On a Novel by John Barth and a harrowing illegal abortion scene: think again ‘pro-lifers’!

To describe the extraordinary second novel by US novelist John Barth as realism misses almost all that’s worth saying about it. The cover of my old Penguin edition of The End of the Road (1958), does better when it calls it ‘a spectacularly black comedy of marital infidelity’ and a portrait of ‘one of the most memorable dreadful “heroes” to appear for many years.’ But then I suppose it depends what you think black comedy means. There’s certainly laughter in Barth’s take on 1950s provincial campus life, but the form it takes is diabolical. A horrendous botched back-street abortion lies at the heart of a philosophically fraught Dostoevskian melodrama updated and transferred to Wicomico, Maryland. With an American social twist, it’s a page-turner playing a devlish game.

Jacob ‘Jake’ Horner (note the horns) gets a job at the Wicomico State Teachers College. An expert in prescriptive English grammar, he proceeds to enact a dance of death with faculty colleague Joe Morgan. Barth choreographs their moves as embodiments of Sartrean Existentialism and US pragmatism respectively, until an infinitely flexible Jake gets the better of utility-seeking Joe.

Wicomico is a real place, but the name is repurposed here to ask how what happens in The End of the Road can be comic at all. The half-hour during which Rennie Morgan lies fully awake, beneath a wide leather strap pulled tight across her diaphragm, pinned to a table, while an impatient bogus doctor scrapes out her womb, made such an impact forty years ago that I remembered it as a whole chapter long. In practice it’s a bare six pages, but in these terrible days after illiberal America has thrown out Roe v Wade, the 1973 Act of Congress allowing legal abortion, it speaks like a whole neglected volume.

It’s not an issue novel. But when you read that scene you may, like me, want to understand exactly what you feel about termination. How does a woman exercising her right to decide (as I definitely believe), end up in a situation like this? Because abortion is illegal. Destroying a foetus is a potentially terrible deed, for both mother and unborn child, but termination has to be enshrined in law. Teach subtly against it, as a moral and social practice, because of the potential brutality and sorrow. Discourage it strongly as an alternative to contraception. But allow it 100 per cent, and invoke no shame. Abortion is better than bringing an unwanted child into the world. This is my feeling. I can’t say exactly what Barth meant.

For the novel’s greater problem is that Jake doesn’t care one way or another about anything. Add to that existential dilemma the fact that he can’t follow Sartre and overcome his indifference and make a leap of faith. He ought to be able to commit himself, but because all choice for him is arbitrary, he can’t. His soul is immobilized. At the same time his mind is brilliant enough to talk anyone into anything. That’s how he comes to get the job in Wicomico teaching prescriptive grammar — because his psychiatrist has persuaded him he needs rules to keep him human at all. The other aspect of the diagnosis is that he must stay away from creativity, because there the devil will make work for him.

The awful thing is that relations with others are also creative projects for Jake. The pragmatist Joe, Rennie’s devoted husband (and father of their two young sons), towering over his colleagues in Wicomico, is attracted to Jake as at last an intellectual equal. They talk after classes, over dinner, and Rennie’s love becomes the test of their respective worldviews. Is commitment possible? Can the adultery of one’s spouse with a colleague ever turn out to be, well, useful? Something to learn from? You may quickly conclude Joe isn’t much more admirable than Jake, only not exactly in the power of the devil; just deceiving himself.

From the start their friendship is a philosophical joust. Jake makes quiet fun of tall, handsome, athletic Joe who presents himself as a beacon of public decency. He encourages Rennie to spy on her husband when he’s unawares. What’s he really like when alone? No one can be so perfect. Joe may be building the good American society but his energetic boy-scout mentality is ridiculous. Rennie, undermined, is undone by Jake’s Underground Man-ish approach to seduction. She’s even more distraught when Joe tells her to carry on the affair to see what she ‘really’ feels; whether as a couple they can learn from the experiment.

Poor Rennie. One or other of these horrible men is the father of the child she’s carrying, and because she can’t be sure it’s not the devlish Jake, because her husband and her seducer use the same brand of condom, with the same percentage of failure, she refuses to go on.

Remember the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), where the two characters sit flipping coins? Chance, and the burden of choice, seems to have been an obsession in the literary mind in the existentialist early sixties. (Barth revised his 1957 text for the1967 reissue.) Jake also opens his narrative with jokes about undecidability. His doctor, a tough-minded behaviourist, tells Jake to learn to play roles, any roles, decide this or that, for the sake of a decision; sincerity doesn’t matter. But the doctor offering this kind of ‘treatment’ operates at the far edge of legality, while himself playing with the chance of being found out. ‘At worst he was some combination of quack and prophet…with elements of faith healer and armchair Freud thrown in…and yet one couldn’t easily laugh off his forcefulness, and his insights frequently struck home. As a matter of fact, I was unable to make any judgement one way or another about him or his Rehabiliation farm or his therapies.’

It is a comic novel, but if you read it twice you won’t laugh a second time. You’ll remember Rennie kicking her legs, and screaming, and the doctor telling her to shut up or she’ll wake the neighbourhood, and finally the curt instruction to his creepy assistant Mrs Dockey to ‘let go of her leg and shut her up.’ Close her insides, he means. (‘I’d be finished by this time if she’d cut out her foolishness.’) Amid all the cutting and bleeding you wonder where pragmatic Joe is. (Answer: washing the dishes.)

A cast of hellish characters populates this novel, with the exception of Rennie and her boys. You wouldn’t want to be stuck with them in a room into eternity, to drag in a reference to Sartre’s best play, Huis Clos, ‘No Exit’. Barth peppers his text with Sartre’s name. Indeed The End of the Road suggests this was Barth’s answer to the author of Being and Nothingness, for Sartre called his trilogy of existentialist novels Les chemins de la liberté, ‘Roads to Freedom’. To a good woman hacked about by a heartless charlatan is where this particular free choice led, Barth seemed to say, somewhere in 1950s Maryland. But that doesn’t justify recriminalizing abortion. Who would risk encouraging the amoral brutes who profited and endangered so many women’s lives? Jacob Horner’s doctor is still out there, changing his name, dodging between states, carving out foetuses without anaesthetic. This is not a novel to forget, not in its philosophical ambition, nor in its literary merit; and certainly not for that harrowing end-game.                     

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Ghislaine Maxwell: J’ACCUSE!

Ghislaine Maxwell, the abased daughter of disgraced newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, deserves our understanding. She’s only sixty years old, and prosecutors in the US want to see her in jail for the rest of her life. Found guilty late in 2021 of recruiting and trafficking young girls to be sexually abused by her friend Jeffrey Epstein, she asked for a retrial earlier this year after a jury member declared himself the victim of child sexual abuse. To object to this juror ‘forgetting’ to make this public before the trial seemed fair. But Ghislaine was denied a second chance to argue her innocence.

It’s true that over a number of years in her middle life Ghislaine procured young women for the man she loved. Their number was said to be ‘countless’, by the prosecuting counsel. Epstein was the man Ghislaine fell for after fleeing Britain and her father’s apparent suicide in 1991. Was it love or did she simply fall under Epstein’s spell? True he was a billionaire financier, but comments by insiders suggest he quite lacked charisma, and could even be called socially inadequate. All we know is that Ghislaine  and her father were close, and with Robert gone – a mysterious disappearance over the side of his luxury yacht which Ghislaine never accepted as suicide — there had to be a replacement.  

Pictures of Maxwell and Epstein together – and we’ve seen very many as part of last year’s trial and the worldwide publicity surrounding it – tell a terrible story, though the narrative I find significant is not the one the press has highlighted. We saw this tainted couple in their endlessly expensive, infinitely tasteful outfits enjoying their version of the high life, including lounging about at Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth II’s Scottish home. We thought how trivial they were, posing as Royal favourites. (No need to mention Ghislaine’s friend Prince Andrew here. He was just more fodder to appease Jeffrey’s appetite – this time for vanity.)

No, the preferences of the British press aside, much more troubling about those innumerable shots of  the glittering couple at balls and galas and on holiday, was the way they showed Epstein to be a self-satisfied narcissist. In not a single picture did he, her apparent partner in life, return her adoring gaze, or even look at her. He stared past her in every embrace, his smiles, gently crinkling the expensive permatan, opaque and empty. Epstein didn’t love her and she couldn’t satisfy him, which is why she was reduced to making a show of massaging his proxy foot in his private plane.

How did her relationship with her father prepare her for a life like that? I’m not suggesting any sexual impropriety, but some tyrannical psychological control father exercised over daughter made her lose her moral bearings early on. Or perhaps I mean her self-respect. Robert Maxwell, an extremely clever man, also a survivor in life, a multi-lingual soldier and outsider to British society, who had been a spy and became a multi-millionaire, simply overpowered her with his extreme male ego. Ghislaine, growing up in wealth, benefiting from the best schools and the finest social connections, learnt to dance to her father’s tune. There was no other music to dance to. He with his driving ambition, also for his children, dominated the space and the social oxygen supply. Ghislaine herself was beautiful and, like him, clever. Her father admired her for the well-connected, amusing, effervescent socialite she became. Perhaps he even loved her. In any case this was her life. And it trapped and warped her.

She was a pimp, a procuress, to use old-fashioned terms. As one of the only two or three women willing to speak out on the BBC’s recent three-part documentary House of Maxwell declared, Ghislaine knew what lay ahead for those girls when she told them to do whatever Jeffrey asked; that he was a man who always got his own way. She sent them to give him sexual massages, and /or steered them directly into his bed. They were afraid, said the speaker, and he fed off that fear. It excited him. Ghislaine, the Madame of his home she shared in Palm Springs, Florida, where most of the abuses occurred, made sure the girls were well-paid. Because they did it for money, however young they were, seems the likely reason not many want to speak about it now. But she also lied about helping them to a career as models, as the BBC was told.

