October 11, 2008

The Means of Escape

Penelope Fitzgerald's perfect short story is about imagination. The setting is mid-19th Century Hobart, the scenery is dominated by the church, the rectory and the convict prison house, the story by the encounters between the local community of dignataries led by Alice, the clergyman's daughter, and an escaped convict. In that sense it represents a distillation of the early history of Australia: this is the world that Mr Micawber goes to at the end of the David Copperfield and there his daughter meets Magwitch. The isolation is there- you get the real sense that Alice and her family live at the ends of the earth. I love how Fitzgerald brings this out in the first paragraph- giving you a distilled history of Hobart's church- as if to imply that this is a hamlet isolated from the history of the world. To understand mid-century Hobart, you do not need to know about Peel's repeal of the corn laws, the demise of the slave trade, the American war, the revolution in Belgium or the industrial revolution- but you do need to know about the construction of the local church.

Loneliness breeds the imagination- as does youth. Alice is an intelligent young girl- very conventional as we learn throughout the story. Her world is a lonely one, formed by conversations with her friend Aggie. I found this little paragraph so perfectly apt as a description of Alice that I think I need waste no more words:

They had settled on the age of forty five to go irredeemably cranky. They might start imagining anything they liked then. The whole parish, indeed the whole neighbourhood, thought they were cranky already in any case, not to get settled. Aggie in particular with all the opportunities that came her way in the hotel trade.

The community of course are as Fitzgerald's story points out entirely wrong. But there is something about that paragraph that stands out- it expresses the tragedy of these two young women's lives perfectly but also with its first sentence captures a witty and affectionate attitude to the solitude of their inner worlds which Fitzgerald invites us to share.

Of course imagination leads on to romanticism. When Alice meets the convict in the church late at night- she imagines that she has fallen in love. The twist at the end of the story reveals that Alice's idea of love and what love is are different things- I do not mean to give away here what that twist is- but it reveals Alice's fantasy to be a fantasy. The interesting question about Fitzgerald is whether the revelation hurts Alice: she leaves the question open. But I think if you follow the lineaments of the story, you can see an answer. Fitzgerald is like Austen in that she can describe illusion whilst alluding to reality. Alice's life is dominated by fantasy- but the fantasy has no reality- the question for the reader is what kind of disappointment is worse, the disappointment of the door not opened or the dissapointment of the reality falling short.

This is a fine short story- more happens in it than happens in most novels. What is so amazing about it is the way that it captures the world of early colonisation- the isolation and the way that fuses with teenage girlishness to endow every moment with romantic possibility (and the way that the community, as ever, fails to understand that a longing for romance is not a refusal of life). We are left on the brink of something that happens- again I will not break the suspense- but this is a writer at the peak of her art and what she expresses is timeless.

October 10, 2008

Freedom and fighting

As the decemvirs fell, we see the constitution of the republic and social strife within Rome resumed. The moment allows Livy to describe something crucial to both his and later thinking about the link between armies and the state- the constitution of the state in particular. Whereas we might presume the virtue of a liberal democracy to rest in promoting economic security, Livy argued that the opposite was true. Tyranny guarenteed wealth and luxury- what democracy or republicanism did was guarentee armies and military might- that might lead to wealth but ultimately like many Roman historians Livy looked on that with great suspision.

Why might it be true that Republicanism created and perpetuated military virtue? Livy offers few direct answers- he wrote after a man, Polybius, who had sought to write a schematic answer to that question based around Roman history. But what he did provide was moments- as ever Livy instructs through incident. Amongst those incidents is yet another raid by the Volscians- what is interesting about this raid that it succeeded- the Decemvirs who had fought against it were vanquished and had, like Servius Tullius, to call representative institutions in in order to cope. Livy is not hesitant in putting the reason for this failure forwards, he tells us 'the commanders in the field were not incompetent btu they had made themselves universally hated' (III 47). Things would change under a Republic.

Rome decided as soon as she had dismissed the Decemvirs to march against the Volscians again. Livy gives us the speech of Valerius one of the consuls- a speech which successfully rallied the troops and led them to conquer the tribesmen: Valerius said

For none but yourself... the victory shall be- not this time will it fill the pockets or swell the pride [crucial word there] of the decemvirs... Show by your deeds that in former fights it was your commanders who failed, not the men' (III 60)

We have noted the fact that Livy and his Republican orators argued that war and tyranny were similar states- Valerius agrees, arguing that Rome's struggles for freedom should be conducted in the same spirit as those on the field. (III 60) Valerius's speech is important because it is so conventional- Livy like Machiavelli after him beleives that equality inspires and makes men willing to fight. This observation should remind us about how different Livy's idea of a republic is from ours- we aspire to a kind of peace, Livy saw the merit of republic being its prowess in war.

