June 14, 2008

William Cecil

William Cecil is one of the most underrated Elizabethan figures. Played by Richard Attenborough in the film Elizabeth as a fussy irrelevance, Cecil's reputation is as the man in the shadows- less glamorous than Leicester or Essex or any of the queen's favourites, less insidious than the spy master Sir Francis Walsingham- noone really knows what to make of Cecil. And yet he was one of the great figures of the age- perhaps greater than any other beyond Elizabeth herself- he dominated politics from 1558 until his death in 1598 and his son took over that dominance. Reading his biography, published recently and written by Stephen Alford (I have to acknowledge an interest here, Dr Alford taught me paleography at Cambridge) what strikes me is Cecil's importance and his talent. Particularly interesting is his early, pre-Elizabethan career- had Cecil died in 1558 before taking on Elizabeth's government, he would still be an important figure in English history.

Cecil was a very intelligent man- he was educated at St John's, Cambridge in the 1530s and thrived in the atmosphere of classical scholarship that St John's promoted. The college at that point was at the heart of the English renaissance- leading efforts for instance to pronounce Greek in a more classical way. St John's furnished Cecil with a love of scholarship- he was linked to many of the great scholarly figures of his generation- Roger Ascham, John Cheke, Sir Thomas Smith- and others. What strikes you immediatly as a distinction between today and the past- that Cecil came to London with an already established political ambition, but that his education at St John's was directly connected to that. Scholarship and politics were closely tied together- instead of held separate as they are today. Cecil studied law at the Middle Temple- which taught him precision and a mastery of detail- but it seems to me that St John's lay at the heart of his personality- he was ultimately a scholar-politician- and enjoyed bringing dons from Cambridge up to London to discuss political issues of the day and come to conclusions about them.

If Cecil's scholarship was astounding at the time, then politicians picked up on it. Cecil was an aide to the Lord Protector under Edward VI, Somerset and after Somerset's fall became secretary to the Council of State. I think the other thing which might astound people- is the degree to which Edward's short reign was really a crucial part of English history. Henry VIII's religious reformation had been about authority- the Pope was discharged from his responsibilities- but despite the intentions of Henry's advisors (Cromwell and Cranmer in particular) what Henry desired and to some extent acheived was a Catholic church with him not the Pope as the senior figure. The crucial leglislation for Henry was the Act in Restraint of Appeals which affirmed that this land of England was an empire. Edward though twisted this political change to become a reformation- he gave his protestant advisors including Cecil their head- allowing them to redesign the prayer book twice (1549 and 1552) and furthermore creating an ideological ministry of Protestants. It was that ministry that Cecil sought to recreate in the age of Elizabeth- and for those who shaped the eventually successful Elizabethan reformation, the reformation of her half brother was their starting point. However much Elizabeth sought to be her father- in religion the influence of her brother remained central to her administration's view of the English church- and that means the view of the English church which dominated the next five centuries. (Even her clash with Cecil over whether 1549 was the point to start at or his 1552 can be seen as an argument that has raged in the Anglican Church ever since- a clash about which stage in Edward's reign, which moment of perfect refomation, you hold to). Mr Secretary Cecil lay at the heart of this- being a colleague and friend of the great figures of this reformation- Archbishop Cranmer, the Duke of Northumberland, the Duke of Somerset, Edward himself and other more minor figures like Sir Anthony Cooke his relative and his colleagues from Cambridge- the golden generation of St John's.

