March 28, 2009

Filming a desire for death: The Sea Inside


The Sea Inside is a tragic film- it is about a man who cannot move his limbs, still vibrant and full of humour on the inside, he lacks the facilities to take part in life. Consequently this man decides that he wants to die. Ramon Sampedro was a real person and the story is an account of his life and his later death. We are told that he was a fisherman, who one day dived into the water near his home in northern Spain and struck his head upon the seabed and broke his neck, he was rescued but was unable to move again. The film concentrates on what this means that he is unable and able to do: he is unable to do any of the things he enjoyed before he dived, he has to renounce his life, renounce his girlfriend, his career and even in a certain sense his family by deforming their lives. He lives in the imagination; there are some incredibly powerful sequences in the film where Sampedro imagines flying over the village to the sea, imagines getting up from his bed and kissing a girl, imagines the freedom of being able to physically move and yet every time, he returns to lying on his bed demanding the mercy and compassion of others. For him that kind of life is not one that he wishes to live and yet he cannot commit suicide for he cannot move to do so, and should any friend help him, they would become guilty of murder.

There are good arguments for and against euthanasia and the broader issue is not one that is easy to resolve, particularly in a film review. The film here actually takes almost no position on the broader issue. There are several moments in which Javier Bardem, acting as Sampedro, is asked about euthanasia, and rather than saying that everyone in his condition would desire to die or should desire to die, he merely states that he desires to die. Rather than argue that a quadriplegic has no life worth living anymore, Ramon suggests that he has no life worth living anymore. A fascinating debate with a quadriplegic priest makes that clear: the priest and Ramon disagree not so much about euthanasia as a principle available for all, but as to whether Ramon has the authority to decide whether his own life is worth living or whether it is something granted to him, which he has no authority to come to a decision about.

Ramon's decision impacts on a larger community: his friends. His family care for him in a sweetly affectionate way: one can see that their entire lives are based around his care. His brother resents that he wants to die, his father utters the most tragic line in the film- that the only thing worse than having a child who dies before you die, is when your child desires to die before you die. His sister in law's attitude to Ramon is motherly, bossy yet fundamentally protective and kind. Ramon's nephew Javier has a wonderful relationship with him- one of the achievements of this film is that it gets the affectionate and exasperated relationship between the teenager and the uncle perfectly. Then there are a circle of friends outside the family- in particular three women- Julia, Ramon's lawyer, who herself suffers from an incurable disease and whom Ramon is in love with, Gene a member of a local support group and Rosa a local factory worker who comes to see Ramon. Julia and Rosa are perhaps the most interesting of this collective for Julia faces the same choice as Ramon and ultimately decides to stay alive at the cost of her dignity and her mind.

The internal battle within Rosa is perhaps the most moving and important of the film. Rosa claims from the first moment she sees Ramon to be in love with him. She develops a dependancy upon him, talking to him about her own problems and rushing to see him at every point of the day or night. What is most interesting though about this relationship is that Rosa's conception of what she means by love evolves through the film. At the beggining and in the middle fo the film what Rosa means by love is a kind of dependance that makes you desire a person's presence and definitely not their suicide. Love for her means a reliance on another person- a care for them but a care for them which is instrumental to sustaining that reliance. It is only towards the end of the film that she attains another conception of love- that love might mean that you desire for a person the ends that they desire for themselves. Those two conceptions of love are very different- even though for most of us, most of the time they come together as one: Ramon's case means that Rosa has to separate them and decide which matters more to her, her decision has a nobility and a tragedy to it and in a sense her decision is her wooing of Ramon. That suggests a further thought that the first sense of love is the actual feeling we feel inside, the second is our rhetoric to inspire recipricocity.

That last sentence goes beyond the subject of this film- as I hope I have shown the film is about the subtle interweaving of love and death that Ramon's accident creates. On the one hand we have the deep individual desire of Ramon to die- he knows that there is nothing left for him in this life. On the other we have the drama of the contest within his friends between their love for Ramon as a support and a friend and their love for Ramon as an individual who they desire to be happy. These are not easy issues- but they are important- perhaps as important as the great political and ethical battles about euthanasia and in a sense they are more universal. Understanding that human beings are individuals and a tragedy for someone might not be one for you is the heart of understanding depression and sadness itself, understanding love is more fundamental even than that. This film has things to say about both issues.