Ghislaine committed a terrible moral offence against those girls, and women. She ought to spend the rest of her life repenting, and trying to make good. But she wasn’t a sex-trafficker, if that term is to retain its particular meaning. She didn’t, on a wholesale and repeated basis, involving deceit, mistreatment and detention against their will, and their export to countries worldwide, trade women to sexual consumers unknown. What she did was prove a moral danger to those ‘countless’ girls: specifically to one who at 14 would have been under-aged almost anywhere in the world, and to one who at 17 many jurisdictions would not see in the same way. The statutory sexual protection of minors makes Ghislaine Maxwell technically a criminal. She has committed a crime and she should serve a sentence. But so far we haven’t seen US federal law handle her case well.

At the seven-week trial in New York one of the two prosecutors, having worked on the case for seven years, was Sigrid McCawley. Ms McCawley told the BBC on House of Maxwell that Ghislaine, ‘an abuser’, would be a danger to society if she were ever free. But Maxwell is a woman gone morally astray. She’s not a mass murderer. That surely had to be said in her defence, and, even if the jury wasn’t listening perhaps the judge, who has commissioned reports into Zhislaine’s life and circumstances, will do so yet.

Sigrid McCawley

Possibly Ghislaine already has served somewhere between a third and a half of what would be an appropriate custodial sentence. Since she’s not violent that sentence should be served in a normal, even in an open prison, not in solitary confinement. Instead she has been cruelly held in solitary confinement from July 2020 until the present day.

The other aspect of the trial that’s made the law look an ass is the amount of venom injected into the prosecution case by the suicide of Epstein in custody. Ghislaine’s accusers can’t punish him so they want to punish Ghislaine. Add to venom a furious attempt at self-justification on the part of the penal authorities. Epstein managed to kill himself, even in solitary confinement, even placed under suicide watch, but – the result of a plea deal — no charges have been brought against his guards, who admitted falsifying their records. So that’s another way they make Ghislaine suffer. She’s not going to get away with what Epstein did, which made the Metropolitan Correctional Center New York, supposed to be guarding him, look corrupt.

The third detrimental factor is US justice itself, so hysterically concerned with moral rectitude that it thinks sexual immorality deserves statutory punishment on a gargantuan scale. The prosecution here is asking for a sentence of sixty-five years.

Perhaps this is just my British-European perspective, but the trouble with any moral hysteria, in the kind of society we live in, is the hypocrisy of it. The markets sexualize our children from before their teens. Sex is money, whatever age the targets are. And don’t tell me children are free to choose.

In short I don’t propose letting Ghislaine off, as she awaits the judge’s decision in Brooklyn, but I feel some sympathy for her.

It’s what the Russian writer Anton Chekhov said any writer must do, namely defend the condemned, and for once I agree with him. J’ACCUSE those who are using justice for less than decent ends, and ignoring a complex human story.

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Russia as a Eurasian Power — the history

It   is a Western question to wonder what is in Vladimir Putin’s mind, just as it is a lazy Western habit to talk of Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Present Russian ambition seems to emanate from a profoundly conservative imperialism, neither individualized according to the particular leader at the helm, nor particularly mysterious. We know full well that the power that rules in Russia is tradition. This has been demonstrated in three great upheavals over the past two-and-a-quarter centuries. The first was the French Revolution, still inspiring fear in St Petersburg fifty years later; the second was the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917; and the third was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In each case a revolutionary situation, or threat, eventually led to a nationalist reaction.

The conservative response to the execution of Louis XVI was to welcome the fugitive French priesthood and for Catherine the Great to declare that Russia would take the place of France as the home of the aristocracy. The ideological wobble towards liberalism that was the early reign of Alexander I was soon replaced by a more repressive course after 1817. In particular, since all philosophy was associated with the Enlightenment, and French Enlightenment with secularism and revolution, the few university departments of philosophy that had recently come into existence were closed down in a famous purge of 1819-22. Once the aristocrat and polymath Sergei Uvarov arrived as Minister for National Enlightenment in 1833, he was clear what Russian conservatism meant: Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost’. Those terms, which translated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, formed a tripartite slogan to match, and keep at bay, the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of the neonatal free world. Russia needed absolute rule, supported by theChurch, which would provide sacred justification and ritual, and the compliance of thepeople.

If the whole doctrine is generally referred to as Official Nationality, it is worth bearing in mind what the “nationalist” component of autocratic Russian government loosely included from that moment on. It was an invitation to accept what the state, but also quasi-independent Slavophile writers and journalists, decided belonging to the Russian People meant. The term was sufficiently flexible to contain, without quite denying, the popular liberationist impulses spreading from the West that had helped undo French absolutism and were straining the coherence of the neighbouring Austrian empire. Narodnost’ might retrospectively be called a managed nationalism. Second, narodnost’ meant patriotism. It meant supporting the status quo and Russian great-power status. Thirdly, most thoughtfully, it expressed pride in Russian philosophy, theology, folklore and history, as pointing to thetrue Russian way in all things, whether social, political or religious. The choice of this term, as his biographer Cynthia Whittaker put it thirty years ago, “displayed astute tactics” on Uvarov’s part – and, we might regretfully add, vision. The tripartite slogan remains a key to understanding the several Russias that have followed since Uvarov’s death in 1855.

Of course this conservative tsarist mantra is not what Bolshevism advertised itself as perpetuating. But it has long been obvious that the revolutionaries who built Soviet Russia were never, even on paper, advocates of individual liberty at the cost of the coherence ofthe state. Liberation from the “oppression” of non-Marxist-Leninist forms of political organization was certainly an article of faith, but not the liberty of most twentieth-century Anglo-American political philosophers. The distinction Isaiah Berlin made in 1958, between positive and negative liberty, clarified the difference between Soviet Russia and the West above all. It was his contribution to the West’s self-knowledge during the Cold War.

The Russian tradition had other distinctive traits in which the political either merged with religious concerns, or with a morality of duty to the nation. Philosophy was either in favour of a kind of individualism amounting to a Western-influenced answerability to God (which with its religious basis was largely an émigré philosophy in Cold War days); or it accepted a duty towards a country that always inclined to schism. Russian philosophy, politics, religion, culture: all must hold the country together. With the cause of the nation supervening, those independent realms of inquiry, creativity and moral engagement all began to resemble each other, Just as Uvarov’s three terms did. Each implicated the other, and each applied with equal force.

If you think of how mature Soviet Communism managed an essentially conservative agenda, despite the worship of technological progress and the internationalism of Marxism, you can see the same three-pronged policy at work in Soviet Russia as, a century before, under Tsar Nicholas I. The Official Ideology, the Party and the People held the political entity together. Here was an absolute structure to which millions of that People gave their more or less loyal service, encouraged by a camouflaged nationalism that became more and more obvious after “The Great Patriotic War” of 1941-5.

If, after 1792 and 1917, absolutism was imposed, with this kind of face, no more than twenty years later, then should we wonder that it is happening again after 1991? It’s only a question of the form that absolutism might now take, with both tsarism and Communism dead and buried.

The widely held answer is some kind of “Eurasianism“. When in October 2011 Putin proposed a “Eurasian Union … as an essential part of Greater Europe united by shared values of freedom, democracy and market laws”, political scientists began to understand Russia’s “pivot to the east” as a puzzling weave of economic and national interests whose goal was to ensure that globalization did not happen solely on Western terms. In theintervening years the move has become more anti-Western and more ideological than its founding co-members Belarus and Kazakhstan probably ever foresaw. Although various theorists have been named, Putin does not seem to be influenced by anyone in particular, nor to be a theorist himself. Eurasianism, if not the Eurasian Union as originally intended, is also flexible. Above all it seems to be about Russia living up to an idea of itself distinct from what it perceives the West to be. It is, in that sense, a return to a parallel existence: thecreation of an alternative version of the contemporary Christian, or post-Christian, world, contiguous with the West but distinct.

Eurasianism was worked out in the 1920s as an alternative to Russian modernity by conservative Russians who were exiled from their country by their class origins. Being members of the wrong social class caused them to fall foul of the new Marxist-Leninist diktat, but it didn’t stop their patriotism. They regretted finding themselves abroad. Thethought that encouraged them was that Bolshevism wouldn’t last. So they began to cast around in their dreams for an alternative vision of a powerful twentieth-century Russia – and came up with Eurasia.

The movement began in Prague in 1921 when Nikolai Savitsky responded to ideas floated by his fellow émigré Prince Nikolai Trubetskoy. The aristocratic Trubetskoy, who was teaching Russian literature in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, was passionately attached to the Russian language and the Russian Orthodox Church of his family and upbringing. Trubetskoy and Savitsky contributed essays to a book called Iskhod k vostoku, which could be translated (though it rarely is) as “A Solution to the East”.

Eurasianism asserted Russia’s non-Western essence and unique geo-cultural position. Butthe Savitsky/Trubetskoy title also meant “Exodus to the East”. Gravity itself seemed to be pulling Russia eastwards, away from the tiresome and feeble liberal West. The geography ofthe proposed Eurasia was roughly that of the Russian Empire before 1914, including theBaltic States in the West and Central Asia in the East. The basis of cultural unity was not racial – neither Russian nor pan-Slav – but a matter of envisaging Eurasia as a unique, economically self-sufficient continent dominated by Russia. With a confidence based on therecent history of the Russian Empire, Savitsky wrote in 1921 of Orthodox-Muslim and Orthodox-Buddhist cultures playing their part in the Eurasian whole (which puts one in mind of how the Central Asian states were contained in the Soviet whole.) Trubetskoy added a fierce ideological argument against Eurocentrism, the ultimate enemy.