But Cecil's experience as a politician under Edward and his Catholic sister Mary also prepared the politician for the experience of being Elizabeth's chief servant. As Edward died, constitutional crisis gripped England. Edward desired that his heretic sister- a servant to the Babylon of Rome- should be excluded from the succession and replaced by Lady Jane Grey. His councillers sat in a difficult position- either way they jumped they risked being found guilty of treason. Cecil sat on the fence- Edward's actions technically were illegal as Henry VIII's will, confirmed by Parliament, superceded any act which Edward might make without Parliamentary sanction- hence anyone who agreed with Edward would be committing treason against an earlier act made by the supreme political organ of England- the King in Parliament. Cecil hedged his bets. He signed the new succession memorandum as a witness and prepared to flee to Mary- he managed just to survive. His actions over the next five years demonstrated the same skills- unlike Cranmer burnt at the stake in 1555, Cecil did not desire martyrdom. Rather he operated on the borderline between treason and quiet subservience- quietly he prepared ties with Elizabeth, quietly he sponsored opposition presses on his own land but he would also publically conform, leading an embassy to bring Cardinal Pole back to England in 1554 and even being appointed Pole's steward in Wimbledon.

The period of Cecil's enforced retirement demonstrates something else about his character. This was a man who could not do anything but work. He found retirement frustrating. He ended up obsessed with the details of household management. At one point, he even started weighing his servants and drawing up statistical tables of their average weight- as Alford commented at a recent paper given in Cambridge, there can be no doubt- William Cecil needed something to do. He communicated with Elizabeth via being appointed her steward- his lands ran concomittantly with the lands that she had been given by that central document of English history, Henry VIII's will. Consequently the Protestant Princess could send agents to meet her brother's protestant cabinet minister, despite the fact that they were both being spied on by the jealous Mary. Elizabeth and Cecil finally met in the year of Mary's death. We know this only because one of Cecil's servants made notes on his master's journeys by barge along the Thames. All the rest of the documents to do with the meeting were destroyed- we may guess that they discussed more than estate management. These two principles- Cecil's workaholic nature and his concern for secrecy came together to create the Mr Secretary Cecil, the ablest of Elizabeth's servants and the bulwark of her monarchy.

In future posts we will see how Cecil's career developed- but I hope this gives an idea of why William Cecil was no bumbling fool, but one of the greatest politicians of his age and furthermore how far the Elizabethan world was connected to the Edwardian world before it. How far the Church of England, established by the acts of 1558, was the creation of Edwardian civil servants desirous of completing a reformation that they saw as beginning with Henry VIII but being perfected in the reign of Edward by Cranmer in the prayerbooks of 1549 and 1552. That was not Elizabeth's view- but it was the view of her chief minister.

June 09, 2008

Mongol

During the 13th century, the name of Genghis Khan spread like wildfire throughout the world, the conqueror of Khorasan and the mongol steppe, the fear of both China and Europe, he brought destruction to almost every part of Eurasia and founded an empire that at its maximum extent subdued both China and Europe. The problem with Genghis Khan though is how little not how much we know about the man- his history is preserved in the chronicles of those he conquered and in the secret history of the Mongols- but almost nowhere else. The reputation of his hordes and the pyramids of skulls that they left behind remain the most tangible memorial to his presence. That and now this film, directed by a Russian director and made in Kazackhstan, whose impact is clearly designed to imprint a legend upon the world- as Matt argues here, this is a film not so much about the man but about the myth.

As Vino right notes though, myths have a political content- as well as a mythological one- and its worth examining what myth we are presented with here as we come to a judgement upon the film. Genghis Khan is a figure around whom a great deal of myth has accumulated- there are many for example in China who see the figure of the great Khan as the leader who actually vanquished Western Armies and held for a time Russia in thrall. The twentieth century has seen efforts by various nationalities to 'claim' Genghis- the Chinese, Japanese and Mongolians have all made attempts to try and annex Genghis. Those who were subjugated by him saw him in another light- there is good reason to think that he was a brutal tyrant- perhaps the most murderous tyrant until the twentieth century, whose massacres were tactical but also bloody and who slaughtered in his thousands and his tens of thousands- if not more. Genghis Khan's reputation deserves to be as low as possibly any tyrant's reputation can be- a foolish relativism might seek to excuse his rampage, but it would be unworthy of us to deny that he wreaked havoc on the sedentary world of his day and the fears that many felt were genuine and justified.

