July 05, 2008

The world and the academy

What unites Niccola Machiavelli, Edward Gibbon, John Le Carre, Austin Woolrych and Cicero? Obviously their high intelligence- but there is something else. Machiavilli, Gibbon, Le Carre and Cicero all share two characteristics- all of them are cultural figures, all of them are cultural figures who have said something important about humanity and none of them originally worked in the humanities. Machiavelli was a statesman and ambassador, Gibbon a country gentleman, militia commander and MP, Le Carre a spy, Woolrych a Harrods salesman and then soldier and Cicero the leading politician of the Roman Republic for a time- all of them used that knowledge though to put into argument and philosophy. As Gibbon put it the commander of the Hampshire militia had given the historian of the Roman Empire's decline invaluable material, and the historian of Rome's decline would not have emerged in my view without the commander being present. The same might be said of the others: to give another great example, Cornelius Tacitus, the greatest historian of Rome, understood the fear of Sejanus and Tiberius because he had lived through the reign of Domitian. Modern historians often dismiss Tacitus's account as being semi-hysterical: but the coolness which is so self evident from the lounges overlooking Harvard Yard is not so self evident when you have served through a reign like Domitian's. Experience helps us to understand the humanities in general.

The problem is not that universities exist- that is good and the world of history for example has expanded and become more rigorous thanks to the work of many professional historians over the years. But that the world of universities is too closed in on itself. Academic monographs are interesting to those involved but scarcely raise a smirk outside the academy, some academics even go so far as to disdain the idea that they have any responsibility to anyone who is not inside the tiny circles of a common room. The tradition of an amateur man of letters, so vital to the nineteenth century academic world and without which much of the history done today would be useless has died. That means that there is less connection between the academy and outside than there should be. Outside experience should fertilise the understanding of historical reality and novelistic inquiry, academic rigour should strengthen the processes of thought outside the groves of the university. The decline of the essay in some ways is a parallel process to this- the great essayists from Hume to Orwell were in touch with the intellectual climate and transmitted that to others on the outside better than journalists do today.

I suppose ultimately that is the hope for blogs, that they can fulfill part of that role. But there also has to be a relaxation of the snobberies on both sides- academics have to realise that you can do good work whilst being an amateur, others have to realise that they should take on what academics do and use it. Sir Alan Sugar's derision for academics on the Apprentice is well known- the worrying thing is that such a bigot is advising the Prime Minister of the day. Blogs like Stumbling and Mumbling, Willelm Buiter's, Ben Goldacre's or this humble effort can help but in order to do so- they need to be taken seriously both inside universities and outside them. We need to talk over the professional boundaries that infest knowledge- and academics need to take the effort to make rigour accessible seriously, whilst others need to make the effort to understand a greater part of their lives. That has an impact obviously on another subject which is the leisure available in modern society- part of the problem is that those naturally most receptive are those who work hardest- but the ultimate problem is one of attitudes on both sides. The fact that the gulf has developed and that academics have lost experience of the real world whilst the real world has stopped paying attention to academics is a tragedy, not merely for universities but for societies in general.

July 04, 2008

Passionate Friends

David Lean's film Passionate Friends is an unknown- comparatively- gem. It stands comparison with some of the director's best work- both for being a subtle character study and for the brilliant displays of acting contained within it. Passionate Friends contains the simplest of simple stories. A woman, Mary, is in love with her friend Stephen, who is likewise in love with her, and yet she decides, for various reasons, to marry a rich and successful banker- Howard. The resulting love triangle plays its way out through the film- to much heart ache- as Mary is unable to sever herself from Howard but unable to forget that she truly loves Stephen. It might seem trite when expressed like that- but actually both cast and director manage to imbue it with meaning- using their skills as storytellers they gave the story layers and subtlety that the simple telling of it might well have missed.

Meaning is a hard thing for films to convey- especially when it comes to love, it is very easy to be trite and to sound trivial. That or one can end up lauding motherhood and apple pie- making points noone would refute. The interesting thing about this film is that it manages actually to say something about what love is and why it is successful. In the film shadowlands, a student turns to C.S. Lewis and tells him that we read to know that we are not alone, similarly in this film, I get the impression that the director is telling us that love is part of the growth of our personality outwards into the world. There is something here about love as communication. Time and time again Mary says to Stephen that she is unwilling to give herself up to him- he offers himself to her but she never is able to offer herself to him. Now one might argue that this reflects the comparative position of men and women at the time- and there is a feminist reading of this film- but I am not sure that is what Lean was driving at. Rather I think he was driving at the idea of love as sacrafice for both sexes- love as something that brings you out of yourself and for which you become a part of another unit, not a whole entire to itself. Its an interesting way of reflecting about love- but what Lean seems to argue here is that without it relationships will fail- they will always be bloodless. The argument between the husband's and the lover's love is between a love that exacts no price, has no passion and one that is passionate and enthusiastic, that is painful and expensive but ultimately more rewarding.