One of the most interesting features of Eurasianism was its anti-Westernism. The impulse to consign the West qua Europe to history had been strong in Russia throughout thenineteenth century and anticipated the West’s sense of its own downfall at the beginning ofthe twentieth century. When it emerged in new packaging in the 1920s, therefore, Russian anti-Westernism had Spengler’s Decline of the West written all over it. Like Spengler, theEurasians looked to a changed balance of global power. They predicted that Russia and America, but not Europe, would play the major parts in the twentieth-century order. Now, post-1991, one might equally see a resurgent conservative Russia desperate to avoid thecultural relativism of a postmodern, no longer Enlightened West. Restrictive attitudes towards gay sexuality and restored state control of much of the media show this Putinesque Russia, if it must be somehow named after its present leader, restoring its own norms in theface of Western decadence; and being proud of that achievement. Even morally proud.

Eurasianism required Russia to adopt a non-Western conception of itself as a prerequisite of its emerging twentieth-century greatness. It was to disdain “Romano-Germanic ethnocentricity” and reject Western claims to speak for a universal humanity. The idea, harking back to a late-medieval image of Moscow as the “third Rome”, was to promote a non-Western Christian civilization centred on Russia.

Eurasianism’s anti-Western project interpreted the Marxist internationalist proJect of theRevolution as a disaster. Trubetskoy saw 1917 as Russia’s moment of self-destruction, under pernicious Western influence, before a new Eurasian start. He said that Russia’s tendency to measure itself against Europe had always been to its own detriment and produced derogatory notions of Russian backwardness and imitativeness. Eurasianism’s rethinking of Russia’s achievement would underscore its uniqueness and strength. Because Eurasianismwould change the balance of the world, Savitsky claimed that the Russian Revolution was not Just a Russian event, nor Just a European one, but a moment of global shift. “After theBolshevik Revolution, Russia in a certain sense becomes the ideological centre-point of theworld”, he wrote.

Himself forced abroad by Bolshevism, the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev noted that theEurasianism of the 1920s was “the only postrevolutionary intellectual movement to arise out of the émigré milieu”. It landed a rich catch of émigrés and exiles in its net, though asthe decade progressed and extremism increased, almost as many jumped out again. They included the movement’s founding father Trubetskoy, and his friend the patriotic, unhappily exiled philologist Roman Jakobson.

The evident problem with Eurasianism from the start was the encouragement it gave to political extremism. Liberals labelled it a fascist movement, while for Berdyaev it confirmed his feeling that Russia was forever bound to lurch between the Red (Communism) and theBlack (fascism). Berdyaev, though not a conservative, warned that Eurasianism could turn into a rival Russian fascism. In practice it showed another native weakness before it got anywhere near power. The Paris left-Eurasians pitched themselves against the rightwingEurasians in Prague, while the nascent Soviet authorities encouraged this disarray.

The political absolutists and philosophers over two centuries of modern Russia were entirely right when they said the first thing to contend with was always the risk that the country and its institutions would fall apart, if granted too much freedom. The Russian centre never held voluntarily. That was another way of making Berdyaev’s point about the Red and theBlack.

Eurasianism was, like Nazism, a product of the immediate years after the First World War, to which Russia added revolution and civil war and Germany added defeat and the end of its empire, as well as its own failed attempt at a Communist revolution. Golo Mann wrote of Germany after 1918 that “By its very existence Berlin raised the question of how an undisciplined society, estranged from its own past, should live”. The same question confronted the Russian exiles, patriots who rejected the “Red”, Marxist-Leninist solution.

While the world-famous Tamara Karsavina was dancing on the London ballet stage, her brother Lev, forcibly exiled in Paris – he was one of the seventy or so alternative thinkers that Lenin deported on the famous “philosophy steamers” – became a Eurasian figurehead. A religious philosopher, Lev Karsavin entrenched himself in a spiritual vision for Russia, and after Eurasianism migrated from its first days in Prague, his Paris home became its headquarters. The movement around Karsavin believed itself to be above politics. It set out its views in a journal financed by an English former civil servant, Henry Norman Spalding (1877-1953), who with his wife also co-founded a chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics, a university lectureship in Eastern Orthodox Culture, and other related posts at Oxford between the wars. Spalding’s very existence reminds us that Western observers of Russia can be Just as captivated by the grandiose and authoritarian as the Russians themselves.

The core Eurasian doctrine was succinctly expressed by Nikolai Alekseev, one of Karsavin’s colleagues, in 1927 in the Journal Put’ (The Way): “The future of Russia belongs to a lawful Orthodox state, which will be able to combine unshakeable power (the principle of dictatorship) with the people’s self-government (the principle of freemen) and service to social Justice”. Thus the tripartite solution surfaced once more, remarkably close in its formulation to what Uvarov had come up with a century before. It stressed an autocratic legitimacy derived from God, which allowed the people to follow an idea of their national calling. It is what now, in Russia’s third moment of restoration after a period of chaos in thepast two centuries, we should expect again. What is probably hardest for Westerners to understand is that grain of freedom that seems from the other side to be enshrined in thenotion of “the people”: the Russian People, their country.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has said in regard to the present Russian regime that it is a neo-tsarism in which “power is personalised as in a monarchy but legitimacy is derived not from God, as in traditional tsarism, but rather from the consent ofthe majority of the governed” (“Drivers of Russia’s Foreign Policy” in Kadri Liik, ed., Russia’s “Pivot” to Eurasia, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, May 2014). That maJority are today’s “people”. Eighty per cent of them do not have passports, have never been abroad and do not intend to go, according to Pavel Salin (ibid.). They are intensely conservative.

One has to think of a notion of freedom contested by Western individualism for as long as it has been in existence, namely Rousseau’s General Will. On one view Hegel’s Idealism took much of its political inspiration from Rousseau. Marxism turned Hegelianism into a socialist progressivism. These were for Isaiah Berlin the named enemies of “negative liberty”, not least because they assumed an assent where it was not actively given, whether out of dissent, ignorance or apathy. With the old names now discredited in Russia, too, the old vision of a positive liberty maintaining the integrity of an otherwise threatened country finds a new home in some vague Eurasianism.

Berlin probably underestimated the threat of schism as the maJor force in Russian politics. He did, however, take a step in that direction in 1960 when in his essay “Russian Populism” he explained how Rousseau inspired even the liberal Herzen to believe, for Russia, in the“natural socialism of the peasant mir” (“a free association of peasants”, in Berlin’s words, “which periodically redistributed the agricultural land to be tilled”). Along with Herzen there were perhaps moments when even Berlin accepted Russian exceptionalism as inevitable.

Compare again the Eurasian doctrine with both the conservatism of the tsars and theideology of the Soviet Union. In both the late eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries Russia had to redefine itself after a crisis of order and identity. In 1833, when Uvarov set down Russia’s aims as Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, the threat of the French Revolution still hung over Russian absolutism. For the conservatives of Just under a century later, their own Revolution had displaced them and threatened to destroy the meaning of their lives. So Russia should recover its Church, restore its Dictatorship and revivify the cult of the People. In fact, when the aims of the Eurasianists are set alongside what the Soviet Union did create in Russia, that is rule by Party, Dictatorship and People, it seems as if an anti-Western, anti-Eurocentric illiberal Russia could readily have developed without theMarxist veneer a century ago. Where the Party held the people in check, the Church could equally well have inspired and oppressed them – or held them together – backed by the force of the state.

That near identity of ideology, far more than Just an affinity, is one reason why Eurasianismhas so quickly stepped into the shoes of Marxist-Leninism in the twenty-first century. It readily expresses the extremism of a country tending to lawlessness, but bolstered and even steadied by self-glorification. The Putin-era concept of “managed democracy” seems to contain layers of history and meaning. Political scientists were on the wrong track when they looked for a transition to Western democracy after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, at a time when Russia, like Germany in 1918, was “an undisciplined country estranged from its own past”. Russia was never comfortable with “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and those now in power see their country emerging from the same kind of crisis as that which provoked their predecessors to reJect the West in 1833 and again, among the Eurasians, after 1917. This, however, leaves the West to cope with an alien ideology, powerfully reborn in the reckless 1920s and recently renewed.

This essay first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in May 2015, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea. My book Ministry of Darkness How Sergei Uvarov Created Modern Russian Conservatism appeared in 2019.

See also my other books on Russian history and philosophy, Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia (2004) and The Philosophy Steamer Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (aka Lenin’s Private War)

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Russia in my lifetime : a tragic story Central Moscow in April 1992 was a jumble sale. Trestle tables obstructed the pavements, old counterpanes covered them. Mostly older people, mostly women, displayed trinkets for sale: a cup, a few beads, a spare tin. Outside the Bolshoi Theatre sheet music – bound conductors’ scores even– waited for a chance buyer. They were like cultural treasure turned out of safe-keeping by a marauding army. Over in Sokolniki park at the Sunday market Red Army uniforms were going for a song. The entire Soviet past was ridiculed. It made me feel uncomfortable. I cast my mind back twenty years earlier to my first contact with Communist Russia, when a planeload of young Western visitors who should have known better applauded when we took off for home again. Mostly they didn’t like the food. In Nizhny Novgorod I knew a woman who had been an Intourist travel guide. She knew her lines by heart. ‘You tell the visitor so much they don’t need to ask questions. Isn’t that right, Lesley?’ Galya had a nervous breakdown when both her technique and her beloved knowledge of Soviet history and culture were made redundant overnight. The Cold War, and its end, were a painful business.

