June 28, 2008

On Plato's Crito and the meaning of the Law

Plato's Crito is the dialogue that deals with Socrates and his reaction to his execution. His friends, including Crito, come to him to ask him to escape- they offer him money and safety and Socrates turns them down. Crito argues that Socrates must escape, as his friends will make it easy, but also the people of Athens expect him to and furthermore will despise his friends if Socrates does not get away. More than that Socrates by failing to escape will be neglecting his children. He also argues that plenty of others have escaped in the past from similar circumstances. Socrates rejects such arguments- mainly on the basis that one owes an obligation to justice over the opinions of the many and furthermore that one owes an obligation to the laws of the state which brought you up, in the same way as you owe an obligation to your parents. They have made your success possible, they have made your education and your birth possible- therefore you owe them the principle obligation of your life- even an obligation to obey an unjust rule.

There are plenty of good arguments for such a stance- Thomas Hobbes elaborated on them in his Leviathan. But I think there is something slightly interesting about how Socrates puts this case. He builds into his case an assumption that the law of Athens is that he should die. He is right, that is what the formal law of Athens says. What neither Socrates or Crito observe though is that there is a distinction between the formal and informal law of the state. This is perhaps a distinction that an Englishman might make as the British constitution formally looks very different from the way that it operates in practice, informal understandings are almost laws in the UK. I think they are almost laws elsewhere too. Arguably we see that in Crito, as the informal objective of the legal judgement, recognised by everyone who made it, was that it was a sentence of exile- we'll kill you (but we won't guard you until the execution and we expect you, even want you, to escape from our sentence). Socrates in that sense is showing his contempt for the laws of Athens by staying: his argument about the laws of Athens sets the laws against the people. This is an interesting understanding of the law- but in reality it places the letter of the law against its spirit.

The meaning of the law is a hard thing to assess. Socrates' actions may well have been intended to bring out by his suicide the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. to point out the law's absurdity. Perhaps though it also reflects Socrates' innate anti-democratism- ultimately his argument earlier in Crito is that the people cannot judge the justice of a case- informal procedure in a democracy though ultimately relies on popular understanding- Socrates places experts and laws above the people and holds democracy in aristocratic contempt. When we look at his death through the lense of Crito, we can see Socrates as a martyr against democracy for the principle of legal obscurantism.

June 27, 2008

Eva/Eve


Eve is one of the most beautiful films ever made- it is sensuously shot with a jazz score that is sumptuous and elegant. The movie moves slinkily through its scenes, along with its fabuluous female star, Jeanne Moreau, the definition of sixties French cinema and one of the icons of the last century. Jean-Luc Goddard once wrote in his journal that 'all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun', he was wrong- and Eva proves he was wrong, actually all you need for a movie is a girl, if the girl happens to be Jeanne Moreau. This is a story in which nothing much happens- a man, Tyvian Jones, who has just written a novel which has been adapted for a film, meets a woman, Eva, in Venice. He discards everything- wife, money, reputation- in order to make her his mistress and ultimately he fails to get anywhere with her. He falls in love with someone who cares nothing for him- and he is destroyed, turned from a proud potentate of luxury into a wrecked human being. It is such a simple premise- and one that so many great films have been made about- think the great film noirs: Out of the Past, Double Indemnity or Born to Kill.

What makes Eva extraordinary though is the simplicity of the plot- there are no thrills here, we have a femme fatale and nothing else, no murders, no crimes, no nothing- there is just the brutal examination of two people- a man and a woman and how their desire functions. Let us start by thinking about the man in this film. Played by Stanley Baker, Tyvian is a fop and a flop. He is a man without substance- we learn that he is duplicitous and unlikable, vain and thoughtless. He is guided by desire- he has never absorbed anything of meaning in his life, discards the feelings of others with a casualness born of a playboy outlook. By the end of the film he mutters religious analogies- beleiving that in some sense that women are more powerful than men, that Adam came out of Eve's rib, but that reveals his failure as a character rather than his perceptiveness as an observor. The reason that he falls a victim to Eve is not male weakness, but his own. Led by desires, we see by the end of the movie that all he desires is resistance to his desires. In truth, he desires not to have but to conquer, he desires the elation of conquest and thinks of the world as potential property. Because Eve resists his desire to make her his mistress, his property she becomes an object of fascination.