October 08, 2008

Education and Custom

Francis Bacon's essay on Custom and Education is worth examining at length- particularly when education is so important, as Ashok argues, to politics and the formation of the statesman. Bacon's essay emphasizes the non-institutional factors which lead to the creation of a person. Bacon was himself a politician of some distinction- Lord Chancellor under James I and VI- and an exceptionally learned man, not to mention one of the greatest essayists in English and an inspiration to amongst others, Thomas Hobbes. Bacon's thoughts therefore form part of the context in which we all live, and are worth listening to on their own.

Bacon's argument is that our education develops our facilities in different ways. He opens his essay by stating that

Men's thoughts are much according to their inclination: their discourse and speeches according to their learning and infused opinions; but their deeds are after as they have been accustomed.

The interesting thing about this statement is the way that Bacon divides the aptitudes of man and the impact of education. Though we may think in terms of our lusts and desires and the language of biologically inspired thought may be universal, our words are conditioned by what we know- and our deeds by what we are expected to do. One could argue that learning is a special kind of custom itself- or that custom is a kind of language in which we phrase our actions. Bacon's argument is fascinating- and has an obvious implication- that we cannot rely on institutional education to change the way that men act- we have to rely upon customs.

Bacon suggests therefore that if you really want a good society, you cannot do anything through politics. In modern times we overrate the power of politics, and yet as Bacon argues

commonwealths and good governments, do nourish virtue grown, but do not much mend the seeds.

Custom as Bacon argues impels men to act contrary to their reason- he cites Indians burning themselves to death, Spartans scourging themselves on the altar of Diana and not crying out in pain and Elizabethan Irishmen preferring a method of hanging. In all those three cases, we might suggest that convention impels men to take a foolish or a neutral choice. In a sense the choice to be educated is something that may not be maintained institutionally directly- it may be something that requires cultivating through convention and its generation.

This does not imply quietism- Bacon also cites Machiavelli in his essay and I think this is deliberate because it links to Machiavelli's analysis of the creation of virtu through good institutions. Essentially what Machiavelli implies is that structure can create a population who behaves in a certain way- the point that Bacon is making is that our direct inputs may not have hte effect that we want them to have. Man's magistrate is convention he tells us- it is worth thinking about how those conventions are formed, how they change and die.

October 07, 2008

Tyranny and War

You talk of the Sabine invasion- that paltry affair. The real war which the people of Rome must fight is of a very different kind, if only you knew it: it is a war against those who, appointed to office in order to give us laws, have left our country at the mercy of their own caprice; it is against those who have abolished free elections, annual magistracies, which by ensuring the regular transfer of power are the sole guarantee of liberty for all, and without any mandate from the people flaunt the insignia and exercise the power of Kings. (III 39)

Marcus Horatius Barbatus said this to the face of the decemvirs in the senate at the height of their power- and the beginning of their ruin. As ever we need to be cautious- Livy may be inferring what he probably did not know- I find it hard to believe that a record of this speech survived. But this does not negate the speech's importance as a manifesto of resistance to the Decemvirs- in many ways the position that Horatius argues here- coming out of a populist aristocratic pride (he suggests that the Horatii and Valerii have always protected Rome (III 39))- is one that contains an important critique of tyranny. Notice already we have the emphasis upon the partiality or 'caprice' of the tyrant- something that we observed in the last piece of analysis that we did on the decemvirs.

But let us dig a little deeper into Horatius's speech. Firstly there is an important fact to notice about the way that Horatius describes tyrants. Tyrants are at war with their own country- a greater threat than an army of foreigners, of 'Sabines' in this case. Tyrants are at war with their own country because ultimately war is about volition- if I conquer you I force you to do what I want you to do. The brute fact behind a victorious triumph is the brute power that a tyrant seeks. The point Horatius is making here is that a tyrant is the enemy of the people. What he also suggests is that a tyrannical rule can never be a legal rule- notice again the way that he describes the decemvirs, they had an 'office' but now they do not hold a position superior to any private citizen (III 39). His argument is based upon the sense that an office of the government operates in the people's good- as a tyrant cannot operate in a people's good but is their enemy, he cannot govern a free people and consequently must be at war with them.

