December 22, 2007

The Professor's House

He had made something new in the world- and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures he had left to others.

Professor St Peter is the hero of Willa Cather's novel- the Professor's House- he is the hero of a novel in which nothing much seems to happen. The novel dwells on death repeatedly- St Peter himself beleives that he is dying, his best student Tom Outland died in the Great War and St Peter sees old loves and old attachments die around him to- he is he says transported back to his childhood, transported back within himself with neither his daughters nor his wife to keep him company. He has completed the work for which he was placed on the world- a history of Spanish adventurers in the Americas- and now all he sees is mindless games of conversational convention- the sport of furniture and clothes which fascinates him less and less.

Professor St Peter's book has gained recognition and the wealth that that provides enables his family to buy a new house- but the elderly academic wishes to spend his days inside a study in the house that they have left. A cold and bare study but one in which he can remain in solitude and think- where the ornaments of the room are signals to inspiration. For him the study remains a sanctuary, and its inhabitants- two clothes models- are as sacred as any other emblems of his own individuality. Emerging from the study, the Professor finds society outside tiresome and trivial. There is something he cannot grasp in the fascination his wife and daughters feel for small things- something he cannot appreciate about the way they interrupt the internal scholastic monologue.

His student Tom Outland shared that inclination. Outland was a country boy and part way through the story in the novella amidst the romain (as A.S. Byatt who provides an introduction to my edition charmingly calls it), Outland narrates his own tale- of how he discovered out in the south west United States an abandoned Indian village. What Outland tells us though is more than that process of discovery- he tells us about the pleasures of loneliness. The pleasures of sitting on the Indian tombstone and communing in the quiet with the intellectual idea of the past. The sense that Outland is more fundamentally disturbing than that- for going to Washington he realises that all the inhabitants of the capital are slaves. They are slaves to work and office, slaves to desiring lunch, slaves to desiring more and more and more- endless items to satiate an endless desire. A desire created by society.

For Outland and the Professor, such solitude finds society. However they both need society in order to thrive. Outland never looked happier than when playing with the Professor's daughters. The Professor's chief happiness came when Outland arrived- but also during his early marriage, when his children were growing up, when the sweetness of a child too caring of her father to disturb him, sitting outside his study for hours with a beestung finger charmed him. Furthermore he has genuine affection for his daughters and wife. He has a genuine sense of style as well. The story thus isn't simple- it isn't just that withdrawel from society is reccomended- happiness could not be found by St Peter in the hermit's cell, no less than official Washington, the cell would be barren of what provides human excitement. Convention may be the enemy but conversation is a good.

The Professor's withdrawel from the world is in part the withdrawing of a man who has become weary of the world, his lament over his vanished youth (visualised in those lines I quote above about Outland) is just as much a cry of weariness, of tired resignation as it is a point about the way that the world works. Death Cather implies is a renouncing not of the self but of company, a desire for death is a desire to be alone to meditate. Nobody interrupts in a grave. The irritating skin of society gets worse after time- after acheivement- after life has passed. There is no balm for existential doubt. Furthermore resting in that alienation is the alienation of someone who had been far away when his favourite son had died on the Western Front- its the angst of a society that has been shaken by death that is reflected on the page of Cather's novel- despite it never been mentioned, the shells of the Somme shake the Professor's living room.

We all struggle ultimately with other people- they are as Sartre said hell, they are as Bergman implied our only route to God's existance. Cather's novel places other people and the self in contradiction- it tends to no easy answers- but it demonstrates an acute power of observation is at work within its pages. The world, that old Christian bugbear, is very much with us- its impact upon us all is the subject of almost everything we do- even when we renounce- and failing to acknowledge both its danger and its pleasure is the mark of folly.

December 20, 2007

Religious Bigots

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee is an organisation with a long history of odd behaviour- they have over the last few days excelled themselves. They published last week a call for the names of the researchers for Policy Exchange's recent report to be given to them- they wanted Muslim activists to ring up their offices and tell them who these eight researchers were. MPAC accused these researchers- and the whole Sufi community in the UK- of being fifth columnists for a zionist neo con cabal who were intent on destroying Islam and then the world...... fill in the blanks. They suggested that these Quislings should be reported to them so that MPAC could "dig deeper and expose every last detail of the Sufis who tried to destroy their own community." Having been called up on this language, MPAC are now asserting that their interest was purely in the researchers' credibility as researchers- given that they advertise this operation as being "A Hunt for 8 Sufi Zio Con Frauds"- I'm not entirely sure that their interest is in research methodology.

