January 03, 2009

Money and Civic Instability


There are certain types of crises that you can only have with money. One of the interesting things about Roman history is that soon after the Gallic invasion we have one of these crises. Livy attributes the crisis to the ambition of the centurion Marcus Manlius. The crisis concerned a centurion who was prosecuted for debt, 'as he was led off to prison Manlius saw him, hurried up in mid forum with a party of his supporters and held forth about the arrogance of the senators, the cruelty of the moneylenders, the miseries of the people, the merits and misfortune of the man.' (VI 14) Manlius does something here which I consider interesting- he contrasts the visible misfortunes of the people and bravery of the man against the invisible power of money. The injustice of the way that money operates- seemingly without any relation to the merit or demerit of the person involved- is for Manlius a political driver.

It is that operation that Manlius is focussed upon- how can someone who was a brave soldier end up in debt. In a sense the invisibility and incomprehensibility of the situation is something that creates a political opportunity. Money also creates inequality- further inequality because it allows people to store resources in a way that is not possible in a barter economy in perishable goods. You have a medium for the storage of wealth- but also a medium for the storage of debt because it is easier to create a concept of interest as well as to ennumerate a universal concept of what someone owes. What Manlius does is to create a political opportunity out of the latter issue. He uses the first development though to imply that the whole situation is the responsibility of a senatorial conspiracy: 'he declared amongst other things that the patricians were concealing treasure hoards of gallic gold and were no longer content with possessing State lands unless they could also appropriate State money; if the facts were made public the people could be freed from debt'.

Manlius's explanation for Rome's situation is clever but inaccurate- there are many reasons why debt would grow after a war, and increasing monetisation would definitely create increased inequality- but this is an interesting episode in Roman history. It is interesting because it reflects something about the way that money affects politics: it allows for further developments in the quantification of debt, allows for increased inequality and also it moves the value society puts on something from the intrinsic value of an item. Instead of a rabbit being worth seven candlesticks, both rabbits and candlesticks are translated into a conventional measure of value. Money ultimately is a civic abstraction. These developments- debt, inequality and abstraction all create a new type of politics- something I think we see in Livy's account of Manlius's debtor's revolt. Simply put, the Manlian moment could not have occured without a monetary moment preceding it.

January 02, 2009

The Death of Christopher Marlowe: Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning

Christopher Marlowe's death in 1593 is one of the most famous literary whodunnits in English history. Marlowe, Shakespeare's peer, had arguably acheived as much as Shakespeare until that date- his plays, Edward II, Tamberlaine, the Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus are examples taught in English classes and seminars today of classic verse and his poetry too lives on. Marlowe however was killed at the age of 29, in a room in Deptford, by a man called Ingram Frizier. The Coroner's court which met soon afterwards decided that what had happened was that four men, Marlowe, Frizier, Robert Pooley and Nicholas Skiers had met in Deptford, in the house of a Mrs Bull (herself affiliated to the court, and related to William Cecil), and spent around eight hours talking. Later in the evening they had had an argument over the bill for the drink and food that they had consumed, Marlowe had stolen Frizier's knife and attacked Frizier with it, Frizier responded and their was a fight, during which Marlowe was stabbed through the eye and killed. Frizier the assailant was set free on the grounds that he had committed self defence- and that Pooley and Skiers backed up his story.

The coroner's inquest record was discovered in the 1920s- and ever since there have been arguments about whether the record tells the truth or not. I have to confess here to being ignorant of many of the arguments- but one recent attempt to reconstruct the truth of what might have happened comes from Charles Nicholl, in a study published by the University of Chicago Press. Nicholl argues that you can only understand the death of Marlowe if you understand the background of the participants. He establishes that the three men in the room apart from Marlowe all had shady pasts. Frizier was an extortioner. Skiers worked both for the Earl of Essex as an agent and for Frizier as muscle. Pooley was a station chief for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and had worked for Sir Francis Walsingham in intelligence for years. Marlowe himself was almost certainly an agent too- he was allowed to take a degree in Cambridge despite the worries of the dons about his orthodoxy because of a special warrant from the Privy Council and had been involved in various nefarious activities in the Netherlands as well as being rumoured to have been interested in the succession to Elizabeth.