Coming with that attitude to this film, I was amazed and not in a good way. Because this is not a film about the growth of a tyrant- it is a film about the hero Genghis Khan. We see his suffering and his conquest of Mongolia but we see none of his brutality. This is a film about a great man- and the fact for instance that we was locked up for seven years means in the language of the film, that it was acceptable to eliminate a city and the people who lived within it. This is the kind of film Thomas Carlyle would have been proud of: the best artistic representations of war convey the experience of armies from top to bottom. One thinks of War and Peace, or even of The Siege, but this is not about that at all- who cares how many Mongol soldiers perish, so long as Genghis and his family are reunited. The focus of the film is awry- its not so much that the story is wrong as that its heart, its purpose is in the wrong place. The little people are forgotten so that the greater can be remembered. In particular for instance it gets the world of war completely wrong: whereas war is about accident and fortune, this story is about inspired leadership from a great man.

Perhaps this is most evident in the way that the story is told. We begin the story with Genghis at 10, we end the story with Genghis at 30. The historical accuracy of what lies between is dodgy at best. But lets ignore that. Basically what we have is the tale of Genghis's rise to become warlord of all the Mongols- the film basically stops once he takes that crown. Though in reality its even shorter- the last half hour deals with his rise to the leadership of the Mongols- the main body of the film concerns his earlier attempts to lead a war band, his marriage, his relationship with his blood brother and his eventual fall into slavery. That is about it. The driving force in this story is the perception that Genghis is a man of destiny, unjustly treated, and yet he never seems to do anything particularly glorious and the reparations he inflicts for his unjust treatment are to destroy the lives of everyone around him. The tension therefore is maintained by the romance between Genghis and his wife, and the fellow feeling between him and his 'brother'. Unfortunately the film is about as romantic as cold soup and the relationship with his blood brother undermined by portentious piety. The real issue here is that for a film that is ostensibly about character- there are no characters to get familiar with or to care about. Who gives a damn about Genghis and his wife, lets watch them conquer the world- but the film doesn't cover that.

Unlike Hero, what it also doesn't do is pursue any deeper questions about tyranny or law. It doesn't seek to argue for Genghis's tyranny, it merely bathes us in lukewarm hero worship and leaves it at that. There is some lukewarm paganism- we get a couple of mentions of the sky god thrown in for fun- one wonders what a real polytheist would have made of the dismal slow motion wolf who strolls about at will through the groves of temples. One wonders why we get no sacrafice, no indication of any real religion, one wonders why we get no idea about the empire that Genghis maintained, no idea about his cruelty or his character. This is a blank sheet of paper- and its a blank which continues for over two hours. There is some fantastic photography- particularly of central Asia and it makes me even more certain that I want to go there at some point. But this is a poor poor effort- it is neither a historical film, nor does it do anything with teh myth. It is just a film which lauds a great man, who lets not forget slaughtered human beings in cold blood- as though someone were to make a film about the Bosnian conflict, lauding the Serbian army, without mentioning Srebrenica.

This is a poor effort, the greatness of the landscape conceals the poverty of the thought.

June 08, 2008

Kadare's The Siege

Ismail Kadare's novel The Siege is a fantastically observed book: it is a study of a siege of an unidentified Albanian town by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, just before the fall of Constantinople. Kadare tells the story of the siege from both inside the fortress, with what appears as a translation of brief extracts of a chronicler's account, and through following a series of characters- the Pasha, astrologer, poet, quartermaster general, engineer- outside the fort, attempting to conquer it. Thus the book is like a series of musical movements, with each long Muslim wail of frustration being answered by a Christian interlude, just as over the walls the cross confronts the crescent and the Turk confronts the Balkan. Like a spectre haunting the field is Skanderberg, the medieval Albanian hero, who at this time formed a guerrilla resistance against the Turks and of course even farther off but no less important, the magical palace of the Porte is yet another character- whose vicious luxury dominates the thoughts of all the Turkish commanders.