That's particularly true given the rest of the content on their website. They have published articles which argue that Sufi scholars collaborate with the Pharoah of our time George Bush and that Sufism is a trend in Islam that promotes a passivity desired by the zio con forces of evil. They have also published articles defending Sufism but it definitely seems to me that MPAC beleives that this is a legitimate debate- its strange that they don't have any articles saying that any other strands of Islam aren't Islamic! Furthermore their official statement, 'The Hunt' supports the anti-Sufi case- they state there that the Sufis have been used throughout history as a weapon in the arms of Russian and British and now American imperialism. The slurs on Sufism are absolutely and completely ridiculous. Anyone who knows an iota of the history of Islam- obviously noone involved in MPAC can be listed in that category, knows that Sufism is an old and established trend in Islamic theology.

For the benefit of MPAC, it might be worth rehearsing some of the contributions of Sufism- and others can add to this- in stimulating Islamic theology and political thought. Plenty of sources see Sufic communities going back right to the beggining of Islam- into the eighth century. Muzaffar Allam in his study of Indian Islamic political thought argues that Sufis have been present in India since the 11th or 12th centuries. As Richard Eaton demonstrates in his studies of the growth of Islam in India- Sufi movements provided many of the missionaries that spread throughout India to convert communities to Islam. Indeed David Cook shows in his studies of martyrdom and Islam that Sufi movements were also central to the growth of Islam in Indonesia and in many other places around the world. Great Sufi poetry and art has animated Islam: think of the Persian/Turkish poet Rumi whose work provides inspiration for art in the middle East right up until today, where its often quoted in the novels of Orhan Pamuk. The thesis that Sufis have never done anything for Islam- implied by MPAC- is just plain wrong and perhaps the organisation would like to withdraw its slurs.

Quite frankly though this goes further than just that. Because MPAC in reality are saying something else. They are saying that they have the right to define what Muslims ought to do or be- Muslims can't support say the invasion of Iraq. What utter nonsense! It is not for MPAC to define the essence of Islam. Muslims have been throughout history a group with a wide variety of beliefs just like Christians and Jews and Hindus and all other faiths. MPAC demands the names of these researchers because ultimately it wants to publish them and expose them- it doesn't want to argue or discuss (afterall they are Zio Con quislings) it wants to condemn. It doesn't want to examine why some Muslims might decide to help Policy Exchange- that they do convicts them and means they are irrelevant- they don't need to be talked to, they just need to be condemned. That stance fits into a general pattern- whereby their rhetoric is violent and conspiratorial- they don't seek to understand, they don't take on other arguments, they just want the luxury of an easy assertion that everyone else is evil. Their rhetoric avoids unhelpful facts- how can the war against Islam be a verifiable fact when Tony Blair bombed the Serbs out of Kosovo. How can it be a verifiable fact when the West repeatedly attempts to do things for Darfur and when westerners put their hands in their own pockets to help victims of the Tsunami? Has MPAC ever looked at the amount of aid that the EU gives to Palestine? Have they ever considered the support that America has always given to Pakistan?

MPAC want to define Islam and define certain people out of Islam. They seem to want Islam defined politically. Their politics is bizarre, conspiratorial and has a tangential relation to reality. But it goes further than that- in reality their conception of Islam excludes many Muslims from its definition. They basically argue that Sufis are quislings- they basically say that they would junk the entire tradition of Sufism because of the closeness of some present Sufis to politicians that they don't like. They are apocalyptic in their language. They are aggressive in their abusive calls for the silencing of those that disagree with them. If there is one thing likely to make me sympathetic to Policy Exchange in this whole debate, its the attitude of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. I still feel that there are legitimate questions about the reporting in Policy Exchange's work and I have no problem with critiques of it: but as Liberals we should stand, as our enlightenment predecessors did, against religious bigotry. And religious bigotry is what MPAC peddles against Muslims who don't back their political line and against plenty of others as well.
Crossposted at the Liberal Conspiracy

