Louis Barthas: the old lady and her garden

Louis Barthas (1879 – 1952) was a cooper (barrelmaker) from a small town in the south of France. He joined the army when war broke out in 1914 despite being a 35-year-old husband, the father of two young sons, and a socialist staunchly opposed to the war. During four years of service on the Western Front he kept a diary, and miraculously both he and his notebooks survived. He never thought to publish his war diaries, however; it was only his grandson, a school teacher, who recognized their value and brought them to the attention of a historian at a nearby university who arranged their publication in 1978. They were published in English as Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. (Poilu in French means “hairy” or “bearded”; it is the slang term for the ordinary soldiers of the French army, similar to “Tommy” for the British soldiers, and “doughboys” for the Americans.)

In this passage from 1916, Barthas reveals his talents as a storyteller, his own quiet generosity, and his love for the simple pleasures of life. In early April, 1916, Barthas and his regiment has been relieve at the front and is resting behind the lines.

The long sojourn we had in this village was such that a great intimacy built up between the poilus and the inhabitants, especially among the ladies. Some idylls were kindled; there were some amorous adventures which became tied and untied. As for me, a loving and faithful husband, I won the affections of a lady of Lamotte.

But alas, for her and for me. The snows of sixty-five winters had colored her hair, and this lady was a poor old hag living with her husband in a shack at the far end of the village.

The husband, worn down by the years and by rheumatism, lay moaning in his bed. His wife used up her last reserves of strength making sure that her bits of field didn’t go fallow, as well as a rather large garden surrounding the thatched cottage, three-quarters of which were choked with thistles and other weeds.

I observed all this one day, when I was on my way to guard duty at the village’s exit points, this useless and ridiculous guard duty which they had set up according to established practice.

Except on Sundays, this guard duty was a sort of relief for the poilus; in exchange, you could cut out twenty-four hours of drills or parades. Only the four hours of night duty you’d pull could perhaps be wearisome for those who couldn’t appreciate the charm of solitude, of nocturnal silence, of contemplation of a starry sky, etc.

It’s true that, at this time, stinging April showers often troubled the poetic moonlit vigils. Then you would seek refuge in the clever little sentry boxes which the wicker workers had fashioned out of the boughs of the Crécy forest. But if the down pour lasted, you’d be chased out by the raindrops and find better shelter behind a wall. It was during one of my breaks between guard duty shifts that I picked up a tool and went to working, spading the old lady’s garden.

“But monsieur,” said the old lady, “you’re working for nothing. I’m too poor to pay you anything.”

“Don’t worry about that, grandma. I’ll stop by every day when I’m off duty, until your garden is in good shape and your potatoes are planted,” which she despaired about getting done in time.

In fact, four or five days later, the work was done. The old lady didn’t know how to express her thanks. She picked out for me the best apples in her cupboard, and I had to accept a coffee one evening. The old man wanted to be at the party, too, so we took our coffee in the sickroom.

As coquettish as any daughter of Eve, the old lady showed me her portrait at age twenty, and the old codger smiled impishly, as if to say, “You see, we were young once, and we were carefree in those days.”

And I had to listen to the tales of their young love. They were about to be married when the war broke out—the war of 1870, that is. He went off in the Garde Mobile. Once peace was signed, he hurried back to Lamotte to find his fiançee, but the Prussians were still occupying the region and the village. The marriage was put off. From morning to evening he was at her house, attending to her every need. One day, they were having a cozy tête-à-tête at home, which they hardly ever left, when a rude and insolent Unteroffizier burst in. He claimed that he needed some information, but his true purpose was to harass the lovers. He went so far as to try to kiss the young woman, right in front of her fiancé.

Evoking these distant memories, the old lady turned red with indignation, as if she could still feel the lips of the Boche.

But the story isn’t finished. The young man—now an old codger, nailed to his bed—had to defend the honor of his Picard blood, and to avenge the outrage he slapped the German on both cheeks.

The [German] dashed out more quickly than he had come in, but he came back a moment later with a squad of policemen who seized the unlucky fiancé and dragged him off to jail, under a rain of blows and kicks.

The cantonment’s [German] commander was a captain who inspired real terror among the inhabitants for his severity, his brutal discipline. He decided to set an example, to make it known that whoever dared to raise a hand against a German non-com would be shot the very next day.

He had no idea of the circumstances which brought on this incident. But luckily for our pair of young lovers, he was billeted at the home of the town’s mayor, who told him the whole story.

The terrifying officer summoned the young girl, the heroine of the story, to his office. She presented herself, fearful and faltering. There also appeared the ungallant non-com, who was forced to confess his misdeeds.

The next day they released the young Frenchman who was expecting to be shot. Three days later the village was delivered from German occupation. And our two young folks got married, loved each other, and had many children, now either dead or living far away. And they remained there, at home in the poor thatched cottage, from which only death would take them away.

The prescience of Henry Adams

Henry Adams (1838 – 1918) was the great-grandson of John Adams, the American revolutionary and second President of the United States. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., was Lincoln’s ambassador in London. Henry Adams served as his father’s private secretary in London. In 1862 he wrote the following in a letter to his elder brother, Charles Francis Adams, Jr.:

I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Someday science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide, by blowing up the world.

Two more of his observations that resonate in our own troubled times:

Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces. . . .

The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.

The Education of Henry Adams (1907)


The most ferocious animal on the face of the earth

When I looked around the verdant recess in which I was buried, and gazed up to the summits of the lofty eminence that hemmed me in, I was well disposed to think that I was in the ‘Happy Valley’, and that beyond those heights there was naught but a world of care and anxiety. As I extended my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the disadvantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by all the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly a less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Tierra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life—what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may ‘cultivate his mind—may elevate his thoughts,’—these I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking—‘Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?’

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve;—the heart-burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissentions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England:—a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.

—Herman Melville, Typee (1846). Chapter XVII.

From Wikipedia:

Of all the major island groups of the Pacific, the Marquesas Islands suffered the greatest population decline as a result of Eurasian endemic diseases carried by European explorers, which resulted in epidemics, particularly of smallpox, to which they had no acquired immunity. The estimated 16th-century population of over 100,000 inhabitants, was reduced to about 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth century, and to just over 2,000 by the beginning of the 1900s.

Freedom: Where is Goldilocks when we need her?

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “As a youth I prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not right now.'” Today we all ought to be praying, “Give us freedom, but not too much.”

Ah, but how much is too much?

Imagine centuries of monarchy in Europe, first during the Roman Empire and continuing into the 19th century. Small elites of military rulers allied with landowners and the Church at the top; large masses of peasants doing the work and living the life that Hobbes described: “poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Clearly, not enough freedom.

A few revolutions bring us to 19th-century Europe and the rise of the middle class. Increasing prosperity, security, peace. . . and boredom. Money-making. Respectability. Social conventions. Manners. Sexual repression. Hypocrisy. The suffocating nature of Alfred Doolittle’s “middle-class morality” permeates European literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It could still be found in the North American suburbs of the 1950s.

In Europe the reaction against bourgeois life centred in France, and especially in Paris. Liberation from middle-class morality, religion, art, and literature led to sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and artistic experimentation that broke away from convention in every way conceivable. This cry of freedom continued into the 20th century, with even better drugs (heroin instead of opium; then LSD, etc.), more and more vulgarity and sexual exhibitionism, and further attacks on traditional artistic conventions: narratives with no coherent plot, musical “compositions” with no sound, etc. The question, “What is art?” was confidently answered: anything you want it to be. Freedom!

Enter D. H. Lawrence:

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine.

As I look around today, I see a lot of frictional opposition and very little glad obedience. Returning to king and church, however, hardly seems an attractive solution. Some of the early middle-class rebels, frightened and appalled by their experiments with freedom, fled back to their roots and transformed into political reactionaries and religious zealots: Rimbaud, for example, who became a colonial capitalist and died in the arms of the Church. This is Goldilocks jumping from the bed that is too soft to the one that is too hard.

Life is biological, and freedom is like blood pressure: neither too much nor too little is a good thing. The question is, can humans restrain themselves? Or can they be saved from themselves only if they submit to an autocratic State and Church?

Here is Lawrence again:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.

Because the deepest self is way down, and the conscious self is an obstinate monkey. But of one thing we may be sure. If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.