And what of her, what of Eve. A Salon reviewer said that she reminded a psychologist friend of his of classic cases of functional schizoids. There is definitely something amazing in the performance. Eve spends most of the film in absolute silence, Moreau just uses the amazing jazz score and her own body, not to mention some astounding camera work, to create the sense of Eve's allure. She is sexy, as sexy as the jazz music she listens to (jazz being as it is the most sexual of musical genres). She is a high class whore. But to be honest the ultimate sense I got from Eve was of emptiness, not of unhappiness or happiness, but of emptiness. What characterised her was a glittering boredom, this is decadence- the decadence of La Dolce Vita in Italy at the time but decadence worn thin. All Moreau can enjoy is twisting men, foppish idiots, round her finger. She takes no joy in human life. Her moods swing massively and her impulsiveness, her disorder is part of her allure- its what makes her the object that is not predictable, that cannot be owned. But also it is what makes her in part fundamentally empty. Does she care who is with her in every mood? No- she is so wrapped in an internal world, that prince or pauper, both are nothing to her. All she desires is money to fuel her jazz habit, the jazz that is the soundtrack to her life.

Between these two characters you see a massive battle develop- in truth it is no contest, neither in acting nor in character can the insipid Tryvian compete with the mesmeric Eve. But the contest is interesting as it opens up the emptiness of that kind of life- a life whose meaning is an endless circle of parties. In that sense Eve is the perfect counterpoint to Sex and the City- decadence lived creates a voracious desire after possession, a desire that can never be fulfilled.

June 26, 2008

Of pickpockets and prostitutes.

8th July 1774 saw two women convicted of picking the pocket of a Londoner, John White, at the Old Bailey. The account of what happened is fascinating, partly because of what it does not say, as much as for what it does tell us.

Hannah Ramsey , and Sarah Mackdonald , of the Parish of St. Brides , were indicted for privately stealing 6 Guineas, from the Person of John White , the 26th of June last. The Prosecutor depos'd, That be going along Fleet Street about Eleven a-Clock at Night, met with the Prisoners, who ask'd him to go with them to one of their Lodgings, but he refusing to do that, they carried him down into an Alley, and there being talking with them, Mackdonald was before him, and Ramsey either behind or on one Side of him, and that he perceived the Hand of Ramsey near his Pocket, and saw her take it away, that he thereupon put his Hand in his Pocket, and his Money was gone, and that he was sure that he had his Money but just before, that he charg'd her with taking it, and got them secur'd, and sent them to the Compter, but the Constable did not search them. The Watchman depos'd, That Ramsey denied that she had any Money, but half a Crown, which the Prosecutor gave her to lie with them. The Jury found Hannah Ramsey guilty of the Indictment. Death . But found Sarah Mackdonald guilty of Felony only, but not of privately taking from the Person . Transportation .

There are a number of things, apart from the severity of the punishment for a trivial offence, which stand out to me about the record of the trial. The first is the flimsiness of the machinery of justice- constables in Hanoverian London were not neccessarily efficient- they were not trained, they had no central organisation and as in this case, they could prove almost useless. Any police officer today on catching a criminal would search them- for this constable a search was too much work.

Secondly there is the fascinating question of what happened. White's story was believed. But there are two stories here. The story of the women is that they were prostitutes and that the 'prosecutor' (ie White) gave them money to sleep with him and then charged them before the court with theft. We have no idea what happened- I have no idea who White was or who these women were. If White were a powerful man with good connections he might well have obtained a conviction in this manner against a couple of prostitutes to save his reputation or even after a dispute about money. There is of course a third option which is that White was a troublesome client for one prostitute, the other turned up, they fled White and ultimately he prosecuted. We don't know- its equally possible that the prostitution story was invented. What it does tell us is the prostitution story was not an unliely one- that a single man on Fleet Street in 1774 might be searching for sex. Equally it demonstrates that contemporaries saw prostitution and theft as close partners- the idea that often it is the most poor and desperate women who go into prostitution receives some support.

