Culture Vulture
Sunday, February 19, 2006

"Against stupidity the Gods themselves struggle in vain"

Each week I find myself considering giving up the Sunday newspapers, in fact all newspapers and news in any medium, only to reconsider at once, such is the addiction to being informed. And it is a real addiction. What astonishes me is the apparently huge proportion of the population who seem immune to the addiction and are quite happy to be uninformed - to the extent that they are unaware of things which will affect them massively and personally. I envy them their insouciance. Ignorance may truly be bliss.

What is so repellent in newspapers and other media is the catalogue of almost unbelievable stupidity affecting nearly all areas of life. The mind actually does boggle. Logic, informed decisions, self-preservation instinct, sheer common sense are almost nowhere in evidence. In their place reign vacuity, this month's fashionable cant, downright irrationality and criminal irresponsibility. Values are inverted or non-existent. The 10th rate is always preferred to the 1st rate. Society seems to have gone literally mad. It is all profoundly depressing because it appears utterly unstoppable. One feels like going mad oneself, if only to be in step with the world.

Can anyone suggest a remedy? A Trappist monastery on a desert island, perhaps? I think I can suggest the cause - wealth has caused our decadence. We would and could not have a lunatic society like this if we didn't know where our next meal was coming from. Reality in its hardest form would see to that. As it is, we are the fools of Kipling's 1919 poem "The Gods of the Copybook Headings"; and, as its last lines promise, our come-uppance is ineluctable.

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man-
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return."

Friday, February 03, 2006

THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth

How to change the circumstances of one’s origins in order to improve one’s chances in life, and the consequences arising therefrom, is what Roth explores in the above novel. His subject is Coleman Silk, a young boy born into an impoverished but cultured Negro family. His father has come down in the world, lost his optician’s shop after a bank crash, and is now a dining car attendant, and his mother works as a nurse at the local hospital. Coleman’s father does not talk about the racial humiliations he experiences, instead he brings up his three children to value honesty, uprightness, gentleness, teaches them correct English by reading them, and making them read aloud, broadsheet newspapers, and exposes them to the Anglo-American ethos in every way, for he and his wife are as proud to be Negroes as they are of being Americans.

When they discover that Coleman has secretly learned to box at a boys’ club they are perturbed because of the intrinsic violence, the need to hurt another person for financial reward. Coleman explains that he boxes for sport, not for money, but his parents remain troubled, his father particularly fearing to lose his parental authority and guidance. Coleman prevails, and is invited to a prestigious boxing match away from his home patch. His instructor advises him beforehand not to mention that he is coloured because everyone will assume him to be Jewish on account of his exceptionally light colour. Coleman laughs about that, but the seed is sown.

He enters the all-Negro Howard college as his father wishes, who wants Coleman to study medicine, and then marry a light-coloured Negro girl, have children with her, and perpetuate their family. The boy does extremely well, but also has his first experience of racism in Woolworth where he is prevented from buying a hot dog. Others slurs follow, such as not being invited to a birthday party because of his colour, and later, after having joined the navy, a prostitute refusing to serve him. These incidents do not cause him to dislike white people, rather he blames whichever individual inflicted this on him. He is, however, infuriated to have the word “nigger” flung at him. He is a Negro, but he is not a nigger.

Having left Howard after his father’s death, he joins New York University, where he does brilliantly. He falls in love with a white girl who returns his love, He does not tell her that he is black, hopes that she will simply assimilate the fact when he takes her home to meet his mother and family. The girl is politely received and entertained, but when they return to New York the girl breaks down, confesses that she cannot accept the situation, and the relationship ends with many tears.
When eventually Coleman forms another relationship with another white girl he still cannot bring himself to tell her of his race although he believes that she would probably not mind. Instead he tells his mother that he will marry her, and that he now will live as a white man. This means, as his mother makes clear to him, that he will no longer have a mother, or a brother, or a sister, or any relatives. Coleman accepts this. He marries the girl, has four white children, becomes a brilliant Classics professor at a college in New England, and is finally made the outstanding, innovative, deeply respected Dean of the Classics faculty.

