June 12, 2009

Work and Blogging

I worked for the BBC back in the day as a researcher on a documentary about the civil war. One of the things that frustrated me about that documentary and historical documentaries in general was how bad it was and they are. For a person who actually is interested in history and knows a little about it, the average historical documentary doesn't really seem to give you a good understanding of the history that it talks about. I was voicing this complaint to a friend of mine working with me at the time when she turned around and made me see the whole business of documentary making in a different way, she told me that people watch documentaries after they come home from work and that they could not cope with a deep and complex picture of the world at that point but wanted something to relax to. I know what she meant. Having done a job now for days on end, it is not easy to come back and immediately keep working on intellectual matters- the mind like the body needs a rest.

I am not writing this because it just struck me for no reason, but because of a post that Ashok wrote about blogging. Ashok has two complaints about blogging- one is that most blogs are stupid and the other is that most blogs are anti-social. I don't want to argue with his suggestion that the internet is much less sociable than it might seem- I have some durable relationships through the net but not that many. But I want to suggest that what Ashok diagnoses as stupid solipsism on the net- and there is much of it (this blog is not immune!)- is caused by something and something that may be of interest to us when we think about the general cultural levels of the population at large. If you as many people do spend between 9 and 5 working, or 9 and 6 or 9 and 7, then you'll know that one of the main conditions of modern life is tiredness. Not necessarily physical tiredness but mental tiredness. Much of what people do on the blogosphere is actually displacement activity- its an activity for their spare time and whilst they want their blogs to be good, they don't want to feel the pressure of being excellent and they don't want necessarily to be Newton on their blog when they have to be Boyle at work.

Work is the subject of our lives and so you would expect the internet, which is the activity of spare time, not to be as intense or powerful as working life. That is one of the many reasons I'm sceptical about net revolutions- not that I don't think the net has power (Amazon and Daily Kos in different ways demonstrate that) but that I do not think either a great truth or a great political movement will emerge purely from the internet. My scepticism arises from my sense that people's lives take place more off the internet than on it- and lack the leisure at present to engage fully all the time with what they read online. Ultimately the problem here is not necessarily a lack of engagement but could be a lack of spare leisure to spend on hard analysis or political engagement.

June 11, 2009

The Browning Version

Anthony Asquith's Browning Version is a study in failure. Let us start from first things though, the film concerns a classics teacher, Andrew Crocker Harris, at an unnamed public school in southern England. Crocker Harris came to the school with glowing academic credentials from Oxford, he came but he did not conquer. In the early years as a master he reveals he was mocked, now he is merely disliked- the Himmler of the lower fifth. Crocker Harris has failed as a teacher- Taplow (pictured above with Crocker Harris) for example bemoans the fact that the school master does not teach the classics as stories in their own right but as examples of Latin and Greek grammar. He cannot convey to his pupils the feeling of beauty that he himself gets from those august works of antiquity- he attempted, we learn, once to do so through poetry but was unable to render Aeschylus into English or to finish his translation. His efforts in the school room are just as flawed. Crocker Harris's class room is a zone of orderliness and boredom- as he hands down Latin witticisms from his chair, the boys in the pews whisper their discontent, calling him the Crock behind his back and speculating over whether he is really human.

Life as a failure taints every aspect of his existance. This film contains one of the bitterest portraits of marital breakdown in cinema- Crocker Harris's wife believed when she married him that he might make master of Eton, instead he has made a master of a small public school and is being retired. She despises him, she cannot pity him. She has turned her husband's failure into a reason to hate him- furthermore he is not the romantic hero that she imagined to have married. Instead she turns to affairs. But it is her callousness towards Andrew Crocker-Harris rather than her sexual incontinence that repels the viewer: one can understand however when you see how Crocker Harris behaves to his pupils that a life with him could be a life of slow torture. Overly punctilious and precise, under emotional and verbose, Andrew Crocker Harris is neither exciting nor sympathetic- that his wife's repulsion adds to his sad condition and his condition to her repulsion is a cycle of sad negative feedback that one feels was set in motion from the first day of their marriage.