That is a first important point. Secondly we have an argument that extends something we have already seen in Livy. Livy originally told us that Brutus had made Romans swear never to obey another King- such was the reason that Octavian later refused the office of Rex itself. But Livy here is warning directly to Octavian and his successors that the name is insubstantial- the decemvirs arrogance is demonstrated when they take on the insignia of Kings, but the key objection to them is that they 'exercise the power of Kings'. Horatius states that 'what men hated was not the name of king but his pride and his violence'- we are back to the private will of the tyrant placing itself over and above the will or good of the people (III 39). The King or tyrant is not defined by a name but by a nature. This politically creates a resistance theory for Rome directed against those who behave like Kings- a tyrant (defined by his behaviour) is at war with his populace and any action by them, as in war, is justified. A point that later is made when one of the decemvirs appeals to the law of Rome, Verginius, one of the tribunes tells the crowd that a tyrant 'alone can claim no share in the beneficence of war' (III 57)- that claim fits with the suggestion that tyrants are beyond the law and its protections.

Resistance theory binds a person to resist a tyrant. This is perhaps an elementary and historically based resistance theory- but no less powerful for that- and its importance is derived from its context. Livy wrote in the reign of Augustus- when the power of a tyrant, one might argued, was cloaked in the Principate's velvet gowns. His argument is a warning to Augustus- that no matter what the legal situation was, if he or his successors ceased to act in the interests of Rome, then they placed themselves at war with their own people.

October 06, 2008

Sovereignty, Law and Election

When we elect politicians we have an idea of what they ought to do. We have an idea of what politicians are- normally ambitious people with a demand to govern- but the substance of governing is something that has changed down the ages. Furthermore the things we might believe that people should have an input in in order to stabilise and secure government have changed down the ages. The story of the decemvirs in Livy is interesting in this regard because it demonstrates the way that we have a different conception of what election does than the ancient Romans- I will demonstrate later that institutionally we actually have much more in common with Livy than we might think- but the difference in outlook is interesting. We think of election as something that legitimates leglislation- that is not the way that Livy thinks about it.

Livy talks a lot about legislation in the period of the decemvirs. We have already seen that he thinks of the decemvirs as exploiting the knowledge and resources of other ancient civilisations- deferring to the wisdom of great legislators in the past and in Greece, bringing the law crafted by old wise men to Rome. Livy beleives that law is handed down to the masses: when he speaks of the formation of Roman law, through the adoption of a set of principles and their digestion by the population, he is speaking of a flow from the ruler to the ruled, from the wise to the generality of people. Livy in this sense adopts an argument about politics which is not ministerial- the population have the right of veto but not the right of disposition. And it is this process that for Livy creates 'the fountainhead of public and private law, running clear under the immense structure of modern legislation' (III 34)- notice the image there of the flow of wisdom through the intentions of the population, starting at a fixed point in time, at an undemocratic and exalted moment and continuing through the virtu of the people.

Livy's view of legislation therefore is entirely based upon the formation of justice and then its adjustment to the character of the people who live under it.His view of judging is rather interestingly distinct from that. Livy has no problem with good judges- the first decemvirs ruled, he reminds us, tyrannically but they were good men and so provided 'prompt justice, of an almost superhuman purity' (III 33). We are here in the world of Gods- of Kings as the supreme and semi divine law givers. But of course Livy provides another example as the counter to that- the supreme and tyrannical judge can be overwhelmingly virtuous but he is more likely to be overwhelmingly vicious- he is more likely to be the second set of decemvirs, against whom there is no appeal and whose appeal is not to reason but to violence.

Ultimately this is where Livy is most distinct from a modern outlook on justice. Livy regards the original principles of justice as hard- and hence his population have no creative role in the manufacture of the ideal law code. But he regards the following discussion of justice to be simple: once you have set down the principles, any fool can know what they are doing. Hence his ideal decemvirs proceed secretly with the tables, but openly with the cases that they transact. It is a mark of the second set of decemvirs' ignominy that they have to cloak their justice in the mask of ceremonial violence and draw out military forces onto the streets (III 36). An appeal to unreason in judgement proceeds from the fact that for the second decemvirs, the 'man was everything, the cause nothing' (III 37). It is a parlous state of affairs- but one that Livy believes is an indication of something deeper and truer, that the will of the people gives you a sense of the communal intention. That can be swayed by violence, it can be swayed by the mob rule of an inspired orator- but it is unlikely to be swayed by personal knowledge- Rome afterall like Britain or America is too big for that.