It is at this point that Roth begins the novel. The shattering conclusion is somewhere in the middle as in AMERICAN PASTORAL, and, again as in that book, it is the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who reconstructs and relates the intricate events. Coleman’s retribution? He is accused of racism against a black student! Having spent his life as a white man the only defence he could present is not available to him. The resolution is as exciting as it is devastating. Read it, and find out for yourself.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

So Gordon Brown wants us to celebrate being British. This is a rather clumsy and obvious ploy by the Chancellor: playing down his Scottishness and emphasising his Britishness in order to further his leadership aspirations. But, that aside, has it not been a recurrent theme over the last 30-40 years? Anyone remember the "I'm backing Britain" campaign? I even recall a clearly pre-2nd World War metal sign in a Birmingham suburb (it might possibly have dated from the 19th century) which proclaimed: " Bernstein's Mantles: British and Best!".

Dr. Johnson's famous remark that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", with its implication that the aim is to cover up or distract from one's failings, may be apposite for Oor Gordon's campaign. But whatever the (even charitably interpteted) political motive, the point is surely why should any of the rest of us celebrate.

There are many aspects of Britain I for one am not tempted to feel proud of, let alone boast about. For example, that considerable section of our young people whose drunken, foul-mouthed depravity is unequalled not just in Europe but perhaps in the world. Or the corollary of our filthy, litter-choked town centres. Or the proud-to-know-nothing philistinism which pervades our public institutions, resulting in mindless "political correctness" and the cult of stupidity and coarseness. How can one celebrate a country which does not laugh to scorn the ignorant, pompous moron who decrees the pinning-up over the cots in a maternity hospital the po-faced notice "I am a small person. Please do not coo at me." ? And political correctness is just one facet of the most worrying trend for me - the steady erosion of our freedoms; so admired by Voltaire and so characteristic of our national tradition.

Of course, there are still plenty of things to be proud of in Britain. We can all make our own list and no doubt many of them would be found in most people's list. One, I would suggest, is (pace Gordon Brown) not feeling any need to trumpet our virtues but rather treating them as so self-evident that they require no advertisement! Or is that actually the very summit of arrogance?

Finally, I should like to address the very vexed question of "Britishness" itself. There are many learned voices today arguing that the British identity has outlived its usefulness with the end of Empire, that it was always an artificial construct with little real echo in people's hearts. It is equated with those other artificial polities in Europe now crumbled or crumbling such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union (alias The Russian Empire). I once thought this way myself, but now am not so sure, believing we are essentially more cohesive than these countries for many reasons of culture, history and sentiment. And, after all, the relatively recently created artificial polities of Italy and Germany show few signs of disintegrating!

But one great wrong must first be righted if Britain is to survive. It is what I call "The English Question", and others "The West Lothian Question". As a Scot, I can feel both Scottish and British. And, yes, I do object to English people's lazy or thoughtless use of the term England for Britain. Nevertheless, I find it monstrous that there is no English parliament, while both Wales and Scotland have devolved bodies. Westminster will not suffice - it is the parliament of the United Kingdom with representatives from all over the United Kingdom. As by far the largest component of the UK, England must obviously have its own legislative body if the whole devolution business is not to remain a farce. In the meantime, a way must be found to prevent MPs with seats in Scotland from voting on purely English matters - not only absurd but grossly unfair. If Britain ever falls apart, it will be because of the wholly justified resentment and anger of the English at the present indefensible constitutional arrangements.

So, while I am chary of wishing yet more politicians on our already over-"governed" country, might it not be a task worthy of Gordon Brown's envisaged future administration to ensure a more equitable, sensible set-up as a priority. Then perhaps we might continue to have a Britain in which to celebrate our Britishness.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Canterbury Tales

We went last week to Stratford upon Avon for one of our weekend theatre trips to the RSC and, as well as their ‘Great Expectations’, which was good, but not as good as ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ produced some years ago, we saw two three hour presentations of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, comprising about sixteen of the tales all told.