Failure is not an easy condition- nor, as this film demonstrates, is it a sympathetic condition. Crocker Harris is frequently referred to as dead- his pupils say he is dead and even he says that he is dead. A corpse is not good company. The problem is that failure as the film demonstrates builds on itself. Crocker Harris's failure has led to him becoming impassive- he will not answer back, will not stand in the way of the disrespect for him from others, he has become both an unpleasant caricature and a coward but for understandable reasons. What the film implies though is something that a cognitive behavioural therapist might argue, Crocker Harris if he is to acheive recovery has to acheive bravery. In a sense part of the problem, the film implies, with the man is that he looks back on his past not forward on his future- he looks to obligation rather than to opportunity. Of course the film complicates and muddies this perception- Crocker Harris's colleague and cuckolder Mr Hunter thinks rather too much of opportunity and too little of obligation and learns the opposite lesson, but Crocker Harris's condition is worse. An addiction to tradition and obligation have turned him from a conservative into a fossil- incapable of preserving even that (the classics) that he cares so much for.

June 09, 2009

An account of a most strange and barbarous action

On Sunday 22nd March 1685, we read in the pamphlet by the same title as my article (for those interested its Wing Number is A188C and it is located on EEBO (subscription needed)), Smith (the wife of a sawyer Michael Smith in the city of London) jumped out of the window of Blackfriars jail, to her death below. The pamphlet suggests why Smith did this. Her husband Michael Smith had been 15 to 16 weeks in prison- the pamphlet does not mention why and a search of the Old Bailey online for "Michael Smith" between January 1684 and March 1685 produces no results. But at any rate, Smith was living in considerable penury, according to our anonymous writer the 'long and tedious imprisonment had reduced them to a very poor and low condition, as having been forced to sell even their household goods for a present maintenance'. Smith, 'despairing of his inlargement, asked him after they had dined to go upon the leads of the prison, having been there some time discoursing together'. After he had gone down to fetch more drink, she flung herself so our source says from the leads 'into Black-Fryers, which is at least four stories high, so that she was bruised to peices and was carried to a House adjacent'.

The story seems straightforward. Smith was distressed by her husband's condition and after a depressing conversation about his continued imprisonment, as soon as he was absent decided enough was enough and committed suicide. However there are a number of features of the pamphlet which are interesting to me and I think maybe to you. Firstly there is the fact that whereas the husband, Michael Smith, is named and the location and nature of his business is given, the wife's first name is ommitted. Secondly the pamphlet is about one and a half pages long, and yet the story of the suicide covers only the bottom of the first folio and the top of the second. It is preceded by a long discussion of 'how sad and dismal a thing it [suicide] is to consider', how it violates the law of natural self preservation and is the work of the devil. The concept of suicide itself is not actually placed into the story until a last clarifying words which lament the 'horrid sin of Self-Murther'. The two facts are tied together and give us an interesting insight not merely into Smith's condition when she tumbled from the leads, but also into the author's thinking about suicide.

The author's view of suicide is tied up with his view of the soul. The Devil 'tempts us to sin' and 'attaques us', he makes the 'strongest assaults upon our weakest guard', he is a 'cunning and subtile... Enemy'. The author's argument, particularly his emphasis on suicide's unnaturalness, moves the seat of the action away from Smith and towards the tempter. Of course she was down, but her tempter is the instigator, the real actor in this drama. He first conceived of suicide and she followed his direction, succumbed to his assault. The naming of the wife as Smith fits into this model: suicide is a sin, it is a betrayel of the law of God and more importantly the law of nature which motivates the heathen and christian. I would suggest that given the way her husband is clearly identified, Smith's identity is no mystery- but that the author wants to stress the gravity of the crime by depriving her of her name. Coyly he can therefore both identify her and also maintain the mystique of a crime whose name he does not mention until his own last words.

The pamphlet thus exposes an interesting aspect of the past. The anonymous author (and there are other interesting questions to ask, like who is writing and why- may we detect a neighbour or rival of Michael Smith) provides us with a fascinating insight into his own psychology and the way that he views his audience.

