October 02, 2010

Names

Another wonderful article in the London Review of Books from last week caught my eye recently. It concerned Greek names. A set of classicists have since the 1970s being publishing a glossary of every single Greek name mentioned in a classical source. The undertaking is formidable as it begins with the earliest poetry of Homer and Hesiod if not before, and runs all the way forwards into Byzantium. Its a brilliant idea though as even the list of names tells us so much about the way that the Greeks thought and what they believed in. Names are an indicy of what parents want their children to be. I have my grandfather's middle name for example, reflecting the close relationship between my mother and her father. But its not only family affection that names can immortalise: the famous Praise-God or Unless-Jesus-Christ-had-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone was no atheist and nor were his parents! The LRB article has plenty of examples from Greek literature of this kind of thing.

The other wonderful insight that something like a name gives a historian or anyone else for that matter is a window into another life. History is about people who left records. So for example the most famous Roman governor of Bithynia- Pliny the younger- is so because he left his letters behind to immortalise him. I doubt that many people could name many more governors of Bithynia off the top of their heads. If you like history studies the small circle of those who left records behind them. But there is a wider circle who left fragments of their lives in other's records: so for example Pliny's letters might mention a corrupt local official, we know about him because of that and that alone. There is an even wider circle who left nothing but their name behind them: one of my tasks during my PhD was to try and work out who served in the New Model Army and how they related to each other, you could do that in part from looking at petitions sent in to the headquarters, signed by as many as a dozen or two dozen people, whose names are all that we have left of them. Names therefore are the only thing that signal the intentions of these people and their parents, they are the obscured trace of a fingerprint they left in history.

What names can tell us is always a bit of a guess. Along with all decisions in human life assigning motivation is always harder than it appears at first sight- why did x do y? The only way to assign motive is to look inside someone's head as they make their decision, and sometimes even that as Michael Frayn warns us in Copenhagen might not be enough. So when we look at those finger prints, the contours are faded, the texture is eroded, but we still have something from their lives to try and learn about the past from. The fascination of history is its incompleteness, we don't know why or often when or what things happened, we only guess in an educated fashion: we grope in the dark towards the past and occasionally our hands hit something, like a Greek name in a letter.

October 01, 2010

My son, my son what have ye done?


There is a murder. A son has killed his mother. He has taken two hostages inside the family house and is holding them at gunpoint. Nobody knows who they are. Outside the police are gathered. They negotiate with him. That is the setup of the most recent Werner Herzog film. All of this is told to you in the first ten minutes of the film and from there on in, assisted by the protagonist's girlfriend and his friend, we observe the police detective in charge of the case being taken through the protagonist's psyche as he wound himself up to the murder. Herzog's film has his own touches- flamingos, ostriches and dwarfs on Shetland ponies chased by mutant giant chickens- but the storyline is not complicated, though it is suspenseful. At the centre of it is the murderer Brad and his psychology.

So what are we told about Brad? He went to Peru, came back and was according to his girlfriend never the same again. He was out cayacking with his friends and they came down a river and everyone died, save for Brad who inspired for some reason decided that he would not join them. His sense of that saving animates him throughout the rest of the film. Whatever God saved him, that God is what enthuses his every action: that voice in his head, the God of the box of Puritan Oats, instructs him in how to live and what to do. This peculiar notion is central to the film: we cannot say it definitely caused his mother's death, we can say it was this mindset that enthuses everything he does. Ultimately the instruction for his mother's death was received from this voice. We see him act bizarrely even scarily, he is unwilling to admit to any constraints imposed by society. He cannot see that the fact that a house is not for sale and that he has no money precludes him buying it. He cannot see that he sounds odd and strange, he has his belief and that belief is a truth that ultimately means more to him than anything else in the world. Wondrously Herzog manages to draw on both the sense of religion as the ultimate social impulse (what could be more social than another presence inside your brain) and also the ultimate lonely one.

Two things fit into this psychological perception. The first out of which the murder arrives is his relationship with his mother. She is overbearing and strange- a Lynchian confection (she reminded me instantly of the Eastern European woman from Inland Empire)- she is protective and irritating. She forcefeeds her son jelly, turns up without knocking inside his room whilst he is in there with his girlfriend and basically treats this thirty year old as though he were a kid. The second is that Brad, during this period, is an actor. His friend is his director. The play that he acts in is famous: its the Oresteia. This series of plays chronicles the return of Agamemnon from Troy to Mycenae. At his return, the Great King was murdered by his wife and her lover. His death is avenged by his son- Orestes- who murders his own mother and then is pursued by the furies to Athens where the case is judged by the Athenian citizens and Athena herself. The point of the Oresteia in this film is to do two things- to give Brad a text but also to suggest that violence lies behind somewhere in the shadows. The family of Orestes were known for their brutality: the House of Atreus included Tantalus who fed his own son to the Gods, Pelops who slew his father in law, Atreus who boiled his nephew and then Agamemnon. Violence lies at the heart of any comparison of a family to that of Atreus- what we wonder happened to Brad's father?