I can highly recommend these performances as they were extremely funny, provided of course that one is not offended by bawdy, indeed downright vulgar humour. As anyone who has read Chaucer will know his work reflected all the uninhibited attitudes that those of medieval times took towards sex and other bodily functions and the RSC certainly didn’t pull any punches.

In accordance with the requirements to include more than a little Christian element in his work Chaucer began and ended with more uplifting stories, such as that told by the Knight, which provided the structure within which the drunks, lechers and sodomites sought to entertain their fellow travellers with their tales. Perhaps the most jarring note was that told by the Abbess, which had a very definite anti Semitic element, true to the time but unpleasant for modern ears.

Nevertheless by far the majority of the six hours was enjoyable entertainment and much appreciated by the audience.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The other day I saw the film SOPHIE SCHOLL, the full title being SOPHIE SCHOLL: DIE LETZTEN TAGE (THE LAST DAYS). And indeed it all takes place in the single month of February 1943, and for the most part in Gestapo Headquarters in Munich.

The film deals with the destruction of The White Rose resistance movement, composed of students and certain academics at Munich University, following mainly the capture, interrogation, trial and execution of Sophie. It is based on documents of the time, plus recollections of eye-witnesses and of those who knew the resisters. It looks and feels extremely authentic, sometimes quoting directly from the surviving documentation. As the White Rose, like other anti-Nazi German resistance groups , is little known in this country, I can vouch for the accuracy of the details, setting and atmosphere of the film. It was, for instance, a shock to recognise unmistakably the University of Munich, outside and inside!

Above all, it is brilliantly acted. There is a chilling cameo of "Raging Roland" Freisler, President of the People's Court, which is terrifyingly accurate. Sophie's Gestapo interrogator, Mohr, is another wonderful performance; a sinister figure, no doubt, but not the one-dimensional demon beloved of Anglo-Saxon war films, rather a thoughtful and dutiful man hobbled by his commitment to a mad ideology. There are many other fine and subtle performances, especially, of course, that of Julia Jentsch as Sophie herself. She shows, in what is inevitably a dark and tragic story, just how young and thus sometimes how "youthful" in various ways she was. Her courage and dignity, but also the waste of what her life promised, are deeply moving.

"Authenticity" is striven for by modern cinema. There are limits, of course, if one is to tell a story, and this film is no exception. Some of the episodes may be inferentially imagined, some are certainly composites of several happenings. Nevertheless, the essentials of the historical reality are here. One sees, for example, that the Gestapo were actually looking for evidence(!!) as well as further conspirators' names, that somehow German society had retained a sense of law and due process, however distorted by the Nazis' efforts. This is the puzzling other side of the infamous extra-legal phenomena of concentration camps and murderous illegality towards Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians etc., more characteristic of Stalin's regime, where millions clearly known to be innocent were murdered or shipped off to camps with or without ludicrous extorted confessions, or with the many nasty regimes of South America and the Third World whose first resort was (is) torture for its own sake and little interest in truth or proof. Somewhere the Nazis instinctively knew one couldn't treat Germans like that, while disconcertingly in many cases flouting this same instinct. For those with no German who see or have seen the film, a case in point is that, for example, the interrogator always addresses Sophie formally as Fräulein Scholl and uses the polite Sie form of you!

Another disturbing aspect of this film was the uncomfortable echo of our present plight, where our troops are in a dangerous no-win situation, our government is lying and distorting the truth, we are implicated in detention without charge and in torture by proxy etc., while protestors are harrassed and broadcasters intimidated, because "the end justifies the means". Clearly, British or US democracy are very different from Nazism; but it's still food for thought! This is the real link: The White Rose movement did not advocate violence but distributed leaflets urging mass protest by the German people against the horrors being perpetrated in their name - a hopeless dream, since the worst atrocities were a state secret and the regime was felt by most to be their "own, true" form of government. And there was the fear, of course.