Not counting that brief visit in 1972, I first arrived in the Soviet Union in 1978. The travails of a young writer aside, it was obviously my task to understand how a world so grey and glum had come to pass. The cliches were that there was nothing in the shops and people in the streets didn’t look at each other. Certainly eye contact with foreigners was to be avoided, for it might count as a crime. But the food stores with their tins of fish, the street queues for scrawny meat, or the occasional kilo of tomatoes, were only part of the story. It belonged to an ensemble which included no advertising, more or less only one model of car, cheap synthetic clothing, and plastic shoes. There was a stink of low-grade petrol everywhere, as buses and military-looking green lorries, and others like giant grey toothpaste tubes carrying fuel, crisscrossed the city. Moscow was mouse-brown, but people got to work and wherever you saw the word Хлеб you knew you could buy bread. Those were two aspects of the economy that worked: public transport and bakeries. I lived a great deal off loaves made of rye flour and molasses.

The question was why Russia, as of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, had chosen a different way to be modern. I needed to understand. I got a lovely bright red ticket for the Lenin Library ( I still have it), like a red carpet to Russian learning, and a pass for the Historical Museum archives, on Red Square, and I began reading.

There is an explanation of Russia’s different ways, and it lies with the French Revolution. Catherine the Great, on the throne in St Petersburg in 1789, and even more pertinently, in 1793, when Louis XVI was guillotined, was so shocked that she vowed to restore the ancien régime – of rule by the sovereign, with the support of the aristocracy and the church — on Russian soil. When she got wind of Edmund Burke’s objections to revolution she hoped she had found a conservative ally on the other side of Europe, but Burke was having none of it. Russia was about despotism, not conservatism, in his view, and mine.

Yet when a young courtier, for whom Catherine had been his godmother, first attempted to codify that counter-revolutionary response roughly forty years later, he set down with startling clarity how official Russia, while rejecting the ethos of the liberal West, envisioned a rival version of modernity. Not liberty, equality, fraternity, but Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, would be the Russian way. Back in 1978 I knew one essay, in French, by an émigré from the October Revolution, Alexander Koyré, which took this formula seriously. I’ve since written a whole book about it. Historians of nineteenth-century Russia always give it a nod now but the puzzle remains why it has never properly made its way into Western political understanding of the great  Russian ‘other’. One problem, I know, because it affected how early versions of my book were greeted, was that to a leftish, progressive West the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the tsarist Russia it had left behind. By the same token, post-Soviet Russia was assumed to have become a new country in 1991.

In my view these were both egregious errors.

The continuity from 1832, when Count Sergei Uvarov established those Russian principles for an alternative, non-liberal modernity, right up to today, is striking. Official Russia did not then and does not now want to be Western (although this has nothing to do with a privileged minority enjoying luxury Western goods and privileges). Officially, Russia wants to build and maintain a socio-political system that answers the West on its own terms. The Soviet Union tried an alternative economic system after 1917 that didn’t work. But Russia’s exclusive social and political version of modernity, competing with the Western achievement, remains.

Immediately the 1832 principles either directly opposed or slyly shadowed Western ideals, almost as if with an intent to deceive. Openly they supported Orthodoxy and Autocracy, as opposed to our Democracy with the moral support of the church. Slyly they favoured Nationality, but of an Official kind. Official Nationality, coupled with patriotism, was intended as the Russian counter-answer to the brotherhood of man and the voice of the people, and it remains the most important of the three principles, in my view.

Narodnost’  has to be translated into English as ‘Official Nationality’ to bring out precisely what made it different, from the early nineteenth century, from the national liberation movements that sprang up across Europe, from Italy to Poland, in the wake of the French upheaval. Yes it belonged to the Romantic movement in politics and culture, but in Russia it meant both nation-building at home and empire-building abroad. It colonized those fringes of the Russian Empire that – like the Baltic States and the Ukraine the Duchy of Warsaw – were not Russian at all, and with its imposition of Russian language and culture it provoked constant friction. In 1838 a mixture of Polish and Ukrainian students at Kiev University became so politically restless that Petersburg closed the university for the next eighteen months. One version of folk history has it that the students painted the main university building red in protest. It’s a curious story I haven’t been able to verify, amid a handful of competing versions on today’s web. No one seems to want to own up to how that grand building built between 1837-43, and thus caught up in the heat of the political crisis, became red against its Italian architect’s wishes. Whether the then mainly Polish students in Kiev managed to make their feelings known so boldly, or whether they confined themselves to underground revolutionary propaganda, one thing is for sure: they hated the autocratic rule from St Petersburg that restricted local learning out of hostility to non-Russian culture. Even the Minister of Enlightenment himself – Count Uvarov, to whom my book is dedicated – put the quality of university education above all politically partisan considerations. It was he who founded the university in Kiev, then called after St Vladimir, in 1834. But the will of tsar Nicholas I prevailed, at least until Uvarov managed to get the university open again.  

Nicholas was terrified of subversive foreign influence bringing an unwanted, unsupervised liberal modernity into the fringes of the Russian Empire. The same policy at home, meted out on Russian universities for Russians themselves, showed the extent of the paranoia. The prospective power of an enabled demos inspired unbearable fear. Official Nationality was therefore autocratic Russia’s answer to both national feeling and the popular will, as they were developing in the West. Yes, a modern Russia would recognise the power of the people, but it would do so in a way that would always keep the people’s endeavours harnessed to official goals.

Uvarov’s life and career shows how the real story was much more complicated, which is why I so much wanted to write it.Ffor the man who drafted the Tripartite Formula was also the Minister of Enlightenment who Nicholas I, found ways for education to transcend imperial ideology, both at home and in the ‘near abroad’. Ultimately he was pushed out of office by those who took a harder line. His efforts make almost sympathetic reading today and one imagines that, in every Russian political crisis, there are moderates who long to be heard.

In my lifetime Russia has changed dramatically, but sadly the old ways linger. In Soviet times Official Nationality appeared to be absorbed into Marxist-Leninism’s worldwide triumph of the proletariat. Yet if you were a Czech or a Pole you would have preferred to look after your own people yourself: the terminology was that of international Communism but the thrust of Russian imperialism was never far away. The same happened with the other terms of the Tripartite Formula. Soviet theorists confined ‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘Autocracy’ to the dark past.  But wasn’t that just the cleverest of tricks, making useful idiots of almost all Western onlookers?  ‘Pravoslavie’ – literally ‘right belief’ – and ‘Samoderzhavie’ – a direct Russian calque on the Greek – evidently had their Soviet equivalents. The right belief was Marxist-Leninism and the governing system was the Communist Party. The term ‘parteiinost’, ‘party-mindedness, completed the trilogy. It was what was required of right-minded, non-troublemaking, Soviet citizens, and the word for a dissident was simply someone who thought differently. And so the counter-revolutionary programme for a modern Russia at first ran, and then staggered on, for almost 75 years. And is still with us.

I do believe that soon after he took power Vladimir Putin laid out this same Russian programme in a new form for his country when he explained that his aim was ‘managed democracy’. In  other words, democracy, but not as you know it in the West. Russian ‘managed democracy’ was  of quite a different pedigree, descended from the mixture of genuine patriotism and enforced social and political conformity with Russian ways that was Official Nationality. It was a new minting of the old coinage I had come across in my reading in the Lenin Library all those years ago.

None of this excuses the frightful actions of Putin’s Russia these last weeks, but it does provide a coherent key to what a reactionary ruling class has wanted the Russian sphere, Russia’s version of modernity, to look and feel like over the past two centuries. The formula has been to maximize educational, scientific and industrial progress in Russia to match the West while holding on to the steering mechanisms of pre-1789 France.  

The adventure failed spectacularly in 1991, when coerced parts of the old Empire, and its unwilling satellites, cut loose and spun away as soon as they could. But in Russia itself the last twenty years have seen an extraordinary attempt to re-float the reactionary ship and sail it into some of the old territories. With or without the deeply held arguments of Russian philosophers that their naturally anarchic country can’t survive otherwise, and Putinite protests that Russia must have a buffer against the West, the relaunch of Catherine the Great’s mission doesn’t seem likely to go far, imposing Russian nationality on ‘the near abroad’ of Ukraine and smothering dissent at home. Only as we know that junk ship has terrible weapons on board; and soon to be rudderless, minus the deathly pale Putin, we have to worry where it will end. It hasn’t ended in my lifetime. It has just begun again.

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The Old Men at the Zoo: Novelist Angus Wilson (1913-1991) on the Riot of post-war Britain

i’ve been reading Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo (1961).

The complex structure, and the layers of meaning upon which this marvellous novel are constructed, make it at once difficult to classify and potent reading for our post-Brexit times. It’s set at London Zoo, but to describe it as ‘more apocalyptic fantasy than conventional social commentary’ (Randall Stevenson The Oxford English Literary History vol. 12) seems to ignore its real merits, just as surely as does its blinkered description as ‘a doomed attempt to set up a large natural reservation for wild animals’ (The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble). The zoo is at once reality and metaphor, and the result an evocation of furiously conflicting political currents in post-war England.

Simon Carter, a civil servant from the Treasury by training, a naturalist by inclination, finds himself caught up in interlocking bureaucratic and political power struggles when he is drafted over to Regent’s Park as Secretary. Director Edwin Leacock, fusty and wily, but not cunning enough to outwit his opponents, and his glamorous explorer Deputy Bobby Falcon, a vain and passionate man, emerge into the second half of the twentieth century with conflicting views of how best to govern animalkind in England. Should the old-fashioned confines of north London give way to the open expanses of a British Nature Reserve in Herefordshire? Or are those confines beautiful constructs, testaments to a civilization in which everything from bat to big beast can be housed? The issue might seem to be one of freedom versus repression and Carter sides with Leacock. But it is mainly because he seems the more decent man. Nor is it quite what it seems when animals escape from the reserve.  Leacock gets a bad press from the popular press for seeming to endanger local people. In fact the prominent press baron Godmanchester has hijacked the whole Leacock/Falcon clash to stir up fears of a German invasion. If the zoo is evacuated from the capital, it is surely because its director has had a clandestine forewarning. The move is a sign of Britain going on to the alert, and that’s just what Godmanchester wants. The emergency should see him invited back into government, as the man who understands the moment.