On the other side, we have Dostoyevsky:

But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom, that these poor rebels can never turn into giants to complete the tower, that it was not for such geese that the great idealist dreamt his dream of harmony. Seeing all that he turned back and joined—the clever people. . . .

In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly, ‘incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.’ And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the counsel of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long. Is not that tragic?

How many of us can dig down to Lawrence’s “deepest self”? How many of us are more likely to surrender our freedom when it becomes too unruly and chaotic? As Alfred Doolittle says, “I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”


  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  2. Alfred Doolittle: in G. B. Shaw’s play, Pygmalion.
  3. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature     
  4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

1782: Edward Gibbon describes the Germans and reveals himself

Edward Gibbon’s famous history may be reliable at some points, highly dubious at others. It does, however, provide a reliable portrait of its author. We see his wide learning and erudition. We feel his supreme self-confidence as he makes one bold assertion after another. We see the influence of his social class, his era, and his nationality in his unexamined assumptions about “civilization,” “savages,” and “barbarians.” (The same terms were often used by Europeans to describe the indigenous peoples of the Americas.) We see his respect for Christianity and corresponding disdain for pre-Christian, polytheistic religions. We see his disapproval of gambling, drunkenness, and infidelity, and his patriarchal attitude toward women. These oft-quoted passages about the Germanic tribes during the Roman Empire may or may not be reliable when it comes to the Germans, but they provide a clear portrait of their author. Writing reveals the writer.

From Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Chapter IX (1782):

The Germans, in the age of Tacitus [ca. 56-120 A.C.E.], were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses but very little his fellow-labourer, the ox, in the exercise of his mental faculties. The same, and even a greater, difference will be found between nations than between individuals; and we may safely pronounce, that without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life.

Of these arts, the ancient Germans were wretchedly destitute. They passed their lives in a state of ignorance and poverty, which it has pleased some declaimers to dignify with the appellation of virtuous simplicity. . . . The value of money has been settled by general consent to express our wants and our property, as letters were invented to express our ideas; and both these institutions, by giving a more active energy to the powers and passions of human nature, have contributed to multiply the objects they were designed to represent. . . . Money, in a word, is the most universal incitement, iron the most powerful instrument, of human industry; and it is very difficult to conceive by what means a people, neither actuated by the one, nor seconded by the other, could emerge from the grossest barbarism.

In the dull intervals of peace, these barbarians were immoderately addicted to deep gaming and excessive drinking; both of which, by different means, the one by inflaming their passions, the other by extinguishing their reason, alike relieved them from the pain of thinking. They gloried in passing whole days and nights at table; and the blood of friends and relations often stained their numerous and drunken assemblies. . . .

Strong beer, a liquor extracted with very little art from wheat or barley, and corrupted (as it is strongly expressed by Tacitus) into a certain semblance of wine, was sufficient for the gross purposes of German debauchery. . . .

A warlike nation like the Germans, without either cities, letters, arts, or money, found some compensation for this savage state in the enjoyment of liberty. Their poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism. . . . A people thus jealous of their persons, and careless of their possessions, must have been totally destitute of industry and the arts, but animated with a high sense of honour and independence. . . .

“In the days of chivalry, or more properly of romance, all the men were brave and all the women were chaste;” and notwithstanding the latter of these virtues is acquired and preserved with much more difficulty than the former, it is ascribed, almost without exception, to the wives of the ancient Germans. Polygamy was not in use, except among the princes, and among them only for the sake of multiplying their alliances. Divorces were prohibited by manners rather than by laws. Adulteries were punished as rare and inexpiable crimes; nor was seduction justified by example and fashion. We may easily discover that Tacitus indulges an honest pleasure in the contrast of barbarian virtue with the dissolute conduct of the Roman ladies; yet there are some striking circumstances that give an air of truth, or at least probability, to the conjugal faith and chastity of the Germans. . . .

Although the progress of civilization has undoubtedly contributed to assuage the fiercer passions of human nature, it seems to have been less favourable to the virtue of chastity, whose most dangerous enemy is the softness of the mind. The refinements of life corrupt while they polish the intercourse of the sexes. The gross appetite of love becomes most dangerous when it is elevated, or rather, indeed, disguised by sentimental passion. The elegance of dress, of motion, and of manners, gives a lustre to beauty, and inflames the senses through the imagination. Luxurious entertainments, midnight dances, and licentious spectacles, present at once temptation and opportunity to female frailty. From such dangers the unpolished wives of the barbarians were secured by poverty, solitude, and the painful cares of a domestic life. The German huts, open, on every side, to the eye of indiscretion or jealousy, were a better safeguard of conjugal fidelity than the walls, the bolts, and the eunuchs of a Persian harem. To this reason another may be added of a more honourable nature. The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed, that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human. . . . In their great invasions, the camps of the barbarians were filled with a multitude of women, who remained firm and undaunted amidst the sound of arms, the various forms of destruction, and the honourable wounds of their sons and husbands. . . . The sentiments and conduct of these high-spirited matrons may, at once, be considered as a cause, as an effect, and as a proof of the general character of the nation. . . .

The religious system of the Germans (if the wild opinions of savages can deserve that name) was dictated by their wants, their fears, and their ignorance. They adored the great visible objects and agents of nature, the Sun and the Moon, the Fire and the Earth; together with those imaginary deities, who were supposed to preside over the most important occupations of human life. They were persuaded, that, by some ridiculous arts of divination, they could discover the will of the superior beings, and that human sacrifices were the most precious and acceptable offering to their altars. Some applause has been hastily bestowed on the sublime notion, entertained by that people, of the Deity, whom they neither confined within the walls of the temple, nor represented by any human figure; but when we recollect, that the Germans were unskilled in architecture, and totally unacquainted with the art of sculpture, we shall readily assign the true reason of a scruple, which arose not so much from a superiority of reason, as from a want of ingenuity. The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror; and the priests, rude and illiterate as they were, had been taught by experience the use of every artifice that could preserve and fortify impressions so well suited to their own interest.

. . . A solemn procession was occasionally celebrated in the present countries of Mecklenburgh and Pomerania. The unknown symbol of the Earth, covered with a thick veil, was placed on a carriage drawn by cows; and in this manner the goddess, whose common residence was in the Isles of Rugen, visited several adjacent tribes of her worshippers. During her progress the sound of war was hushed, quarrels were suspended, arms laid aside, and the restless Germans had an opportunity of tasting the blessings of peace and harmony. . . .

Such was the situation, and such were the manners of the ancient Germans. Their climate, their want of learning, of arts, and of laws, their notions of honour, of gallantry, and of religion, their sense of freedom, impatience of peace, and thirst of enterprise, all contributed to form a people of military heroes. . . .

Leviticus, progressive humanitarian

Leviticus 24:17-20 reads as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. . . .If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

Man, that Old Testament sense of justice was tough, eh? Let’s see.

On October 7th, according to Israeli data, 1,139 Israelis were killed.

Since then, news reports estimate 27,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza.

That means that almost 24 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli killed on October 7th.

If we round that number down to 20, we can revise Leviticus as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death, along with 19 of his friends, neighbours, and family members. . . . If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fractures for every fracture, 20 eyes for every eye, 20 teeth for every tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him, 20 times over.

Makes you glad you weren’t born into that primitive Old Testament world, don’t it?

An age of pessimism?

It would sometimes seem as if this period had been particularly unhappy, as if it had left behind only the memory of violence, of covetousness, and mortal hatred—as if it had known no other enjoyment but that of intemperance, of pride, and of cruelty. Now, in the records of all periods misfortune has left more traces than happiness. Great evils form the groundwork of history. We are perhaps inclined to assume, without much evidence that, roughly speaking, and notwithstanding all calamities, the sum of happiness can have hardly changed from one period to another. But in the 15th century, as in the epoch of Romanticism it was, so to say, bad form to praise the world and life openly. It was fashionable to see only its suffering and misery; to discover everywhere signs of decadence and of a near end—in short, to condemn the times, or to despise them.

—Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages

The task was to make Germany great again

From Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany, by Martin Broszat (1984):

In the depressed situation following the German defeat [in World War I, Hitler] could generalise and politicise his feelings of personal bitterness and hatred which were rooted in his own failure and his rejection of the unpleasant realities of life and which had led him, already as an adolescent, to develop fantastic plans for the future and to evade regular employment. . . . The task was to . . . make Germany great again.