In the film, the accuseds' closing speeches at their trial are, in fact, mainly composed of extracts from the real closing speech of Professor Huber, the leading academic of The White Rose movement, who was tried and condemned later in 1943. His speech revealing and denouncing the crimes of Hitlerism and stating why he had, in conscience, to act against them, (again, amazingly, the regime permitted him to do so at great length and publicly - unimaginable under Stalin) ends with a quote from the philosopher Fichte written under Napoleonic oppression, which I will translate but not attempt to make rhyme:

Und handeln sollst du so, als hinge
Von dir und deinem Tun allein
Das Schicksal ab der deutschen Dinge,
Und die Verantwortung wär' dein.

And your duty is to act as though
Upon you and your actions alone
The fate of all things German depended,
And the responsibility was yours.

These words are a fitting epitaph for the brave, doomed resisters of The White Rose.

Thursday, January 05, 2006
A happy New Year to all readers!


I promised before Christmas to write a piece about this novel. As you can see below, I have cheated rather by lifting this survey of the book from Wikipedia. I did so because it is a very fair summary of the contents and themes and I was afraid of omitting something important, so rich and multi-layered is this great work of art. I will add my own comments afterwards as a guide and hopefully a help for potential readers.

Doktor Faustus
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

"Doktor Faustus" is a German novel written by Thomas Mann, begun in 1943 and published in 1947 as "Doktor Faustus. Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde" ( Doctor Faustus. The life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend). The novel documents the life of its fictional hero, Adrian Leverkühn, from his early childhood to his early death. Leverkühn--a musical prodigy, an early twentieth-century German--intentionally plays out his own life-story along mythic lines resembling the German medieval morality tale of Faust, who sold himself to Mephistopheles. As Leverkühn, impassioned by demons, develops artistically toward a fated reckoning day, German society simultaneously develops politically toward its catastrophic fate.

1 Structure
2 Themes
3 English translations
4 References

Doktor Faustus consists of a vast array of characters, fables, world events, theories, memories, ideas, and places, sometimes directly and sometimes tangentially linked to the story of Adrian Leverkühn's life. For this novel, Mann studied musicology and biographies of major composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf und Alban Berg, but also philosophers, especially Nietzsche. He contacted contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hanns Eisler for further details. But the most important and direct contribution came from the philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno. Thomas Mann himself aknowledges that in his book 'The Genesis of 'Doctor Faustus' (1949), where he states that some observations from Adorno made him rewrite whole parts of the book. Other people made contact with the book too during its writing, as Mann read regularly chapters to groups of friends , a 'technique' also used by Kafka, in order to test the impact of the text.

A single narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, threads these items together to the best of his ability and energy. Mann: "Zeitblom is a parody of myself. Adrian's mood is closer to my own than one might -- and ought to -- think."

The novel is concerned with the intellectual fall of Germany in the time leading up to World War II. Leverkühn's own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany's intellectual life in the 1920s. Leverkühn (the name means "live audaciously") becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, plagued by syphilis and insanity. In the novel, all of these thematic threads--Germany's intellectual fall, Leverkühn's spiritual fall, and the physical corruption of his body--directly relate to the political disaster of Germany. Mann's sense of the inseparable nature of art and politics may be seen in the published version of his 1938 United States lecture tour, The Coming Victory of Democracy, in which he said, ""I must regretfully own that in my younger years I shared that dangerous German habit of thought which regards life and intellect, art and politics as totally separate worlds."" In Doktor Faustus, Leverkühn's personal history, his artistic development, and the shifting German political climate are tied together by the narrator Zeitblom as he feels out and worries over the moral health of his nation (just as he had worried over the spiritual health of his friend, Leverkühn).

Another central theme is music. In the novel, Adrian Leverkühn develops the twelve-tone technique actually invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg, who lived near Mann in Los Angeles as the novel was being written, was very upset that Mann had appropriated the method without attributing it to him, and at his insistence, later editions of the novel included a disclaimer at the end describing Schoenberg's invention of the technique.

Although Leverkühn's time as a student of theology is but brief, metaphysical considerations continue to permeate the novel, culminating in an imagined dialogue with the devil. Here, Leverkühn foregoes love to gain knowledge, paralleling the pact of Faust with Mephistopheles.