As soon as the cynical Godmanchester has succeeded, he pulls in the lease on the land for the Reserve. Leacock is devastated. Wilson takes a compassionate and moving farewell to this naïve and dedicated specialist, and his clumsy wife, and inflicts sudden death on Godmanchester, at the end of what seems like the novel’s Part 1.

The organization of the novel is evidently unusual and potentially confusing. Part 1 leaves unresolved a crime of negligence in the zoo’s immediate past, while taking up its main theme, which is a political story on a vast international political scale. Part 2 sees Europe invade Britain in a brutal military strike which, at the same time, the author sees as no bad thing. There are also sexual tensions and love relations among a good number of characters, and which might, in a lesser artist, have claimed the main story for themselves.

Clearly this is a story also of the human zoo in Britain post-war: a tale of shifting cages, dangerous nostalgia, of individuals breaking loose and wondering where to abide. Indeed, everything real is this unique novel is also metaphorical. Everything factual is also moral, which makes it at once realism and satire, fantasy and parable. Add into that mix a blend of straightforward and symbolic surnames, surnames merging with English placenames, a man called Englander featuring as a leading enthusiast for an England dominated by Europe, and you begin to feel all the seductions and dangers of language spinning free of its referents in a new modernist world. At the same time, in the history of the English novel, you might think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

For the topic really is what Britain is to become in an imagined post-war future, circa 1970. Godmanchester had wanted a European Federation. But patriots stirred up so much antipathy that a country weakened in its good sense then got something so much worse. It was suddenly overrun by fascist Uni-Europeans. In that lethal bombing raid that blew up the ports and scattered a starving population, the civilization that was the zoo struggled to save its animals from being eaten, if not already killed in the fighting. The chaos scattered their curators. Some found it too easy to pick up a gun. Carter, Wilson’s alter ego, desperate not to take sides, had a nervous breakdown.

The fascist takeover is an extravaganza of horror. A Russian bear is taunted in a pit, an American Eagle is prevented from flying. Beautiful young British boys and girls are readied to fight lions and tigers in a new replica Colosseum. All these features of a Europe Day pageant are indecipherable from a mass domestic victory celebration (reminiscent of the 1951 Festival of Britain). They are a show of popular force by a new totalitarian ruler. But there is a good Europe, and a good Britain, close behind.

Three great celebrations are planned at the zoo in this novel and they seem to suggest three future visions of post-war Britain. The first is Leacock’s and is a fuzzy mixture of liberation and nostalgia, held together by a love of nature. Falcon and his actress wife Jane have something much more urban and colourful in mind, yet fuelled just beneath the surface with another typical British nostalgia, for the great achievements of the Victorians. Both views are seduced by the new medium of television into make it their platform. Both have ways of attracting ‘patriots’. Meanwhile the right-wing uni-European vision is international, fuelled by money and business, aiming at efficiency. Fortunately, few in the end want that, because too many decent people end up side-lined; or in prison. Carter/Wilson is adrift in all this political mayhem. He  recalls Alexander Pope with approval: ‘For forms of government let fools contest/What-o’er is best administered is best.’ Carter would like to live the life of an apolitical man, a little like the naïve Leacock. But perhaps that’s not good enough. Carter’s American wife leaves him because he won’t defend America.

The novel ends when a relatively sane British government resumes authority. The prison population changes guard and the broken men look to restore their health. The zoo replenishes its stocks with generous gifts from the great zoos of Europe.

As metaphor and symbol pile up and interweave, it’s a tale of muddling through. Those European zoos are themselves surviving, presumably perilously, above the political fray. The whole work meanwhile is written with humour, irony and tenderness. The naming of the many, many species inhabiting the zoo, is superb, and touching, and reminds us how little we know of them, in their, and our, innocence.

Of especial extra interest meanwhile, since this is threshold of the 1960s, and looking forward, is the tremor of sexuality running through the narrative. Notwithstanding he’s a gay writer, Wilson is utterly convincing in showing Carter’s intense desire for his wife, and in having that wife wonder at what point that husband’s desire might become brutal. He’s at ease having Carter dwell on what might well be his physical love for the most beautiful mammals. The naïve Leacock, together with the wife who calls him Daddy, are meanwhile a portrait of sexual repression as a human disaster. They are the scourge of their sex-crazed, deeply unhappy daughter, whom Carter was ready to oblige and even momentarily love, if it would save her. But a narrow-minded father who only ever referred to his penis as his wee-wee had destroyed her prospects of becoming a normal woman.

In sum this terrific, unclassifiable novel has at least four claims to our continuing attention. It is a fine satire on the bureaucracy of large organizations, just as the Orwell was. On top, Wilson, a far greater writer, shows a Dickensian concern for mannered small characters with infinite, half-hidden woes. Thirdly, he pays an unbounded tribute to the lives of animals, in whose natural environments we too live. Just like them, the way they have come to live in the zoo, as we have in society, we are unnaturally and destructively embedded. And yet to turn ourselves loose might be still worse. Moreover in every dream we have for a better future, we, the more or less good people, are vulnerable to all kinds of political and commercial exploitation.    

The fourth topic is simply this: Angus Wilson delivers a fond but devastating message on sex and politics and being British.  

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A Meeting with Isaiah Berlin and a few reflections on his quarrel with Roger Scruton

Richard Avedon: Isaiah Berlin Philosopher (National Portrait Gallery

Sir Isaiah Berlin invited me to tea in Piccadilly sometime in August 1995, at the height of the 1995 heatwave. The hottest sunshine since 1659 baked London, otherwise teased by a faint breeze. We had met by chance at a late-night Stravinsky prom at the Albert Hall. The 10pm concerts, without an interval, are more intimate occasions than the main events of early evening and the programming more esoteric. We recognized each other in the uncrowded front foyer (before the 2014 makeover that installed a glass cube to the fore). Fifteen years earlier I had finally left Wolfson College Oxford where, when I began in 1974, Isaiah was its first President. It wasn’t a strong personal bond. But we had a love of Russian literature in common, and now, as was plain, a love of Russian music. Late liturgical compositions by Stravinsky drew us to West London on that balmy almost white night. ‘Otche nash’, ‘Bogoroditse devo’ and ‘Simvol’ Veri’– meaning ‘Our Father’ and ‘Virgin born of God’, and the ‘Symbol of Faith’ — were being performed for the first time at the Proms, with the BBC Symphony orchestra playing under Oliver Knussen and  the BBC Singers conducted by Stephen Jackson. The first two pieces had Church Slavonic titles. Londoners had heard performances of The Requiem Canticles, in part a setting of the Catholic Requiem Mass, only three times since their composition in 1966. Isaiah had met Igor Fedorovich after being overwhelmed by a performance of The Rite of Spring and Oedipus Rex in Venice, and writing him a fan letter. That had been in September 1958, nearly forty years ago. He didn’t tell me at the time. He was never self-important.

The café was a stone’s throw from Albany, the exclusive eighteenth-century apartment block where Isaiah had a flat. I arrived by tube from south London, at 43 exactly half his age and a great deal poorer. My situation, and the appearance that reflected it, must have struck him, for he asked me what seemed at the time an unfathomable question, whether I knew what the rich did in their spare time. Played golf was the answer. And the women, after a visit to the couturier? I wondered. But we settled, over tomato juice for him (he’d been lunching elsewhere) and Earl Grey for me, into things Russian. I’d spent six weeks travelling down the river Volga in 1993. He’d gone back to St Petersburg and Moscow in 1988 and found the students ‘just the same’, meaning he could still feel the legacy of high-minded seriousness and social concern and love of art that inspired his beloved ‘Russian thinkers’ of 1838-48. His love was greater than mine and he upbraided me for calling Russia ‘incorrigible.’  ‘In what would you correct them?’ ‘The absence of reason in their philosophical tradition.’ His answer suggested I was barking up the wrong tree. But I answered that surely a modern people without a rational tradition lacked something essential. I quoted the thinker Berdyaev: ‘our intelligentsia don’t distinguish between true and false.’ I suggested that perhaps in the Soviet era the great faith in science had tried to make up the deficit though with grotesque results (like a reluctance for ideological reasons to accept the Theory of Relativity).

The conversation struggled a bit, but it nose-dived when I mentioned someone else I’d had tea with recently, the philosopher Roger Scruton.

Jan Krycinski Sir Roger Scruton

I knew Roger better than Isaiah because I’d seen him at home, in his beloved Wiltshire countryside, and with his horses. He was hospitable and never condescending. We talked German philosophy and galloped through a few fields. ‘Scruton’ had saluted Isaiah’s eightieth birthday back in 1989 with a tightly argued, rather fierce piece in The Times on June 3. Did I know the essay, Isaiah asked in a tremulous voice. It was six years on and the insult might have been delivered yesterday.

I’ve since tried to make sense of the clash for myself. Roger hated liberals, that is to say, as he saw them, now wishy-washy, now ferociously ideological left-wingers of various stripes, Guardian-readers and, as he put it in The Times piece, ‘second-rate bigots who had advanced through the academic world during Isaiah’s’ reign over it.’ Phew. On a more abstract level he detested the legacy of the Enlightenment, which he felt Isaiah instantiated. For the country’s leading conservative philosopher, which Roger certainly was, the idea that universal reason promised liberty and equality was a trick. As he wrote in his piece, Enlightenment ideas ‘were useful instruments of tyranny’ whose potential was recognized by none other than Marx. Berlin had written a life and work failing to condemn Marx.