The themes of speeches which he was making in 1920 in Munich beer halls by their dozens were the same: the ‘shame of the Versailles Treaty’, the enemies within who had stabbed the nation in the back, . . . and, invariably, the ‘Jewish Question’. . . .

Early verdicts on his style were: a ‘born popular orator’, ‘masterly’ or ‘extremely skilful’. . . . He knew how to stimulate his audiences . . . by resorting to biting sarcasm. He ridiculed his opponents as ‘liars’ or spoke of the ‘miserable weaklings’ in the government and in other political parties. Police reports almost always noted that there was ‘lively applause’, ‘tempestuous applause’ or ‘long-lasting applause’ at the end of his appearances. . . . The anti-Nazi press . . . dubbed him an ‘extremely cunning demagogue’ or ‘leader of an anti-Semitic’ party. . . . He knew how to wrap his constant call to fight the ‘parasites’ and ‘enemies of the people’ in a solemn appeal to show national pride and to believe in Germany’s strength . . . . He could talk of the rebirth of the nation in a tone of religious conviction . . . .

. . . To be successful and to gain power was synonymous . . . with drawing attention to oneself and with attracting the masses. . . . New propaganda methods which had been developed first and foremost by Hitler assumed great significance. . . .

Hitler’s messianic power and dynamism also drove wealthy supporters and patrons into his arms . . . .

Provocative brutalities, especially if directed against the ‘Socialists’, . . . were also designed to command the respect of the middle classes . . . . His antics gained the respect of sympathetic circles in Munich’s high society . . . . His reputation was that of a political enfant terrible who succeeded in arousing an almost morbid interest in himself . . . .

The notion that actual fighting was required rather than passive resistance prepared the ground for the formation of a block of radical paramilitary groups . . . .

. . . On 15 November 1930 . . . every tenth person . . . was without a job. . . . The worst hit were the 14 to 18-year-olds who had just left school.

The first reaction of the high-brow bourgeois-liberal press of Berlin to the Nazi success was one of stunned horror. The leader writer of the Berliner Tageblatt (16 September 1930) found it impossible to take in the ‘monstrous fact’ that ‘six million and four hundred thousand voters in this highly civilised country had given their vote to the commonest, hollowest and crudest charlatanism’.

. . . Professor Hans von Eckart . . . [wrote that] “the Nazis . . . are, above all, people who . . . have simply seized a first opportunity of participating and who have hitherto not yet been able to be politically active.”

. . . This was also the soil in which Goebbels’s propaganda ideas began to flourish. . . . [in Der Angriff, the Nazi newspaper]. Police and courts were constantly ridiculed. The paper published anti-Semitic cartoons of people in authority. . . .

. . . Goebbels . . . publicly bragg[ed] about the dozens of prosecutions which had been started against him. . . . At subsequent mass rallies, Goebbels [was] cocky, arrogant and provocative as ever . . . . [He] was fined 1,600 marks for making defamatory statements . . . .

. . . Hitler . . . in a trial against three officers who had joined the Nazi Party . . . declared: ‘Here I stand swearing an oath before God, the Almighty. I say to you that, once I shall have come to power by legal means . . . a few heads will roll in the sand . . . ‘.

. . . The basic aim was the further erosion of the Republic’s stability . . . .

The bourgeois-conservative parties . . . were in principle prepared to bring the Nazis into the government. They hoped that giving them political responsibility would neutralise their demagogy. . . .

. . . The Nazis were intent on using violence in order to prove . . . that law and order had broken down . . . .

. . . National Socialism . . . had barely anything in common with the ‘old’ school of culture and rigorous intellectual discourse which still informed the major political thought systems . . . . Nazi ideology was almost totally a product of mass culture and political semi-literacy . . . , unsophisticated sloganeering which drew on the ‘scrapheap of ideas current in this period’ . . . , [and] popularised snippets of ideas and dogmas . . . combined with a political-emotional attachment . . . . used for the deliberate simplification of political world-views and . . . the creation of a political myth for the masses.

. . . [The] essential elements of the late Nazi ideology were . . . a virulent anti-Semitism, a blood-and-soil ideology, the notion of a master race, the idea of territorial acquisition and settlement in the East. These ideas were . . . anti-modernist, anti-humanist, and pseudo-religious.

. . . Criticism of bourgeois security and rationality had become vehement and widespread. This criticism also expressed itself in various life-reform movements and avant-garde artistic trends, in the pedagogical reform movement and, above all, in the Youth Movement . . . .

. . . The First World War was to cause the decisive seismic shift in the country’s political culture. This was the soil in which Nazism was to grow. . . . Young peasants and land labourers returned with changed personalities, after the war had torn them from the slow-moving pace of provincial life and had thrown them into the ‘wide world’ and onto the stage of fateful national developments. . . . [Their] largely unpolitical life-styles far removed from the centre of national affairs had become politicised primarily via the nationalist experience of the war. . . . Both the central government and the national political parties had traditionally neglected the provinces . . . . Rural protesters who had been shaped by the war experience provided massive recruitment grounds for the incipient fascist movements.

“Pigeon Tunnel,” by John Le Carré

John Le Carré’s memoir, Pigeon Tunnel (or is it David Cornwell’s memoir?) teems with con-men, fraudsters, spies, criminals, assassins, political subversives, and a gaggle of celebrities and one-percenters with whom they rub elbows at cocktail parties. I have never met any of the above, to my knowledge. Le Carré a.k.a. Cornwell’s elegantly-recounted anecdotes fascinated me, but the fascination gradually wore down to a residue of annoyance. Are there no ordinary people in Le Carré’s world? No loving mothers and fathers who do honest work, raise their kids as best they can, follow the rules, abide by the laws, and try to be the best people they can be? No. Such people do not make for exciting novels, which is why they are largely absent from Le Carré’s spy thrillers. Weirdly, though, they seem to have been equally absent from David Cornwell’s life. 

Immediately upon finishing Pigeon Tunnel, however, I listened to the most recent episode of Rob Reiner’s podcast series, Who Killed JFK?, and there they were again: spies, assassins, criminals, political subversives. Then I recalled reading somewhere that the three most valuable commodities in world trade were petroleum, weapons, and illegal drugs—all of which required the services of often-crooked lawyers and international bankers—and the world began to look again more like David Cornwell’s world. And I remembered one of my favourite Chinese phrases, 他们都是流氓: they are all gangsters. I am reminded, too, of Harry Lime in The Third Man, when he meets Holly Martins in Vienna’s Prater and looks down from the top of the Riesenrad at the tiny figures below. “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”

So, are we deluded and naïve, we ordinary people who go to school and go to work and read books and listen to music and watch movies—do we live in willful ignorance on the fringes of a world fueled by greed and criminality? Or are the drug dealers and arms dealers and crooked bankers the deluded ones, fatuously believing that diamonds and caviar make life worth living?

Who are the suckers? Discuss.

Earl Palmer remembers . . .

Excerpts from Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, by Tony Scherman—long out of print, but wonderful. Earl Palmer was a first-call session drummer in Los Angeles from the late 50s into the 80s, but got his start in New Orleans (where he began as a boy tap-dancer) making records with Fats Domino and Little Richard. He is credited with inventing the straight-eighths beat on the hi-hat or cymbal that is characteristic of rock ‘n roll, and says that he got the idea from Little Richard’s straight eighth-note pounding on the piano. He is the drummer on hundreds of hit songs from the 1960s and 1970s, but also recorded film scores, TV jingles, etc., in almost every musical genre. He could sight-read almost anything, and also did a bit of arranging and composing.

Three of us in that group were the best jazz players in New Orleans at the time: Edward Frank , Red , and me. Sam Mooney never became well known but he was a good guitar player. Ellis Marsalis used to sub for Frank and sometimes for Tyler; sometimes he’d even play Earl’s bass. We welcomed that, because Earl couldn’t play. We used to cheer every time he hit a note that was actually in the chord. The people thought we were crazy. Earl had never gone near a bass, he just didn’t want to hire a bass player.


[Racism in New Orleans]: White musicians who were in town at the Roosevelt came down . It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t take you downtown; you knew they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. 

I saw a white guy get thrown off a city bus once for sitting in the black section. “Can’t sit there, it’s the black section.”