English translations
H. T. Lowe-Porter translated many of Mann's works, including Doktor Faustus, almost contemporaneously with their composition. Mann completed Doctor Faustus in 1947, and in 1948 Alfred A. Knopf published Lowe-Porter's English translation (referenced below). It is quite serviceable, and if in certain instances Lowe-Porter's rendering becomes convoluted or arcane, it yet preserves most deeply the linguistic spirit of the author's own era (a stylistic sensiblitity so difficult to reproduce in subsequent generations).
John E. Woods' translation of 1997 is a competent, intelligible, English version. Necessarily, in achieving its goal of unified readability by English speakers of its own generation, it sacrifices a good deal in those sections of the text where characters speak in Early New High German.

Mann, Thomas; translation by Lowe-Porter, H.T. (Helen Tracy). Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. ISBN 0-679-60042-6.
Mann, Thomas; translation by Woods, John E. (John Edwin). Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. ISBN 0-375-40054-0.
Reed, T.J. (Terence James). Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. Oxford University Press, 1974. ISBN 0-198-15742-8 (cased). ISBN 0-198-15747-9 (paperback).
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doktor_Faustus"
Categories: 1947 books | German novels

As can be gathered from the above, DOKTOR FAUSTUS is not an easy read! But I have no doubt whatsoever that it is one of the 20th Century's greatest books, an immense artistic achievement by a literary genius, and of a kind almost certainly no longer achievable in our linguistically and culturally diminished age. Ideally it should be read in German, because so much nuance inevitably is lost in translation - German is very rich in synonyms and near-synonyms, each with its own subtle emotional loading. Even the mention above of the subject's name as meaning "living boldly" omits his first name Adrian - and Hadrian is famous for building a wall, an important facet of the hero's character. In fact, the names of all the many characters in the novel say something significant about them; until recently quite a common feature in German literature. The best English translation is that of Helen Lowe-Porter, who tries to convey the different registers and the frequent irony of the language, but it might be best to have a critical "crib" handy for the meaning of the names and for the historical echoes in certain personages of the novel - notably Nietzsche and Luther as well as several composers.

If I have made DOKTOR FAUSTUS sound daunting, so be it. Great art is not always easily accessible, and there is so much in this work that it is astonishing that the complexity could be so brilliantly woven into a seamless unity. There are passages of great pathos, of mystery, of horror, of irony and comedy, of bitter tragedy. It is the most complete examination of the Faustian, divided soul of a great nation. It is at the same time a study in the temptation and tragedy of genius. It is also a very gripping story, not always easy but ultimately very rewarding.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Notes on Graphology

My interest in handwriting began when some years ago I read the analysis of a married couple’s dispositions by a certified graphologist. Both people were known to me. So I studied the two documents with particular attention, especially as the husband was trying to force his reluctant wife into a divorce so that he could marry his teenage sweetheart. I thought both surveys so grossly unfair, the husband being depicted in glowing terms and his wife portrayed in solely negative language, that I have wondered ever since whether such testimony should carry legal weight. Does it, in fact?
If the wife had had prior knowledge about her handwriting being analysed, could she have altered it sufficiently to achieve a better reading? Are people able to change their handwriting? I for one am not, though I have tried, and still do now and then.
There must be other people who dislike their acquired script, who would like to change it, perhaps to make it look more adult, more intellectual, or hide their national background, as in my case. Having recently helped a friend to decipher some early 18th century German legal documents, mostly handwritten statements and letters by various persons, I realised that I was facing a well-nigh impossible task because the German script I had been taught had been replaced by the utterly different Latin kind. So no matter how hard I try I shall rarely be able to transform my Germanic “t” stroke into the Latin kind when writing spontaneously, and when I try to do that deliberately, in a hand-written CV for instance, my hand begins to “stutter”.
However, my father, who was a political prisoner for fifteen years, was forced to use print for all his private and official letters, so that he was never able to write cursively again for the remainder of his life. He even produced a bulky manuscript about his incarceration in this hand-printed manner. Moreover, his previously right-leaning script was now upright – did that mean he had undergone a personality change? Right-leaning script is said to denote amicable, generous persons. I could discover no alteration in him, but what would the above mentioned qualified graphologist have made of that?


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