But the charge was ridiculous. Here was an eminent philosopher and a great imaginative thinker squandering his mind on relentless ideological warfare. Did no one tell him Isaiah was never a hero of the political Left in Britain?

Then again that wasn’t the real sting of the piece. The philosopher and editor Henry Hardy, in his reminiscence of a fifty-year friendship, My Life with Isaiah Berlin, thinks it was the sentence which read:

‘I sense a dearth of those experiences in which the suspicion of the liberal idea is rooted: experiences of the sacred and the erotic, of mourning and holy dread’ that really hit home. If Hardy is right, what was the 80-year-old Isaiah Berlin to think when he read that indictment of his career? That his love life hadn’t been sufficiently Wagnerian? In fact it was not only an absurd accusation but an error of judgement.

Of course Scruton couldn’t know what Berlin had written to Stravinsky back in 1958. I couldn’t have imagined it either, so I was delighted to come across it in the Letters.

‘I thought the Sacre [du Printemps] and Oedipus [Rex] glowed…something so firm, so splendid, so marvellously made and untouchable by change in fashion and feeling, can still dominate everybody and everything, and stand up, and remain beautiful and elusively strong and faultless, in the crumbling of so much else…’

Nor could Roger know what I intuited that sultry August of 1995, when Isaiah had only two more years to live: that he was at that concert of Stravinsky’s music for the Orthodox rite because he was reverting to what was closest to his heart.

Still there’s no doubt in my mind: Roger Scruton was unfair to Isaiah Berlin. He willfully ignored what Berlin wrote in admiration of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ — a term he even helped to popularize anew. Roger might not have known of Isaiah’s late-confessed love of the Russian mystical philosopher Lev Shestov, but the essays on Herder and Hamann and Vico were long established. The non-rationalists Isaiah admired were definitely not forebears of Marx. They were closer to the German Romantics, thinkers much more in tune ‘sacred…and holy dread’. Roger, I suspect, often sacrificed the subtleties he perceived in life as it was lived in order to score an ideological victory on the page.

I admired them both. They had a formidable knowledge and love of music and both had the un-English habit of living by ideas. At the heart of our interests lay the great aesthetic-minded Germans of the eighteenth century, Goethe and Schiller and Kant, who in their turn had tutored the Russian Idealists of the Marvellous Decade (the topic of one of Isaiah’s most famous essays). I had gone to Oxford in the mid-1970s to write a thesis on that cross-influence and shared it with Isaiah. In the 1990s I was back reading the Germans, quoting them to Roger. He often paraphrased their insights, wishing no doubt that they had been English. It was not for nothing that it was as Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College that he signed his anti-Berlin diatribe.

Which leads me to another underlying drama of that day, framed by my edgy relations with two great minds, and the rare, intense dislike Isaiah Berlin felt for Roger Scruton: it was the painfulness of the English class system and its dislike for Johnny Foreigner. We were all caught up in it. Isaiah’s early anxieties as a Latvian and a Jew made him more emollient than he might otherwise have been in British society; in private he could be catty and unfriendly to the efforts of fellow Jews. He hated the German Jewish philosophers whom Hitler drove into exile, Hannah Arendt who escaped meeting him, and Theodor Adorno, whom he privately ridiculed and patronized in Oxford. He took a similarly deprecating attitude to the critic George Steiner two generations on. So Berlin anglicized himself. But there was a price to pay. As he told the musicologist Robert Craft in the wake of his billet doux to Stravinsky: ‘I had a most moving and bouleversant experience and I am too anglicized to be able to do it [write about it] simply and convincingly.’ Roger was free of these prejudices and some of the emotional self-consciousness. He liked rather to show off feelings bordering on sentimentality. But, like me the product of a grammar school, he was full of social anxieties. These he turned into barbs against the perceived left-wing intellectual establishment. Out of sheer respect I was devastated to hear him describe himself, around 1990, despite all the ambitions in which he had succeeded, as ‘of the wrong social class’. I was even outraged to read him, on behalf of his never-never conservative England, recommend that we all live according to our station (though the occasional individual might rise).

The word ‘coward’ came up in Isaiah’s alarmed response to Roger’s name. The memory is fuzzy here. I had thought Roger had called him a coward in print, but the printed text bears only the headline ‘Freedom’s cautious defender.’ Perhaps this was insult enough for Isaiah. Or was the cowardice implied the other way round? I certainly remember Isaiah saying in a sudden gossipy confidence: ‘You know when Scruton passed me in Albany he covered his face.’ (Roger too had a flat in Albany, one of the marks of belonging to the Establishment.)

‘Love to Scruton!’ Isaiah called, with a note of hysteria in his voice, as I prised my bare legs off the leatherette banquette that stifling afternoon, yanked down my flimsy summer dress and went back my Russian thinkers and my book on Nietzsche. I don’t write in reproach. I just happened to be there, on the periphery of the most intense English intellectual life, in the last decade of the twentieth century.

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A Meeting with Isaiah Berlin and a few reflections on his quarrel with Roger Scruton

Richard Avedon: Isaiah Berlin Philosopher (National Portrait Gallery

Sir Isaiah Berlin invited me to tea in Piccadilly sometime in August 1995, at the height of the 1995 heatwave. The hottest sunshine since 1659 baked London, otherwise teased by a faint breeze. We had met by chance at a late-night Stravinsky prom at the Albert Hall. The 10pm concerts, without an interval, are more intimate occasions than the main events of early evening and the programming more esoteric. We recognized each other in the uncrowded front foyer (before the 2014 makeover that installed a glass cube to the fore). Fifteen years earlier I had finally left Wolfson College Oxford where, when I began in 1974, Isaiah was its first President. It wasn’t a strong personal bond. But we had a love of Russian literature in common, and now, as was plain, a love of Russian music. Late liturgical compositions by Stravinsky drew us to West London on that balmy almost white night. ‘Otche nash’, ‘Bogoroditse devo’ and ‘Simvol’ Veri’– meaning ‘Our Father’ and ‘Virgin born of God’, and the ‘Symbol of Faith’ — were being performed for the first time at the Proms, with the BBC Symphony orchestra playing under Oliver Knussen and  the BBC Singers conducted by Stephen Jackson. The first two pieces had Church Slavonic titles. Londoners had heard performances of The Requiem Canticles, in part a setting of the Catholic Requiem Mass, only three times since their composition in 1966. Isaiah had met Igor Fedorovich after being overwhelmed by a performance of The Rite of Spring and Oedipus Rex in Venice, and writing him a fan letter. That had been in September 1958, nearly forty years ago. He didn’t tell me at the time. He was never self-important.

The café was a stone’s throw from Albany, the exclusive eighteenth-century apartment block where Isaiah had a flat. I arrived by tube from south London, at 43 exactly half his age and a great deal poorer. My situation, and the appearance that reflected it, must have struck him, for he asked me what seemed at the time an unfathomable question, whether I knew what the rich did in their spare time. Played golf was the answer. And the women, after a visit to the couturier? I wondered. But we settled, over tomato juice for him (he’d been lunching elsewhere) and Earl Grey for me, into things Russian. I’d spent six weeks travelling down the river Volga in 1993. He’d gone back to St Petersburg and Moscow in 1988 and found the students ‘just the same’, meaning he could still feel the legacy of high-minded seriousness and social concern and love of art that inspired his beloved ‘Russian thinkers’ of 1838-48. His love was greater than mine and he upbraided me for calling Russia ‘incorrigible.’  ‘In what would you correct them?’ ‘The absence of reason in their philosophical tradition.’ His answer suggested I was barking up the wrong tree. But I answered that surely a modern people without a rational tradition lacked something essential. I quoted the thinker Berdyaev: ‘our intelligentsia don’t distinguish between true and false.’ I suggested that perhaps in the Soviet era the great faith in science had tried to make up the deficit though with grotesque results (like a reluctance for ideological reasons to accept the Theory of Relativity).

The conversation struggled a bit, but it nose-dived when I mentioned someone else I’d had tea with recently, the philosopher Roger Scruton.

Jan Krycinski Sir Roger Scruton

I knew Roger better than Isaiah because I’d seen him at home, in his beloved Wiltshire countryside, and with his horses. He was hospitable and never condescending. We talked German philosophy and galloped through a few fields. ‘Scruton’ had saluted Isaiah’s eightieth birthday back in 1989 with a tightly argued, rather fierce piece in The Times on June 3. Did I know the essay, Isaiah asked in a tremulous voice. It was six years on and the insult might have been delivered yesterday.

I’ve since tried to make sense of the clash for myself. Roger hated liberals, that is to say, as he saw them, now wishy-washy, now ferociously ideological left-wingers of various stripes, Guardian-readers and, as he put it in The Times piece, ‘second-rate bigots who had advanced through the academic world during Isaiah’s’ reign over it.’ Phew. On a more abstract level he detested the legacy of the Enlightenment, which he felt Isaiah instantiated. For the country’s leading conservative philosopher, which Roger certainly was, the idea that universal reason promised liberty and equality was a trick. As he wrote in his piece, Enlightenment ideas ‘were useful instruments of tyranny’ whose potential was recognized by none other than Marx. Berlin had written a life and work failing to condemn Marx.

But the charge was ridiculous. Here was an eminent philosopher and a great imaginative thinker squandering his mind on relentless ideological warfare. Did no one tell him Isaiah was never a hero of the political Left in Britain?

