Laon and the Nibelungs

Location: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

In love. Working on a book.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fluffy alive!

This picture shows Fluffy using the Business Section of the Sydney Morning Herald for Saturday 11 June 2005 as his tablecloth. He's purring like an idling chainsaw. This take-a-pic-and-post-it stuff is pretty run of the mill, obviously, but it's a bit of a technological triumph, as far as I'm concerned. Posted by Hello

I've simply grown accustomed to his face

This is my current houseguest, a Himalayan cat. One of the striking things about him, compared to other cats, is the flatness of his face. This cat doesn't lead with his nose. I don't know anything about his breed, so I don't know why they have this distinctive face. I toyed with the idea that they were bred to hunt something, and the flatness was an advantage in catching whatever its local prey was. I can't think of any practical hunting advantage, though, and I've started to think that maybe they were bred that way because it gives his face an almost human configuration. (Or at least more primate than feline; close enough.)

This particular cat is a great hunter, though because he's currently holed up in an inner-city apartment, he only gets to hunt inert plates of kangaroo mince. It's lucky, by the way, that he has good hunting instincts, because although he can savage a plate of roo mince in very quick time, he'd be absolutely at a loss if the roo mince started to engage him in debate. This is a charming cat, but mentally negligible.

He was named by people who come from a country which has two islands, one of which is to the north of the other: therefore they named the two islands "the North Island", and "the South Island"*. In the same spirit of dour nominal literalism, meet the cat called ... Fluffy.

The original names of New Zealand's islands are Pounamu (greenstone), for the southern island, and Te-Ika-a-Maui (the fish of Maui) for the northern island. Fluffy's original name was Bucephalus' Yuki Beauchamp III. More was lost when the islands were renamed, than when Fluffy was.
Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 09, 2005

An interim thought on Heidegger

I'm not quite ready to post Why I am not a Heideggerian #3, which is going to be on how Heidegger's Nazism connects to his more technical philosophy.

I realised that I was going to regurgitate Johannes Fritsche's argument from Historical Destiny and National Socialism in Heidegger's Being and Time. And that meant that I wasn't really thinking, but just aiming to use the minimum of effort to prove a pre-determined point of view. Easy groove to slip into, that. Never a good sign, though.

Fritsche's argument largely works by noting verbal echoes between Nazi discourse and Heidegger's philosophical writing, as with Heidegger's use of words like "Kampf", "Genosse", and so on.

Fine, but there are two counter-arguments. First, you can "prove" that any two texts or two "discourses" are connected, by picking out individual words that appear in both. This form of argument can be used to prove any old thing.

Second, even if Heidegger had used Nazi terms to such an extent that it suggests that he had Nazi discourse in his mind when he was writing Being and Time, and that he wanted to appeal to a Nazi audience, that doesn't prove that the ideas themselves are inherently Nazi. You can use feminist discourse to express antifeminist ideas, Marx-speak to endorse a privatisation program. And so on. The style in which discourse is written does not in reality determine its meaning.

So I'm going to read and think a little harder, and try to think through a genuine, eclectically sceptical, argument on the connection between Heidegger's Nazism and his other ideas.

Why do I think this connection exists, if I'm not ready to argue it? Partly because of some arguments I've half thought through, and that I'll set out later, and partly because Heidegger himself said so. That's not always definitive, but it's a pretty significant consideration.

Faust in a hat-box

Those Shelley letters turning up after 194 years reminded me that there's more stuff out there. For example we might never have had Shelley's translation of Plato's Symposium, and the remarkable accompanying essay, On the Manners of the Ancient Athenians, an argument for toleration of homosexuals written in 1819, for heaven's sake. Shelley accidently left that lot in Pisa, and it was missing for months. Fortunately he found it where it had fallen down the back of a roll-top desk, only a few days before he drowned. Otherwise it'd probably still be there.

Shelley seems to have started a novel about the French Revolution, Hubert Cauvin. He sometimes referred to it as if it were finished and ready to offer to a publisher. I doubt if he ever did finish it, because he later said that the defining great epic of his age would be a work written about the French Revolution. If he'd finished a novel on that theme, it might not have nagged at him so much in later life. And he might not have been so sure that he wasn't the person to write that epic. Still, even the beginning of a French Revolution novel would be interesting. The manuscript is out there. If it was up to me, I'd start looking in his last English residence, at Marlowe.

But there's more. Shelley was a pioneering translator of Goethe, possibly the first to provide a large chunk of Faust in English: the Walpurgisnacht scene. But it seems that he also oversaw a translation that was to have included the whole of Faust.

Mary Shelley's sister, Claire Claremont, was a talented person surrounded by genius, which must have been trying. She had stories published, but the real evidence of her talent is in her Journal and letters. (Almost the only sensible thing that Paul Foot ever said about Shelley is that men who start reading the original texts in this area tend to wind up falling in love with Claire. That's probably true.)

Anyway, Claire had some modest writing talent, and she needed money. Byron had lots of money, and had offered to commission a complete translation of Faust. Byron would never have given Claire the gig, because Byron loathed her, among other things for getting pregnant by him without subsequently disappearing, like the chambermaids he "fell on like a thunderbolt". He treated her with persistent and at times unbelievable cruelty that - well, for all his ability to charm, I've never quite liked Byron. Anyway, Shelley offered to find Byron a translator, and quietly gave the job to Claire.