The case of Verginia gives us an indication of what Livy means in this sense. Verginia was falsely appropriated by one of the decemvirs, Appius Claudius, because of her outstanding beauty as a slave. Her father as a consequence stabbed her and then revolted, destroying the decemvirate in the process. (III 43-8) The story though gives us an indication which I think is interesting- the issue at which both Appius Claudius and Tarquin fall is about a person, a single woman in both cases to whom a member of the royal family (Claudius or Sextus Tarquin) feels a violent and personal passion. This undermines their ability to give justice. The ordinary people therefore reclaim the state because ultimately their ability to give justice is more profound than that of the individual. The individual can provide wisdom but he cannot provide impartiality- at least that is Livy's view- and to some extent the frame of a republican representative government and a jury system with which we live suggests that though we do not recognise the argument, we live with its legacy.

October 05, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl


Lars is a loner. He spends his time living in his brother's garage, somewhere in the mid-West of the United States- somewhere no doubt with a Scandinavian heritage. He is encouraged by his brother and his sister in law to engage socially- but Lars refuses to. In the end, in a moment of desperation Lars orders a sex doll off the internet, called Bianca, and tells everyone that she is his girlfriend, come from abroad (she is half Brazilian, half Danish). His family, worried about him, take Bianca and him to the doctors (supposedly to make sure that Bianca has settled in alright but really to find out about Lars) the doctor tells them to go along with Lars's delusion as there is something that through it he needs to conquer. They do and the story of the film revolves around the way that Lars's delusory girlfriend is accepted by the local town and also with the growth of Lars himself through the experience of having this doll around.

There is something deeply perverse about this. It is like something out of Edgar Allan Poe in the sense that we are seeing a human being express strong physical attachment to a plastic sex doll. The film tries to cloak this in a sentimental small town piety- 'she was a teacher, she was a lesson in courage and Bianca loved us all especially Lars': well its true, until you recognise that she was a plastic doll and not a real human being. Twist and turn the tale it gets more complicated- we never quite see inside of Lars, we never see inside his head to what is driving him into his relationship with Bianca. He cannot cope with a normal woman of flesh and blood for some reason which is never explained- and the story takes as its focus the externality of Lars's character. Ryan Gosling plays him with a faint amused smile but without any introspection and this lack of psychological depth creates the atmosphere of the film: it makes the dark places of Lars's mind light.

If the film is not about psychology, what is it about? In part it is about community and compassion- it has a Capraesque tone running through it. This small town come together to enable one of them to live with his delusion and enable him to grow through it. In a sense that has to be lauded- but in a sense the tale is too optimistic. Because we never get inside Lars's head we never really understand what the nature of the illness that he suffers from is and so whether to see this town's actions as the kindness of friends to someone who cannot face, for a moment, real life or an abdication of responsibility. Are they aiding someone or are they in going along with the delusion merely helping a madman to make a fool of himself? I'm not sure that despite the happy ending and the medical piety of the local doctor, that question can ever be answered without a much more thorough examination of what and who Lars is.

What sustains the film are the performances. Emily Mortimer does brilliantly at playing the sister in law- she has just the right amount of weak and perhaps even vain strength. Gosling does a reasonable job- though the problems with Lars's character- in a sense he is a doll as much as Bianca is create problems that the actor cannot get over. Both Paul Schneider playing Lars's brother and Kelli Garner his love interest, Margo, do well: I liked Mr Schneider's ability to get the emotionless man who almost breaks down with the force of what is happening around him. The film is in reality divided into three parts- the first of which is the most satisfying and looks at the way that Mortimer and Schneider's characters react to Lars's new girlfriend and partly because of both of their performances and partly because the material is much more realistic that is the most successful part of the film.

The point on which the film stands or falls though is whether you believe in Lars. I've said that Lars is effectively a blank- we are given no kind of insight into what kind of condition he has- apart from some general guilt about pregnancy and a fear of being touched. I was left with questions about Lars rather than answers and questions about the nature of male relationships with women. Perhaps this is naive of me but I don't see a sex doll as a progression between loneliness and a relationship- rather I see it as a diversion because the hard thing in the relationship is coping with another person. Perhaps the film makers are right and imagine Lars taking Bianca's reality seriously and that realisation pushing him towards a relationship but I struggled with it as a concept. I also struggled with the idea that Margo would wait so long for Lars to fall out of love with a sex doll; it just seemed implausible to me.

