May 22, 2010

Clement Attlee


Clement Attlee was never one of the most charismatic of British Prime Ministers (Margerate Thatcher said that Attlee was "all substance and no show". I realised this afternoon that I had never heard Attlee's voice- this was the only clip I could find on youtube which was mostly Attlee. Its an interview after the 1964 election when Harold Wilson narrowly beat the Conservative Sir Alec Douglas Hume. The points Attlee makes are interesting: they are about political leadership as a psychological and an intellectual enterprise. You get the evidence that Attlee even in his old age was a forceful personality and an intelligent person: the fact that he was a man of few words is also very much a feature of the broadcast.

May 19, 2010

The Honour of God

One of the most powerful arguments against the Christian God, which perhaps occured most powerfully in the works of Benedict Spinoza is a kind of pantheistic atheism. Augustine eleven centuries before Spinoza was alive to the implications of that type of pantheism and addresses it in the City of God.

If all this is so, however, who does not see what impious and irreligious consequences follow. Whenever anyone tramples on something, he tramples on a part of God. Whenever any animal is killed, a part of God is slaughtered. And I decline to speak of all those things which may occur to anyone who gives the matter some thought but which cannot be named wihtout shame. (IV 12)


Notice that Augustine's argument has one main strand. It is one to which he returns again and again and is the basis for his rejection of paganism. Augustine was very interested in maintaining the honour of God. To believe that God might be trampled on or slaughtered (an ironic comment from a Christian perhaps) was to submit God to indignity. Just like the pagans with their theatres, the pantheists submitted God to the indignity of being the sacraficed animal and the squashed ant. Indignity is a large part of Augustine's arguments about God: God in his view is not be associated with the work of the devil and part of Satan's purpose on earth is to confuse Godhead and sin. Its worth remembering always that this is a work of theology rather than philosophy or history.

May 18, 2010

Three Strange Loves

Three Strange Loves is an early film by Ingmar Bergman. It deals with subject matters close to the heart of anyone who has had a relationship, whether that is possible or impossible, something to be desired or to be feared. Bergman's film focuses in upon a couple in a bedsit in Switzerland about to travel back to Sweden. Ruth and Bertil seemed locked in an argument, mixed with occasional bouts of passion, an argument that appears irrational and futile. We know as the first frame is shot that neither of them can win it. As the film progresses we go deeper into their souls, both through their own discussions but also through a flashback involving Ruth which illustrates her past, and a parallel storyline about Viola, Berit's old mistress, which illustrates further dilemmas in the world of relationships. The film is not as sophisticated a piece of work as Bergman's later great films, there is a sense here that the stories spill out of control (the link between Viola's story and Ruth's is forced rather than natural)- but still this is worth watching.

Central to the film is the performance of Eva Henning as Ruth. Henning is both beautiful and ugly. Ruth must be both at times in the drama- as we meet her we must see her as beautiful, as she drapes her figure against the window, but also ugly, violent and vindictive. Henning takes this character on a journey as we continue through the film. We learn that Ruth was a ballet dancer, seduced firstly by an unscrupulous officer Raoul and abandoned when she became pregnant. Also she was seduced at some point by a lesbian fellow ballerina. Ruth's experiences cloud her past but also her future. She screams at one point that she finds no fertility inside her body, she denies her femininity because she has not got the capacity to have another child (a botched abortion has seen to that). She is scarred for life physically but also mentally, trapped, berating Berit for what might have been without really blaming him.

However her behaviour is part of a diptych. On the other side of which is Viola. Viola had a husband- now dead- had a lover Berit- now gone- and seems lost. Whereas Ruth clings to life with a kind of remorseless passion, a wail that speaks of love. Viola wanders through love, knowing not what she wants but what she does not want. Twice others attempt to seduce her- a psychiatrist first, then the same lesbian ballerina who seduced Ruth- and twice, unlike Ruth, she rejects them. However her passivity leads her to the decision that all life and love is worthless. Ruth says these things but her screams come from a love of life, Viola feels them. Birgit Tendroth plays Viola as silent in the midst of woe. She does feel what she has lost but does not seem in the film to have a sense of where she is going, instead she wonders the streets of Stockholm trying to find something. If Ruth is a character with too much history, then Viola is ruled too by her past: the first rails against the present because of it, the second is rejects submissively a present that she sees no point in.