Nicholl's argument is that what happened in 1593 was that Frizier and Skiers and Pooley were trying to negotiate with Marlowe. Marlowe himself was being questioned by the Privy Council at the time about accusations of atheism- that Nicholl ties to factional struggles at court between the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. What may well have happened is that when the negotiation to get Marlowe to confess to atheism and implicate Raleigh failed, these lowly agents panicked and killed the poet spy. Based on what Nicholl writes it is a plausible reconstruction- the idea that this was a panicked killing which the participants then agreed to keep quiet makes sense. Panic is always a good historical explanation- better than any conspiracy at least. Whether Nicholl's precise constellation of facts is right I cannot be sure- there are too many 'musts' and 'shoulds' in his account, too many suppositions for us to express confidence in it as the total and unvarnished truth. Nicholl is addicted to supposing what happened in the gaps between the evidence- and whilst his explanation has the ring of truth to it, it depends on a chain of supposition and presumption. Marlowe's death ultimately may be an unresolved mystery.

Having said all of that, Nicholl's work is still worthwhile and what he has accumulated is interesting. It is interesting less because it reveals what actually happened on that dark day in Deptford, than because it reveals the world in which Marlowe passed. The world that Nicholl reveals is a world where criminality, spying and treachery are phases of a life- rather than divisions between different occupations. A character like Nicholas Skiers was a criminal (who manipulated people into contracts that they could not fulfill and who stuck closely to the letter of the law if not its spirit), a traitor (who consorted with Catholics and may well have had Catholic sympathies) and a spy. Robert Pooley, one of the men in the room, worked for Sir Francis Walsingham's secret service for years- and yet Walsingham never quite worked out which side Pooley was on and which side he worked for. Pooley was arrested for holding seditious literature for example, as well as procuring the arrests of others.

Marlowe himself fits into this world neatly. He was arrested for affray, for counterfeiting coins, was on the outside of circles around noblemen suspected of treachery and may have been stoking the flames there. Many of his friends were involved in the same kinds of activities- Thomas Watson for example another poet and playwright (though all his plays are now unfortunately lost) was a confidence trickster with a mean streak. Nicholl brings to life this world in fascinating detail- in a sense therefore it does not matter what happened in Deptford- because by analysing it we discover a lot more about Elizabethan life, politics and poetry.

Happy New Year

Apologies for the silence- I have a very irritating cold at the moment and am not feeling quite myself. But Happy New Year to all and sundry who visit this blog or who just have come through today through chance- I hope you all have a good 2009, despite the current economic gloom, and had a good New Year.

December 30, 2008

The Dutch Reformation 1520-50

Dutch Protestantism had massive consequences for European history: it fuelled the eventual Dutch revolt, had an important effect in the English seventeenth century particularly the civil war and the Revolution of 1688, and provided a check on French and Spanish ambitions in Germany and the wider world. Understanding its peculiar nature therefore is a vital part of understanding the events that formed the modern world- the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War and the culture of Early Modern Europe. Dutch Protestantism provided an intellectual environment for the philosophy of Spinoza, the jurisprudence of Grotius and the talents of painters like Van Eyck all took their form within a world shaped by Dutch Protestantism.

So what shaped Dutch Protestantism? According to Professor Israel there are two basic phenomena that we need to take account of if we are to understand what was unique about Dutch Protestantism. The first was that the Dutch Church was weak and that Dutch humanism was strong. The Dutch church was large but its presence within society was declining and it was unpopular. Furthermore it did not have appropriate leadership- the Netherlands was ecclesiastically divided between different bishoprics, some in France and in Germany. Into this clerical vacuum came the new techniques of humanism. The subject of humanism and what it meant in the early modern period is incredibly complex but lets assume for the sake of this discussion, that what it meant was a new attitude to texts. A humanist such as Erasmus taught that texts were open to those who might use them with the appropriate scholarly apparatus- consequently what he did for example was produce a Dutch translation of the Bible. Theologically they were committed to reform within the Church- often reform that might look like the reforms that Protestants too favoured, rationalisation we might call it- reforms which swept away clerical privileges and abuses and attempted to focus the Church around its mission- the gospel of Christ.

Such bald summaries will have to suffice to explain the nature of the landscape in the Netherlands- but I hope that gives you the impression that the Netherlands was ripe for the Lutheran movement after 1520 to spread. The last factor which governed how that movement spread was the persecution adopted as policy by the Hapsburg rulers of the Netherlands. Charles V made repeated efforts to bring in to the region the inquisition- fortifying it even after he had brought it in. The effect of this was to force the reformation under ground. Significantly it created a large group of people who temporised- who remained within the Catholic Church but held Protestant opinions. The martyrs who died for the faith were more often Anabaptists than Lutherans- another fact which influenced the progress of the reformation.