I'm sure that there are lots of people who see this movie as a sweet reaffirmation of the value of community and the way that love is something that you have to learn to be an adult, and maybe its a reflection on me rather than the film that I couldn't. But I couldn't see it like that- I thought it was implausible. The last reason I think that the film is implausible is because it doesn't recognise that much of the problem of loneliness is not self inflicted or self induced. It dodges the question about loneliness- which is not so much that people do not desire love- but that others do not love them (perhaps that reveals a personal fear or perception of life). Lars ends the story walking into the distance with Margo- that is the most implausible cut of all.

Blogpower- the pious roundup

A couple of years ago I joined a group of small bloggers called blogpower. What is Blogpower? When it was started I remember that it was about the smaller blogger and attempting to get him or her a bit of the limelight and to be supportive of each other. Going round Blogpower this evening I learnt a hell of a lot- and perhaps the most important lesson I learnt was how good the blogs in Blogpower are. This roundup was pretty easy- and if I missed you off it was because I didn't have to look hard for posts at all and so being a lazy blogger, didn't. Anyway to business.

When thinking about the high profile bloggers- lots of them from Iain Dale to Andrew Sullivan have become minor celebrities- as David Hadley writesthis concept of the celebrity is something that we all should be thinking about, it dominates our landscape (and renders me suspicious that larger bloggers can ever provide the change in perspective that the Tin Drummer wants to see). The thing you miss with celebrity bloggers though is that they only take on celebrated issues- smaller bloggers are often more interesting- just take a look for example at the Fake Consultant's post on Egyptian elections- its an issue which will never make the tabloids but which we need to understand. On a similar theme, the Cornish Democrat posts a fascinating essay from Tom Nairn on the concept of nationalism- this is exactly the kind of thing that small blogs do well, disseminate academic work which often gets lost. If you stray from the mainstream, you also think about new and interesting issues- like why for example there are so few famous female artists, whether a sexual orientation really can have a duty to vote one way or another, why national symbols can be counter-productive (this is a long and exceptionally interesting article), whether assisted suicide should be made legal, whether cricket can conquer America- small bloggers do this whilst also providing concise and thoughtful reformations of current issues (like this summary of the arguments against the bailout and David Keen's guide to the British conferences is essential reading for those who weren't there). Coming out of the party conferences- Louis shows the Tories the way forward, Bob marvels at Gordon's gamble of a reshuffle, Mike questions Cameron's links to the hedge funds and Andrew praises the Libdems.

Away from such stuff- politics is not life and bloggers do not just blog about politics. Tom puts politics in perspective this week. My own recent post on Cincinnatus attempts to go back into Roman history and reinterpret this figure's place within that history. Others are also in the business of reading stuff, so you don't have to- Heather has been reading Esure press releases about cars and comes to some interesting conclusions. I like Crushed's unconstrained enthusiasm for the film, the Libertine, he also compliments one of my favourite actresses Samantha Morton which is a mark of good taste, and prompts me to want to see the film. If Crushed is ecstatic, perhaps he needs to listen to this piece of music whose sad movement is the perfect audio post. JMB doesn't need sad music, she has computer shops to contend with. But at least she doesn't live in Rabat, where sexism in Ramadan seems to thrive nor face the gloom of British adverts- bah humbug. Morning star just keeps the gloom going by discussing pain during diabetic eye tests. But even in dark times, we need humour- I loved this post of bad spellings and misplaced sentences. Jams helps by bringing us news of British triumphs at the IG Nobels. Just to surprise everyone Welshcakes has yet again posted some pictures of a pure cullinary delight (he says feeling his stomach rumbling). On a serious note, Liz posts about support in the blogosphere and how important it can be: Callum suggests the very act of blogging can be helpful in bad times. We should never lose sight of the fact that its humans writing blogs- and humans get ill, have bad times and good times: one who hasn't been having it so well recently is Mutley who's been to hospital- here's to him getting well again.

This may seem all a bit ideological but I think there is a point here- whether you agree or disagree with the posts above (and I agree with some and disagree with others) you can find a lot there to make you think. As the Pub Philosopher notes, we face at the moment a gap in information about things that are important to our live- he is talking about politics but could be talking about any number of things- I beleive that good blogs can help shrink that gap. I'm sure I've missed good posts- but this is what I saw this week and this reassures me that there is a hell of a lot of good thinking and writing going on- and that's without even including some of my favourite blogpower blogs that didn't post over the last couple of days.

And with that pious paean to the small blogger, that's all folks till next week's roundup!