April 26, 2008

Page 123

Paulie has just tagged me with this meme, the rules are

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Ok the nearest book I picked up was Sarah Barber's Regicide and Republicanism (its about the English Republicans in the seventeenth century who campaigned for the King's death). On page 123

A formal charge was issued on 20 January 1649 and sentence passed a week later.

Charles was found guilty of High Treason and executed outside the banquetting hall in Whitehall on 30 January 1649.

Kingship and the Lords were abolished on 17 and 19 March, and England was finally declared a Republic a month later.

They are pretty cool sentences, but then you find them in books about the English Civil War. I challenge Matt Sinclair, Vino Sangripillai, James Hamilton, James Higham and Welshcakes Limoncello to find some better ones.

April 25, 2008

Humphrey Lyttleton

Humphrey Lyttleton died today. For those who don't know, Lyttleton was a number of things- he was a superb comic with wonderful bumbling timing, he was a wit with an extensive repertoire of conversational gambits, he was a trumpetter who brought jazz to BBC radio and ultimately was responsible for much of the fame of the genre of music in the UK. He didn't take himself seriously but came across as a phenomenally intelligent and talented man- the 'elder statesman of British jazz', he was a cartoonist as well with a superb talent not to mention a radio presenter. The thing I always liked about him was that though his jokes belonged in some cases to an earlier era- full of double entendres, it was a gentle comedy, an absurdist comedy but one confident enough of its own intelligence not to need to flaunt it. He had many of the virtues that I described here, and in a sense his comedy lived in the spirit of Wallace and Gromit- in a thread that spreads back to classics like Dad's Army. The comedies are very different- but the one thing that they have in common are that they are gentle, they don't mock people to upset, they mock affectionately- the laughter is a tone of a shared love. Lyttleton I always thought got that- his tone was warm, he was always chortling and his trumpetting was divine. You could tell he did what he did because he loved it- not merely because he continued working till he died at the age of 86- but because his comedy for instance wasn't selfish but was merry. If there are higher ambitions, I don't know what they are.

April 23, 2008

What is a Public Intellectual?

Polls of the most important public intellectual come out all the time at the moment- the American journal Foreign Policy is doing one at the moment (no prizes for guessing the main subject of that journal) and has a list out of which you can vote the top twenty. Fair enough you might say- accept really what they seem to be talking about here is political polemecists, not intellectuals and that the idea that a vote reflects any kind of intellectual merit is a bit like the idea that a vote could determine the best scientific or mathematical theory, its stupidity is only matched by its inanity.

What do I mean by the first thing I said? Well take a look at the list. At first sight you might see names like Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist, Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, Richard Dawkins, the British Biologist and so on and think aha- this is about a spread of thinkers over a wide area. You would be wrong though. Take Chomsky, I doubt he is there for his linguistic work which has been dominant in that field- I'd suggest his presence there is actually because of his jeremaids against American power. Likewise I'm not sure Dawkins makes the list for his biology, rather than his ability to upset religious people. At least the three I quote above and others like Benedict XVI are distinguished intellectuals (whatever you think of their political thinking- and in some cases (Chomsky comes to mind) their policy ideas are inferior to their other work). But Christopher Hitchens, great polemecist and writer he may be, has contributed very little of intellectual value to the world. His recent biography of Tom Paine is an absolute joke, which would be hilarious if it weren't meant seriously. Likewise Al Gore, good politician no doubt, but I doubt he had anything to do with the intellectual foundations of political theory.

Yes there are some names on the list that I had not come across- Hu Shuli for example the Chinese journalist. But equally there are names which astonished me- as a historian I can name many more intellectually exciting people than Tony Judt and Niall Ferguson (off the top of my head, Quentin Skinner, Sir Keith Thomas and Ira Katznelson all make me think far more than Ferguson with his Telegraph pieties has ever done.) All lists will have names that you don't see- but the difference between the two sets of people is that Ferguson say is a great self-publicist (the man has an ego the size of Olympus to go by his TV appearances and lectures- only exceeded by David Starkey) whereas Skinner, Thomas and Katznelson have made some very original contributions to their periods and to their studies. In a sense this isn't so much a set of interesting people who can provoke and make you think, as a collection of great self-publicists- the list produced by Foreign Policy is about marketting not mastering a leading subject.