Before passing Claire's English poetic version on to Byron, Shelley would - in his usual practice - have had a look at it, fixed mistakes and added occasional improvements. As he did with his cousin Medwin's Dante translations. Shelley found collaborative writing remarkably congenial. After this had been going on for some months, Shelley drowned and the arrangement must have stopped.

So somewhere out there there is a translation of all or a large part of Goethe's Faust, reviewed, improved, and authorised by Shelley. It has the same status as a Shelley work as the Pope-approved translation of Homer's Odyssey, in which the first draft was done by other poets but Pope polished the final text.

It's probably in a left-luggage room in Italy somewhere. (Or did Claire take it with her to Russia? Or back to England?) But one day, someone is going to open an old hat-box, or something, and there it will be. Faust, in English, in two handwritings.

Tell you what I really miss: Ovid's play, Medea. (Not to mention the Greeks.) But Medea is gone for good. Not Faust, though. Check your granny's hat-boxes!

The eclectic sceptics

In that post on some Shelley letters turning up, nearly 200 years after they were written, I wrote: "I'd claim him for the eclectic sceptics, myself."

Wow. I looked at that sentence, and saw those words. The earth moved, I tell you, though I wasn't with my beloved, nor was I in Wellington, where the earth regularly tries to buck off the irritating stuff on its back, like buildings, motorways, and such. When I lived in Wellington I used to keep water, wine and a box of biscuits in my desk drawer, in case the building ever collapsed and it took a while to pull me out. But Sydney doesn't shake. It was the words: the eclectic sceptics. Wow.

I've just named my philosophy. I've always felt a bit lonely, not having a school to align with. But there it is. Joinnnnnn me!

Tell you what, though: it'd be a terrible band name.

Next up: we'll probably get to Faust in a hatbox

Lost Shelley letters turn up: the German connection?

It’s not every day that Percy Bysshe Shelley makes the news. Here he is, though.

Four letters written by the young Shelley turned up in a trunk. Apparently they were saved at the last moment from going into a car boot sale. In a way I’m sorry about that: I’d like to think that you can find new Shelley writing, or maybe an unknown Bach aria (,11711,1501487,00.html ), in your local flea market.

The Scotsman only gives an extract from one letter in which Shelley argued that: "Christ never existed... the fall of man, the whole fabric indeed of superstition which it supports can no longer obtain the credit of philosophers."

The BBC report and the Scotsman report say the letters are interesting for showing that Shelley had arguments concerning religion on his mind at the time he was preparing to write The Necessity of Atheism. Which would suggest they’re both relying on a hand-out from the auctioneers, Christie’s. That isn’t really the interesting thing: we knew that.

What strikes me as interesting about the quoted fragment is the line that “Christ never existed”. In one of the notes to Queen Mab, written a little later, Shelley mentioned evidence that the historical Jesus may have been the leader of a political revolt, not a peaceful figure, nor unambitious. These two theories (taking “Christ never existed” as shorthand for the idea that the biblical Christ was – like King Arthur or Robin Hood – a figure entirely or almost entirely created by the accretion of myths) were both current in the most recent German-language biblical scholarship, work that was not available in English.

Which suggests that Shelley wasn’t just using his German to read horror novels, as has commonly been assumed. He seems to have been reading recent, German-language academic texts. That leads to another possibility. Shelley wasn’t just interested in theological and biblical issues, at this time, he was also strongly interested in linguistic philosophy, reading philologists and philosophers of language like Monboddo and Horne Took, among others. (Shelley’s interest in philosophy of language is a strong and consistent theme in his poetry, though it's usually implicit. When Paul de Mann claimed Shelley as a precursor of the post-structuralists, he was being opportunist, of course, but there’s a grain of truth to it. Though you could just as easily claim Shelley as a positivist. I'd claim him for the eclectic sceptics, myself, but then I would.)

Anyway, it seems reasonably likely, then, that if you looked for evidence of influence from then-current German philologists and linguistic philosophers in Shelley, you’d find some new things, and some of those things would shed interesting new light on the intellectual framework of the later poems.

I’m writing too much serious stuff at the moment. Next up: Faust in a hat-box.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Cats and geopolitics

I've just heard from the owner of the cat I'm looking after. She's found the blog, and she wants it known that Fluff is not Chinese, but Himalayan. Fair enough: hands off the Himalayas, China!

She's also demanded pics of Fluffy, in order to be sure that he's alive and well. Probably posing with a copy of that day's Sydney Morning Herald.

This is tricky. The only blogging rule I set myself, about from the one about linking to something and saying Heh and Ouch, was No Cat Pics. On the other hand, one must be a preux chevalier, and saying no to ladies is clearly unpreux.

Right now I'm not going to post any damn pics of Fluff, but actually that's only because I'm so technically incompetent that I don't know how.

But that means I'm going to receive a step by step guide, fairly soon. Which means that I'll soon be obliged to bung up a pic of Fluff. Probably be wanting a sound file of his purring, next.