Then again that wasn’t the real sting of the piece. The philosopher and editor Henry Hardy, in his reminiscence of a fifty-year friendship, My Life with Isaiah Berlin, thinks it was the sentence which read:

‘I sense a dearth of those experiences in which the suspicion of the liberal idea is rooted: experiences of the sacred and the erotic, of mourning and holy dread’ that really hit home. If Hardy is right, what was the 80-year-old Isaiah Berlin to think when he read that indictment of his career? That his love life hadn’t been sufficiently Wagnerian? In fact it was not only an absurd accusation but an error of judgement.

Of course Scruton couldn’t know what Berlin had written to Stravinsky back in 1958. I couldn’t have imagined it either, so I was delighted to come across it in the Letters.

‘I thought the Sacre [du Printemps] and Oedipus [Rex] glowed…something so firm, so splendid, so marvellously made and untouchable by change in fashion and feeling, can still dominate everybody and everything, and stand up, and remain beautiful and elusively strong and faultless, in the crumbling of so much else…’

Nor could Roger know what I intuited that sultry August of 1995, when Isaiah had only two more years to live: that he was at that concert of Stravinsky’s music for the Orthodox rite because he was reverting to what was closest to his heart.

Still there’s no doubt in my mind: Roger Scruton was unfair to Isaiah Berlin. He willfully ignored what Berlin wrote in admiration of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ — a term he even helped to popularize anew. Roger might not have known of Isaiah’s late-confessed love of the Russian mystical philosopher Lev Shestov, but the essays on Herder and Hamann and Vico were long established. The non-rationalists Isaiah admired were definitely not forebears of Marx. They were closer to the German Romantics, thinkers much more in tune ‘sacred…and holy dread’. Roger, I suspect, often sacrificed the subtleties he perceived in life as it was lived in order to score an ideological victory on the page.

I admired them both. They had a formidable knowledge and love of music and both had the un-English habit of living by ideas. At the heart of our interests lay the great aesthetic-minded Germans of the eighteenth century, Goethe and Schiller and Kant, who in their turn had tutored the Russian Idealists of the Marvellous Decade (the topic of one of Isaiah’s most famous essays). I had gone to Oxford in the mid-1970s to write a thesis on that cross-influence and shared it with Isaiah. In the 1990s I was back reading the Germans, quoting them to Roger. He often paraphrased their insights, wishing no doubt that they had been English. It was not for nothing that it was as Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College that he signed his anti-Berlin diatribe.

Which leads me to another underlying drama of that day, framed by my edgy relations with two great minds, and the rare, intense dislike Isaiah Berlin felt for Roger Scruton: it was the painfulness of the English class system and its dislike for Johnny Foreigner. We were all caught up in it. Isaiah’s early anxieties as a Latvian and a Jew made him more emollient than he might otherwise have been in British society; in private he could be catty and unfriendly to the efforts of fellow Jews. He hated the German Jewish philosophers whom Hitler drove into exile, Hannah Arendt who escaped meeting him, and Theodor Adorno, whom he privately ridiculed and patronized in Oxford. He took a similarly deprecating attitude to the critic George Steiner two generations on. So Berlin anglicized himself. But there was a price to pay. As he told the musicologist Robert Craft in the wake of his billet doux to Stravinsky: ‘I had a most moving and bouleversant experience and I am too anglicized to be able to do it [write about it] simply and convincingly.’ Roger was free of these prejudices and some of the emotional self-consciousness. He liked rather to show off feelings bordering on sentimentality. But, like me the product of a grammar school, he was full of social anxieties. These he turned into barbs against the perceived left-wing intellectual establishment. Out of sheer respect I was devastated to hear him describe himself, around 1990, despite all the ambitions in which he had succeeded, as ‘of the wrong social class’. I was even outraged to read him, on behalf of his never-never conservative England, recommend that we all live according to our station (though the occasional individual might rise).

The word ‘coward’ came up in Isaiah’s alarmed response to Roger’s name. The memory is fuzzy here. I had thought Roger had called him a coward in print, but the printed text bears only the headline ‘Freedom’s cautious defender.’ Perhaps this was insult enough for Isaiah. Or was the cowardice implied the other way round? I certainly remember Isaiah saying in a sudden gossipy confidence: ‘You know when Scruton passed me in Albany he covered his face.’ (Roger too had a flat in Albany, one of the marks of belonging to the Establishment.)

‘Love to Scruton!’ Isaiah called, with a note of hysteria in his voice, as I prised my bare legs off the leatherette banquette that stifling afternoon, yanked down my flimsy summer dress and went back my Russian thinkers and my book on Nietzsche. I don’t write in reproach. I just happened to be there, on the periphery of the most intense English intellectual life, in the last decade of the twentieth century.

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From Weimar to Washington: The Collapse of the House of Bourgeois Ideas – Part 1

The term ‘collapsed house of bourgeois ideas’ was coined by the between-the-wars German writer Siegfried Kracauer and suggests some alarming parallels between the current chaos in the United States — the storming of the Capitol by a violent mob — and Weimar Germany.

In my latest book, Street Life and Morals German Philosophy in the Lifetime of Hitler I’ve been considering what German philosphers made of the crisis they lived through a hundred years ago.

German philosophy, and even more German philosophers, have often been maligned for seemingly keeping themselves aloof from the facts of Hitler’s rise to power.

In fact they were debating for almost all of Hitler’s lifetime the changes in society which made his tyranny possible, and, as commentators now debate how US society has fractured, the same question arose then as now: how do we understand each other.

The neo-Kantians of the last third of the nineteenth century and into the 1900s and 1910s tried to refocus the task of philosophy, in the light of actual human disorientation and despair. Hermann Cohen suggested philosophy had to think about the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘You’, a theme soon to be made famous by fellow German Jewish thinkers Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber.

In Street Life and Morals (Reaktion Books, autumn 2021) I show how, as Hitler neared power, German philosophy kept asking on what grounds – metaphysical, empirical, sociological, anthropological – we can understand each other. This is not to let German philosophers off the hook so much as to wonder why we ever expected them to take direct political action. Their work was to understand – and show us how to discuss — the forces that were tearing Germany apart. I’m sure they can help us think about our own ‘collapsed house of bourgeois ideas’ today.

The neo-Kantians refused to give up the traditional metaphysical idea of one human nature furnishing the conditions of universal understanding. They rejected the Marxist view that all human relations were governed by class solidarity or antagonism. But as they looked for new arguments they realized almost against themselves that philosophy must turn its gaze from the ideal to the real. It had to become more bodied and forgiving, and one way to do that might be to explore its borders with the then newish sciences of sociology and psychology.

Edmund Husserl, born in 1859, was an old man in the last years of his career when this crisis struck. Phenomenology, his very modern inquiry into the subjective perspective on life, explored how we are all obsessed with our perspective. Can we get beyond it? Is there something universal? It was a salient worry in a society where individual identities had become fragmented and mutually unintelligible.

Husserl concentrated on the stream of experience coming the way of each of us, and argued that, taken together, that experience constitutes what is objective and shared. He still believed in transcendental reason to hold humanity together. But it was his intermediate thinking about ‘I’ and ‘You’ that mattered. His subjects of experience tended to show themselves also as ‘bare lives’, as they tried to make sense of the world’s impact on those lives. After the war, ‘bare lives’ and ‘communication’ would become great themes in a transformed German philosophy.  

Husserl shifted, in Hitler’s lifetime, away from a demanding theory of knowledge towards  ‘a sociological transcendental philosophy’. He said he wanted to focus on the question of ‘intersubjectivity’.[1] Philosophy should describe the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt) that we constitute collectively as ours.  Each human being as an ‘ego-subject’ is in a relation of empathy with other human beings.

But what really was this empathy? Husserl claimed, in common with all the neo-Kantians opposed to ‘biologism’, that the natural scientist’s approach to the human being just couldn’t grasp intersubjectivity.[2]  Positivism and naturalism only dealt with a plurality of human beings and couldn’t say how meaningful humanity arose. It was up to philosophy to account for how I and Thou, I and It, interact.

Husserl’s writing has always struck me as opaque in its theory, but if I am understanding him aright, I have my subjectivity and you have yours and because of our mutual conviction that there is a world we share, together we make what we can of what we are given, within the horizons of our age. From there it becomes possible to broach a moral philosophy of solidarity based on how we co-manage our search for knowledge and self-knowledge.[3]  ‘To engage with meaning is to engage with one’s own possibilities. And yet not ultimately to speak for oneself but to become the subject of a kind of universal reflection, one that shapes a common world horizon.’ [4]  

Husserl initiated a liberal philosophy of shared projects. He spoke in the early 1930s of all ‘the many practical hypotheses and projects which make up the life of human beings in this life-world…all goals, whether they are “practical” in some other, extra-scientific sense or are “practical” under the title of theory, belong eo ipso to the unity of the life-world.’ [5]

Here was an approach to communality that still has life in it almost a century on.[6]  It took a different approach to what, with Wittgenstein and his interpreters Norman Malcolm and Gilbert Ryle, analytical philosophers were beginning to call the problem of other minds.[7] It looked at empathy rather than language as the foundation of social cohesion. In the political emergency that engulfed Husserl’s last years – he died, a Jew banned from using the university library or delivering a public lecture, in 1938 –his late work addressed how philosophy, and a free society, could defend the humanist integrity at their heart.

He found that German high culture, traditionally so tightly focused on the self-reflective moral subject, had nevertheless embraced forms of social solidarity: ‘[Geist] encompasse[d] human cultural achievements, understood as the products of collective human conscious or mental activity (including the regions of art, religion, politics, culture, and everything included within the human sciences or Geisteswissenschaften).’[8] The crisis of the 1930s filled him with horror. ‘Scepticism about the possibility of metaphysics, the collapse of the belief in a universal philosophy as the guide for the new man, actually represents a collapse of the belief in “reason,” understood as the ancients opposed episteme to doxa… If man loses this faith, it means nothing less that the loss of faith “in himself”, in his own true being.’[9]  These quotations come from The Crisis of European Sciences.

