January 11, 2008

Agreeing with Dizzy

Just a quick note- I have published an article on the Liberal Conspiracy agreeing with Dizzy about the fact that MPs should not have allowances to pay for rubbish collection in their London properties.

Otto Preminger

This is an important article and well worth reading about the great Austrian director Otto Preminger.

January 10, 2008

Cricket illustrates Life

The recent events in India illustrate an important rule for politics as well as sport: that process is often more important than outcome. That once a judge has given a decision, no matter its justice, you have to accept it. The Political Umpire makes the point in a cricketing context well here- but when you read his post, remember it applies to much more than just cricket.

Reading Class: The Talented Mr Ripley

The Talented Mr Ripley is Patricia Highsmith's first novel about the psychopathic murderer Tom Ripley. For those who don't know it the plot is as thus- Ripley is a poor ne'er do well in New York who is sent by an old acquaintance's father, Richard Greenleaf, to go to Italy and find Greenleafe's son Dickie and persuade him to come back to Italy. After going there and meeting Dickie, Dickie's girlfriend Marge and his friend Freddy Miles, Tom becomes increasingly enamoured of Dickie's lifestyle- to such an extent that he eventually murders Dickie and later Freddy and spends the rest of the book evading the Italian police. As Debra Hamel pointed out at Normblog the point of the novel is to elucidate and describe Ripley's character: the title provides a clue to that. Ripley not the murders nor the investigation is the centre of the novel and the reveal is about Ripley's character: slowly inch by inch Highsmith shows us Ripley the man and reveals to us his anxieties, paranoia and his thoughts.

When reading it therefore you get a very precise idea of Ripley's motivation. Why then does he do what he does? Murder normally is mystery: here it is the end of the mystery and in order to discover the real mystery we need to discover why Tom murders Dickie Greenleafe. In truth Tom murders Dickie because he envies the other man's class and sophistication, his money and easy living lifestyle. He murders Dickie because Dickie is slowly growing tired of Tom: because Dickie sees Tom in part as a sponge and possibly a homosexual sponge at that. Tom decides he has to become Dickie- he has to reinvent himself as an aristocratic young man about Italy, as a classy cool individual. Even his posture we are told changes as this process unfolds. Tom's hesitant slouch becomes Dickie's confident and assertive pose. Dickie's class though isn't all money- its also savoir faire. Its a certain style- a magnetism that Tom is forced to acknowledge and wishes he has. Dickie is someone- and throughout the book Tom lives in his shadow. In reality Tom seeks not to murder Dickie as to merge with Dickie, Tom seeks suicide not slaughter.

Poverty and wealth come together in this novel- and what we see is the way that the poor man sees the rich man. Not neccessarily as the owner of the accoutrements of money- but as the owner of the parephenalia of civilisation. Tom aspires to Dickie's culture, he is disappointed by Dickie's vulgarity (especially the poverty of Dickie's painting- Dickie reminds me of Vronsky in Anna Karenina, forever attempting to be an artist, forever failing) but he likes the carefree indolence of the young American. He has insecurity which is founded on poverty but not described by it. Tom's insecurity is fed into by other things: his possible homosexuality, his own poor family life, his anxieties about being a dependant. That insecurity leads him to murder and to various other things: but it remains the focus of the novel. It is what ultimately makes Tom's character sympathetic- and it makes you wish that he will escape, because all the time you are alone with his fears. None of the other characters comes alive in the same way as Tom does- because none of the others are given an internal voice and none of the others are in motion. In a curious way, murder becomes a means to social advancement in the novel.

I don't think I have captured the flavour of the book well- there is much more in it, including a really good read. But I think the way that it describes the experience, the total experience of social anxiety and its complexity- the way it derives from sexual, social and cultural signs- is perfect. Tom's anxiety is not all class based. But part of its structure depends on his class. It is not all based on his homosexuality and his idealisation of Dickie and rivalry with Marge: part of it though is. It isn't all based on his fear of being dependent both socially and monetarily on Dickie: part of it is though. Throughout the novel we see Tom grow and change- a haunted hunted man becomes even more haunted and hunted, but he gains respectability through murder.