“I can sit anywhere I want.”

“Not with niggers you can’t.” Threw him off the bus. One time Mike Sherpas, a white trumpet player we called Cheese, painted himself green. Got on the bus and said, “Where do you want me to sit, I’m green!” Threw him off, too.


Me and Rene Hall and Plas Johnson always talked about how we could make some money and not leave the studio. One day I said, “Let’s do a rock version of ‘In the Mood.’”

“‘In the Mood’?”

Bought my house on it. 

You see, back in New Orleans millions of old white guys always said, “By God, do you boys know ‘In the Mood’?” If they liked it so much, why wouldn’t their kids, if we put a rock-and-roll beat to it? Rene and Plas said, “Okay, write an arrangement,” so I did. We put it under Ernie Fields, an old bandleader wasn’t doing nothing. It was a big, big hit. It went to number 4—that’s pop, not no R&B chart. We never did another thing, but it worked once. I’m telling you, “In the Mood.”


When it really dawned on me that I could do this was when I had to play cartoon music, the hardest music I ever had to play. . . . Tom and Jerry fucking cartoons. . . . That music looked like fly shit, notes all over. 


Rene Hall arranged everyone’s records. His stuff wasn’t my favorite but I admired one thing, the simplicity of it. “You Send Me,” that’s a perfect example of simplicity, I can’t think of any arrangement that could have been better for that tune. . . . 

I remember the stop-time in the bridge made me think of tap dancing. You know, that may have been my idea. I sort of remember suggesting that. 


There was an engineer out there, I won’t call his name; somebody must have asked him what he thought once, and from then on he had to assert himself. Come a time he picked the wrongest thing in the world to say to the wrongest person and boy, when he said it the studio got to where you could hear a mouse piss on cotton. Because Red Callender was very, very particular about tuning his bass. Red was known to have great pitch, he was known to hit the note. So this engineer, sounding very authoritative, says to Red one day, “By the way, Red, I think you’re a little out of tune.”

Everybody say, “Oh shit.”

“Out of tune, you say?”

“Yeah, Red, a little bit.”

Red looks at the cat like he’s staring at an ant.

“And how in the fuck would you know?”


Curt Wolf had the thickest German accent you could ever hear. I used to say, “Curt, man, when you going to speak English?” He’d say, “I em spicking Engglish, Airl!” 


During a coffee break the subject came up about Orval Faubus, the segregationist in Arkansas. This same guy’s opinion was, “Segregation is a terrible thing, but those people,” meaning us, “have to be patient. Things like that don’t change overnight.”

He turned to me and said, “Do you or don’t you agree with me?”

I said, “Man, that’s a rough question.” I kept scratching my head. He didn’t notice I was stepping on his toe, harder and harder.

“Hey, you’re hurting my toe!” he finally yells. 

“Have a little patience, man. I’ll get off in a minute.”

He got my point. We became good friends.


[Phil] Spector wasn’t an arranger of notes; I don’t know if he could write no notes at all. He was an arranger of ideas, of the elements that make a hit record. If there is any genius in him, that’s where it was. He had his finger on what other producers would die for: he knew what the kids wanted to hear. But you ain’t getting me to accept him as no musician.


Sarah Vaughan was a chick that liked to hang. She was the Hang Out Queen, outhang anybody, drinking and getting high, day and night, talking and laughing and joking. . . . She had a mouth, too. Guys got furious at her but they took a swing at you. Anytime you was with her, you ran the risk of getting punched.


The first time I met Ike [Turner] he’d just come in town. He wanted to pay everybody cash. I said I didn’t work for no cash. He starts to cuss me out and opens a briefcase with stacks of cash and a gun. That’s about what I expected. I’d heard he was a thug.

“Who the hell are you?” he says.

“I’m Palmer, and I don’t work no cash dates. I’m a union musician.”

“What I’m supposed to do, make out a contract just for you?”

You going to have to do something like that, because I don’t want no cash money. When I get fined fifteen hundred dollars by the union, are you gonna pay?” He wound up filing a contract for me alone.


[Bobby Darin]: He was head above shoulders more professional than most of the little singers I was doing around then: Paul Anka, Fabian, Bobby Rydell. Wayne Newton was a long-legged short-torso kid but Darin struck me as professional right off the bat.


Paul Revere & the Raiders . . . was Hal [Blaine]’s client. . . .  

Teddy Reig asked me to do Manufacturers of Soul,  Basie’s album with Jackie Wilson. Harold Jones, Basie’s drummer at the time, didn’t play rock, which is part of why Teddy hired me. At the session he asked me, “What can we do to make these charts a little more commercial?”

“One thing, we could try using a tambourine.”

“Who can we get to play tambourine? Larry Bunker?” That made no sense—a top-notch percussionist, just to play tambourine?

“Man, let Harold play tambourine,” I said. 

“Can he?”

“All niggers play tambourine, Teddy.” Harold Jones played tambourine and got paid for it. I still have a medallion he gave me for that.

Teddy once tried to hire me to join Basie. “There was a time I would have paid to join this band,” I told him, “but I can’t afford to now.” Teddy said he understood. I said, “Man, I’m probably go home and get drunk after this.”


They made a movie called Zachariah, a real hokey satire on cowboy days. Elvin Jones played a gunslinger. In his big scene, instead of saying, “Draw,” he says, “Gimme them drumsticks” and plays a big solo. . . .

Anyway, somehow or other the sound got messed up. The drum solo had to be played all over again. Jimmy [Haskell] told the producers, “Oh yeah, we can do that.”

I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to fucking do this, man.”

Haskell said, “Why not?”

“Do you know who this is? I can’t match Elvin, nobody can. The man is a genius.” Finally I said, “All right. Give me two hours.” I took my lunch and a Moviola machine and some music paper, went across the alley into a little room, and transcribed Elvin’s whole solo. Took me two-and-a-half hours to  write out a five-minute solo.  Then I played it. I not only got paid overtime, I got a bonus when they realized how hard that was and how near it came to being perfect.


NUMEROUS DATES, 1970-74 — BAKED POTATO, SWEETS EDISON. Sundary nights, always a Sunday night. Never paid much, twenty bucks, but we drank for free and got a lot of coke. Don Randi, who owned the place, asked me about getting a group in there. I said, “Why don’t you get Sweets? He’s going to bring all the pimps and hookers in. Every musician that comes in town going to come by and see Sweets.” Sure enough, the Basie band came through and they all sat in. Ellington band, same thing. Red Foxx came in to work out his nightclub routine; he’d get up there and stay an hour or more. The band was me, Sweets, Plas Johnson, Dolo Coker on piano, Larry Gales on bass. That’s some of the best jazz I played here. Sweets is a stylist, a great stylist: the minute you hear him you know him. . . .

JANUARY 18, 1973 —  INAUGURATION, $1,500.00. Don Costa, Sinatra’s man, was musical director of the thing. Sinatra was emcee. . . . As it turned out, everybody brought their own band, so I wound up only playing with Roger Miller. All I had to do was walk around tasting hors d’oeuvres here and there. Since I was with Sinatra’s man, they gave me a Secret Service button that let me go in any room I wanted. All the guests are wondering, Who is he? They didn’t have many black Republicans then to speak of, so they all figure this is somebody they should know and don’t. It dawns on me: they’re worried. They don’t know who this nigger Republican is that’s big enough to be in this particular room. Who is this nigger? That’s exactly what they thinking. Who is this nigger? For him to be in here, must be somebody we supposed to know! I’m reading their minds. Who is this nigger? Must be an important nigger, an important nigger Republican AND WE DON’T KNOW HIM! Jesus, let’s don’t fuck up. Somebody find out who he is!

Nobody knew, except Mrs. Pat Boone. She saw me and came running over.

“Earl, what are you doing here?”

“Well, hi, Shirley. How’s Pat?”

“Wait, I’ll get him!” And she went and gets Pat and we’re shaking hands and hugging because I did a lot of work with him at Dot Records, and little Debbie’s hugging me and Shirley’s hugging me . . . . And the guests must have all breathed a great sigh of relief. Now we can find out who this nigger is. Everybody came swarming around Pat, who gave them the story.

“Oh! He’s an entertainment nigger! One of those kind, by God!

So now they all come up to me. “Oh, Mr. Palmer, are you having a nice time?” Mrs. Nixon, for one, very sweet lady.