June 07, 2009


From now on the wars described will be of greater importance. Our enemies were more powerful and campaigns lasted longer and were mounted in remote areas. For this (343 BC) was the year an attack was launched against the Samnians, a people who were strong in both resources and arms. After the Samnite war, which was inconclusive, Pyrrhus was the enemy, and after him the Carthaginians. What a series of momentous events! How often were we in mortal danger, to enable us to raise up our empire to its present height of grandeur, where only with difficulty is it sustained. (VII 30)

Livy begins his account of the First Samnite war with this statement. In a sense he is right- the Samnite war led to Rome's dominance of central Italy, the war with Pyrrhus to its dominance of the south and that with Carthage to its dominance of the western meditereanean. These wars were of a different scale in the historian's opinion to the wars before- what we have been dealing with up until now are the adventures of a city state, leading a confederacy of neighbours, however now we begin to deal with an empire. Livy begins his account of this imperial quest for Rome which leads in his view from the early Republic to Augustus, with an account of Rome's first subjection- Capua. I want to pause over this subjection because the manner of it is important ideologically within Livy's history and within the mission of Rome to become an empire, and of course the idea of empire within the West.

Capua, the principle city of Campania, sat to the south of Rome and was threatened by the Samnites who inhabited the south and central Appenines. According to Livy its envoys came to Rome and requested the aid of the Romans within the Senate. Their argument for aid is interesting:

The people of Campania have sent us as envoys to you Conscript Fathers, to beg for your aid at the present moment and your friendship for all time. If we had sought this friendship when times were happier for us, though this could have arisen more quickly, the ties binding us would not have been so strong; for in that case we could have recalled that we had entered friendship with you on equal terms and though perhaps as much your friends as we are now, we would have been less obliged and beholden to you. As things are won over by your pity, defended by your assistance in times of trouble, we must have no less in our heart the benefit we have received from you, lest we appear ungrateful and unworthy of all aid human and divine.... We Campanians even if you present situation prevents our boasting, are not inferior to any people, except yourselves, in the grandeur of our city and fertility of our soil and our contribution to your prosperity in becoming your friends will not, I believe be insignificant. (VII 30)

The Senate did not rush to judgement in hearing this speech, after which the Campanians made even clearer their argument:

Since you refuse to take justly violent action to protect what is ours against violence and injustice, at least defend what is your own. To your authority Conscript Fathers and that of the Roman people, we therefore submit the people of Campania, the city of Capua, our territory [and] the shrines of the Gods' (VII 30)

This last speech clarifies the previous one- the offer from Capua to Rome (and in a sense the model of provincial requests to the centre) was an exchange of freedom for protection. Livy is doing two things here- firstly he is suggesting conjecturally a reason for the development of Rome as an imperial state. It made sense for its subjects to be subject to a fellow city rather than fall to a tribe like the Samnites. But he is also developing a powerful weapon of argument- the argument is for how the Empire developed and for why it is a good thing.

Modern understandings of imperialism rest mostly on violent acquisition- we think of Kitchener's soldiers mowing down the Sudanese at Omdurman or some such other violent event. Livy's justification though for Rome's empire is not based on violence- he does not assert here the right of conquest (though that right was to be asserted by others as a legitimate way of attaining government- witness Robert Brady on the Norman Conquest for example) but he asserts that empire was invited and was for the protection of the subject. Livy here is providing us with a new state formation in a sense- Capua has contracted with Rome. Where Rome can provide protection, Capua can provide subjection. In a sense what we have here is a voluntary assent to empire- a model that Rome was to employ in later cases and becomes a type for the Roman Empire as a whole. This is important for it shows that empire was not a selfish enterprise- the selfishness is that of the enemies who would harass the provincial populations- but a mutual enterprise. Rome of course was keen to isolate its own benefits and the senate discuss the ways that Campania, known for its grain, will strengthen Rome: but Livy is trying to present here the benefits for the Campanians as well as the Romans.

The problem of course at the heart of this is whether the Campanians can perform the contract that they are offering: we are in a sense at the heart of a dilemma for most liberal and Western philosophers- can someone actually alienate their freedom. Livy subsumes this question within a narrative about Rome's mission (one reason I suspect why the opening paragraph is there) which is to fulfill the imperial contract and the ways that this contract reflects back onto the history of Rome. What we do not have, and would wait to Tacitus to have, is the account of the other side: Livy will tell us the effect on Rome of the imperial signature, what we do not have from him is an account of what the colonial signature does to the colony.