The same thing goes for their method of choosing the top twenty- again what does the fact that x wins a vote tell you about the ideas that the winner has expressed? It tells you nothing! To take an example, I am not qualified to tell you how good a physicist Richard Feynman was and how he compared to Enrico Fermi- I have no idea because I don't know about higher physics. I do have an idea about historians but that's because I have a PhD in the subject- and even then with history outside my own specialism, I don't know who has the best knowledge of the sources. To say that I can judge the most original and thoughtful intellectual on all these subjects is crap! And it reinforces something that I think we should be very careful about- to understand the best idea as the most popular idea is not a sensible thing. Subjects are complicated and they require a lot of patience and learning- becoming an intellectual is not writing a blog, its not writing for a newspaper, its learning facts, understanding arguments and thinking deeply. The list from Foreign Affairs includes trivial people and is based on trivial grounds- that is a pity- I want to know who are the most interesting people in other subjects because then I can go and read them- a list that contains Christopher Hitchens is unlikely to give me that.

April 21, 2008

All the way without Jose?

Chelsea this season stand on the brink of winning maybe one and possibly even two trophies- they sit in the semi finals of the Champions League and are second in the Premiership behind Manchester United. Other clubs will have something to say about that: obviously Manchester United are favourites to win the Premiership and in the Champion's League, the men from London will have to beat Liverpool over two legs (something they haven't managed so far in that competition) and then confront one of United or Barcelona in the final. But for the moment, Chelsea's season is ending well and given a disastrous start, its possible to even argue that Chelsea haven't done that badly this season at all. So what, you might be tempted to say- well the key thing about that fact is that whilst it has happened Chelsea have lost a manager, Jose Mourinho who almost everyone in football reckons is one of the great coaches of his generation and have brought in a nonentity Avram Grant. What does their continual success say about media perception of managers? What does it say about the cult of the manager?

Lets start with the first question. Its pretty obvious that Mourinho is a very good manager- he won the Champion's League with Porto, has two English Premierships and a couple of the more minor cups in the UK to his name. There is no doubt that he comes across as a very bright guy as well, swatting away the sports reporters of the BBC and Sky with the contempt that they deserve. The real point though is that the press have never taken Grant seriously- he hasn't managed in England or one of the big leagues- but he has got experience in Israel and has won championships with Israeli clubs. He might not come across as impressively as the Portugeese and scowls, but he is someone who has real acheivements and spent quite a considerable time in England as director of football in both Portsmouth and Chelsea. Not merely Roman Abramovich, who didn't get his money by being thick, nor Harry Rednapp, who hasn't got a long success in football management by tolerating fools, are idiots: and someone who both of them like has got to have a presumption of being at least competent.

But even so, Mourinho and Grant are still far apart. Journalists close to the Chelsea camp suggest that Grant hasn't had much of an effect on Chelsea players- some speculate that the backroom staff are having more of an effect. I disagree. And I wonder whether privately many chairmen would disagree- their bank balances would argue that. Cristiano Ronaldo takes home the astonishing 120,000 pounds a week from the Glazers, Alex Ferguson takes home a fraction of that. That suggests that players have more of an effect than managers on results- I wonder whether the Chelsea situation makes that point as well. Chelsea are still playing in exactly the same way as they were under Mourinho- its the same squad too with the addition of Nicolas Anelka- and largely we are seeing the same type of results, grimly grafted out by athletic players. Chelsea's totems are their central midfielders, industrious souls like Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Obi John Mikel and others sitting in front of a terrifying back four, sternly safeguarded by John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. The manager Mourinho had to bring them together and see how they would fit, he had to design the training routines that would make them tick- but seemingly since then they have been on automatic pilot. With a good plan they have just got on with it.

Of course that is a mischeivous point of view- but its worth thinking about. Afterall in the Victorian era, players did choose the team and make the decisions- there were reasons why that changed but it also reflected something true about any team game. I wonder whether the situation at Chelsea is more Victorian or Edwardian than we think it is, with figures like Terry and Lampard having more of an influence than their nominal superior. Without being inside the dressing room, we can't know. I wonder also about the margins that managers give teams- would Manchester United be worse off without Ferguson or Ronaldo- the directors pay the two as if that question is resolved in Ronaldo's favour but does that indicate anything real?