Lermontov A Hero of our Time

Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" is a book which boasts its irony in its preface. The book focuses on Pechorin, a Russian officer in the 19th Century Caucasus, who Lermontov beleives is typical of his age- hence the title. Like Dosteovsky's Raskolnikov, Pechorin is a symbol of the alienation of 19th Century Russian youth from Russia and the spiritual traditions of orthodoxy. Pechorin is a superfluous man- cut off from history he has a Faustian sense of his own ability to control history and other people. Pechorin like so many other Russian heroes before and since, like Onegin for example, is a creature of cynical intelligence- purposeless he strives to manipulate the purposes of others. He sees through the subterfuge of society, sees through the elaborations of human deceit down to the rotten core of the human heart. It is symbolic that for Pechorin, marriage- the ultimate in sincere emotional commitment within any human life- is a signal, according to an old gipsy prophesy, of ensuing doom. Sincerity leads to downfall, love to instant loss.

Lermontov's tale illustrates his central character episodically. We see five main stories develop around Pechorin- three of which concern romantic endeavours in which he is involved- two of which concern his relationships with other men. Throughout the stories various ideas run like lines to demonstrate to us the kind of man that Pechorin is. He, we are assured by his own voice (three of the stories are told from Pechorin's point of view as part of an unpublished journal), is a creature who feels lust but not love. He is able to appreciate and admire female beauty but he strives always to value it. Most of his emotions are common to most of mankind- he hankers after girls that he doesn't have and then grows bored of them- but the distinction is that Pechorin never moderates this passion with reason or religion. He follows his appreciation callously leaving behind in its wake those whom he discards. He applies the same logic to friends- seeking after beauty he discards the instances of beauty. In that sense he operates as a pure Platonist might- looking for the ideal and discarding the real instances of it.

Pechorin's outlook is moulded by romanticism. The entire novel is shot through with Byronic overtones- there is an explicit reference to Rousseau and the narrator indicates that this memoir is what Rousseau might have written, had he not been writing to be heard. At a deeper level though the novel is about the triumph of sentiment over reason in the human soul. Sentiment drives the plot in all the stories. Characters are unable to control, unable to master their passions. As an essayist in human psychology, Lermontov suggests that there is nothing more to us than our passions and where they lead us. Patterns of passion, Pechorin assures us, are not to be trusted- they do not exist. Instead the demands of desire are essentially random- Pechorin seeks to understand them, not to tame them but to exploit the passions of others to fulfill his own. A classic Don Juan, he seeks to manipulate both men and women for his own ends- and yet ultimately Lermontov assures us that this leads Pechorin empty. As he says at one point within the novel, he is the cause of much unhappiness whilst also being the unhappiest of men.

This tale is rooted of course within a historical situation. Russia after the reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great was a place undergoing massive change. A vast bureacracy had taken over from the ancient aristocracy of boyars and state service became the only method for advancement within society. Furthermore as Russian authors chronicled Russia felt a cultural inferiority to things further West- but also felt that those societies to the West lacked spirituality, lacked a centre. You can see this theme running through the great Russian authors of the 19th Century from Pushkin to Chekhov, through Turgenev, Herzen, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy and its here in Lermontov as well. Part of Pechorin's characterisation is about the position of Russia after the reforms of the 18th Century- Pechorin is a hero of his time- like Russia he has been modernised and stripped of his spirituality. He is like modernity, angst filled, power driven, successful and spiritually empty. He cries out for a God that he cannot beleive in and does not even mention.

You cannot take away the Russian anchor from Lermontov's tale. Its filled with the colour of the Caucasus. You see the customs of the frontier tribes of Chechnya in the 19th Century, their brutal society of bands and frontier theft. There is an orientalising vision at work here- we are instructed that these tribes are primitive and yet their members, the artless beauty Bela for example, understand better than the civilised Pechorin the demands of passionate morality. Part of the charm of the novel though is the taste of this society- a society where a Circassian raid on a country house would not be unexpected- a society which lies on the northern border of Islam, on the southern border of orthodoxy. There are wonderful descriptions of rides through the Chechen mountains. Descriptions of small spa towns, embedded outposts of Russian colonialism amidst the barbarism of the frontier. That description in one tale gives you a real sense of the nineteenth century- I suspect that though Lermontov is describing the Caucasus, he could be describing somewhere near Kinshasa, Calcutta or Kansas.