“Yes, Mrs. President, I am, thank you very much.” I was feeling pretty good—I’d just smoked some weed with Pete Fountain’s band and Al Hirt. 

I met them all, I’m telling you, everyone but Nixon. John Dean was the only one asked me anything about what I did.

“Who are you going to be playing with?”

“Well, I don’t know yet. That’s why Mr. Costa had me come along.”

“You mean you’d be able to play with any of them?”

“Sure, that’s what we do all the time, play with anybody we have to.”

“Must be quite an experience.” . . . 

I was shocked when Sinatra exploded. They got their signals crossed and he introduced somebody, I can’t remember who, but Joey Heatherton came on. Wrong act. Sinatra hit the roof. I was in his dressing room with Costa and he storms in. “These cocksuckers don’t know what the fuck they’re doing!” I hadn’t realized until then what a rough guy this was. “Wait till my man gets in there, he’ll straighten this shit out.” I’m wondering, “What does he mean, his man? Nixon’s in.” You know what he was talking about? Agnew. He didn’t like Nixon worth a shit. That was his man, old Spiro.


SEPTEMBER 25, 1973 — Midnight Special, . . . She came up the hall at NBC whe I was getting my shoes shined. I said, “Hello there.” Nothing wrong with saying hello.

She turned and said hi. Slowed down.

I said, “How are you? My, you look awful good.”

She said, “Thank you.” I got down off the shoeshine stand and talked to her. She was pretty, and very shapely. Had an Afro, not too big. One feature I liked about her, she had a little space between her teeth. That do something to you, too? She said she was there to be on some kind of talk show. 

I said, “What’s your name?”

“Angela,” she said. She never mentioned Davis. 

I suggested we meet for lunch. She said, “Yeah, that would be nice.” She didn’t turn a cartwheel, but she responded. I wouldn’t have imagined her to be receptive, and this is why I didn’t grasp who she was till long after. 

We met at the Carriage House, . . . I told her what I did and how busy I was. She wanted to know, “Do you have any control over what you do, over your work situation?”

“Control? Yeah, I take the job or I don’t.”

“Well, you’re rather prominent as a musician. You should be doing this and this and this,” and suddenly she’s talking all kind of politics. 

I said, “Wait a minute—why?”

She said, “Because there’s the exploiters and the exploited.”

I said, “Honey, nobody’s exploiting me, I’m just working.” I got a little indignant right there. She don’t know me from Adam and she’s already made a decision as to I’m being exploited and I don’t know what’s what in my job. I didn’t tell her she didn’t know what she was doing in whatever she did. What made her think because I flirted with her and hit on her that I was automatically an idiot? This had turned into something that had nothing to do with two people meeting and flirting, it was a real confrontation. 

She said, “Well, I can see there’s no way of reaching you. You’re just not prepared to hear what I have to say.”

“You’re damn right,” I said, and got up and walked away.


It didn’t hit me right in the face. Maybe it should have. Ain’t like I wasn’t affected—I felt it in my pocket. Producers started letting groups record their own music, instead of session men doing it. . . . 

And then it finally hit me straight on, where you say, “Oh! This is why it’s happened and why it’s going to get worse.” If you remember, there was a movie called Chariots of Fire and one man, this Vangelis, did the whole score. Had electric drums, electric piano, had all this stuff. One man. And he got a Oscar. I said, “There you go. There’s the end of it right there.”

Recipe: Israeli-Palestinian Soup


  • Three major religions all descended from the same patriarch (Abraham / Ibrahim).
  • A small piece of land.
  • Limited fresh water supply.
  • A history of genocide going back thousands of years.
  • An equally long history of anti-Jewish hatred in historically Christian countries.
  • A shorter but still long history of Islamophobia in historically Christian countries.
  • A history of conquest and colonization going back hundreds of years.
  • Neighbouring nation-states all governed by one flavour or another of authoritarian leaders, and mostly populated by overwhelming numbers of oppressed poor people.
  • Islamist terrorism and anti-Semitism as a reaction against both authoritarian governments and the imposition of modern Western values.
  • Nearly a century of Palestinians being dispossessed and oppressed by Israeli colonization.
  • An impotent United Nations.
  • Big-power rivals taking sides as they continue their rivalry by proxy and jockey for access to the region’s petroleum.
  • Weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, making money.


  1. Stir until all ingredients are hopelessly mixed.
  2. Once set in motion (long ago), the mixture will continue to ferment and to spontaneously combust at irregular intervals.
  3. No further intervention is needed to continue the process. We are all in the soup.

Kenny Clarke: Jazz has become classical music.

Kenny Clarke:

Jazz has become classical music. We try to play some of the old things we used to do good, really good. I mean you have Beethoven specialists, people who play Beethoven all their lives, the same pieces over and over again. No one ever says to them, “Man, why don’t you change your repertoire?” So they play Beethoven. OK. I play Charlie Parker. I play Thelonious Monk—and I’ll be playing it all my life. The important thing is that it’s well done. If you play it good, it’s good.

—1973 interview, quoted in Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, by Mike Hennessey

Philly Joe Jones on Kenny Clarke: “I was so knocked out that I didn’t sleep at night.”

Kenny Clarke influenced me enormously. He totally revolutionized the world of the drums. He originated the way we play bass drum today—all those spaces. He taught us so much that we could progress a little further. When I first heard him play, I was so knocked out that I didn’t sleep at night. When I listened to Kenny I had the impression of being in the presence of the gods; that’s how impressed I was when I saw him play.

We lived together in New York for a time and that was a great opportunity for me. Kenny was my mentor. Max Roach and Art Blakey also expressed great feeling on the drums—and there are other great drummers like Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes. Some of them are excellent. But not like Kenny Clarke. Even Max, great as he is, doesn’t touch me as much.

—Philly Joe Jones in Jazz Hot, October 1985. Quoted in Mike Hennessey, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke.

Orwell: Why are beggars despised?

From Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Chapter XXXI:

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? — for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. . . . Money has become the grand test of virtue.

Sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations can be expected

“In view of the truly extraordinary record of the past few centuries, no one can say for sure that new and unexpected breakthroughs will not occur, expanding the range of the possible beyond anything easily conceived of now. Birth control may in time catch up with death control. Something like a stable balance between human numbers and resources may then begin to define itself. But for the present and short-range future, it remains obvious that humanity is in course of one of the most massive and extraordinary ecological upheavals the planet has ever known. Not stability but a sequence of sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations in existing balances between microparasitism and macroparasitism can therefore be expected in the near future as in the recent past.

“In any effort to understand what lies ahead, as much as what lies behind, the role of infectious disease cannot properly be left out of consideration. Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity’s vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infections disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.”

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976, 1998). Final two paragraphs.

A purposeful life: Stephen Kotkin

“Having a purposeful life is actually not that hard. You’re in a school, you’re in a workplace, you’re somewhere where you can affect other people in a positive way. You can lead a life that can show others what good values are, and you can lead a life that dedicates yourself not only to your own material well-being but to the well-being and development of others around you. And it can be on a humble scale. It can be in a small classroom or a small workplace, a small work team. And having a positive impact, even on one other person, gives far greater meaning to your own life, and is profoundly satisfying.”

—Stephen Kotkin

Source: The very tail-end (2h41m) of a long discussion from May 2022 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Slightly edited for clarity. Kotkin is a scholar (Princeton, Stanford) and historian who specializes in Russian history.

Plagues and uncertainty

In the three centuries when bubonic plague swept across Europe, no one understood that the disease was carried by fleas and rats. Many people died; some became ill but recovered; some never became ill at all. These apparently random events made no sense, and so people resorted to superstition, mysticism, bigotry, and hysteria.

How little has changed since then.

Despite modern science and medicine, we don’t understand why some people suffer serious illness or death from COVID-19, while others experience only mild symptoms, or none at all; why some may escape entirely; why some suffer long-term disability after surviving the acute phase of the disease. Popular responses to this fear and confusion are often medieval in their embrace of irrationality and superstition and pseudoscience.

Humans seek clear, simple answers to their questions. They do not respond well to uncertainty and ambiguity. Plagues kill, but the suffering is compounded by our determination to arrive at an answer in the face of contradictory or incomplete evidence. As uncomfortable as it may be, we will be better off acknowledging that we don’t know, and acting accordingly.