March 27, 2009

Edward III's peace

If Edward III’s reign was abundant in future precedents, it was no less significant within the England of the 14th Century. Before Edward took the throne, his grandfather Edward II had been deposed and murdered. After he died, King after King would find themselves facing major internal problems. Edward’s grandson Richard was killed, his grand nephew Henry IV faced rebellions across the north and into Wales, Henry’s grandson Henry VI was deposed twice and murdered, Edward IV was only deposed once but even so was forced into exile briefly during his reign and Richard III died at Bosworth field, killed by one of his own subjects (presumably). From Edward III to Henry VIII- during a gap of about 200 years- of the 8 monarchs to reign in England, only two did not face a severe and serious rebellion and only 4 were not murdered or assacinated. Edward’s achievement therefore was to create within England a break- a break in the routine of medieval England that before him consumed John, Henry III and his father and afterwards was to wreak havoc. The question that contemporaries and historians focus on about Edward’s reign is how did he maintain the peace.

One answer to this success has to be that Edward shares a chief feature with two other kings who were able to keep the peace in medieval England- his grandfather Edward I and his great grand son Henry V- he was good at fighting. Edward took English troops deep into France. That success turned easily into popularity- during the 1340s, 1350s and 1360s- the apex of his power- Edward was unassailable at home and abroad and the two factors were connected. The nobility in particular saw Edward as one of their own, part of a military aristocracy. He founded the Order of the Garter, linking together the high nobility of the nation in a chivalric order bound to defend the monarchy and the crown. Edward’s ability to do this was founded on his undoubted charisma and his military prowess- as that faded in the 1370s with the King’s increasing age, the death of his old companions and of his equally glamorous son the Black Prince and with the rejuvenation of French military power, so did Edward’s power. Just like his predecessors and successors, Edward’s position was closely tied to what he could do militarily, particularly in France.

Even so, even in the 1370s, there was no revolt against Edward. The Edwardian regime succeeded in containing problems- the defections of leading councillors from Archbishop Stafford in 1341 to Bishop Wyckeham in 1376 without breakdown. Edward was, like Elizabeth, skilful at feinting at concession, gulling his political enemies before exerting the authority of the crown. Edward was, in his prime, a subtle and skilful politician: though that may have been built through instinct rather than as with Elizabeth training, his judgement was as sound. Edward unlike Elizabeth left the crown stronger than he found it- he did this in two ways: firstly by creating a myth which both Henry V and Henry VIII were to seize on- the myth of the chivalric, martial prince. Secondly and more importantly he was an institution builder- we shall turn later to his creation of the House of Commons- but equally important was his cooption of the English gentry into regional government. Edward’s reign saw the creation of the system of justices of the peace that would last into the 20th Century. This system made the gentry partners in the extension of royal authority right down into the localities.

The ultimate reward for such institution building was that Edward was phenomenally wealthy by the standards of contemporary Kings. He was able to collect taxes on a vast scale, impressive even by more recent standards, and to do so from a heavily diminished tax base. During his reign, the Black Death killed a third and possibly more of his subjects: but Edward’s ability to collect taxes was scarcely changed or challenged by the phenomenon. Rather through instruments like the statute of labourers (which set the price of work artificially low) he cemented an alliance between the nobility and the crown, the gentry and the centre, which paid off in more prosperous times. If we are to understand Edward, we have to understand him as a charismatic war leader who led his armies to victory and reaped the reward in reputation and power, but we also have to understand an intelligent if instinctive English monarch who was able to martial political forces to achieve his aims. Ultimately Edward was perhaps England’s luckiest medieval monarch- both for his long life and through his martial successes which relied on his emergence at a particular point in time- but he also made use of that luck to carve out fiscal and political gains for the crown. Fiscal and political gains which helped maintain a momentum that supported the crown’s position right up until his dotage and his death.

March 26, 2009

Edward III and Parliament

Edward III was king of England from 1327 until his death in 1377. His reign was one of the longest in English history and encompassed a huge amount of administrative and political change- the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, the growth of Parliament as an institution, the transition from judicial eyres as were held by his grandfather Edward I and before him Henry II and the Conqueror to a magistracy based in local communities and the centralisation of the English state. Of course accompanying all of this were famous military victories- Crecy, Poiters, Neville’s Cross and Sluys. Mark Ormerod in his account of Edward’s reign tries to make sense of the period from an institutional point of view: looking at Edward’s reign as a set of transactions between the monarch and his subject- what he reveals I suggest is interesting for the history of medieval kingship and royal power.

For the political theorist the most important growth in Edward’s reign was undoubtedly that of Parliament. It is from Edward’s reign that we can date many of the most important constitutional innovations and peculiarities of the English system: the first Speaker was appointed by the House of Commons in 1341, Parliament’s supremacy over finance evolved over the 1340s and 1350s, its power to present petitions was solidified and those petitions evolved from private documents presented on behalf of the petitioner into petitions of the commons about wider matters. It also became more confident in linking those petitions to its financial demands, and it was in Edward’s reign, that it became an accepted principle that the Lords could only agree new taxes on behalf of their members, the Commons agreed new taxation for the rest of their kingdom. Also the House of Commons itself became more regular in its composition- from 1327, every English Parliament until the great reforms of the nineteenth century, save those in the civil war, included 2 members from each of the English counties (excluding the county Palitinates of Chester and Durham). It was from the 1330s that knights and burgesses started sitting together in sessions- Edward III attempted to summon councils of merchants to vote subsidies, by the 1350s those councils had become merged into Parliament and the Commons had become able to claim that they represented every class.