Oh well. I've always thought that a thousand words is worth a picture, any day. Verbal bloke, me; not so much a visual one. But I spose a few pix about the place wouldn't do any harm.

Why I am not a Heideggerian # 2

Back in Why I am not a Heideggerian #1, the post before the one on my disgraceful conduct at Ezra Pound’s grave, I set out a tabloid case against Heidegger as a philosopher. Boiled down to: can’t reason, can’t write.

If you left out the Nazism you could maybe say that Heidegger was to philosophy what Harry Partch was to music. Harry Partch was a composer who one day burnt all his old music, and started to compose in a new scale of his own invention, which had 47 notes. That's the main point of this analogy, but I can't help mentioning that Partch's new compositions were played on new instruments, including the Zymo-xyl, made out of hub caps, oak blocks, old bottles and the lid of a kettle, and a thing called “spoils of war”. You played the “spoils of war” with a “whang-gun”, which got its name because it made a “whang” sound. The outstanding difference between Heidegger and Partch, if you accept this increasingly dubious analogy, was Heidegger’s Nazism: Partch was an attractive eccentric, which Heidegger was not. For Harry Partch, try here:

Anyway, this post is about the Nazism. We might start with Heidegger complaining, in 1929, about the “Jewification” of German academia. By 1931 he'd begun to write articles in support of Hitler and Nazism.

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Heidegger lobbied for the position of Rector of the University of Freiberg, which he was granted in April 1933. The next month, May 1933, Heidegger formally joined the Nazi Party, though by that time he had been an outspoken supporter of Nazism for at least two years.

As Rector of the University of Freiberg Heidegger used his position and his voice to campaign for the Nazi cause. He took an active role in campaigning for the final extinction of democracy in Germany.

As Rector Heidegger cut off all contact between himself and Jewish academics. Jewish students were not yet excluded from the university, but Heidegger ordered that no more scholarships would be provided for Jewish or Marxist students. He personally refused to supervise Jewish students. While at Freiberg he denounced anti-Nazi colleagues to the Nazi authorities, like Hermann Staudinger (who survived to win a Nobel prize) and his own student Eduard Baumgarten. He resigned from Freiberg in 1934, though not, as he later claimed, out of any disagreement with Nazi policies. In fact Heidegger continued to write articles in support of Hitler, and later lobbied the Nazis to establish a new philosophical academy in Berlin, which would of course have been under Heidegger’s direction. He was still denouncing insufficiently Nazi colleagues (Max Muller) to the authorities in 1938.

Heidegger later lied about all of this. His understanding, surely a realistic one, was that the truth is damning.

That hasn’t stopped later efforts to provide a bit of whitewash, from Hannah Arendt to Australians David Barison and Daniel Ross, who made a three-hour film in homage to Heidegger, The Ister, which currently is being praised by Heideggerians for its “balance”. (

Still and to be fair, there has been confusion in both directions. Heidegger was wrongly accused, by Hannah Arendt among others, of having dismissed the Jewish professors at Freiburg, including his former mentor Husserl. This is not correct: the professoriat at Freiberg had already been made "judenrein" by Heidegger’s predecessor. What Heidegger did was accept all of the previous measures against Jews at Freiberg, and then significantly extend them.

Two points should be made about Heidegger’s Nazi speech-making and writing. The first point is that apologists for Heidegger tend to acknowledge that, sure, he said a few things, but avoid actually quoting this material. But it’s worth reading a bit of it, to get the flavour.

Heidegger’s Nazi writings and speeches were not ironical, they were not the accidental products of a naïve political innocent from an ivory tower, and they are far more than the minimum someone might say if they were simply making a show of obedience in order to preserve their independence. None of these defences stand up for a second when confronted with the reality of Heidegger’s Nazi ranting. His was an authentic Nazi voice, vulgar and brutal.

Here are selections from his 3 November 1933 proclamation to “German students”:

“The National Socialist revolution is bringing about the total transformation of our German existence [Dasein]. In these events it is up to you to remain the ones who always urge on and who are always ready, the ones who never yield and who always grow. [...] Be hard and genuine in your demands. Remain clear and sure in your rejection.

“Do not pervert the knowledge you have struggled for into a vain, selfish possession. Preserve it as the necessary primal possession of the Leader [führerischen Menschen] in the Völkisch professions of the state. [...]

“Let your loyalty and your will to follow [Gefolgschaftswille] be daily and hourly strengthened. Let your courage grow without ceasing so that you will be able to make the sacrifices necessary to save the essence of our Volk and to elevate its innermost strength in the State. Let not propositions and “ideas” be the rules of your Being [Sein]. The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility.
“Heil Hitler!
“Martin Heidegger, Rector.”

And from his 22 January 1934 address on National Socialist Education:

“Your duty is to take employment, and perform tasks in whatever manner the Fuhrer of our new State demands.

"The goal is to work hard for a satisfying existence as a member of the German community of peoples. But to do this you must know where you stand as a member of this Volk; you must know how the people incorporates its members and by this incorporation renews itself; you must know what is happening to the Volk in this National Socialist State; you must know what a hard struggle [Kampf] it will be to bring this new reality to fruition; […] you must know what is entailed in the fact that 18 million Germans belong to the Volk, but because they live outside the borders of the Reich, do not yet belong to the Reich.