January 09, 2008

Conservatism

An interesting post from Iain Dale this evening on rural theatres. Iain wants to know why their funding is being eroded- the answer it seems is that with money tight, the Arts Council are focussing on the 2012 Olympics. What's interesting though is that Iain considers this worthy of blogging- I completely agree with him. One of the sources of strength for conservatism is the notion of organic little platoons which come together to grow civil society- Iain wants those little platoons which cultivate localism and peculiarity to be strengthened and reinforced with public money. I think we should facilitate their growth as well- a small amount of money to a village theatre is something that produces immeasurable goods for a community and fortifies society- its something any real conservative ought to support.

Dirty Tricks

This is a really interesting interview with a former Republican Dirty Tricks man. I should emphasize that what is interesting is the techniques he describes- they are international- they were used for example in Australia by the liberals and they are used by all sorts of people from the right like the interviewee to the left. It is interesting though to see some of them being rehearsed and its quite an eye opener- some of the techniques- pretending to be the other side and phoning people during the Super bowl are very subtle and clever. All of them tend to make democratic decisions harder- as there are upcoming elections in the US and the UK and other places, we should know about these techniques and beware of them.

The Relevance of Rigour

The Taxpayer's Alliance has come in for some criticism on this blog occasionally- however yesterday their response to the rumours that Cambridge and the LSE might rethink their attitude to some A-Level subjects was just right. It was just right because it restated what I think is an important principle- that the A-Level should not be degraded. However the TPA's analysis brings back to my mind at least the important difference between academic and vocational qualifications- a distinction that needs making again and again- though it is between two things which do blend into each other.

The point about academic subjects is that they are a different type of training to a different type of vocation than vocational subjects. They are trainings in rigour and reason. The harder academic subjects- physics, maths, history, philosophy, literature, chemistry- require years of study and intense thought. They also require learning a discipline- evaluating evidence or preparing chains of reason- in a field in which many intelligent men and women have worked before. To study one of those subjects at university is to acquire a flavour of what it means to be a scholar and consequently of what it means to reason, analyse and discuss results. Of course the subject matter is to some sense extrinsic to that- but all those subject headings really describe not so much an area to be studied, as a discipline to study that area with. They involve the use of rules which tell you how to evaluate and use reason in a particular context- as such they have a universal validity. They don't tell you how to be a good anything- but they do train you in how to reason effectively, how to analyse ideas and data and evaluate them.

If we turn from that model to look at a vocational qualification- we can see that some such ie law or engineering share that quality of being a training in a discipline of thought. Other vocational qualifications aren't training so much in a discipline of thought as they are in training another kind of discipline- physical activity for instance may not require much thought but may require a lot of skill. Take the art of cooking- cooking requires a certain degree of skill, an ability to see what should happen at a particular moment to the dish you are preparing. It does require analysis- but more instinctual analysis- the ability to see for instance when a spice is needed or a herb is required to give the dish more taste and when it isn't. You could put other crafts into that category too- from the precise moulding of a pot by a potter to the construction of a painting. They are crafts. They do not require or exemplify the same skill as say a degree in history does- not because they are inferior but because they are not that type of training.

This isn't to say that we require one type of qualification or the other to be available- its just to say that one isn't the same as another. I wouldn't trust a mathematician or a historian with a resturant kitchen, but I would prefer them to a cook when it came to being an accountant. There is no metaphsyical sense in which one profession is 'better' than another: and yet the key point here is that there is a real difference in the kind of skill that is being used and cultivated through their study. And that is precisely the reason why many people want to leave the academic subjects and do vocational qualifications- they don't want the same experience as they have at school or university, they want to do something which has more external results than the products of analysis do. Its vital to keep that distinction in mind- because it reminds us that if we try and make vocational study academic we will lose the attractiveness of the first and the rigour of the second. Rather we should look at tailoring vocational studies more precisely to the actual needs of people in jobs- looking for example at apprenticeships and other things- and we should open both kinds of study to people throughout their entire lives. Most of us afterall will have to retrain during the fifty years that we can expect to spend in the workforce now- and the government since the foundation of the Open University has recognised that fact.

Vocational and Academic qualifications are ultimately different but equal ways to acheiving different careers- reason won't knock nails into walls, a knowledge of construction won't solve a third order differential equation- its time we were realistic about education.

