense of structure- in the sense that James is not interested in archetypes but in individuals- his essays are at their most effective when they describe either of two things- the impact of writing upon him as an individual or the way that this individual's career worked. An essay on
Nadezhda Mandelstam is incredibly effective at making you realise the pain that she must have felt as the Stalinist machinery of death whirled past her windows. It drives you to the reality of the statistics.

Though James is reassuringly committed to the dry substance of the real world, he is most acute when he focuses on individual experiences, exploring them and rendering them to his reader. His selection is driven, as he argues in his essay on Chris Marker, by the solidity of the facts that he sees and understands but his talent is for explaining experience. This is a book which is unashamedly focused on reality- James gives postmodernism and its creeds of unreality very short shrift indeed. He is openly contemptuous of philosophical relativism and disdain for truth- openly praises the empirical and solidly researched. He bases his love for art upon a respect for reality.

James's range of understanding in this book is incredible. James is a great evoker of what other authors do and write and film and play. He can convey the meaning of others' statements in such a way as to make you want to read and listen to and watch their books, music and films. He makes you want to stroll down the streets of Vienna in particular and pop into the cafes to hear the arguments and consume the culture. He makes you want to open the books, to understand what Contini means when he says that you need to learn poetry. He creates a desire in you to leap from cultural tree to tree- as James himself in these essays does- referring for instance in an essay on Marc Bloch to the seductions and disappointments of Pound's poetry. He made me want to learn languages- to read these authors in their original tongues and capture the calligraphy of sound that they all employed.

Ultimately there isn't a greater compliment for a book like this than to say that- to say that this book is like the trunk of a great tree, along whose branches if you pursue them are fruit much more gaudy than anything found in the original bark. This is a book that leads to other books. Its a book that can be read at one sitting or dipped into- yes there are mistakes and there are manifold errors. But to forgive someone for misunderstanding that Gibbon is amongst the greatest English historians requires a great acheivement and this book is a great and interesting acheivement.

Scorsese interview

Martin Scorsese being interviewed in the late nineties- always a treat.

Analytical Blogging again

The other day I wrote an article on analytical blogging, which got some negative attention from Dizzy, who makes a fairly amusing point against it though personally I'm not as convinced as he is that intelligence is only reserved for the elite. Its interesting as well that modern conservatives often have tended towards being unabashedly in favour of populism- that reinforces one of my feelings that modern conservatism and other historical forms of conservatism are not the same- I can't imagine Edmund Burke or Hayek even giving three cheers for the Sun in the way that Dizzy does!

However that isn't the main point of this post. Matt Sinclair asks a much more interesting question about smart people and blogging, and I think he is right to ask it and the answer in the case of this blog demonstrates something which I think is interesting. Matt asks "Why should someone with interesting and novel things to say use the blogosphere as a medium?", he goes on to deliver some interesting answers, all of which depend mostly on the community as a whole providing a forum. Matt imagines that blogging is a bit like an intellectual salon on the net, in which we can throw around ideas, as he rightly points out that presumes a membership, there is no point talking to onesself.

Somebody asked me on my thread about this, why I don't do more analytical work on politics. I do a bit, but nowhere near what Chris Dillow does on Stumbling and Mumbling- and I think this ties into another reason to maintain a blog, which is one of the basic reasons that Westminster Wisdom (the title is partly ironic) exists. This blog really isn't an analytical policy blog- though I do occasionally rummage through politics and policy, its really a purely egoistic exercise. For me a blog is the equivalent of an 18th Century common place book, ie its where I put down my impressions of the world so I can go back to them. An interesting quote, a fun video, a film review, even a review of a novel, anything which makes me remember how I reacted to something for the first time.

I think that is a valid reason to keep a blog- partly because experience flows past me at such a rate that I can never really grab hold of it. Throughout my life, amongst my major vices is forgetfulness, and that means that I often lose hold of what I should know or should remember. Here I have a resource to which I can turn, when I want to, to find out about say Rousseau's walks or Bresson's Joan of Arc. Part of that is it forces me to think about what I see and read more acutely than ever before: because I know I'm going to have to write an article up here on it. That makes me look deeper and try and understand more. Its also a good resource to remember what an idiot I am occasionally- there are moments on this blog where I know I've been a complete fool- reminding onesself of that is a good thing and doing it on a blog is fairly harmless. (Which in a way brings me back to Dizzy, acute mockery of your own pretensions is always a good thing to read!)

In answer to Matt's question therefore- I think there is another reason- in addition to the good ones he has given- for a person to keep a blog and that is as an online diary. Afterall that is what blogs started off being- and I wonder whether in the end that will be their principle use.

LATER Incidentally Dizzy should probably go and watch this.