To be hopeful in bad times: Howard Zinn

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

—Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, p. 270.

A plague on half your houses. Repeatedly.

From William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1998), pp. 182, 185:

“[In the Mediterranean port cities] until the seventeenth century occasional plague outbreaks, carrying off anything up to a third or a half of a city’s population in a single year, were normal. Venetian statistics, for instance, . . . show that in 1575-77 and again in 1630-31, a third or more of the city’s population died of plague.

“Outside the Mediterranean, European exposure to plague was less frequent . . . and, at least sometimes, also more catastrophic. . . . In northern Spain, 1596-1602 . . . half a million died . . . . Subsequent outbreaks in 1648-52 and 1677-85 more than doubled the number of Spaniards who died of plague in the seventeenth century. Pasturella pestis must thus be considered as one of the significant factors in Spain’s decline as an economic and political power. . . .

“. . . The plague did not disappear among populations living closer to the Eurasian steppe reservoir, nor did it diminish in virulence . . . in those regions where it continued to manifest itself. . . . Changes in housing, shipping, sanitary practices, and similar factors . . . were the decisive regulators, both in the advance and in the retreat of plague.”

July 1914: can’t be bothered with politics

Helen Pearl Adam, a British journalist then working in Paris, wrote in her diary for July, “In 1914, the people of France had decided that it could not be bothered with politics.”

—Mary McAuliffe, Twilight of the Belle Epoque, p. 270

A month later the German offensive had begun the war that would transform Europe at the cost of millions of lives.

Anti-Semitism and COVID: plus ça change . . .

In 1900 the French government granted a general amnesty to everyone involved in the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in which anti-Semitic members of the military establishment had framed Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely convicted of treason and spent years in prison before being released and pardoned. Dreyfus and his supporters wanted justice, not a pardon for a crime he never committed. The French government, however, wanted an end to the controversy. To prosecute the wrong-doers would have stirred the national passions, which had been stirring for far too long already.

Emile Zola, in an open letter to the President of the Republic, wrote this sentence:

The view that one can save a people from the disease that gnaws it by decreeing that the disease no longer exists is myopic indeed. [L’Aurore, 22 December 1900]

Plus ça change . . .

Hugo, at last

What a surprise to discover, in my old age, the magnificent Victor Hugo!

Having been subjected as a child to the maimed reductions of Hugo produced by Walt Disney and his ilk, I thought that I knew his work, and had no desire for further acquaintance. My main interest, moreover, was history, not literature, and certainly not corny melodrama. When in my mid-twenties I rather surprisingly chose to become a high school English teacher, I embarked on a crash course of literary education, but Hugo—whose books were far too long for any high school reading list—never merited my attention.

A few months ago, however, I began listening to an audiobook version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wonderfully narrated by George Guidall. I was looking for something entertaining but not wholly frivolous, and decided to fill this gap in my reading without straining my aging eyes.

What a surprise, then, to discover that Hugo’s novel is actually an essay, a long, sprawling essay on the architectural history of Paris, with the famous cathedral both literally and figuratively at its centre. The French title, Notre-Dame de Paris, rightly places the cathedral in the forefront and fails to mention its bell-ringer. The melodrama featuring Quasimodo, the hunchback, Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, and Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, provides the spoonful of sugar needed to help readers swallow Hugo’s passionate dissertation. Published in 1831, it turned the Cathedral of Notre-Dame into a tourist attraction, forcing the authorities to invest in its restoration and to preserve numerous other medieval buildings that otherwise would have disappeared.

Even the melodrama is far from what Disney made of it. Following the penniless playwright, Gringoire, through the darkening streets of the city, we stumble with him into a gang of street criminals. We are shown the desperate poverty of Esmeralda’s mother as a young woman, and her crazed religiosity as a prematurely-old woman. Most striking, for me, was the sexually frustrated, self-absorbed Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. Here he is, in Hapgood’s translation:

“I love you. Oh! how true that is! So nothing comes of that fire which burns my heart! Alas! young girl, night and day—yes, night and day I tell you,—it is torture. Oh! I suffer too much, my poor child. ’Tis a thing deserving of compassion, I assure you. You see that I speak gently to you. I really wish that you should no longer cherish this horror of me.—After all, if a man loves a woman, ’tis not his fault!—Oh, my God!—What! So you will never pardon me? You will always hate me? All is over then. It is that which renders me evil, do you see? and horrible to myself.—You will not even look at me! You are thinking of something else, perchance, while I stand here and talk to you, shuddering on the brink of eternity for both of us! Above all things, do not speak to me of the officer!—I would cast myself at your knees, I would kiss not your feet, but the earth which is under your feet; I would sob like a child, I would tear from my breast not words, but my very heart and vitals, to tell you that I love you;—all would be useless, all!—And yet you have nothing in your heart but what is tender and merciful. You are radiant with the most beautiful mildness; you are wholly sweet, good, pitiful, and charming. Alas! You cherish no ill will for any one but me alone! Oh! what a fatality!”

He hid his face in his hands. The young girl heard him weeping. It was for the first time. Thus erect and shaken by sobs, he was more miserable and more suppliant than when on his knees. He wept thus for a considerable time.

“Come!” he said, these first tears passed, “I have no more words. I had, however, thought well as to what you would say. Now I tremble and shiver and break down at the decisive moment, I feel conscious of something supreme enveloping us, and I stammer. Oh! I shall fall upon the pavement if you do not take pity on me, pity on yourself. Do not condemn us both. If you only knew how much I love you! What a heart is mine! Oh! what desertion of all virtue! What desperate abandonment of myself! A doctor, I mock at science; a gentleman, I tarnish my own name; a priest, I make of the missal a pillow of sensuality, I spit in the face of my God! all this for thee, enchantress! to be more worthy of thy hell! And you will not have the apostate! Oh! let me tell you all! more still, something more horrible, oh! Yet more horrible!…”

And of course there is no happy ending. Esmeralda, forced by Frollo to choose between him and the hangman, goes to her death. Frollo, watching the execution from the top of Notre Dame, is pushed to his death by his adopted son, Quasimodo, who is also in love with the girl. Quasimodo then disappears, but we are told that many years later his bones are found embracing Esmeralda in her grave. My only serious complaint with this melodrama is Esmeralda herself, who shows spunk and intelligence early on but becomes a simpleton when she falls for the worthless Captain Phoebus.

Inspired by Notre Dame, I decided to have a go at Les Miserables. At first I was disappointed. In Notre Dame, Hugo has barely begun his story before launching into his disquisition on Paris. In Les Miserables, the story dominates the beginning of the novel. I began to think that in his second masterpiece, Hugo had surrendered entirely to melodrama.

I was wrong.

Caught in Hugo’s web by the improbable sentimentality of Jean Valjean’s tale, readers of Les Miserables find themselves a captive audience for the author’s history of France; his quasi-Hegelian theory of history; and his long, detailed argument that all of the political ups and downs, progressions and regressions, actions and reactions of French history from the Revolution of 1789 to the follies of Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire—that all of these contradictory movements tend, slowly and unevenly, toward the establishment of a truly democratic republic of justice and equality. Hugo’s fierce denunciations of injustice retain their power 160 years later.

Along the way he pauses to consider, at some length, the Battle of Waterloo; the history of convents; the street urchins of Paris; the sewer system of Paris, and the use of slang. How did he find the time and energy to, first, learn about all these matters and, second, write about them at such length? “Astonishing” is the least one can say. For a taste of Hugo in one of these expository expostulations, see my earlier post, “Victor Hugo: socialism and the fate of England.

Having discovered, so late in life, these two magnificent books, do I regret not reading them when I was younger? Not really. I doubt I would have appreciated them. And I am not inclined to recommend them to my high school students, either—with perhaps a rare exception. But some of you may be ready for the unexpurgated Hugo, and if so, I salute you. Enjoy the journey!

The Story of the Taoist Farmer

The following text was published on a website that no longer exists, and I am unable to contact its author, Duen Hsi Yen, so I am reposting it here.