The Oresteia though is more than a parallel. It and his mother's behaviour and whatever happened prior to the film are texts which Brad then uses. He believes in these texts as surely as a fundamentalist believes in the Quran or the Bible. He takes these texts and asks them what do you tell me to do. The high rhetoric of the Greek play, the low ribaldry of his situation, the dark musing of his mind come together to a point of certainty and clarity. A point we might say of insanity. His insanity is of a peculiar kind. He sees the world in a particular way and fits his experiences, scarily, into that framework. The point about this is that it is mad but no more mad than anyone who believes in a truth which leads them to see the world askew. It is evil because of its consequences- murder- but also because of the disregard for others that Brad manifests. Brad does not check his religion with sympathy or empathy, for him God is God, truth is truth and that is all Brad wants to know. Brad's charisma draws others to him: it is why I suspect his girlfriend stays with him. More confused humans come towards his certainty. The sophisticated director sees its aesthetic possibilities but not its profound immorality, like Foucault before Khomeini, he sees that the structure is profound but not that it is murderous.

Always though in the film we come back to Brad, the murderer. He shows us that the world is infinitely plastic. That it can be shaped and deformed by a thousand new attitudes and stories. Everything we know about Brad we are told about him by unreliable narrators. Quite possibly he has no rational account of what he does, but what he does proceeds from an emotional take on the world- a take which is informed by Greek tragedy and his own emasculation. More importantly though its a take on the world which is born out of his sense of having been saved all those years ago, using that as a foundation, incorporating bits of mysticism and religious text, not to mention the text of the Oresteia and his own situation, he commits matricide. The film is less a comment on the unknown murder than on the psyche that preceded it. If Herzog dances along the line in film between sanity and insanity, then its to inform us about our own natures. We too can shape the world in wonderful and terrible ways that have nothing to do with reality, but the consequences can be dire.

September 28, 2010

Oppenheimer Brothers

Brothers are in the news at the moment for some reason- I'm sure its the potential of Anton Ferdinand to play with Rio at some point that's the real reason why they are up there. But its interesting in that sense to look at potentially one of the greatest pairs of brothers in the 20th Century- Robert Oppenheimer and his brother Frank. The older brother Robert was a famous and successful theoretical physicist, he led the project to design the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and became Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. His career was marked by tragedy and the old tale of his failure to surmount slurs he was a communist and his bureacratic checkmate by Edward Teller have been told too often for them to be rehearsed here. The key thing about Oppenheimer was that after his fall and the scandal he never really produced the great work of physics that he could have done, he was less than the sum of his talents. His brother Frank was also a physicist, Robert despised his intelligence- Frank was an experimentalist rather than a theorist- but ended up founding a great American museum.

The contrast is well developed in Steven Shapin's essay in this week's London Review of Books. Ironically Shapin notes Robert ended up in an institution without students but with Professors, Frank founded an institution that aspired to make everyone a scientist but in which noone was a Professor. I think the most interesting contrast was in their view of science. I remember a friend once telling me that you couldn't understand anything about physics unless you had been a graduate in it: strictly that is probably true and Robert Oppenheimer would have agreed. For him knowledge seems, from Shapin's review, to be something only experts could claim. He made the difference between the expert and the non-expert vast: this point of view is shared by those who believe that experts are wonderful and horrible because it assumes they are different and beyond the sight of anyone else. Frank's view was much more participative: science could be diffused and could become a way of changing society. Anyone might be a scientist so long as they adopted a scientific attitude- you might not understand Feynman diagrams, but you could still be a scientist if you agreed with experimental data.

Frank's perspective seems to me to be much healthier and is really the way I think about knowledge. Knowledge is not about exclusion: you can know more or less about a subject but all knowledge has a value. Furthermore there is a distinction between knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is not the attribute of a particular group of people, its a method. You can be further forwards or back in your understanding of the method and the amount of evidence to which you have applied it but in principle the method is the same. Therefore the separation between the kid with his chemistry set and the chemist in the field isn't that they do different things or that the kid is doing something ignorant, but that the chemist has just done more.