What this did was create in the Netherlands, according to Professor Israel, a very different reformation to the reformations that happened elsewhere in Europe. Whereas in Britain for example the reformation received its initial impetus from the crown and a reformed Church, in the Netherlands there was no institutional support for the reformation. Consequently Israel argues that the Dutch Reformation developed in an unstructured way- its heroes were people who in most of Europe were derided. It should also be noted that it developed into a movement of internal reformation- influential theorists like David Joris argued for a reformation proceeding through the spirit. Anabaptism remained stronger in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe- in some provinces up to 25% of congregations did not believe in child baptism. It should also be noted that whereas in the UK- London formed the centre of the reformation, in Holland it was marginal regions like East Frisia where Hapsburg persecution did not reach or amongst exiles in Germany that influential developments like the arrival of Calvinism took place.

The Dutch Reformation was much more fluid and anarchic precisely because it was an underground reformation- it was much less institutional and much more internal for the same reason. It came up from below- partly because of the triumph of humanism and weakness of the Church and partly because of the persecuting zeal of the Hapsburg Emperor. The story of Dutch Protestantism was different to that of English Protestantism because in England the new religion was chained to Parliament and the King, in the Netherlands the new religion was the leading antagonist of the Hapsburgs and only became fettered to the state after seizing a position amongst the people. In that sense, according to Professor Israel, Holland saw a different rhythm either from England or Scotland or Germany.

December 29, 2008

Le Mepris or Marxist Methods for living in a Capitalist World


She discovers she no longer loves Ulysses because of his weakness.

I don't think its safe to review a film on a first viewing- or at least to review a film like this on a first viewing. But Le Mepris or Contempt struck me with such force that I thought I must leave some testament- some record to what it inspired in me at first viewing. It was not merely the beauty of the young Bardot, nor the impassive resistance and majesty of Fritz Lang but something more important than that. Its the breakdown of the relationship at the centre of the film that affected me: that relationship breaks down in a wonderful sequence that lasts over half an hour, which is reminiscent in its triviality and its profundity, of every meaningless argument that ever destroyed a relationship and devastated lives. What Goddard makes is an argument both about the nature of film- of which more later- but also about the nature of life and love. In this sense the view of the film that sees it as a letter from Goddard to his estranged wife Anna Karina makes more and more sense- for what would such a letter be composed of but thoughts about love and about film. And as such there is something private about Le Mepris, something that will never be decoded, something that we will strive to find in this or any review and fail to.

So what is Le Mepris about. An imperious American producer, Prokosch, has hired Lang- the great director- and wants to hire a young screenwriter to rewrite Lang's over intellectual script. Lang has aspirations to make a film about Homer's Odyssey, Prokosch wants more naked mermaids unerotically but nakedly cavorting in the sea (after one such sequence the Producer giggles and squirms in his chair). The writer, Paul, is married to a beautiful ex-typist- Bardot's character, Camille- whom Prokosch takes an immediate shine to. Prokosch invites the two of them back to his mansion: he then invites Camille to take his car with him, he then propositions her on the way to his house and when Paul finally turns up, having lost the way, an hour later Camille frigidly turns from him. The rest of the film surrounds his inability to see what she has been through- and her inability to communicate that to him- this precipitates the final calamity in their marriage. Surrounding it though is the bleak story of the film- in which Prokosch's bizarre speculations about what the Homeric story really means, and his pocket book quotation philosophy, triumphs over Lang's subtlety because he has the wallet. Paul resists the fall. For Lang it is merely a reminder that to live is to suffer.

The language in which this story is expressed is interesting- it is all about ownership. Camille's arguments with Paul are about the fact that she cannot be owned- she can be loved, adored even and can love and adore but she cannot be owned. Her decisions cannot be taken for her. On another plane the same issue appears with the film, Homer's story cannot be owned by an American media mogul no matter how rich. Even the Gods in Odysseus fail to manipulate the wanderer strictly to the paths they have chosen- and what Goddard leaves us in no doubt with is the perception that all claims of ownership ultimately do not provide the kinds of release that they offer. Prokosch may think he is a modern Zeus, actually he is a comic Malvolio with a magnum of champagne. But we can go further and deeper into this: the next thing that Goddard demonstrates is that people do not wish to be or like to be owned. Camille is the vehicle for this perception- as soon as she perceives that her husband is using her as a commodity, her fury becomes an emblem within the film. Furthermore one knows that even if she were to use Prokosch, she would despise him.

