History

Tolstoy in ironic mode

Most people have not read War and Peace; most that do probably skip Tolstoy’s extended rants about the meaning of History. Which means that relatively few will have read the following amusing parody of 19th century historiography that is contained within one of them, which is a real shame as it is excellent…

‘Louis XIV was a proud and self-confident man: he had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly. His descendants were weak men and they too ruled France badly. And they had such and such favourites and such and such mistresses. Moreover certain men wrote some books at that time. At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of dozen men in Paris who began to talk about all men being free and equal. This caused people all over France to begin to slash and drown one another. They killed the king and many other people. At that time there was in France a man of genius – Napoleon. He conquered everybody everywhere – that is, he killed many people because he was a great genius. And for some reason he wanted to kill Africans, and killed them so well and was so cunning and wise that when he returned to France he ordered everybody to obey him, and they all obeyed him. Having become an Emperor he again went out to kill people in Italy, Austria and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many. In Russia there was an Emperor, Alexander, who decided to restore order to Europe, and therefore fought against Napoleon. In 1807 he suddenly made friends with him, but in 1811 they again quarrelled and again began killing many people. Napoleon led six hundred thousand men into Russia and captured Moscow; then he suddenly ran away from Moscow, and the Emperor Alexander, helped by the advice of Stein and others, united Europe to arm against the disturber of its peace. All Napoleon’s allies suddenly became his enemies and their forces advanced against the fresh forces he had raised. The Allies defeated Napoleon, entered Paris, forced Napoleon to abdicate, and sent him to the island of Elba, not depriving him of the title of Emperor and showing him every respect, though five years before and one year later they all regarded him as an outlaw and a brigand. Then Louis XVIII, who till then had been the laughing-stock both of the French and the Allies, began to reign. And Napoleon, shedding tears before his Old Guards, renounced the throne and went into exile. Then the skillful statesmen and diplomatists (especially Talleyrand, who managed to sit down in a particular chair before anyone else, and thereby extended the frontiers of France) talked in Vienna, and by these conversations made the nations happy or unhappy. Suddenly the diplomatists and monarchs nearly quarrelled, and were on the point of again ordering their armies to kill one another, but just then Napoleon arrived in France with a battalion, and the French, who had been hating him, immediately submitted to him. But the Allied monarchs were angry at this and went to fight the French once more. And they defeated the genius Napoleon and, suddenly recognizing him as a brigand, sent him to the island of St Helena. And the exile, separated from the beloved France so dear to his heart, died a lingering death on that rock and bequeathed his great deeds to posterity. But in Europe a reaction occurred and the sovereigns once again all began to oppress their subjects.’

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Year Zero

ឆ្នាំសូន្យ

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We should not just be concerned about the destruction of ancient sites in Syria (both the country and the historic region) because of the loss of cultural heritage and the archaeological record (although these are bloody good reasons in their own right) but because such cultural vandalism* is a clear and terrifying signal of intent. This is because the desire to utterly eliminate the past is always and inevitably linked to the desire to utterly eliminate all those who do not fit in with the new order. We have seen this before, most frequently due to the actions of Asian Communists, and so we know exactly what to expect: no wonder people flee in their hundreds of thousands.

This is a disturbing subject and I’ve thought about it a lot recently (a matter on which I suspect I am not exactly alone). Where does this impulse – the desire for Year Zero – come from? Why was it so frequently associated with Asian Communism and why has it more recently been associated with some of the more extreme versions of Islamism? It is not enough to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of Utopianism-via-violence: the Soviet Union committed many and terrible acts of cultural vandalism and political murder in the name of Utopia, but never attempted to eliminate all traces of the past. It is not enough to point to mere iconoclasticism (in fact doing so often reeks of desperation) either. There have to be answers to this, but for now I’m drawing as much of a blank (hah) as everyone else.