And yet for all the local colour, the underlying theme of the book is universal. It comes back to that great question of the 19th Century, phrased with typical bluntness by Nietzsche, that when God is dead you have to find something else to fill his gap. Philosophers from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel to Schleiermacher struggled with the position of God in an age of materialism- they all came to different and distinct answers. Lermontov's work is a sceptical recasting of the question- he asks what happens to the unmoored human being and in a sense he comes back to Rousseau's answer. God may not exist but he is neccessary for human beings to turn amour propre into amour de soi. He is neccessary for human beings to anchor their passions around. Without God men will still anchor their passions, but as with Pechorin they will anchor them around an egotistic attempt to control others, with God they anchor them around an egoist's love of the divine which sees that as more vital than human attachment.

Whatever you think of that stance, its novelisation is a fantastic feat- and provokes a lot of thought. The character of Pechorin provokes and intrigues in equal measure as an exempla of how a particular vision of humanity works.

December 19, 2007

Just a little point about comments

Just a little point on comments- generally I don't delete comments unless they are abusive or obviously spam. I've got two comments over the last couple of days which have basically been compliments with the web address for a gaming website affixed. I'm afraid I treat such comments as spam and do delete them. If you want your comments to stay up, then don't reccomend completely out of context a gambling website at the end of the comment.

December 18, 2007

Nick Clegg

So Clegg has won the LibDem leadership contest, not knowing much about the man I can't really say much about what this means, but it might be worth casting an outsider's eye on it just because I am precisely the type of person, in this case, who the Libdems will want to appeal to (someone who doesn't know as much as he should about their party). The only thing I really know about Clegg is this- he is young and fresh and new. He won't frighten anyone and looks presentable on TV- basically he is David Cameron with a yellow rosette in presentational terms. The problem I have with that is that it will be interesting how he separates out his profile from Cameron's. LibDem leaders have often done best at times when the major parties are in meltdown like the nineties or early 2000s- and its possible that Clegg if he makes it to the next election or the one after next will be in that position again visa vis Labour. But LibDem leaders both in the late nineties and early 2000s were distinct from the new young things in the party doing well- then Tony Blair. Paddy Ashdown's action man image and Charles Kennedy's understated and self deprecating Scottish burr were a thousand miles away from Blair's evangelistic glamour- in a sense more than any policy platform the identity of the leadership meant that the Libdems established a national profile. Clegg worries me in that sense for the Liberals- and I wonder whether the more cerebral Huhne might have been a more distinctive choice. With Clegg you get the feeling that the voters might decide they want the real nice clean handsome young PR boy and vote for Cameron.

Its a minor worry and a mere thought- but I do wonder whether the LibDems made a collossal mistake when they got rid of Kennedy, who is one of the few natural communicators left in politics- the sort of bloke you'd meet down the pub, a bit like Ken Clarke. Neither Cameron nor Brown has that appeal and I'm not sure that Clegg does either. It'll be interesting to see how they differentiate Clegg's personal story from the "liberal conservative" sitting just down from him in the House of Commons.

December 16, 2007

The Manuscript found in Saragossa

Our understanding of the enlightenment in popular culture is driven by a perception of it as the age which lighted up Europe after centuries- millennia- of barbarism. The philosophes of the Enlightened Age- Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, Spinoza et al- were successors to Lucretius and Cicero- masters of science, economics and philosophy, sages who advanced the arguments which led to modernity. Of course part of that picture is right: but the Enlightenment was a much broader and deeper phenomenon- nourished not merely from the springs of philosophy but also fortified in verse and sustained by the birth of the European novel. Think of the Eighteenth Century and it isn't merely the shades of Hume and Smith that return to haunt you, but those of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney. The explosion of the public sphere led not merely to the economics of Riccardo and the horrific events of the Terror, but also to the novels of Jane Austen and the poems of Byron. The Enlightenment was far broader and more vast than the pens of intellectual historians can traverse, as a moment in European history it encompassed so much more.