If the impossibility of owning another human being is one side of Goddard's coin, then the other side is how to live in a society where demands are constantly made upon one to give up oneself. Three approaches manifest themselves here within the confines of the film- and they surround the three main male characters. Prokosch's approach is to seize control of the universe- but as Goddard shows when you try and do that, the universe has a habit of rebounding on you, causing tragedy not merely to the slave but to the master. The second approach is Paul's and that is a wilful blindness to what is happening to you- an acceptance of the ownership imposed by society because you are too stupid to recognise that your producer covets your pretty wife and too foolish to see how your integrity is being compromised. The third approach is that of Lang: to search for something else- in this case art- and use the society you live in to that end. Not to compromise unless you are forced, and when you are forced give in with a weary nod to that old truth- that in living there is suffering. Lang's position is not merely a directorial nod to the kind of films that Goddard saw as dying, but also within the film it is a nod to the kind of life that wanted people to inhabit: when it comes to the world resigned cynicism, when it comes to art interest and enthusiasm.

Ultimately what Goddard's film is about, is what Lang says that the Odyssey is about, the theme of fate and how to live one's life in a world governed by other forces. For Lang, the hero of the Odyssey represents the human desire to achieve an objective- whether it be art or Ithaca in a world governed by tyrants- Goddard's point in a sense is that Lang represents in this case, an Odysseyan view of life. Whereas Paul would have abandoned the quest to return to Ithaca on Circe's island, and Prokosch sought to become a God himself, Lang keeps on, monocle in place, making the film that he wants to make because he seeks not to enslave, but to produce something of worth. In that sense the artist, the Greek hero and the proletarian worker have become one- in that sense only can we escape, in Goddard's view, from contempt.

December 28, 2008

Holland: the Geographical Foundations of the Netherlands

When I was a kid, I used to make the mistake of calling the Netherlands, Holland. Its a mistake often made- though of course Holland is the largest province within the Netherlands. Its a mistake though, now I learn as (belatedly) I read Jonathan Israel's history of the Dutch Republic, that is excusable- not because the mistake is any less greivous but because historically Holland was the principle duchy which drove the unification of the Netherlands. What is more interesting when analysing the formation of the Netherlands is a simple question- why did the low countries split (effectively) in half in the sixteenth century. Why was it that Holland and its surrounding provinces went one way, whereas Flanders, Brabant and the south turned into what is now modern Belgium?

Israel's answer to this question is interesting- and it rests upon two principle observations about the geographical foundations of medieval politics- the first local, the second multinational. The first observation has to do with the local interior geography of the low countries. Faced with a map of the low countries, the natural boundary constituted by the Waal and Maas becomes instantly visible. This boundary of rivers was the boundary north of which the Flemish and Brabantian forces did not cross. In general both Flanders and Brabant were more concerned about maintaining thier southern border against France than about the natural frontier to the north- thus their influence permeated Artois to the south in a way that it never penetrated Utrecht to the north. With the exception of Zeeland- the Waal Maas line remained the line beyond which the state of Holland could expect to exert little influence and furthermore that they could expect little threat from. This was supported by the fact that according to Israel trade within the Netherlands ran East-West- up and down rivers towards the coast- rather than north south, along the coast, suggests an adequate reason why the southern states never projected their power northward, allowing Holland to develop its primacy in the Northern Netherlands. (It is important to note that even though Holland was conquered by the Burgundians and inherited by the Habsburgs- both kept the older geographical boundaries within the Netherlands as administrative units.)

The second geographical phenomenon that explains the rise of Holland within the north Netherlands is the great rise in irrigation in the late Middle Ages. As Professor Israel documents, the Dutch reclaimed vast tracts of land from the water as early as these centuries- and by doing so they extended the limits of their own land. This created new bases of power- favouring the maritime coastal states whose land increased- and also whose opportunities for trade increased. It is worth thinking at this point about the major challenge to Holland in the Northern Netherlands- which came not so much from the south as from the east. It was the Hansa cities of Northern Germany worried about the Baltic trade who attempted to fund opposition to Holland in the Northern Netherlands. And that bears testament to the second geographical process- which is the long range trade of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, whereby Holland found herself a potential entrepot in trade running down the Baltic Sea out into the North Sea and from there down the Rhine or further down the English Channel. That kind of trade helped fortify the Netherlands later on in history- but even in this early period it led to the German city states seeing Holland's primacy over the Northern Netherlands as a potential competitor to be disuaded.

Professor Israel's work is a distillation of the research work of others- how could it not be covering so many centuries and he is not an expert in the medieval period. But I find his insights into the geographical foundations of the Dutch story interesting and persuasive- it may not be that the details of this are precisely right- but that the story of the Netherlands involves two central facts- the East West boundary of the rivers and the importance of trade from the Baltic seems to me to be undeniable.