Without knowing more, we cannot speculate more- but this strikes me as a fascinating case that could reveal much detail about the sexual and class structures of 18th Century London- not to mention about the way that the criminal justice system worked then.

June 23, 2008

Mouchette

Mouchette is a dark and disturbing film. Some critics consider it too depressing to be comfortable viewing- even amongst the work of Robert Bresson, the grim Catholic master of the directors, many view it as the saddest and most wretched of his works. Devoid of grace, devoid of religion, the world that Mouchette portrays is ultimately a pagan one. This is the Catholic view of Paganism and ultimately it is Bresson's commentary upon the depressing nature of the world and our inability to get out of that world. Despite that Bresson leaves us in no doubt of his underlying sympathy for human beings- this is not as say Lars Von Trier's films often are an assualt on the very idea of being human, rather this is an assault on the merely human. Central to the film is the character of Mouchette, played exquisitely by Nadine Nortier who never appeared in another film but fills this one with her character, her emotion and more than anything her expressive face. Nortier's performance is enough to convince one that though the world is depressing there are things worth fighting for within it.

Mouchette is a heart rending film- perhaps because it is so close to reality. The film is set in a small peasant village at some time in the mid-twentieth century. Mouchette is a fourteen year old girl- at a brutal convent school- whose mother is dying and whose father and brother are alcoholic wastes of space. She is a loner, hated by the other girls in her school, excluded from their games and their growing up. Bresson captures a real moment of adolescent exclusion- he shows the other girls trying on perfume, an emblem of their budding sexuality, Mouchette excluded hides behind a hillock and throws mud at them. They ignore her, riding off with the sexy older boys. Mouchette cannot even touch these little princesses and half in despite, half in envy she hates them. Bresson really captures that truth about what it is to be a loner and an adolescent- the sort of half light that you dwell in more than any other director I have ever seen.

He also captures the fact that so many dislike Mouchette because she is actually not that likable. Watching the film, it made me question how as a parent you could love Mouchette- of course you could and would but she is unbearable in many scenes. She mumbles obscenities towards the adults in view- often without provocation. Like most teenagers she dwells in an imaginery world where a man who brutalises her is her lover and she lives amidst a dream. She is often surly, she is definitely ignorant. But as I write it I know I am being too harsh- for there are lovable things about her- and perhaps Bresson's greatest acheivement in Mouchette is that despite all of those things I mention above- it is hard to come out of this film without liking its main character. She is sympathetic, she bears the whole weight of her family and her lonely self sufficiency is the kind of dreaminess that alternately bears the names madness, introspection and independence. You can see that this is a girl who with nurturing could become an amazing twenty five year old.

Nurturing though is the key and part of the issue in the film is that she attempts all the time to reach out to others and they always knock her back. Solitude is her only refuge. In that sense death is her only refuge and becomes her spiritual retreat. Like the ancient philosophers unable to seek out other humans through the grace of God and the light of scripture, the only force that the grim Bresson acknowledges as enabling human social interraction in a positive way, she is reduced to the end of suicide. Every time she knocks at other people's doors the door is thrown back into her face- her father holds her in contempt, her teacher beats her up, her schoolmates ignore her, her brother is oblivious to her, only once on a dodgem car driving it against a boy she spotted does she seem to attain any happiness. Nortier's flirtatious smile at that point lights up her face and we see Mouchette as she might be, shyly smiling behind her curls, instead of scowling at a world of hate and siding with drunkards, criminals and fools against that world. As Christ did so she does- siding with the outcast, but unlike the living God she cannot remake for a few society, she has to retreat as the philosopher into death.

The film is eschatological but it is also a meditation upon the role of the sexes in French society. What I found interesting in that sense was the way that it balances and can be framed against another great film, Summer with Monica, by perhaps the only director whose vision matches that of Bresson, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman's film is about in part the way that men's lives repeat those of their fathers. Bresson does the same thing but for women- all the women in this family despite the warnings from the previous generation, are drawn towards the useless men who drink all day and brawl all night. The point though similarly to Bergman is that such dysfunctional backgrounds cause a longing for love that creates a vulnerability. Like Bergman's protagonist Mouchette desires love so much, she will assume that any gesture from anyone, however inappropriate, is a gesture of love. But what Bergman and Bresson's films have in common: and perhaps is a theme of the 20th Century, is that the men in them are much less vital than the women.