I began this review by saying this film is about love. It is to some extent: it is about love from Bergman's perspective: love here is something violent and vile. It leads to the tie of pregnancy and the fear of abandonment. It leads to quarrels. But it is still worth fighting for. The depressing message of this film might well be that love is pretty bad, but it is the best thing that we have. In later films Bergman would turn to the essence of Christianity: that God is love. In this film he describes two characters both of whom are scarred by love, one of whom gives up, the other struggles on and as ever in his films there is a respect for the struggle even if there is not much hope in it.

May 16, 2010

Augustine's library

I spent the afternoon in the British Library looking at the most recent articles in the British Library. The British Library is one of at least three major research libraries that I know intimately around London- the University Library in Cambridge is only an hour away by train and foot from King's Cross, the Bodleian Library is not that much farther. All three contain millions of books, the world's knowledge according to the British Library's website, and in all of them industrious scholars are to be found every day bent over manuscripts and texts, trying to elucidate their meanings. So when I looked at my articles this afternoon- say for example Elliot Vernon and Phil Baker's recent piece on the Leveller's Agreement of the People (1647) it is littered with footnotes to this pamphlet, that learned article and this manuscript. That though is a world that began in the early modern period. The Bodleian was founded in the early 17th Century. Private libraries were major sources for the enlightenment in Scotland and Naples during the eighteenth centuries and the great scholars of the eighteenth century were often librarians as well as scholars. We forget how important that is.

St Augustine was a phenomenally learned man. Presumably in Hippo when writing the City of God he consulted a library, there are texts (Sallust, Varro) which he must have had by his side or at least have had notes on because he uses them so much. But we can see the influence of the lack of a library upon the City of God. Firstly there is the absense of footnotes: Augustine refers to works by Cicero, Varro etc but he does not tell you where he is citing from. Either we have lost the citations or just as likely, he did not expect someone reading his work to be able to check directly back to the original source. When I write an article- even on this blog- I include references to a few things because I expect that some people may want to check what I say, Augustine may have believed that too but may have known his readers lacked the capacity. Secondly on p 171 of my Cambridge edition in Book IV Section 22, Augustine confuses a story. He retells a story originally told in Livy, Ovid and Dionysus of Halicarnassus, but rather than producing one narrative he confuses them together and produces something that doesn't make sense. My editor suggests that this is because he was memorising the works rather than having them by his side to cite from: Augustine knew the story in the books, and wrote his memory of it down without the ability to check back to the original source.

You may say, so what. But it is not just Augustine who does this. John Morrill in a fantastic piece of detective work shows in a recent article in a Festchrift for J.C. Davis that Oliver Cromwell did the same thing. Cromwell was writing a letter whilst being out on campaign. In it he quoted from the Bible. But he didn't quote accurately, rather the quote was a jumble of quotations from different versions of the Bible- the King James, the Geneva etc. Cromwell obviously knew them all well but had misremembered which words belonged in which version. Again you see the influence of having a library, even the kind of library we all have today, upon someone in the past. Looking round my room at the moment there are four bookshelves stacked with books, Cromwell didn't even have a bible to check his quotations with whilst out on campaign. Augustine didn't have Livy, Ovid and Dionysus to cite his story from. Neither Cromwell nor Augustine were idiots nor were they men who did not value precision (Augustine in particular at times in the City of God seems like an angry schoolmaster attacking some pagan sloppy student), but both lived before the explosion in libraries and commercial books, an explosions which characterises our era and divides it from previous ones.