April 20, 2008

The Science of Paracelsus

Paracelsus was an early modern medical chemist- his writings were incredibly influential in the early history of science, in the study of the occult, in the histories of medicine and of chemistry. He wandered through central Europe- Germany and Switzerland mainly though he also went to Scandinavia, Hungary, Russia, France and Asian Turkey. Paracelsus was responsible for the fact that we call zinc, zinc. He was a wandering quack, often despised by contemporary physicians but often also in advance of many of their theories- he beleived in equal proportions things that we would now consider madness and some things which anticipate some of the discoveries of modern medicine. His medicine was not a proper science, as we would see it, based upon evidence and subject to hypothesis- rather as I hope will become clear in this article Paracelsus believed that medicine might be derived from metaphysical and theological views, in much the same way as many ancient philosophers sought to harmonise science and philosophy, testing each by their coherence with each other, rather than their correspondence with what we all see in the world.

I mention Paracelsus, largely because of Cedric Beidatsch's interesting article in Eras, an Australian history journal. Beidatsch is interested in Paracelsus's views on love- and though I don't know much about Paracelsus and therefore cannot vouch for Beidatsch's work, what he has uncovered is, if true, very interesting. He argues that basically Paracelsus's medicine and theology rests upon a pretty unique view of the way that love works. For a moment its worth going back to Plato. In the Symposium, a dialogue about love, one of the speakers argues that originally every human being was a hermaphrodite, and that they were split up by a vengeful God, and that ever since we have been striving to find our other halfs- hence the strength of the emotion of love and its fixation on one object is the fixation of a disunited human upon its other part. Its worth thinking about that, partly because I am sure Paracelsus would have been aware of the doctrine, but also because the idea provides a useful entree to Paracelsus's thought when he like Plato approached the problem of love. You see ultimately we ought to be more promiscuous than we are: this emotion of love which comes across us for one or a couple of objects out of several thousands is something that needs to be explained. Plato, at one point, explained it by reference to this idea of a split human being: Paracelsus argued that we were not split but we were created so as to have a perfect partner. He argued that God had created us and predestined us for one particular partner.

Some interesting implications flowed from this view. Paracelsus believed that we would always meet this partner eventually: providence would direct that we did, unless sin turned that providence aside. He argued that amongst such sins, we should reckon the marriage contract. The marriage contract was an attempt to bind us where no bounds were neccessary: ultimately only a sinner would break from their lover. It was also an attempt to fix us within the bounds of an artificial matrimony- marriage and inheritance could in his view distort our actual mission which was to find the love that God intended for us, in favour of finding property or power or family pride. Paracelsus believed that such love was embedded in our very natures- our chemistry was orientated to this kind of love. He found that his alchemical investigations, not to mention his theological speculations about the nature of God cemented this perspective. The construction of the human body reflected the importance of love to our health. God himself, Paracelsus held, was the product of these forces- and within the depths of the divine nature was concealed a love between God and Mary which had produced the Holy Spirit and the Son, the second and third persons of the Trinity. This structure radiating downwards provided him with some of the theses that he wanted to cure people with, but also with the ways that he understood God and the nature of our obligations to each other.

Obviously most of this is completely mad. But what is interesting about it is what it says about the way that Paracelsus and many of those who followed him, most of which probably did not understand the full ramifications of his doctrine worked. Our science and our metaphysics are actually not often related- we tend to make science empirical and metaphysics philosophical. For Paracelsus consistency between the two was much more important than it is to us- metaphysical conclusions determined things about how one would seek to cure phsyical problems. Furthermore for Paracelsus the explanation had to be complete- he sought completeness and consequently sought consistency all the way up and down the spectrum of knowledge. Every area represented an analogy of every other area- the world worked by consistent rules. Much of modern science rests on the idea that we are actually ignorant and that we have to be sceptical about what we can know. Paracelsus differed from a modern scientist because the basis of his science was not the derivation of theory from empirical matter, or from mathematics (then to be validated by empirical data) but he derived his ideas from the logical extension of metaphysical and ethical principles. He expected nature to conform to the moral world and vice versa and he expected to see a complete system.

In that sense he represents a man very much of his times and from that perspective the way his attitudes work, especially if they are as bizarre as Beidatsch suggests, reflects the different nature of science as he understood it from the way that we understand the same process.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Two films were made of Ben Hur: this evening I went to see the earlier 1925 version, a silent film accompanied by the London Philarmonic orchestra. There is something amazingly powerful about the musical accompaniment, especially when played by an expert and profficient orchestra live- if you have the chance to see them play this, then go and see it. But turning to the film itself- made in 1925 it relies upon all the conventions of silent cinema. The style of acting is different- with more importance being placed on large gestures. You can see in some of the makeup the influence of theatre- with too much makeup being applied to an actor's face- something you would do in a theatre in order to make the actor's features visible to those sitting at the back of the theatre, but something that with close ups and all the rest is hardly needed in the cinema. These features of the film mark it out as a product of the 1920s and the silent era, in addition to the fact that there is no noise. There are moments of colour in the film- but it looks experimental- its fascinating to see the first contrast in colour in cinema that wasn't black and white, reds and blues in a black and white background.