Pain and reward are bound up in this film with feeling. And Lean wants you to see the depth of a 'true love' throughout the film. So he provides us with texture. An essentially simple story has woven into it flashbacks which take us to the trajectory of the relationship between Stephen and Mary- their relationship is complex and terrifying. It binds them together- so that fortuitous accident means that they keep on meeting until the denoument. Those meetings reinforce the motif of depth. Whereas Mary and Howard have few meetings and they are always unhappy or worse- they are meetings whose tenor is light grey, insipid. The tone is set by the first shot of Howard as he falls asleep by the side of dancing- he is old, busy and does not throw himself into his life with Mary. Stephen does throw himself into his relationship with Mary- it might not work but it is not for lack of effort on his part- he cooks, helps her confront her husband and treats her with loving care. The direction here is incredibly skilled- Howard played by Rains is always wearing dark suits, Stephen played by Howard is always dressed sleekly. The fashions in this film are gorgeous. But it goes further than that, the camera work is fine- particularly in Switzerland and in some of the scenes, particularly one in Mary and Howard's living room, we see the choreography of direction exercised as well as it ever was. I have never seen the phrase 'would you like a cup of tea' sound so much like a dagger stabbed into a gut before. If there is amazing direction- there is also amazing acting: Rains and Trevor Howard in particular are fantastic, Ann Todd isn't as good but she still holds her own.

The only thing to say about the Passionate Friends is that it is an argument for all friendship to be passionate, it is an argument for love. The only response I could find to it was to love the film itself- wonderful acting, wonderful direction and a genuinely interesting thought about a subject on which humanity has said more than it has about just about anything else.

June 29, 2008

Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades is a short story written by Pushkin. It is incredibly macabre. A young officer learns that one of his friend's grandmothers has a secret ability to win games of cards, having been told of how to win by the Comte de St Germain, the famous occult figure. She henceforward is able to win in every game she gambles in. She passes this secret on once, on the understanding that the man she passed it to would never use it ever again once he had played three times. The story concerns events set years afterwards, when a young officer, called Herman, who desires the secret and will do anything- including seducing the grandmother's young companion, to get the secret and obtain a fortune. The story sounds and is simple enough, it has macabre twists and dark moments aplenty.

But beyond the fantastic story, there is something else here. The story is not just a thrilling yarn, it is also a description of a society. Russia at the eve of the 19th Century was a society in flux. The social reforms of Peter the Great had produced a society where rank was assigned on the basis of service to the state. That left a society filled with minor civil servants and junior officers. A society one might think of useless butterflies. All of the characters in Pushkin's tale are beautiful and brilliant, but they are also all useless. They have charm and sophistication but they are all superfluous. The grandmother for instance was a beauty at the court of France, but her beauty has faded and now she is merely an imperious old woman, holding court at balls amongst the children of people she knew. Her grandson is an officer, fine eppaulettes but basically frivolous, he exists in the whirl of balls and losing games. Chasing princesses and cards, he lives for nothing but his idleness. Her companion Lizaveta is the most useful character, but she is confined by the demands of her Grandmother and her imperious hauteur. Lastly there is Herman.

Herman announces right at the beggining of the short story his attitude to cards:

Cards interest me very much but I am not in a position to risk the neccessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.

Herman's statement is incredibly interesting. It demonstrates a cleverness, a mannerdness which produces the paradox. But paradox is dangerous, it demonstrates cleverness but also demonstrates an ability to twist concepts around in a morally dubious way. Herman furthermore is developed from another story of Pushkin that involved the seduction of a girl called Lisa (again) by letters, as in a Richardson novel. The point of Herman therefore is that he is a skilled seducer with words, hiding his disdain for the superfluous, whilst really fiercely desiring it. Of course wealth in this world is superfluous, it is not needed for the good life, but on the other hand as there seems to be no view of the good life, wealth in a nihilist world is the only thing that is there to be desired. Herman is a logical decendant of Valmont and the other cynical schemers of 18th Century European high society.

Pushkin of course merges that high society with the darkness of witchcraft and psychological breakdown. This is high society with an undershade of the macabre. The macabre is there to denote the victims of the intrigues- what the 18th Century critics of High Society got, just like a Fellini, was the dark side of the worlld of balls and gamblers. The dark side here is partly deception and partly magic, in truth there is little difference between the supernatural and the natural here. Magic is just another form of deceit. Ultimately the macabre, Pushkin reminds us, is the essence of the courtly life- of the superfluous life.