What Bishop Stubbs and others termed the rise of Parliament, the seizing of the initiative by the House of Commons (a process lasting according to Professor Notestein several centuries until its fulfilment in the 18th Century) was not a process that worked against the crown: rather it was a biproduct of the crown’s increasing strength. Throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries the increasing prestige and power of the House of Commons cemented the increasing prestige and power of the King. Edward III’s reign was also notable for the increasing ability of the King to wage war, to summon soldiers to his standard and levy taxes. Edward levied unimaginable taxes from his subjects: compared even to his grandfather Edward I, Edward III doubled or even tripled the tax load upon England- a load born after the Black Death in 1349 by almost a third fewer people. Not merely that, but Edward governed through a council that under the leadership of Robert Erdington and later William Wyckham Bishop of Winchester had become an administrative instrument of some precision: Edward’s powers were extended to the lowest levels of the government and he might and did interfere in decisions of every level. Edward used Parliaments to raise funds- but he did not listen to them when they threatened his prerogative. Rather what the Commons learnt in the reign of Edward was, as Professor Ormerod puts it, that confrontation produced a short term gain for them which was easily revocable (see for example 1100, 1215, 1258, 1310-11, 1326-7, 1341, 1376 etc.) - cooperation between crown and Parliament led to both organisations (principally the crown) gaining powers. The lesson Lord Manchester sought to teach Oliver Cromwell sounds through English history like a claxon bell, the King was still King whatever his Commons might say.

The rise of Parliament and its growth as an institution fulfilled a need for the crown: it legitimised quite extraordinary collections of taxes, legitimised increasing scrutiny over the control of localities by magnates. It further entrenched the primacy of royal law throughout England- a distinguishing character according to Dr Garnett of English government in the early Middle Ages. The lesson that Professor Ormerod teaches us about Edward III is the same lesson as Dr Graves has taught us about Elizabethan Parliaments: Bishop Stubbs and his followers were wrong. Parliament did not seize the initiative in Edward’s reign (or Elizabeth’s for that matter): what it became was the best royal instrument to demonstrate the consent of the realm to the acts of the crown, Parliament authorised taxes and MPs acting as Justices of the Peace in the localities collected them, Parliament petitioned against ills and the King in his righteousness decided how to redress them. The constitutional story of the late middle ages, culminating with the most fundamental act (to this day) of Parliamentary supremacy- the acts in the Commons that made the English Reformation- was the story not of the triumph of Parliament over the King, but the triumph of the King in Parliament. The road from Edward III’s constitutional experiments leads not so much to Robert Walpole and William Gladstone, but to Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and the chasm that separates us from the Edwardian and Henrican Parliament is not one of Whiggish evolution but one of war, blood and toil. After Cromwell cut the King’s neck, the Gordian knot of the English constitution was slashed to pieces and the world changed.

Edward III and his councillors did not live in Restoration times- we do.

March 23, 2009

Il Divo

Giulio Andreotti was Prime Minister of Italy seven times. He was allegedly linked to all sorts of conspiracies and conspirators- from the CIA and the Pope to various mafiosi. During his period in Italian politics, several ministers were assacinated and one of his rivals for power, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped by the leftwing red brigades and eventually killed by them. This information is indispensible if you are going to watch and enjoy Il Divo, the new film about Andreotti that has just come out, however it is not important that you take a view on the issues. Rather than present an argument, the film presents an impression of Andreotti, it does not narrate or put together the series of murders and plots that may have put him at the centre of Italian politics, it assumes they did and then builds a picture impressionastically of the man and his milieu.

For the duration of the film you have to accept the film maker's view of Italy in the period, even if it is incorrect, for there is nothing to be gained from this film from arguing with it as it has no argument. Rather it is a series of illustrations- treat it as fiction or fact depending on your own view of Italian politics in the postwar era: but don't get hung up on inaccuracies or false assumptions, the film is bold, blatant and ahistorical. What is there to enjoy then in the film? Lets start with the filming which is truly innovative- you can see why a prize was given to the film at Cannes just from the unique style that the director has given his movie. This is a visual song and dance film not a deep film about political analysis. There are some very fine touches within it. As men die in an opening sequence- murdered by the mafia- their names follow the blood out of their mouths. In Roberto Calvi's case (he was an Italian banker whose corpse was found hanging off a bridge in the Thames) the camera revolves around his body and gradually he see his names emerging like his last breath into the foggy London air. There are some wonderful counterposes as well: at one point Andreotti confronts a cat- the cat sits looking at him across a marble floor and the absudity of human political power is brought out as this weak old man cannot move the cat from the floor, though he can move policemen and soldiers around at whim. There are other fine visual moments: lovely touches which show that the director has mastered the basics of the cinematic art.