"The whole of our German reality has been changed by the National Socialist State, with the result that our whole past way of understanding and thinking must also become different.” [...]

“Knowledge and the possession of knowledge, as National Socialism understands these words, do not divide into classes, but binds and unites fellow Germans [Volksgenossen] and social and occupational groups in the one great will of the State."

"We are only following the towering will of our Führer. To be his loyal followers means to will that the German people shall again find, as a people of labor, its organic unity, its simple dignity and its true strength, and that as a State of labor, it shall secure for itself permanence and greatness.
"To this man of unprecedented will, to our Führer Adolf Hitler – a threefold Sieg Heil!”

The second point to make about Heidegger’s Nazi ranting is that it contains clear echoes of and intellectual links to his philosophy. But it looks like exploring that point, and then winding up here, will have to wait till tomorrow night. This is enough serious stuff for one evening. This will not become the “All Heidegger, All the Time” blog, I promise.

Boring bit on sources:
Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics
Johannes Fritsche's Historical Destiny nd National socialism in Heidegger's Being and Time
Richard Wolin's The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ezra Pound and Lord Castlereagh: no respect

Not much blogging today. I finished two paid projects, and that seems to have used up all spare energy for this evening. I'm currently keeping the eyelids open with matchsticks, and I'm certainly not up to arguing about Heidegger right now. Particularly not with John Halasz, whose comment on yesterday's Heidegger post I do appreciate. Tomorrow!

But mentioning fascist poet Ezra Pound, as I did in the post about Unacknowledged Legislators, reminded me of a picnic with my beloved a few years back on San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the Venetian islands. Which involved some wine, and after a while I had to wander off to look for a tree and privacy. And in the cemetery I stumbled across the grave of Ezra Pound, though I'd had no idea it was there. How often does that happen?

And, well, it was mainly because he was a fascist, an antisemite and generic racist, but there was also, in the back of my mind, quite a lot of his poetry, especially the Cantos. Stuff like:

This, From Canto LI:
"that hath the light of the door, as it were
a form cleaving to it.
Deo similis quodam modo
hic intellectus adeptus
Grass; nowhere out of place. Thus speaking in Königsberg
Zwischen die Volkern erzielt wird
a modus vivendi"

Or this, from Canto LXII:
"ten head 40 acres at 3 / (shillings) per acre
who lasted 6 years, brewing commenced by the first Henry
continued by Joseph Adams, his son
at decease left a malting establishment"

Or this, from Canto XLIX:
"State by creating riches shd. thereby get into debt?
This is infamy; this is Geryon.


Sunup; work
Sundown; to rest"

And on it goes. Well, FUKU too, Pound, I thought, aiming mostly for the o in Pound. Well, I might have if I'd remembered Canto XLIX.

There's fascist ranting a-plenty in the Cantos, but even when it isn't fascist ranting it's still ranting. Pound wrote some good stuff early in his career, though I think less than is generally claimed. But by the 1930s he was pumping out rant by the page: reams upon reams of it, and great drivel it was too. Whatever gift he might once have had, Pound became the spiritual father of the wibblers
who scatter words
around the page
and that means they must be

Anyway, it was for the fascism and racism, of course, but above all it was for the Cantos. You might think it's a fairly crass form of criticism, but it comes recommended by Byron. Here's his doggerel written after the burial of Lord "Murder" Castlereagh:

"Posterity will ne'er survey
A finer grave than this;
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and ----."

[The dashes are Byron's, not mine.]

Robert Conquest produced a comment on Pound that, while it couldn't possibly have been as satisfying as mine, was just a bit wittier:

Said Pound, "When writing a Canto
It becomes a sort of portmanteau
For any old crap
That occurs to a chap
Plus masses of pig-Esperanto."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Why I am not a Heideggerian # 1

The title would be pretty self-regarding if I meant it seriously, obviously. Like you should care whether I'm a Heideggerian. It's a Bertrand Russell, Ibn Warraq, Luc Ferry/Alain Renault homage thing, is what it is.

Anyway, it was a post on Crooked Timber ( that sparked off a train of thought about Heidegger. And the real reason that I'm not a Heideggerian is not really that his politics and his conduct were on the nasty side. Though they were that. It's more that his work seems to have increased the world's store of philosophical terminology without having increased the store of philosophical ideas. I've never found his terminology, nor the accompanying concepts, useful for thinking about or discussing any question.

Try this bit of Heideggerese, not unfairly selected or unusually obtuse, from Introduction to Metaphysics:

"Not only does conflict give rise to the essent; it also preserves the essent in its permanence. Where struggle ceases, the essent does not vanish, but the world turns away. The essent is no longer asserted (preserved as such). Now it is merely found ready made; it is datum. ... The eye, the vision, which originally projected the project into immediacy, becomes a mere looking over, or looking at or gaping at."

"The essent" is a translation of Heidegger's own coinage "das Seiende", meaning roughly "that which is, or some specific thing that is".