There is more than historical curiosity though to this film. One of the most interesting features is the display of Rome as a power: Rome today is often seen as a positive thing- see for example the repeated calls from some for America to become a new Roman empire. This film demonstrates another view- whose antecedents spread back to the early Christian sources (the number of the beast in Revelation adds up to the Jewish numerical code for Nero for example) and some Roman sources (see Calgacus's speech in Tacitus, which as Mary Beard rightly points out is a critique from within the Roman system). Ben Hur embodies these critiques of Roman power- the Roman soldiers are all brutal and strong. They exploit their power over the subject Jewish population with scarcely concealed racial superiority- they are the image of imperial arrogance- and the central Roman character, Marcellus, is their archetype. Arrogant, brutish and powerful, he enjoys the rewards of imperial arrogance- sexual access, bullying condescension and an absolutely secure arrogance. All of these things ultimately doom him to destruction, as they doom in the vision of the film, the wider empire of Rome. We are left in no doubt that Rome's imperium is brutal and violent- the scenes of casual violence from the soldiers to Jews and to galley slaves make it clear, the battle with the pirates is about as violent as you could imagine with humans being spitted on pikes again the impact is profound and makes the point about Roman imperium and piratical brutality.

The other strain of the film concerns Christianity. Ben Hur is a Jewish prince whose life is destroyed by the Marcellus- and the rest of the film concerns his search for revenge against the Roman soldier (who was once his friend). That search dominates his life- but it also is not enough. For Hur hungers after the restitution of justice- in a sense his sense of justice is a mirror image of the Roman sense of entitlement- both base their senses of self on vigour and power. Both are imperial ideologies which claim an ideal of Kingship to be above anything else. But throughout the film, we get hints, sidelights of another story- like a theme of music which slowly matures from a single note to a chorus, of another approach to subjugation and loss- an approach which is deliberately counter to Hur's hunger for vindication from injustice, to Rome's claims of imperial suzereignity and that is the story of Christ. The events of Hur's life take place with the story of Christ- they only meet tangentially- but for Hur Christ is the messiah, the messiah who will restore a real Jerusalem. Throughout the film though, we are shown and eventually Hur is shown that Christ will do no such thing- that military domination, revenge and all the rest is not the mission of a true Christian, instead forbearance and a confidence in eternal justice, not to mention meekness, kindness, forgiveness no matter the slight and turning the other cheek and the emblems of Christianity. My comrades watching the film thought that was overblown- I thought the film made its point rather well- ultimately the ethic of Christianity is very different both to that of Rome but also to that of Hur, the film keeps us identifying with the Christian approach and hence we see Hur's search for revenge as justified within its own terms, but obsolete given the ethical revolution of the Nazarene.

What is interesting though is that the film shies away from making that contrast totally explicit- at the end of the film Ben Hur does indeed become a Christian, as do his family, and they embrace this new ethic. But his quest for revenge has been fulfilled- Marcellus is dead. Furthermore his family are rescued from prison and cured by Christ of their leprosy- again note that they have restitution. One of the things which is interesting here is that the director isn't able to go the whole way- isn't able to have the film finish with Marcellus alive, with Hur's family still ill and yet all having confidence in the Christian message. In a sense therefore the ending of the film surrenders its point. In part though that is too harsh- for a film's viewers the conventions of cinema require that we receive some satisfaction, the challenge of giving us satisfaction without rewarding the pagan virtues of revenge and anger is something that the story fails to acheive. In that sense, cinema would have to wait for Robert Bresson for someone who could acheive the true expression of Christ's actual message.

Overall this film though is excellent- its sequences are amazing. There was said to be a cast of 125,000 people in the film and in some sequences- the chariot race and battles at sea you can well believe it. Actors like Marion Davies and Douglas Fairbanks have uncredited roles in the crowd scenes. The acting is very good- though of its time- there is an interesting message and the music and the film chime wonderfully together. Simply put if this is on again anywhere near you, go and see it- this is one of the jewels of silent cinema and it has to be seen.