*Although the use of this term to describe current events is more than a little unkind on the Vandals…

Face to Face

John Freeman, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of ninety nine, was a compellingly strange man – multiple accounts testify to a certain remarkable opacity about him; he was not a man to reveal his true self (whatever that was) even to close colleagues, let alone random strangers. Reading some recollections it is hard not to think of matryoshka dolls – with a career so diverse and so varied as to be actively bizarre. He was sucessively a Labour MP (1945-55 for Watford; he ended up as the last survivor of the 1945 Parliament) and a junior minister in the Attlee government (he resigned along with Bevan and Wilson over the introduction of prescription charges), a television journalist notable above all for his interviews, the editor of The New Statesman, a senior diplomat (first as British High Commissioner in India, then as the British Ambassador in the United States), and then as a television executive at LWT in the 1970s and 1980s. The idealistic Socialist who resigned from the most left-wing government in British history because it was not left-wing enough ended his career as an advocate of free markets and corporate managerialism. There may well be a decent film script to be made from that.

I would argue (and this is hardly a controversial opinion) that his primary legacy (so much else was but a reflection – in a well polished surface it shold be acknowledged- of whatever else was going on at the time) are the interviews that he conducted for the BBC programme Face to Face in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them are on YouTube and all are worth watching, even if they do not always make for easy viewing. For while Freeman was himself as opaque and impenetrable as obsidian, he had a knack of getting into the heads of others. The results could sometimes be disturbing to witness; most famously in the case of his interview with Tony Hancock:

Infinitely less disturbing is his interview with Carl Jung, which is a thing of surreal and beguiling charm and thus a good note on which to conclude:

They Died For Our Freedom (?)

The First World War actually started on the 28th of July 1914, but the British establishment and British media has chosen to celebrate ‘commemorate’ the anniversary on the 4th of August (i.e. today) because it was on the 4th of August 1914 that Great Britain threw itself headlong into the greatest clusterfuck in human history and declared war on the German Empire. I have learned many new things from the ensuing (awful) coverage. For instance, did you know that British* troops fought in the First World War in order to defend/preserve/whatever Our Freedom? And that we, therefore, owe them something (exactly what is not made clear) because of Their Sacrifice as They Died For Us. I had no idea of this, having previously believed that Great Britain was not a particularly free country in 1914 and that it was certainly not a democracy as I understand the term. My general (apparently inaccurate) view was that Britain was involved in the war not in order to Preserve Our Freedoms but largely in order to preserve (and ideally enhance) Britain’s status as a Great Power and because of impossible-to-wriggle-out-of diplomatic treaties, understandings and outright alliances. Indeed I was even of the view that poor innocent Great Britain was not in fact terribly innocent and had actually contributed significantly to the outbreak of war by involving itself in a massive naval arms race with Germany. My general opinion was that the First World War was a pointless and pointlessly bloody disaster, and that the millions who died in it ultimately died for nothing; that they were needlessly sacrificed as a result of the idiocy and incompetence of generals and politicians on all sides, and that the ultimate result of all the slaughter was not a bright new future of freedom, but even greater horror just twenty one years later. How delightful it truly is to learn that I was wrong and that British soldiers were, indeed, Making A New World:

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*And Imperial (the White Dominions and the colonial possessions both), but let us draw a veil over that as it makes Britain look bad.

Aspects of working-class life with special reference to publications and entertainments

In the end Richard Hoggart, who has died at the age of 95, outlived not just his best known son but also himself.

A personal hero of mine for various predictable reasons, he was one of the most important British intellectuals of the 20th century and his death has been noted in countries other than this one. The influence of The Uses of Literacy is so immense that any form of measurement is impossible: indeed, I would argue that it is literally impossible to understand British cultural and intellectual life between the publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 and the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 without having at least a reasonable understanding of the book and the arguments contained within it. One of its early readers, for instance, was a young Dennis Potter, and a clear Hoggartian strand runs through his vast and brilliant output, from Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton to Cold Lazarus and everything between (including the Hamlet of television that is The Singing Detective). Even in post-social democratic and post-industrial Britain (in which Hoggart’s big-hearted highbrow labourism with its almost evangelical agenda of cultural democracy has been eliminated even – especially? – in academia), The Uses of Literacy continues to matter, to provoke, and, yes, even to influence, even if as as a sort of opposition manifesto. Consider, just for a moment, the distinction that Hoggart made between what he described as ‘popular culture’ and what he dubbed ‘mass culture’: popular culture to Hoggart was culture created by ordinary people for themselves, while mass culture is the product of the culture industries. Much contemporary discussion about football and the culture of football could be improved with reference to this careful distinction. And Hoggart’s legacy does not end with his most famous work: he was (amongst other things) a co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, a key figure in the creation of BBC2, and a star witness in R v Penguin Books Ltd. (also known as the Lady Chatterley trial). Hoggart was not just an important intellectual, he was one of the faces of the genuine cultural anti-elitism that mattered so much in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the main argument of The Uses of Literacy, it is perhaps appropriate that the death of Hoggart reminds us with a sudden sharpness of what has been lost in recent decades.