So this passage says that things are created by conflict (Kampf). Things are apparently preserved if this conflict continues. But if conflict stops, things still exist, though in some sense of existing that does not involve preservation. Anyway, people now turn away from these things, that were created by conflict, and which still exist on the cessation of conflict, though they are not preserved. (By "the world" Heidegger surely meant "people".) However, although people turn away from those things, they become data, "givens", with a ready-made identity. Moreover, the eye used to project those things into immediacy, back when conflict reigned, but post-Kampf the eye only looks at the things, which is clearly not as good.

The passage illustrates my five real quarrels with Heidegger.

First, coinages like "das Seiende" seem pointless. Is there a nuance of difference in meaning between "a thing" or "things" and "a thing that exists" or "things that exist", that is conveyed by that word, and for which the new word is required or even useful? It doesn't seem so. And Heidegger's Essents dance hand-in-hand with his Da-Seins, self-standings and standing in itselfs, present at hands and ready to hands, fallennesses, Ur-Grund, Ab-Grund and Un-Grund, and lots of other abstract entities. Occam said not to multiply entities without necessity. Heidegger multiplied nouns without necessity. It's like someone developing a new system of musical notation and claiming their music must be new and original because it's written in new symbols.

Second, Heidegger asserts rather than argues. He pronounces, and goes on pronouncing. Obviously citing one fragment does not prove that, but I make that as an observation based on reading about 300 pages of Heidegger, all up, plus some explication (That's some of his Neitzsche book, most of Sein und Zeit, all of Introduction to Metaphysics, and some lectures and letters; no expert, but I think it's enough to get the flavour.)

Third, Heidegger's statements, in so far as they are intelligible, are frequently false and this does not seem to trouble him. For example it is not true that "the essent" arises from conflict (some essents may, while others may not). It is not true that "the world turns away" from an essent that is not subject to conflict. "The world" may focus its fresh vision on a thing for many reasons other than conflict: consider Wordsworth's field of daffs, for example. And it is not true, insofar as the claim has any meaning, that things are no longer "asserted" if they are no longer subject to conflict.

Fourth, not all of Heidegger's assertions appear to have meaning. Any sentence beginning "the eye, the vision", as if these two are the same thing, is in trouble, and things don't improve as it goes on. What does "project the project into immediacy" mean? And even if Heidegger meant that without conflict we don't have an immediate vision of things, but only look at them, what does that mean, anyway?

Fifth, Heidegger's writing is a mixture of two styles: the pompous-oracular style of a California mystic, eg that stuff about "the eye, the vision"; and the lifeless tedium of a Brussells bureaucrat writing page 357 of the Heat Treatment for Milk Product Regulations 2005, eg the rest of it.

The above is not "a refutation of Heidegger", obviously. It's only an explanation of why I don't find him useful, especially interesting, or Big and Clever.

And on top of that, was he a Nazi? And if so, was the Nazism connected to his philosophy, in areas outside of his directly political writing? I think the answer to both questions is yes, but I'll argue those two in the next post.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Unacknowledged legislators

That previous post, consisting of James K Baxter's poem, "A Rope for Harry Fat", is mostly there because I like the poem and felt like putting it up. Also I mentioned it in the Public Opinion and democracy rave, below. But it's interesting as an example of a poem that directly influenced politics.

Baxter's poem was in response to the hanging of a young Maori man, who - yes - killed another man, in a panic when he was surprised in a petty burglary. A lot of people weren't comfortable about Te Whiu's hanging, nor with then Prime Minister, Sydney Holland, who was a shade too orotund and smug in supporting the execution. Baxter helped find the words, and his poem helped to change the law.

There are other examples. Thomas Hood's "The Song of the Shirt" helped - incrementally - change public opinion on conditions in the sweatshops of Victorian England.

And Shelley, who gave us the phrase, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" wrote the Mask of Anarchy, which helped change history in two ways. Shelley intended his poem as a protest in response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, but his intended publisher, Leigh Hunt, was afraid to issue it, fearing its possible incendiary effect (though for all its anger, the poem actually preaches passive resistance) . He probably also feared that he'd arrested and jailed if he published the poem; Leigh Hunt had already been a political prisoner some years earlier.

But Hunt released the poem in pamphlet form in time for the introduction of the great Reform Bill of 1832, which began the process of making Britain genuinely democratic, removing the worst of the rotten burroughs and extending the franchise, at least amongst men. As well as being sold and distributed outside Parliament, sections of the poem were read aloud in Parliament as part of the debate. Possibly by James Mill, one of the leading proponents of the Reform Bill, who was a passionate Shelleyan (as was his son John Stuart Mill), but I'm not certain of that.

The Mask of Anarchy also influenced Gandhi in his development of satyagraha, his strategy of non-violent civil disobedience, a political tactic that appears to have been first outlined and advocated in Shelley's poem. Gandhi made use of The Mask of Anarchy in persuading others to following this extraordinary doctrine.

When Shelley referred to poets as "unacknowledged legislators" he did not actually mean that poets directly got involved in the making and repealing of legislation in the literal sense. (What he did mean might be a different post.) But even so, from time to time poetry has had just that effect, including Shelley's own.

The lines Gandhi quoted after the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, in which General Dyer ordered British troops to machinegun a helpless crowd, were not from The Mask of Anarchy, although that poem was a response to a massacre exactly 100 years earlier. To call for both continued resistance and continued non-violence, Gandhi used these words from the conclusion of Prometheus Unbound:

"To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates:
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory."