The Oddities of Ron Paul

Ron Paul has some questions to answer. It appears that his newsletter sent out for over twenty years has published racist, anti semitic, homophobic material. The most shocking moment to me is that he apparantly has allowed a publication in his name to go out which compares Israel to the Nazi State of the 1940s. Paul may not have written these newsletters but they all went out under his name and regularly contained these attacks- if he read them he must have been aware of their content. Either he has had a change of heart- or he is an inappropriate candidate to be in a position of high office, such as that he aspires to. Its time he made a statement to clarify whether he thinks all blacks are just after welfare, gays contaminate heterosexuals with physical contact or that Israel planned the World Trade Centre bombing.

The Saragossa Manuscript

The Manuscript found in Saragossa is one of the great monuments of 19th Century culture- written by Jan Potocki it tells the tale, supposedly through a manuscript discovered in Saragossa, of Alphonse Van Worden and his attempt to get from France to Spain in the mid 18th Century. Van Worden's journey is delayed and obstructed by a group of gypsies, Moors, scientists, occultists, a set of sexy lesbian princesses and the spirits of two hanged men. These individuals engage him and tell him stories which parallel those of Boccacio or Chaucer- there are baudy stories, erotic stories, exotic stories, bizarre stories, ghost stories, tortures, rescues, deaths and duels, treatises on science, treatises on the Kaballah and accounts of the history of the wandering Jew, Ahaseurus. The tales are amazing- better than the tale which contains them all- they contain all sorts of life and love and mystery and magic. The Manuscript is an almost unfilmable book because of its extent- almost anything you could desire to read about and write about is here- from the gentle pains of remembering lost loves in old age to the glory of feeling it in the first flush of youth.

Putting it on to a screen is therefore not easy. Particularly that's true because the Manuscript works on a very imaginative level. You have to for example imagine two beautiful Moorish princesses, draped over each other and over the hero and how they seduce and play with his mind, making him into their tool whilst they entice his senses with sisterly caresses. You have to do this in your own mind- and to have it rendered in flesh and blood women is bound to be disappointing. The same goes for so much of this incredibly intense book- you have to not be there in order to impose your own images of horror and delight upon it. This is a world crafted in such humane colours that we all have met its characters- and we can all appreciate the bullying Busqueros, so much so that we all put a face to him as we read. Putting a cinematic countenance in there deprives the book of its personal impact.

The version put out by the Polish director, Wojciech Has, in 1965 though does manage to entice you in. It surprised me. In that I didn't think anything could give me the same mixture of horror and delight as the book does. It does. There are some wonderful sequences- especially when our hero reaches out his hand to caress the face of a lesbian princess only to find he is stroking the countenance of a hanged man. There are some really good comic moments as well- as characters climb up ladders and terrify other characters in the middle of the night- or as servants laugh at the misfortunes of their stupid masters (of which more later). The film captures some of the burlesque of the original- its sheer joie de vivre, its appreciation of the eccentricity of normal human life and the wonder of that eccentricity- its praise (to borrow an Erasmian phrase) of folly.

Where the film doesn't cope so well though is in conveying some of the book's deeper reflections. The book contains characters- a Kabalist and a scientist- which the film contains but does not exploit. The hours of commentary that these two men supply- by way of explication of the situation that Van Worden finds himself in and of the wider world- vanishes and is replaced by their mute presence. They sit and listen but they are not as crucial as they are in the book- this leaves their presence rather moot. You wonder why they are there- what their characters are doing- you wonder why the Kabbalist has a sister and what her relevance is. In the book she is a crucial character- in the film the line of decolletage is low cut but the purpose of her character is unclear.

This means that the film loses something of the quality of the book- which is that its anchored within the enlightenment. It loses something of the nature of the book as a fictional encyclopedia of the eighteenth century and instead changes into something else. The film includes many more revelations of the soundness of the working classes- many more revelations of the way that they unlike their more privileged masters they do understand. They think that duelling is silly, that absurd honour is silly etc etc. Of course that message is absent from the book- but its been placed there by the director. A twentieth century message about class has replaced an eighteenth century obsession with the bizarre intellectual movements of the age- this diminishes the film in my eyes.

Its worth saying as well that not everything does work here- for moments of beauty and there are many, there are also moments of clumsiness when you regret that the director wasn't more in control. At points the story veers away from him, at points the plot is lost. Having said this this is a worthy effort to film an unfilmable book, to condense 700 odd dense pages into 2 hours of film. That it doesn't quite work is not a surprise, that Has got it anywhere near to working is.