Jan Potocki, the Polish political adventurer, ethnologist and egyptologist, was one such typical enlightenment figure. From the 1790s onwards he prepared a vast manuscript- the Manuscript found in Saragossa, which tells the adventures of Alphonse Van Worden, an officer in the Walloon guard in the mid-eighteenth century, as he attempts to travel from France towards Madrid. Its scale is stunning- Van Worden's journey is interrupted by a series of characters who each tell their own stories. Those stories inclose other stories and they are told by a wide variety of people. Their subjects are even more vast. Potocki wrote of all frames of human experience- we have touching reminiscences of the past counterposed with humourous almost Quixotic accounts of the danger of Chivalric honour. We have accounts of the construction of the universe in a deeply Spinozistic way- even at one point a Hobbesian account of the soul as motion. Those are set aside deeply erotic tales of seduction by Moorish ghost princesses and by aristocratic grand ladies in Spain. We have love and horror. Characters return in different contexts as the story's mosaic takes in Italy, France, Spain, England and Austria. The strength of this is Chaucerian in its love of life- Potocki sees virtue in absurdity.

Throughout the tale, Alphonse Van Worden grows. We read it through his account and consequently we read his response to what he finds out. Often we hear him comment on stories- particularly those which affront his sense of honour (Van Worden's father was a world renowned expert on duels) and Christianity. Throughout the book, Van Worden though becomes exposed to different ideas- to exotic thoughts that he did not deem existed. He has to recognise them and deal with them- and while he is not converted, he is changed by his experiences. The last section of the book deals with his later career and definitely it seems that Van Worden realised that the conventional life he lived after his adventure was dimmed by the glory of the strangeness he encountered. Potocki definitely leaves us in no doubt that variety is to be treasured- to use Isaiah Berlin's distinction this is the novel of a very wise Fox who knows many things.

Variety here is not merely the variety of experience- though that's there, Ian Maclean, the editor of my edition, suggests that the novel is like a Spanish inn containing all social sectors of society. We also see the variety of culture. For this Spain is a successor to medieval Spain- the Spain of Maimonides and Averroes as much as of Charles and Phillip. The novel is filled with the occult- characters like the wandering Jew and the Marquis of St Germain make appearances. Indeed the whole book is bound together, the story is even created, by a vast conspiracy run secretly from caves amidst the Spanish mountains. Everything is revealed eventually to be the creation of this conspiracy- like a Newtonian universe, the exterior of the story is mysterious, but its interior workings are as logical as clockwork. The interest in conspiracy though is typical of an era which was buttressed at one end by the controversy of the Rosy Cross and at the other by rumours of the influence of Freemasons. In that sense Potocki is a child of his times, seeking a mechanism even in the fertile abundance of his novel that will equate to the mechanisms of nature.

And neither are they neglected, for one of the characters, Velasquez is as interested in the enlightenment that we know of as any of our intellectual historians are. He unfolds the design of the universe to his willing (and unwilling listeners- one of the great pleasures of the book is the number of times people go off and say they are bored by other people's tales! There is a reassuring humanity to these characters) listeners. He even manages to seduce a girl to be his wife through his skilful geometrical unfolding of the Cartesian world. And his understandings are based upon the solid foundations of enlightenment science: he gives us a little tour of the world of enlightenment thought from Herriot to Newton, from Locke to Leibniz. That tour is yet another attempt to read the universe's hidden logic- to illumine that which is darkened. To use Kant's phrase, he and Potocki both dare to know.

What is so astonishing about this book is that you come out of it without one clear idea- the fox here has definitely won over the hedgehog who knows one thing very well. Its a book that breaks up impressions into shards- and confutes its own attempts to rationalise its progress. Like the Canterbury Tales, to which its been compared, its pleasures and beauties lie in its minatures- in haunting tales of gothic melodrama, in subtle comic take offs of false chivalry and in the constant humanity of many of its principal narrators (particularly the wry Gipsy King Avarado). Its hard to sum something of this size and complexity up save to say that it is huge and complex- but to some extent I think that's the point. It demonstrates that despite the best efforts even of the Enlightened philosophe, our intelligence cannot sum up the whole of existance in a set of laws or any idea of God. Existance is too vast for us to ever totally grasp, and all our theories can only be proved by their incompleteness and their imperfection.

Potocki's life and his work are filled with vitality and colour, they can't be captured even on the canvass of a blog post, go and read the book.