And that turned out to be so, more or less, which is a remarkable thing.

But a couple of years ago I was talking to an English diplomat about poetry, as you do, and he told me that in the early 1980s he'd had the job of organising a tour of London for various key figures from the Chinese Government. Most of them wanted to visit Marx's grave at Highgate. But one of them rather eccentrically wanted instead to be taken to see the Shelley Memorial at University College Oxford. The Shelleyan was Zhao Ziyang, who a few years later, as Secretary-General of the Chinese Comunist Party supported the students at Tiananmen Square in July 1989 and called for democratic reforms. Unfortunately, the political victory went to the murderous authoritarians. Zhao Ziyang was deposed and then held in house arrest for the next 15 or so years, until his death on 17 January 2005.

Poets and their fans sometimes change the culture and thereby change the politics. But there are no guarantees.

(And Elliot, Yeats, Pound and various other poets were fascists, or perhaps "fascist sympathisers" is closer. And Wordsworth wound up as a reactionary old sheep writing sonnets in praise of "the punishment of death". By "poets" it is to be understood that I mean wild romantic democrats in big shirts. Obviously.)

A Rope for Harry Fat

Oh some have killed in angry love
And some have killed in hate,
And some have killed in foreign lands
To serve the business state.
The hangman's hands are abstract hands
Though sudden death they bring --
"The hangman keeps our country pure,"
Says Harry Fat the king.

Young love will kick the chairs about
And like a rush fire burn,
Desiring what it cannot have,
A true love in return.
Who knows what rage and darkness fall
When lovers' thoughts grow cold?
"Whoever kills must pay the price,"
Says Harry Fat the old.

With violent hands a young man tried
To mend the shape of life.
This one used a shotgun
And that one used a knife.
And who can see our issues plain
That vex our groaning dust?
"The law is greater than the man,"
Says Harry Fat the just.

Te Whiu was too young to vote,
The prison records show.
Some thought he was too young to hang;
Legality said No.
Who knows what fear the raupo hides
Or where the wild duck flies?
"A trapdoor and a rope is best,"
Says Harry Fat the wise.

Though many a time he rolled his coat
And on the bare boards lay,
He lies in heavy concrete now
Until the Reckoning Day.
In linen sheet or granite aisle
Sleep Ministers of State.
"We cannot help the idle poor,"
Says Harry Fat the great.

Mercy stirred like a summer wind
The wigs an polished boots
And the long Jehovah faces
Above their Sunday suits.
The jury was uncertain;
The judge debated long.
"Let justice take her natural course,"
Said Harry Fat the strong.

The butcher boy and the baker boy
Were whistling in the street
When the hangman bound Te Whiu's eyes
And strapped his hands and feet,
Who stole to buy a bicycle
And killed in panic blood.
"The parson won his soul at length,"
Said Harry Fat the good.

Oh some will kill in rage and fear
And some will kill in hate.
And some will kill in foreign lands
To serve the master State.
Justice walks heavy in the land,
She bears a rope and shroud.
"We will not change our policy,"
Says Harry Fat the proud.

- James Keir Baxter, from Howrah Bridge and other Poems,1961

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Another ancient joke

Speaking of Victorian jokes, a couple of posts back, here's a joke from around 1440.

Of a hermit who had many Women
There used to live in Padua a hermit of the name of Ausmirio, during the time of Francesco, who was the seventh Duke of Padua, and, under the pretext of confession, he who had the fame of being a most holy man, knew many women, and some of them were even of the nobility.
Finally, since his hypocrisy could no longer remain hidden, his evil manner of life was bruited abroad. He was seized by the podestà and confessed many of his crimes, and at last he was taken before Duke Francesco.
The latter sent for his secretary, and, to enjoy a laugh over the affair, asked the hermit for details of his licentious conduct and the names of the women he had seduced. The secretary wrote the names down, and many of them were wives of members of the Duke's Court.
When at last the hermit had finished with the list of names, the Duke asked him if there were not still others, but the hermit obstinately denied that there were any other names. The secretary spoke to him severely, threatening him with torture if he did not give all the names.
Then the hermit, drawing a sigh, said: "Write then the name of your own wife, and put her among the others."
When he heard this, the pen fell from the secretary's hand, so great was his sorrow, but the Duke laughed loudly and said it was right that a man who had listened with such delight to the misfortunes of others should come at last to find himself in their company.

[End of joke.]

It's from Poggio Bracciolini's Liber Facetiae, which is probably the best collection of jokes for about 500 years in either direction. Which isn't saying much. And that, obvious and ponderous though it is, is one of the best jokes in there. But it telegraphs the punchline a mile in advance, and then it goes on for a couple of sentences after the punchline instead of letting the audience laugh while the joke, such as it is, is still fresh.

Here's a more recent joke. It's nothing special, but it made me laugh out loud when someone told it to me.

Q. When a blind man goes parachuting, how can he tell when he's about to reach the ground?
A. The leash on his guide dog goes slack.

I guess the things that make it funny (if you admit it is) are (1) cruelty, (2) surprise, (3) logic and (4) speed. And (5) transgression, because you know you're supposed to be completely pious about disabilities, and this joke isn't.