The book draws further back even from this. Kadare, as the afterword informs us, meant the novel as a kind of analysis of resistance- to the pressure of foreign nations on Maoist Albania in the sixties and I detect in this, as in many of his other works about the Ottoman empire that this work is a way for Kadare to express his concerns about the totalitarian present, within a portrait of the imperial past. The atmosphere of the camp outside the town is well drawn, particularly the way that everything tends to viciousness. The Pasha's viciousness is predicated upon his own uncertain position- like a politburo minister in his uncertainty he lashes out at those below. But those below learn that viciousness is that which the system demands and brutally destroy others whose mistakes doom them to death. As the stakes are raised, so is human brutality. There is not much heroism here- what Kadare shows is that dire situations lead not so much to great deeds as to dire deeds, as human beings find that they can only be preserved, or only seek satiety in their scared condition, by brutal torture and spectacle. The best way to cure war weariness, the Pasha resignedly meditates, is to find a scapegoat and give the troops some blood.
Dire situations dominate the book- but the dread permeates inside and outside the walls. Everyone on either side plays a deadly game and knows that they probably won't survive- one thing that Kadare really captures is that in war human life is cheap. But something else he gets is that the dread is a separating device. There is no real clash of civilisations here- the crescent and the cross are irrelevant to the fears of death and pain that dominate the soldier's lives- but both sides think there is a clash of civilisations because both sides are dominated by dread. Dread of what the other side might do, dread of what might happen should they lose, dread of the future and guilt for the past. The protagonists have no idea that the fear that grips the stomach of a young Christian and Muslim are the same: perhaps this is most aptly symbolised when a rumour swells in the Turkish camp that the Christians have attacked during the night- so such thing has happened- but the Turks start attacking each other, running in chaos from a nameless darkness that consumes them. This nameless darkness is what they fight throughout the film- people who are reduced to caricatures and to generalisations- the problem of war is that the Christians and Muslims fear each other in the same ways, but it still happens.

Pessimism shrouds this book. Ultimately the task of the historian here, and we have one, is to be a panygerist. To sing of the glories of soldiers and to sing of the wonders of warfare, when he can't fight and furthermore knows that those glories are illusions, the stories fakes and the wonders tawdry. The sultan was assacinated not by a Christian agent but by his own men. Expeditions to dispoil lead to mass rapes and the life of the army is about sitting in the dry season waiting to run out of food. War is not a matter of heroism here but a matter of technique- of dry technique, waiting till the enemy runs out of water, of food or of lives to throw into the meat mixer. Waiting for autumn- waiting for God.

If so then Kadare in this novel achieves a rare thing- he writes a novel which is anti-historical. As you'll be aware, I consider history to be the discovery of distance and difference- what Kadare does is to reduce distance and difference and pay attention to the bleak reality of life as opposed to its gilded frippery. Something he gets entirely right is the distinction between what happened and what is left- between fact and fiction. But there is more here- this novel is a political act- this is an attempt to do what has largely died out in the liberal west, perhaps because it is the art of tyranny, allegory. The allegorical structure is like a never unfolding Russian doll, meaning after meaning can be tracked through its layers and you can never stop. What Kadare invites us to do here is to understand the perpetual notion of human suffering- the way it will never stop and can never be assuaged. The way that brutality of politics is that politics is the place where personalities no longer matter- where your life is a statistic and your death a passing reference. History too deals in such matters- but imparts through romance a gilding- Kadare does not want us to concentrate on the gilding but to concentrate on the way that politics munches and destroys. The way that the wave after wave of soldiers going over the top of the wall are brilliant and glorious from far off, but near to become a wave of young men pitched on pikes, rolling in the moat with arrows in their sides and blasted through with shot and shell. Their deaths create our meta realities- but those realities are still outside reality- death is death and war results in death. The personal is political because the political results in personal tragedy.