Version 1:

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”
A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”
The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.
As told by Executive editor, Elise Hancock, in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, November 1993, page 2, in section entitled Editor’s Note.
Version 2:
A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, “That’s the way it is.”
A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, “That’s the way it is.”
Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune. Sei Weng again said, “That’s the way it is.”
Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng’s good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “That’s the way it is.”
As told by Chin-Ning Chu, in “The Asian Mind Game: unlocking the hidden agenda of the Asian business culture — a westerner’s survival manual,” New York:Macmillan Publishing Company, page 182. (1991)
Version 3:
A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.
The Lost Horse, a Chinese Folktale.
As told by Ellen J. Langer, in” The Power of Mindful Learning,” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, page 99-100. (1997).
Version 4:
Translation (see above link for annotations and comment):
Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”
Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”
The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”
One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.
Version 5 (under construction)
“Explaining Conjunctions” from The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Tao, translated by Angus C. Graham, New York: Columbia University Press (1960, revised 1990)
Version 6:
An African king had a close friend who had the habit of remarking “this
is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day
the king and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a
gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the
king fired it, his thumb was blown off.
“This is good!” exclaimed his friend.
The horrified and bleeding king was furious. “How can you say this is
good? This is obviously horrible!” he shouted. The king put his friend in jail.
About a year later the king went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured
him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some
wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire
to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being
superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They
untied the king and sent him on his way.
Full of remorse the king rushed to the prison to release his friend.
“You were right, it WAS good” the king said.
The king told his friend how the missing thumb saved his life and
added, “I feel so sad that I locked you in jail.That was such a bad
thing to do”
“NO! this is good!” responded his delighted friend.
“Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I
owe you my life”.
“It is good” said his friend, “because if I wasn’t in jail I would have been
hunting with you and they would have killed ME.”
Source unknown
Version 7:
Taoist Farmer stories are based on the Chinese belief that life has its ups and downs, and does not always go up. Click on the following link to read a story I wrote about the ups and downs in the lives of some chickens, and one eccentric chicken’s interpretation of whether the farmer that feeds them is good or bad.
The Benevolent Farmer? [dead link]
Here is another related tidbit: When Communist era Premier Chou En-Lai was asked whether or not the French revolution was good or bad, his response was “It’s too early to tell.” (From “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why,” by Richard E. Nisbett, NY:Simon and Schuster, 2003, page 13). When I first read this, I couldn’t stop laughing!
Version 8:
Three Questions, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, has a similar flavor. (From “Twenty-three Tales “published around 1872. This version, translated by L. and A. Maude and published by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, 1907. Other adaptations: 1, 2, 3
IT once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do. And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.
In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.
But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.
Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.
To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.
All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.
The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his bodyguard behind, went on alone.
When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.
The King went up to him and said: ‘I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important and need my first attention?’ The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.
‘You are tired,’ said the King, ‘let me take the spade and work awhile for you.’
‘Thanks!’ said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:
‘Now rest awhile — and let me work a bit.’
But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:
‘I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.’
‘Here comes some one running,’ said the hermit, ‘let us see who it is.’
The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep — so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.
‘Forgive me!’ said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.
‘I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,’ said the King.
‘You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!’
The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.
Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
‘For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.’
‘You have already been answered!’ said the hermit still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.
‘How answered? What do you mean?’ asked the King.
‘Do you not see,’ replied the hermit. ‘If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
Last updated 18 November 2006
Copyright © 1998-2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

Snarky Jane Austen

When King George III went mad and was unable to carry out his duties, his son became Prince Regent in 1811, ruling in his father’s stead until the old king’s death in 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV. As Prince Regent, he led a notoriously dissolute life, with massive debts, multiple mistresses, and rumours of multiple illegitimate children—having separated from his wife, Caroline, after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte. The public sided with Caroline and despised the Prince Regent.

As Jane Austen was about to publish Emma, a representative of the Prince Regent was sent to her, in an apparent attempt to improve the Prince’s reputation, with a request that she dedicate the novel to the Prince Regent. Austen was unhappy, but finally agreed. Here is the dedication:













. . . Which reminds me of women in an Austen novel, holding their bone china tea cups, backs straight, smiling, and neatly inserting verbal stilettos between the ribs of the  ladies on the opposite sofa. Ouch!

The plague in China

. . . Chinese records do not show anything unusual before 1331, when an epidemic in the province of Hopei [Hubei] is said to have killed nine tenths of the population. Not until 1353-54 do available records indicate a more widespread disaster. In those years epidemic disease raged in eight different and widely scattered parts of China, and chroniclers reported that up to “two thirds of the population” died. . . .

Plague coincided with civil war as a native [Han] Chinese reaction against the Mongol domination gathered headway, climaxing in the overthrow of the alien rulers and the establishment of a new Ming Dynasty in 1368. The combination of war and pestilence wreaked havoc on China’s population. The best estimates show a decrease from 123 million about 1200 (before the Mongol invasions began) to a mere 65 million in 1393, a generation after the final expulsion of the Mongols from China. . . . Disease assuredly played a big part in cutting Chinese numbers in half; and bubonic plague . . . is by all odds the most likely candidate for such a role.

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), pp. 174 – 175

Knowledge and intelligence

Amid clear signs of a neo-fascist movement led by Donald Trump and fueled by social media propaganda and disinformation, news reports and polling tell us that American voters are concerned above all with the price of gasoline and groceries, and that they are almost certainly going to elect a majority of Republicans in the House, and quite possibly in the Senate, too—not to mention dozens of state races with neo-fascists on the ballots for positions like Secretary of State, which will put them in charge of counting votes in the 2024 presidential election.

Counting on the knowledge and intelligence of American voters suggests a serious lack of knowledge and intelligence.

A weakling who lacked self-esteem

Agamemnon . . . pushed his way imperiously to the front of Arisbe’s stall, slid the ceramics back and forth choosily, and broke one of the most beautiful vases, which he paid for in haste at a word from Arisbe; then fled with his retinue amid the laughter of the onlookers. . . .

“He will take revenge, that one,” I said to Arisbe; and it troubled me deeply that the great and famous commander in chief of the Greek fleet was a weakling who lacked self-esteem. How much better it is to have a strong enemy.

“In heaven’s name, how can opinions differ about a case that does not exist? That was invented especially for the purpose?” “Even if that’s true, once something has become public knowledge, it is real.”

. . . I still believed that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true, and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) . . . . Then I understood: . . . we were defending everything that we no longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was.

—Christa Wolf, Cassandra, pp. 52, 84-5 (1983)

Salman Rushdie

Sending Salman Rushdie earnest best wishes for a full recovery.

The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas — uncertainty, progress, change — into crimes.

—Herbert Reade Memorial Lecture (6 February 1990)

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Imaginary Homelands p. 391 (1992)

I do not envy people who think they have a complete explanation of the world, for the simple reason that they are obviously wrong.

—Salman Rushdie — Talking with David Frost (1993)

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.

—Statement in The Wall Street Journal, Salman Rushdie: “I Stand With Charlie Hebdo, as We All Must” (7 January 2015)

We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992–2002

Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.

The Times of India, ‘Don’t allow religious hooligans to dictate terms’ (16 January 2008)

一团和气 (yi tuan he qi)

These four characters might be translated as “one circle of harmonious spirit,” but are commonly translated as “Roly-poly Ball of Harmony.” They appear on the scroll held by the “roly-poly boy” in a popular version of a painting by the Chenghua Emperor, Zhu Jianshen (1447-1487), of the late Ming Dynasty, who wanted the imperial family to unite as one. See image at left.

The following text appears on the back of a postcard reproduction that I purchased in Suzhou:

“The print, also entitled “Harmony Results in Good Fortune”, is an influential and widely spread traditional masterpiece among block prints at Taohuawu. It features, the round face of a lovely and charmingly naive boy dressed in embroidered silk, with hair tied in a pair of top knots decorated with red flowers and a silver padlock engraved with “Eternal as the sun and moon” as well as a scroll bearing the phrase “Roly-poly Ball of Harmony” in his hands. A delightful sight, the circular composition of the image symbolizes that the family will live together harmoniously, happily, and satisfactorily on the occasion of the Spring Festival and in the new year.”

The original version of the image was a bit different. According to Wikipedia, it depicts “Tao Yuanming, Lu Xiujing, and Zen Master Hui Yuan [representing Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism] embracing each other, with the three, together, looking like Maitreya,” an image of the Buddha. 

According to the story I heard, the emperor was having a lot of trouble with infighting among his large extended family and made the painting as a plea for harmony and unity. Let us hope.