The speed and surprise are linked. If it wasn't so brief, you might have time to think of guide dogs before the punchline comes in. Or you might have time for the conscience to kick in, and wonder if you should be laughing at something involving blindness anyway.

The cruelty and transgression are carefully calibrated, I think. In this version you know a blind man could parachute jump and come to no harm; in fact blind people do go parachuting for fun. And the guide dog isn't required to come to any harm either, except maybe a lot of fear and some loss of dignity. Guide dogs have some sort of harness arrangement; he wouldn't be hanging from a collar round his neck, if that was worrying you. Or not in my version of this joke he isn't.

If you changed parachute jumping to sky-diving it gets less funny, I think, because then the guide dog reference makes you think of the blind man whumping onto the ground, too late to pull the rip-cord. (Also the dog would come to harm.) And that's crueller than the funniness of the joke will bear.

Since I've already ruined the joke by analysing it, let's try telling it like Poggio.

"There was in Dubbo a man who lost his sight, which was a great sadness to him as he had been addicted to the sport of parachuting. However after giving the matter some thought he discovered that he could resume this pastime, though no longer sighted. One day, on returning from the airport he met a priest, who saw that the man was blind, as he carried a white stick, and also that he carried a parachute pack. The priest asked the man if the sport of parachuting was not too dangerous for a sightless man. "Nay," the man replied smartly, "for I simply count to ten before I pull the ripcord, as of old. And I still feel the wind in my face, and that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, as well as I ever did." "Then", said the priest, still seeking to dissuade the man from continuing in this sport, "surely you will stumble and injure yourself on landing, as you will not be able to prepare yourself when the ground approaches." "Not so," answered the man, triumphantly, "for I am preceeded as always by my guide dog, and I know to ready myself for landing when his leash goes slack." "Oh, well, fair enough then," said the priest, who was put out by this ready answer, and resolved thenceforward not to bother disabled people about their pleasures.


That's turning a modern-style joke into its Medieval equivalent. I'm not sure if you can do this in the other direction, turning Poggio's joke into something that might work now. It's easier to ruin a joke than to fix one. Still, let's give it a go.

First, you have to do something with the setting. There aren't any secular courts who care about adultery any more. The obvious modern equivalent is a confession box, in which case you have a problem because Catholic priests aren't supposed to have sexual partners anyway, so the cuckolding joke disappears. Unless you build up a lot of stuff about that priest in particular, which will take too long. You could make it about a Mullah or Iman, since they interfere in people's sex lives and do have wives. But I don't want to do a cuckolded Mullah joke, because it seems to be going too far out of the way to have a crack at Mullahs. (Mullah jokes about amputations, stoning people, alcohol or burkhas seem like fair game, on the other hand.)

Then there's the speed. The most obviously deadly thing with Poggio's joke is the speed. Try this:

So the televangelist is baptising this sinner, and tells him to get right with the Lord by confessing his sins. "Well," says the sinner, "I guess I've committed adultery with almost all the women in the congregation, there's Pammy-Sue, Bobbi-Jo and Barbie-Jo, Faith-Hope, and Charity-Case, and Billie-Maye, and Tammy-Faye, and Ellie-Maye." "Son," says the preacher, "I know you've sinned more than that, and so does the Lord. Who else, son?" "Well," says the sinner, "I didn't want to say your wife's name on national television, but since you insist ..."

[End of shorter joke.]

That's Poggio's joke, the best I can make it. (If I were ever going to tell it, which I wouldn't, I'd leave out the "Faith-Hope and Charity-Case" mini-gag; that sort of thing is okay for skimming an eye over, but too tedious to be worth spending whole seconds on saying out loud.) Televangelists are a good setting, since you can imagine something a bit like the public-confession thing happening with one of them, and they're fair game since they're roundly and rightly despised by every sentient being on the planet.

It's still pretty flat, though. The main problem it that it's too obvious: there's no real surprise, or not enough to trip a laugh. To make something like this gag work now you'd need to throw in a logic quirk, to increase the surprise, such as it is. And you can make the victim powerful and make him seem an asshole, so that the "I've had your missus" aspect of the response seems justified. A version which could have been funny about 1980, and is basically a version of Poggio's joke, goes:

So Reagan is relaxing with Gorbachev after a day's talking about nukes, and after a couple of drinks Reagan runs his hand over Gorbie's bald forhead. "Terrible thing for a man to lose all his hair," muses Reagan. "Damn, your head feels as smooth as my wife's ass." Gorbachev runs his head over his own scalp and reflects for a moment. "Ya," he replies, "it does, too."

I read this joke years ago, and that version the protagonists were called Meyer and Finkelstein, or some such. But not only am I not Jewish, I'm a demented Wagner fan. And Wagner was a stupid bloody antisemite, so my doing Jewish jokes just seems like it would involve too many clarifications and disclaimers to be entirely worth while. Except for the one about waving a towel: THAT is too good not to tell, and for some reason I don't understand, it has to be a Jewish joke: it won't travel. So I had to make it a recognisable pair, where one guy is bald, but (what you mean BUT, asks Patrick Stewart, etc) is credibly sexier than the other guy.