Little Dieter needs to Fly

Teddy Roosevelt once said that in order to govern, any senator or congressman or President ought to serve in the United States armed forces. Watching the documentary, Little Dieter needs to Fly, one realises why TR had that view. Dieter Dengler was a naturalised American who came to the US in order to fly planes- he came from Germany after the war where there was no airforce or commercial airline and ended up joining the US navy and flying missions over IndoChina. Dengler was shot down and captured by the Vietcong- he was taken through the jungle to a prison camp and held there with eight other prisoners, including one other American, till he escaped and by chance, heroism and endurance managed to get himself rescued.

Dengler's story is amazing- his grandfather was a resistor to the Nazis in Germany- paraded through the local town where he was the only person not to vote for Hitler in national plebiscites. He grew up in postwar poverty- beaten by a local blacksmith to whom he was apprenticed. When he arrived in the States he began by peeling potatoes and eventually hauled himself through night school and a variety of military jobs, until he reached the planes. But of course it was the planes that were his real love- and one of the things that instantly strikes you is the way that Dengler found his exhileration in the skies above Indochina. He talks on the documentary about the way that to him the bombing of Vietnam was an exercise- it was dislocated from what was happening below. After he returnhed to his base, he found he couldn't sleep save for in the cockpit of a plane- that was the only place where he could find peace from the horrors of war.

And there were horrors aplenty. Dengler's stay in captivity should disabuse anyone who thinks that the Vietcong were some cuddly sixties protest cause. Whatever the rights or wrongs of American presence in Vietnam, Dengler and his fellow prisoners were treated horrifically by the Vietnamese. Before getting to the camp, Dengler talks of being dragged behind water buffalos, kicked on the ground, hit with rifle butts and various other indignities. Placed in a camp, shackled together, allowed only two minutes a day to go to the toilet (in an exercise that involved Vietnamese soldiers shooting at them for fun), effectively sitting in each other's dysentry and diarhea for six months, with nothing apart from rotting meat (with lice crawling over it) to eat, the prisoners were treated abominably. Dengler tells stories about the way that the Vietcong behaved in villages- it reminds you of stories from Apocalypse Now, only the casual brutality happened. Dengler's escape was owed to errors by the guards- they left the prisoners unguarded for two minutes and the prisoners fled.

Dengler and his friend Duane Martin ran off together, attempting to find a river and escape to Thailand. Conditions again were awful. They had one shoe between the two of them and their feet were cut to ribbons by the jungle floor. They escaped drowning several times. Duane was eventually killed by a villager, Dengler was fortunate to escape and eventually was rescued by a keen eyed US pilot who saw him signalling SOS from a river bed. He was emmaciated and haunted by dreams of the horrors he had seen. For Dengler, the death of his friend Duane who whom he had shared the experience of escape and who was closer than his wife, than his mother and family touched him to the quick. You get a tremendous sense throughout Dengler's account of that standerd emotional reaction of people serving in the armed forces to conflict- the bond that they develop between each other and particularly from the living to the dead. Asked by Werner Herzog whether he feels a hero, Dengler responds that the only heroes are the dead.

In 1982, when Margerat Thatcher prepared to go to war to recover the Falklands, she turned to the two men in her cabinet who had previously served in the military- Lord Carrington the Foreign Secretary (who resigned over the war eventually) and Willie Whitelaw. Their experience proved vital to the Prime Minister over the insuing weeks. Roosevelt's statement about war and the neccessity of service is of course wrong- in that there are great politicians and great leaders who did not in any way serve their nation in war- but even so it captures something important. Too often we are too blase about the positives of war, that it creates a good situation, forgetting the costs to people, costs which endure long after the wars are over. This is not a pacifist point at all but a prudential one- in order to order troops into combat, you have to be aware that there will be Denglers, there will be those whose lives are ruined completely by the experience. Being too keen on war as it promotes the muscularity of a generation is a cowardly posture: in order to properly comprehend what you are doing in ordering troops into battle you have to understand what Kurtz calls the horror. You have to see the viciousness of the combat and the terror that you are committing young men to experience.

Sometimes that is neccessary- but its always worth remembering that war has massive costs. Dieter Dengler's story reminds us of that constantly.