But that is a side point, ultimately this is a film about the darkness of the human soul. It is about the darkness that surrounds us, and the way that without a Catholic faith, in Bresson's view we are abandoned to the darkness of our own society without a fragile and quietist faith. What Bresson believed and it is a belief that I do not believe myself is that the fall corroded humanity, corroded it to such an extent that only through sainthood- only through what Rosselini described in his life of St Francis- could human redemption be acheived. Mouchette is not totally evil- she could be redeemed but not in our society or by our actions according to Bresson. If you, as I do, think that one of the themes of cinematic thought is the search for sainthood in the world after the great wars, then Mouchette is the darkest Catholic argument, the most pessimistic suggestion, and in a place where Catholicism and Calvinism become the same it rejects the Arminian conscience of most cinema, stressing the degree to which we are lost as upon a darkling plain, that the sea of faith is at the ebb and sun falling down the sky.

The Truth of Lord Hailsham


Iain Dale's new total politics site has a really interesting feature- which I recomend exploring- a collection of old good political speeches. Amongst those I was casually scanning this afternoon thinking of writing a blogpost about is a speech by Lord Hailsham, Tory Cabinet Minister, candidate to be Prime Minister in the 1960s, father of another cabinet minister and Conservative intellectual, made in 1992. Being neither a conservative nor a christian (though sympathetic to both streams of thought) I do not want to comment on their relationship. But I was seized immediatly by the fact that Hailsham identified a major enemy- nihilism and postulated a coherent philosophical view against that nihilism.

Hailsham argues that there are two ways of thinking about the world- one is experiential and experimental but Hailsham suggests that the experimental view of the world collapses after its encounter with the problem of induction, he proposes an alternative view of the world. He suggests that

There is, I believe, no answer to this argument unless, of course, we have what, in discussing the nature of human understanding, Locke called an 'innate idea', at least in the field of the observable, that things make some sort of sense, and that at least to some limited extent our reason can achieve it. In the field which is open to observation, measurement, and repeated experimentation we can readily accept this. It is indeed the hypothesis upon which the whole dramatic development of the physical sciences is based.
Now this is a reversion to a kind of theory of ideas- a Platonic sense that a word describes exactly the idea behind it and that idea is reflected in the world. It is interesting that Hailsham comes to argue this because the position he advocates is easily refuted and as problematic as any naive support for induction.

Such an argument for instance neglects the facts that we do not use these words to always embody the same ideas. There is a problem in that there is no way for example to say that the English are right to define Peppermint Tea as being part of Tea as a class, whereas the French define it as a Tizane. There is no particular reason to prefer one arrangement or another. There is no essential teaness to which both might be related. The relationship of words to the reality they refer to is not simple- nor is it in any way determined, rather it is socially constructed. Think of it simply in terms of the way that we describe social position- middle class might mean one thing to you, another to me- to argue that one perception is right and one is wrong is nonsensical. That doesn't mean at all that there is no reality, merely that our languages for describing it, our ideas that constitute it are unstable and socially constructed. There is ultimately no such thing as a river- but you'll get wet if you jump in one.

Hailsham is a Platonist- and the rest of his talk depends on the assertion that our words about the world are stable. He needs to know that our ways of describing the world are the only and best for the rest of his talk to work. It is an interesting problem- because he is ultimately wrong about that- words do not automatically map onto the world in such an easy way, nor do ideas. Rather we classify things as we need to use them: we do classify them in 'real' ways but those classifications are arbitrary. That does not mean that there is no truth- more it means that there is no true pattern of words to describe that truth with. There are false patterns of words, false patterns of numbers, but no uniquely true conception of the world and definitely no intrinsic ideas which relate to words and concepts in our minds. Hailsham wants to ground his philosophy on one set of rigid ideas, but in truth he is wrong- he is wrong because there is not merely one set of ideas that describe the world, there is an infinite set of terms, defined only by its relationship to reality which describe the world. Everything is a collective noun ultimately for a collection of phenomena- so long as I do not map inconsistantly I am speaking truth, but there are an infinity of ways to express what I see as reality.