There is a sadness, a desperation to Kadare's writing- some of these scenes will stay with me for a long time- they are easy to read and difficult to forget- just like the deaths on the fortress wall were easy to discard, difficult to explain.

King of Kong: For a Fistful of Quarters


King of Kong: For a Fistful of Quarters is the kind of film that makes me slightly queasy. It protrays the professional world of Donkey Kong playing, where various people compete to score records in the game. In particular it highlights two men- Billy Mitchell, a sauce manufacturer, and Steve Weibe a failed engineer and later science teacher- and their rivalry over the world record. Billy set it in 1982 and according to the film struggled by fair means, or foul, to make sure that his rival was unable to get a better score and that he would remain the King of Kong. In doing this he was assisted by Walter Day, the Head of the association which keeps the scores and by other friends and acquaintances. This account has been queried by Mitchell but it is the narrative of the film and whether true or not, it provides the architecture around which the film is judged. Not being familiar with Donkey Kong circles, I can't really comment on its truth- though I do think that the film's copious interview footage in particular does not portray those who it vilifies in a good light.

But lets move away from those questions for a moment, because in reality this isn't so much a film about the contest though that provides its dramatic coherence, as a film about obsession. We all have our obsessions in life- some of them like music and art are respectable, some are more geeky. Mastery of Donkey Kong is not normally combined with social adeptness and definitely this film provides you with evidence to go along with that thesis. Nobody in this film finds interraction with other people easy- you get the sense that the crowds of overweight, hairy and pale men don't interract well with the outside world. What you also get is a strong sense that they care too much about what they do- they beleive that for some reason it might just change the world- much like some bloggers do, they think that their every insignificant action matters, when actually its as important as a group of people going to a pub and enjoying a pint.

That's what intrigued me about this film- in reality it provides two explanations for a marginal activity and what's quite interesting is that it provides one positive model of how a minor activity can help someone, and another model of how it can harm someone. Lets take Steve Wiebe for a start. Steve according to the film was made unemployed, has had no real success in life- despite that he seems to have acquired two kids and a wife- but he has no real attainments and no self confidence. Being good at Donkey Kong became for him a way to rebuild his life- to reconstruct his identity and gave him confidence to move in his actual life to becoming a science teacher and therefore to a better respect for himself and for others. I know people who have used blogs in that way- as a ladder out of depression and uncertainty. For Steve Donkey Kong is his ladder.

Turn to Billy Mitchell, or the film's Billy Mitchell, and we find a different creature. Because so many of the gamers, like Billy, use the games to hide from the world and set up their egos against it. Billy is a self important loser in this film- there is no other way to describe him- constantly talking as though Donkey Kong were not irritating blobs moving on a screen but a life and death matter. In truth he has lost touch with reality. And in that sense he is similar to dozens of other guys that we see interviewed throughout the film- they have lost touch with reality. They believe that success in Donkey Kong is worth more than anything else- they construct castles built on the air of illusion and seem inable to see quite how comic and stupid they seem to anyone outside their universe. In a sense the Steve Weibes are the other side of the Billy Mitchells- in that both sets of people are constructing their identity through using the insiginificant game- but though you might think that you would be wrong. To construct something out of insignificance and then to go out into the world and actually do something is very different from retreating into insignificance and spending your life as a champion Donkey Kong player.

King of Kong is an immensely funny film- the joke is in the subtitle- but its a joke with a serious point. Let trivia- whether it be stamp collecting or games- turn from a support into a purpose and you have lost your way in life. If it aids you to construct a real life, so be it- but if it becomes more important than a real life- than real relationships- and starts to make you self important in illusion, then beware- there lies the path to Billy Mitchell and human disaster.

I loved every frame of this film- but as I said felt queasy- the reason is that I fear how far I am myself Billy Mitchell!