Originally, I considered making it W Bush/Dick Cheney, but the Cheney/Laura Bush idea doesn't really work. Offended Reagan fans should remember that Gorbachev fans may be offended at the thought that a man married to Raisa, ca 1980, would have anything to do with Nancy.

Anyway, I think that's about as good as you can make Poggio's joke. And it isn't all that good.

I guess the main problem is the cuckoldry. As a medieval joke it was purely about aggression between men. Then, "I've had your wife" was a statement that only really involved the two men concerned; a modern equivalent, in emotional terms, might be, "two weeks ago I stuck your toothbrush up my bum."

Now we're more likely to think about adultery in terms that consider all the parties involved. And mostly we either don't care, so long as everyone was willing and no-one got hurt, in which case there isn't much of a joke to be had. Or we think about emotional hurt and diseases and divorce and custody, and it takes a better joke than Poggio's, in any form, to make that lot funny. So cuckoldry just doesn't have the comic power, any more, that it had in 1440.

Bawhoom bawhoom!

Ten things I've never done (and some book lists)

1 Watched an episode of Big Brother or similar
2 Watched a whole episode of a non-animated sit-com, or any cop show, on current first-run TV
3 Owned anything by Elvis Presley
4 Made it past page 120 of Ulysses
5 Watched a team sport involving balls
6 Believed in any god or gods after turning 8
7 Taken a needle drug for recreational purposes
8 Downloaded an image from my mobile phone to my computer
9 Lain carnally with twins, identical except that one is black and one is white
10 Flown, without machines or equipment

One day I'll probably achieve 4 and 8. I'm losing hope, over 9 and 10. 9 is a cliché, obviously, but some things become clichés for a good reason. Happy to leave the rest as is.

One of David Lodge’s novels describes a game called “Humiliation”, where you win by owning up to not having read books that you are supposed to have read. If you can truthfully say you haven't read a particular classic, and everyone else at the table has read it, you win. In the novel an English lecturer won by admitting he’d never read “Hamlet”. Then his Department heard about it and he got fired. (That seems an unlikely outcome, these days.)

In a game of "Humiliation" my best cards would be that I've:
1 Never finished a novel by Jane Austen
2 Never finished a novel by Charles Dickens
3 Never even attempted Proust
4 Never finished Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
5 Stared determinedly at every page of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but in such a state of disengagement and boredom it hardly counts as reading
6 Never got past go, on Gogol’s Lost Souls
7 Never finished a book by Virginia Woolf
8 Nor any William Faulkner
9 Nor anything in the South American Magic Realism line
10 Still trying to get through Pope’s translation of the Iliad

I’m not proud of any of these. People who seem to have reliable taste in other ways like all of these books, and my non-response to them is my loss. Probably. Though I find that hard to believe about Virginia Woolf. I’m only genuinely embarrassed about the Gogol. And Pope’s Homer. And I will have another go at Proust.

Books I finished, but could have put the time to better use playing Freecell
1 Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
2 CS Lewis, The Narnia Chronicles
3 A fantasy novel by Sherri S Tepper (I forget which one)
4 Patrick O’Brien, the first two Aubrey-Maturin books, after which I jumped ship
5 Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality
6 Mark Akenside, Pleasures of the Imagination
7 Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology
8 I can’t be bothered with this list any more

Swank section: Books I did finish, that you probably didn't
1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (as a non-Catholic, too)
2 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen
3 Matteo Boiardo, Orlando Inamorata
4 The complete Bohm’s Classical Library edition of Plato’s Dialogues
5 Artur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
6 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
6 James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake (actually enjoyed this, but not Ulysses; weird, I know)
7 Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
8 The Mahabharata
9 Salman Rushdie, Satanic Verses
10 And the definitive unread book, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time

Books I wouldn’t touch with a barge pool, except to push them to the bottom of the canal and hope they stick:
1 JK Rowling and all Harry Potter product
2 Sue Townsend and all Adrian Mole product
3 Biographies of sports players
4 Tolkein imitations
5 Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind series
6 Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and his other books past or future, plus all spin-offs, cash-ins and imitations (except entertaining debunking)
7 Books about 20th century royalty, or socialites, or celebrities
8 Books about bloody Bloomsbury
9 Books by anyone who was in Bloomsbury except Lytton Strachey. And except Bertie Russell if you think that shagging Ottoline Morrell counts as being in Bloomsbury, which I don’t
10 Books that use split-up words or spelled out puns like mans/laughter, (dis)ease, write/right/rite, deference/difference/difference, the/rapist, and so/on.

1 George MacDonald Frazer, the Flashman books, plus everything else he wrote or will write (though using the future tense is on the optimistic side)
2 Jan Potocki, The Saragossa Manuscript
3 Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (the Penguin edition with Barbara Reynolds’ translation)
4 The Thousand Nights and a Night (according to legend you'll die if you read all of these stories; I skipped a short one about a sailor, not called Sinbad)
5 PG Wodehouse, anything concerning Jeeves, the Drones Club, Blandings Castle or Mr Mulliner; the romances are a little less rewarding
6 Nick Mason’s book about being the drummer for Pink Floyd, which I just finished.
7 That's enough lists.