The Uses of Literacy concludes with the following passage:

‘So much is profoundly encouraging. And it may be that a concentration of false lights is unavoidable at this stage of development in a democracy which from year to year becomes more technologically competent and centralized, and yet seeks to remain a free and ‘open’ society. Yet the problem is acute and pressing – how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralization and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free be told that they were free.’

Landscape and Value

Landscape is a longterm interest of mine, and when I write ‘interest’ I mean in multiple senses of interest. Landscape history is interesting, the way in which perceptions of landscape alter is interesting, and actual landscapes themselves are interesting: both aesthetically and on a functional geographical, environment, and geological level.*

Until about two hundred years ago or so there was, at least in Europe, a very close relationship between the economic value of a given landscape and the extent to which that landscape was valued in aesthetic terms, at least by the literate minority of the population.** Generally speaking a beautiful landscape was a well-settled and well-stocked agricultural district; prosperous, ordered and productive. The classic term for this is ‘pastoral’,*** an aesthetic tendency that reached perverted excesses in the contrived landscapes of the country estates of the aristocracy and landed gentry. In contrast, landscapes of less economic value (predominantly upland ones, but also unproductive lowland landscapes like those of the the Landes in southern France) were regarded in rather hostile terms: words like ‘waste’, ‘desolate’, ‘barren’ and ‘desert’ have a tendency to reoccur with tedious predictability in contemporary accounts.

And then everything changes: a slow revolution in aesthetic perspective spreads – admittedly at different speeds – across Europe (and to its now burgeoning and exploited colonial possessions), as fundamentals of the world seem to shift in the face of the weird Triple Alliance of Modernity formed loosely by the Romantic Movement, the Industrial Revolution and the latest and largest wave of mass urbanisation. One of the many by-products of this was tourism.

It would be wrong to suggest that the resulting change in the ‘valuing’ of landscapes was an inversion, however tempting that might be. The dramatic landscape might now be automatically read as a beautiful one – while the idea that there might be any connection between agricultural productivity and beauty seems frankly laughable – but the pastoral idyll, for instance, is very much not dead. It has changed, of course, from obnoxiously ‘Classical’ to brazenly twee, but I’d argue that that is a very minor shift indeed. Economic – if not agricultural – value has also sort-of accrued to many beautiful landscapes thanks to the money brought by tourism, which adds a mildly ironic twist to matters.

It should also be noted (and deplored) that there is also life in the noxious flipside of the pastoral idyll. Certain seriously bleak landscapes came under pressure from idiotic government policies and the hare brained schemes of even more idiotic private landlords (often working in tandem) across Europe in the twentieth century; always on the grounds that these places were/are ‘wastelands’, ‘desolate’ or (in the case of the great moorlands of the British Isles) ‘wet deserts’, and always with catastrophic environmental consequences for (almost always) negligible economic returns. What happened largely did so because these landscapes were held to lack value. Depressingly enough, and despite their near uniform failure, these deranged policies retain their advocates (but then crass stupidity often does). Lamentably, pathetically and predictably, many of these foolish people like to describe themselves as ‘environmentalists’.

I could write some sort of conclusion, but on balance I would rather just add a photo of a lost landscape:

*Urban landscapes are a source of fascination as well, so it’s possible to add a lot of other words here: architectural, say.

**But what did the illiterate majority think? It would certainly be a mistake – and an extraordinarily obnoxious one at that – to assume that the concept of beauty never crossed their minds.

***Which is a little bit ironic given the sort of landscapes where actual pastoralism tends to predominate.