It is the impression that I think is important in this film and not the detail. In a way the effect of the film is like that of Bulgakov's masterpiece- the Master and the Margerita- just like Bulgakov made the Russia of Stalin absurd through the device of the devil's return to earth, so Il Divo trades on the absurdity of Italy. Andreotti's historical cronies are given hyper real personalities their exaggerated expressions dance across the screen, puppets of the film makers imagination. Andreotti himself, dressed in black, stalks the stage- a hyperactive hunchback with an enigmatic smile. That sense that Andreotti was as his nicknames suggested the master of Italy is perpetuated by having him as a central point in all the scenes- the camera narrows in on this hunched frame: a Latin Richard III. Impressions are the key thing that the film trades on- attempting to analyse it as a narrative or a story will not give you what makes the film work or the point that the director is trying to get at.

Analysing the baroque spirit of the film- Andreotti's nervous pacing, the ceremony of the Catholic church, the booming sound of pop music- gets you much further. Atmosphere is at the heart of this movie. What the director wants you to see is the atmosphere of Italian politics- a panorama of the scene in which Andreotti trod and an exploration of what Italian politics was like. For example Andreotti in one scene treads a corridor into a party- but he is still the Premier and his sad glance takes in the corrupt antics of his finance minister. Andreotti stands surrounded by this society and consequently becomes explained by his context in part. The gnomic utterances make sense alongside the anarchic disputation: as the one silent man in a screaming Parliament can bear loss with equanimity and dignity. Andreotti's presence in the film is equivocal and not examined seriously, but Italian politics is presented as riotous and colourful. At the centre strides this implacable and silent figure- wondering amidst the strands of his own memory and the manipulated mafia- whether it tells us anything about him is another matter, but what it does present is a picture of Andreotti in his times.

March 22, 2009

A Protestant Union? Scottish and English Unionism in the 16th and 17th Centuries


In 1643, English Parliamentary forces were in retreat. The King seemed to be on the verge of triumph in the English civil war. However the war involved not merely the English Parliament but also the Scottish Kirk. In 1638-40 the Scots had rebelled, the Irish rebelled in 1641 and the royal forces were attempting to deal with a problem across the three kingdoms not merely in the England. In 1643 the English Parliament went to negotiate with the Scots about them joining in the war. The treaty which brought the Scots in was called the Solemn League and Covenant. The Solemn League and Covenant is a fascinating document because, as Colin Kidd argues in a recent set of lectures on the issue of unionism in Scotland, it provides a template for understanding Scottish and English unionism.

The Solemn League and Covenant was not merely an alliance against Charles I in the English Civil War: it was also a constructive document that envisaged a world after the civil war. Because it was negotiated at a period in which the Scots were powerful, the Solemn League and Covenant bound the English to fulfill Scottish conditions. It envisaged a partial political union- an eternal alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish one- but did not envisage the marriage either of the two countries' politics or of their laws. Rather the document envisaged a union of the two nations' religions: England and Scotland would be united according to the Solemn League and Covenant in Presbyterian faith and Church government would proceed according to the best Calvinistic model. Both Bishops (the Anglican form of church government) and independent congregations (the type of government favoured by independents like Oliver Cromwell) would be abolished or restricted. Though the Solemn League and Covenant was never fully enforced and was abandoned as the balance of power changed in England- it did have some lasting effects including an assembly of Scottish and English divines and scholars at Westminster which debated theology for five years and produced a confession of faith for the whole nation.

The Solemn League and Covenant provides an important template for thinking about Scottish and English union in the 16th and 17th Century. The imagined reality of two Presbyterian nations, perpetually Protestant and perpetually allied, facing a Catholic Europe was not one that suddenly emerged in 1643. One can see a similar idea (if backed by a different ecclesiology) in William Cecil's plans for the destruction of Marian Scotland in the 1560s or in John Knox's plans for the evangelisation of the English court in the 1540s. Part of the reason that both in England and Scotland union was popular in the Early Modern period was that it represented a way to unite Protestant forces against a Catholic other- whether France or Spain- that threatened to use Britannic minorities to overthrow the religious settlements in both nations. Perhaps one of the interesting reflections that that provokes is that national identity in the early modern period may have been weaker in comparison to religious identity than it is today.