September 26, 2010

Danton's Death

Half way through Danton's Death, some of the actors in the play mounted the back of the stage and sung out the Marseilles over the audience's head. The theatre of politics, a black fringed stage, the actors standing like tribunes of the plebs at the back and the music was awesome: you could feel in that moment the absolute power of what happened in France between 1789 and 1799. This series of events and those that came afterwards (Napoleon, the great conqueror of Europe, the afterthought) have convulsed the world ever since. From the great liberal powerhouse of California to the Shanghai shack in which the Chinese communist party started, our world has been inspired and revolted by the events of those ten years in France. There are few periods in history whose resonances are as profound: the American Revolution is perhaps the only other such episode in the eighteenth century that had such tumultuous consequences for the world. Putting all that on stage is not easy, it is not easy to imagine that the wooden O at the National can indeed hold the vasty fields of France or that within those walls monarchs fall, the guillotine splatters blood and the masses splutter for aristocratic death.

Danton's Death attempts to do that. A play written in the 1830s by a German romantic it concentrates on the figure of Danton and his rivalry with Robespierre in the early 1790s. The play represents Danton as a man worn out by revolution. He had led the crowds demanding the King's execution, he had led the crowds demanding the September massacres- but for Danton revolution had an end. He believed that at some point the revolution stopped, that perfection might not be acheivable and that at some point stability was preferable to another cycle of blood. In the play Danton is represented as believing in revolution as a process that achieves an objective and then can cease: like a factory production line that can stop when the car has rolled off the other end. He loves women and wine- we see him clutching at girls and bottles- his allies are perfumed and pumped full of the joys of life. They too share his sense that revolution cannot and should not imperil normal human lives- that it had to go so far, but that it should not go further.

We contrast that vision of revolution with Robespierre's vision. In the play Robespierre first arrives on stage to declaim about terror and virtue. For Robespierre revolution is not a means to remould the system in which men live, but to remould men themselves. Robespierre believes in virtue, disdains the fleshy vices that Danton revels in. Danton's wife contemplates towards the end of the play whether she could save her husband by offering her body to Robespierre's pleasure, but rejects this possibility. The incorruptible is incorruptible and wishes everyone else to be so. Consequently he is quite willing to use terror to create virtue: he is quite willing to execute so that everyone will execute vice. Revolution is not a process to a goal but a process that will continue to the end of time. As human beings are probably not perfect, Robespierre's revolution never ends and whatever he says, he does not mean it to. He is for himself the creator of virtue, for others he is the expression of pain- as an ally of Danton says, the poor have only their pain and a scream which slashes down upon someone's neck.

Two visions of the French Revolution are presented to us- a revolution to help mankind or a revolution to cure it. The play expresses this with dialogue- constant speaking. Almost nothing happens- there are two set pieces the one described in my opening lines and a later one at the end of the play and between them, nothing. This is a play about words and as suits something written in the Romantic era, the words are flowery and often wonderful. One character derides another for example by saying 'he thinks its cool to be a compost heap', another will comment on how death reminds him that human beings are 'Plato's leather bags'. Historical references are flung in as though everyone knows who Hebert is or why Lafayette mattered, what the Girondins were and what the difference between the Club Jacobin and the Club Cordeliers was. That isn't a problem but the play is long and to listen for so long is difficult. These words situate the play at a turning point, or what Buchner the author, thought was a turning point.

I'm not sure that you need to buy this historical analysis or that Danton represented conservatism and Robespierre radicalism in this context to use or understand the play. I think the key point here is the different revolutions; any revolution which seeks to change the condition in which people live is ultimately distinct from one which changes the nature of the people ruled. The latter is a totalitarian ambition, whether clothed in the language of rightwing virtue or leftwing charity, the former is the language of humanitarianism. The play allows us to develop another distinction: what Robespierre argues for is to diminish the value of liberty, to tell someone they should change and you will force them is to deprive them of their liberty. Naturally a modern audience recoils: but he is the more virtuous of the two main characters- Danton is a fornicating drunk who argues for liberty, Robespierre a purist who argues for virtue. There is a lesson in there.

Overall the play is more interesting than entertaining- the performances especially from Robespierre are good but it is hard to keep focussed, especially given the fact that not all of us know our Desmoullins from our St Just. Having said that, the points the play makes are interesting and important. The debate between Robespierre and Danton goes on on both the right and left and has done ever since, a consequence of the development of the modern state, it is not over and I suspect will survive both this play and this reviewer.