Through stories we shape meaning

Gavin Francis, writing in the London Review of Books:

It’s through stories that we shape meaning, and we need to get better at explaining how pernicious and destructive the wrong stories can be.

The remark comes at the end of his review of a book about cases of mass hysteria or illness, The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness, by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

But it resonates far beyond that context.

Unfortunately, most of us opt for binary thinking and simple stories that relieve us of the burden of critical thinking and the discomfort of ambiguity. The results are, as Gavin Francis says, pernicious and destructive.

Binary thinking, again

April, 2024: Now it’s Palestine and Israel. Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza, so Israel is bad; the Palestinians are the victims of these crimes, so Palestinians are good. (This reverses the binary formulation that persisted for a hot minute in October, 2023, when Palestinians committed atrocities and were therefore bad, whereas Israelis, the victims of said atrocities, were good.) At the moment, since the Palestinians are good while the Israelis are bad, President Biden’s qualified support for Israel makes him bad. One dangerous consequence among many is the possibility that a statistically important slice of American voters will conclude that since Biden is bad, they cannot vote for him, thus tipping the balance in the Electoral College and giving the presidency back to Trump, god help us. As the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said . . . so it goes.

June, 2022: I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

The mystery of mass shootings in the U.S.

So far, the categories include . . .

  • white supremacist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Islamic extremist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • disgruntled employee with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • mentally ill teenager with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught father with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught boyfriend with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Chinese nationalist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Anti-Semitic neo-Nazi with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • misogynist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • xenophobe with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • incel with semi-automatic weapon(s)

I don’t know—they are all so different! Hard to see any pattern here.

Lincoln’s Proclamation and the white riot in New York

Frederick Douglass recounts Lincoln’s careful attempt to avoid making the Civil War about freeing the slaves—an attempt that, like more recent attempts to appease racism, failed.

The proclamation itself was throughout like Mr. Lincoln. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favor of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all-commanding object with him was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main-spring of all his measures. His wisdom and moderation at this point were for a season useful to the loyal cause in the border States, but it may be fairly questioned whether it did not chill the union ardor of the loyal people of the North in some degree, and diminish rather than increase the sum of our power against the rebellion; for moderate, cautious, and guarded as was this proclamation, it created a howl of indignation and wrath amongst the rebels and their allies. The old cry was raised by the copperhead organs of “an abolition war,” and a pretext was thus found for an excuse for refusing to enlist, and for marshaling all the negro prejudice of the North on the rebel side. Men could say they were willing to fight for the Union, but that they were not willing to fight for the freedom of the negroes; and thus it was made difficult to procure enlistments or to enforce the draft. This was especially true of New York, where there was a large Irish population. The attempt to enforce the draft in that city was met by mobs, riot, and bloodshed. There is perhaps no darker chapter in the whole history of the war than this cowardly and bloody uprising in July, 1863. For three days and nights New York was in the hands of a ferocious mob, and there was not sufficient power in the government of the country or of the city itself to stay the hand of violence and the effusion of blood. Though this mob was nominally against the draft which had been ordered, it poured out its fiercest wrath upon the colored people and their friends. It spared neither age nor sex; it hanged negroes simply because they were negroes; it murdered women in their homes, and burnt their homes over their heads; it dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp-posts; it burned the colored orphan asylum, a noble charity on the corner of Fifth avenue, and, scarce allowing time for the helpless two hundred children to make good their escape, plundered the building of every valuable piece of furniture; and forced colored men, women and children to seek concealment in cellars or garrets or wheresoever else it could be found, until this high carnival of crime and reign of terror should pass away.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XII. 1891.

Women in History: Ethelfled

Will and Ariel Durant, in their multi-volume Story of Civilization, pause for a moment to note Ethelfled [Æthelflæd] (870-918), the daughter of Alfred the Great (848-899). About 885 she was married to the Lord of Mercia to secure an alliance between Mercia and Alfred’s Wessex. Apparently her husband’s health declined from about 899 and she became the effective ruler in his place.

Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled, as regent and queen, gave Mercia for a generation effective and conscientious government. She built cities, planned military campaigns, and captured Derby, Leicester, and York from the Danes.

“From the difficulties experienced in her first labor,” says William of Malmesbury, “she ever afterward refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such unpleasant consequences.”

American Ozymandias

(With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
lie in the undergrowth. Near them, a man’s
bearded face, half-buried, frowns
or sadly stares at ruins once so grand.
Shattered inscriptions can be read
whose noble aspiration rings—
With malice toward none, one said.
Whether that nation . . . can endure.
These broken words still sing,
though feebly, into the empty air.
Nothing else remains. Round that decay
the vegetation spreads, lush—yet bare—
all evidence of humans swept away.”

Isaiah Berlin on Joseph de Maistre and the reaction against the Enlightenment

What the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin . . . . Joseph de Maistre and his followers and allies . . . formed the spearhead of the counter-revolution in the early nineteenth century in Europe.

History and zoology, [wrote Maistre], are the most reliable guides to nature: they show her to be a field of unceasing slaughter. Men are by nature aggressive and destructive; . . . when men are sent to war, to exterminate beings as innocent as themselves for no purpose that either army can grasp, they go obediently to their deaths and scarcely ever mutiny. When the destructive instinct is evoked men feel exalted and fulfilled.

Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives . . . . It is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian elite . . . that they can hope to survive and be saved.

If the State is to survive . . . the source of authority must be absolute . . . . Only then will men learn to obey it. . . . Without a clear hierarchy of authority—awe-inspiring power—men’s incurably destructive instincts will breed chaos and mutual extermination. The supreme power—especially the Church—must never seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms; for what one man can demonstrate, another may be able to refute.

The best government the world has ever known was that of the Romans . . . . 

Dark instincts govern man and societies; only elites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education, which is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom . . . . The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. . . .

These gloomy doctrines became the inspiration of monarchist politics in France, and together with the notion of Romantic heroism and the sharp contrast between creative and uncreative, historic and unhistoric individuals and nations, duly inspired nationalism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and pathological form, Fascist and totalitarian doctrines in the twentieth century.

—From “The Counter-Enlightenment,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin (1979)

Arnold Nash: Reason is not a neutral principle

A historian on the American side of the Atlantic received a fitting rebuke to his implied assumption that to be outside a particular tradition made an unbiased view of controversial questions possible. In conducting the oral examination of a Mormon student who was submitting a Ph.D. thesis on a particular period of Mormon history, the historian asked the student if he, being a Mormon, considered himself sufficiently unprejudiced to write a thesis on Mormon history. The somewhat daring student appositely remarked, “Yes, if you, not a Mormon, consider yourself unprejudiced enough to examine it.” 

This implicit assumption that the rationalist can transcend all bias and achieve an impartial perspective is not limited to his dicta on religion. He feels the same way about politics. Thus he has no difficulty in rejecting the Nazi or the Marxist philosophy in the name of Reason. He fails to see that it is in the name of reason as he understands it. To those who maintain that there is no common rational ground on which the democrat and the Nazi can resolve their theoretical differences he replies, with W. T. Stace, that “in that case, our preference for democracy, we shall have to admit, is in the end nothing but an irrational prejudice.” This reply rests upon a completely mistaken understanding of the function of reason in human thought and life. Each system, whether Nazi, or Marxist, or liberal, or rationalist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, has its own view of Reason. Reason, therefore, is not a neutral principle which can be appealed to in favour of one rather than another of the competing systems. An illuminating parallel is that of language. It is impossible to describe a language except in terms of a particular language, for there is no language which is a “neutral.” 

Arnold S. Nash, The University and the Modern World (1944), pp. 93-94

So . . . Is Arnold’s claim simple relativism? Or is he on to something here?

Epicurus (341–270 BC), a hep cat

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. . . . He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.

—From Wikipedia

So right, so long ago, and so many still haven’t figured it out.

Turgenev on Tolstoy

In August 1856 Turgenev left for France and he met Tolstoy several times in Paris. “Tolstoy speaks of Paris as Sodom and Gomorrah,” Turgenev wrote. “He is a blend of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, and landowner’s son—somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau—a highly moral and at the same time an uncongenial being.”

—V.S. Pritchett, The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

Robinson Crusoe’s father on the advantages of being middle-class

“He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind [i.e, the working poor], and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz., that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.”

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), Chapter 1