As he wrote and delivered these lectures, between 1933-36, the chaotic German political situation seemed itself to stem from the fact that ‘all questions vaguely termed “ultimate and highest” [have been] dropped.’

Husserl’s was a grand project, if one that would always seem, to politically minded critics later in the century, tied to a humanist establishment. One exasperated reviewer wrote in 1933 that still ‘it was so incurably introverted that it is completely impossible for it to understand the opposite mental attitude…’[10] Another in 1981 wrote that Husserl only enlarged the Kantian ghetto (of individuality and inwardness) he was trying to escape. Yet my view is Husserl did respond to one of the great problems of the time, in a way which was old-fashioned before 1945 but became progressive for philosophy after it. Phenomenology became one possible theoretical approach to how we construct meaningful, empathetic relations with others.

At some point Husserl became aware of his contemporary Georg Simmel’s theory of Vergesellschaftung. Simmel, a brilliant and unique philosopher who had struggled with this ‘how we become social’, died prematurely in 1918. Husserl sought advice from his disciple Siegfried Kracauer on how to carry the inquiry forward.[11] Henceforth he referred to his own approach to intersubjectivity as Vergemeinschaftung – how we become communal. [12] The two bases on which we might understand each other better were, as the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies had suggested, either Gesellschaft, society, as a progressive urban phenomenon, or Gemeinschaft, a more conservative and quasi rural, small-town notion of community. Many of us might feel we remain suspended between those two possibilities a century on. We may even develop different ways of interacting with others, nationally and locally.

 Simmel in the essay of 1908 ‘How is Society Possible?’ said that we know each other by making a representation of other persons to ourselves. On the other hand this facet of our understanding isn’t satisfactory, and leads to ‘the profoundest psychological-epistemological pattern and problem of socialization.’ Everyone knows — and this is Simmel stepping on the emphasis pedal here —  that there are others besides ourselves. But how do we explain it and act upon it?[13]  In fact we realize we are asking the wrong question. Society and/or community come ready-made for us. We don’t make them. In the description Heidegger would make famous, we are just thrown in. For Simmel society was a massy, immovable and problematic otherness – an ‘always already’, a kind of social a priori, to which we may spend our lives adjusting. For Heidegger community was really a throwback to peasant life. It was co-being and an acceptance of hard times.

Sticking with society as the progressive option, Simmel said we had to learn ‘the consciousness of being socialized’. It can be done. We human beings are possessed of an ‘always already’ sociability. But capitalism at its most ruthless makes the task harder. Caught up too deeply in the system, the I becomes an It. Even worse we see others as It. ‘When the person is entirely absorbed into his economic function [the] entirety [of his personality] disappears into sheer thingness.’ Sachlichkeit was Simmel’s term, and if we can’t find a perfect English translation for it, we can at least feel our way to the idea of everything, ourselves included, having become an impersonal Sache, a detached and inanimate thing, as opposed to each us being a person in our own right.

The problem for late Kantians like Simmel was they couldn’t look to Marxism for help on interpersonal issues, because Marxism didn’t care about inner freedom and the subjective constitution of knowledge. Marxism, or the treatment of human relations not as metaphysical puzzles but as class relations, a matter of solidarity or hostility, ignored that ‘profound epistemological’ query as to how we could have potentially equal knowledge of ourselves and others. At the same time, on the path to a solidarity he would never quite arrive at, Simmel did recognize that socialism opened up a genuinely different approach to intersubjectivity. The desire for equality was a call for the like valuation of persons. It was not a problem of knowledge but of moral will, not to configure our neighbour as an ‘it’ or an ‘other’.

The neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer also broached the social question that was wracking his country and his beloved Idealist culture, now fading, crucially harmed by industrialization and war. In his 1916 essay Freedom and Form: Studies in German Intellectual History Cassirer hoped that ‘In the degree of depth of our self-awareness [Selbstgefühl] also lies the degree of our empathy [Mitgefühl] with others: for we can only as it were feel ourselves into [the nature of] others.’[14]  In other words we must become educated people; educated in the humanities as well as the hard sciences. All of us.  And hold fast to our humanist vision. Cassirer’s senior colleague Heinrich Rickert as late as 1929 continued to insist on our need ‘to build a bridge between our own real mental life and that of another.’ [15]

Meanwhile the German catastrophe was gathering mass. In 1922 Kracauer observed that mass movements, collective identities, and ‘sharp’ class conflicts were the mark of  ‘an ever-developing process of differentiation’ he didn’t know how to deal with in the present-day.[16] Education could prevent people clashing. But the clashing parties would have to be of the same ‘intensity’ and the communal ambition ‘utopian’.

The degree of violence on German streets suggested an opposite reality. Since Jan 1 1919 three hundred and seventy six political murders had taken place,  twenty-two killings carried out by the extreme Left, the rest by the extreme Right. Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau was the most famous victim of right-wing terror in June 1922. For Kracauer,  a philosopher turned sociologist and now mainly writing in the Frankfurter Zeitung, it was time to stop refining the insights of the educated German individual and detail the actual fraught life of society. [17]

His old discipline tried its best. It modified its vocabulary to introduce new notions of co-existence and co-knowledge. Husserl used a different term but also meant empathy (Einfühlung), while Heidegger coined a range of terms prefixed ‘Mit-’ to try to indicate mutual understanding and shared experience arising out of the same ground of existence.

As Hitler raved, philosophy’s frustrating but dignified probing of intersubjectivity was suffused and almost drowned in a wave of mass activity seeking simplistic communal forms and authoritarian leadership. The poet Stefan George sang the populist tune:

Then come to the place where we form a union!

In my grove of consecration you hear the reverberating roar:

Even if there are countless forms of things

There is only One for you – Mine – to proclaim it. [18]

George sang of what exalted leadership could offer the humble folk who only wanted to belong.

This wasn’t philosophy, and the topic was not inter-personality, but, like so much German literature, it contained a distinct and meaningful echo of what the philosophers of the day were struggling to clarify. Its counterweight was Husserl’s vocal support for the League of Nations, a peaceful Europe’s last hope. In one of those addresses he reminded his listeners that humanity was a We-subject, but not a crowd, and that there was never a moment when that ‘we’ could duck responsibility for its actions.[19]

It’s because of this pre-war tradition, we might think, that Germany was able after 1945 eventually to turn itself into such a different country – a society based on empathy with a world humanity, not just its own people.

How has it happened that in 2021 the United States has fallen under such terrible pressure to move in an opposite direction?

There is more to say.


[1] Dan Zahavi Husserl’s Phenomenology  (Stanford, CA, 2003) p.111.

[2] Dermot Moran Husserl’s Crisis  Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. An Introduction (Cambridge, 2012) pp.26-27, p.34

[3] Cf  David Carr ‘Translator’s Introduction, Edmund Husserl The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology [1954]  (1970) p. xxvii

[4] James Dodd Crisis and Reflection An Essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences (Dordrecht, 2004) 9-10; Sebastian Luft Subjectivity and Lifeworld  ( Evanston, IL,2011) Ch. 7.

[5] The Crisis of European Sciences  p.131

[6] Moran  Husserl’s Crisis p.252.’

[7] Lee Braver Groundless Grounds A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Cambridge, MA, 2012). Chapter 4.

[8] Moran and Cohen The Husserl Dictionary p. 305

[9] Husserl The Crisis of European Sciences pp. 12-13

[10] Quoted in Schnädelbach  German Philosophy p.205

[11] Husserl to Kracauer 14 January 1934 cited in Craver, Harry T.  Reluctant Skeptic: Siegfried Kracauer and the Crises of Weimar Culture (New York, NY, 2017) p.28 [ref though to Husserl Briefe] Edmund Husserl Briefwechsel. hrsg. von Elisabeth Schuhmann in Verbindung mit Karl Schuhmann,  10 vols., (Dordrecht, 1994), v.

[12] Moran and Cohen The Husserl Dictionary p.67; p.234

[13] ‘How is Society Possible?’ pp.375-76.

[14] Freiheit und Form Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte 2nd ed., (Berlin, 1918) p.195.

[15] Quoted in Schnädelbach Philosophy in Germany p.131. Translation slightly modified.

[16] ‘The Group as Bearer of Ideas’ in Mass Ornament and Other Essays p. 226, p.230.

[17] ‘Georg Simmel’ in Mass Ornament and Other Essays p. 243.

[18] Robert E. Norton Secret Germany  Stefan George and his Circle (Ithaca, NY, 2002)  pp.222-238 (224) (234). See also p.744 for the author’s moral indictment of George who ‘paved the way in the minds and hearts of his countrymen on which the Nazis rode to power.’

[19] Moran Crisis p.42, p.8.

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How Tolstoy named an adulterer — the great writer 110 years on

Creative writers transform their stifled anxieties into the freely expressed joys and sadnesses of everyday life. No one did this better than Leo Tolstoy, who died 110 years ago today.

Critics often try to reverse the alchemical process to understand a writer better. The Russian Formalist Boris Eikhenbaum (1886-1959) did this brilliantly and this essay is dedicated to what he taught me.

The names of characters in Tolstoy’s fiction, unlike in Gogol and sometimes in Dostoevsky, are not usually symbolic. Or, if they are, as with the Russian peasant representative of the good life, Plato(n) Karataev, the link is so heavily underscored we quickly pass over it. It’s true some names are allusive. The Bolkonskys of  War and Peace recall the historical Volkonsky family in their social elevation. In Anna Karenina the surname of Konstantin Levin echoes Tolstoy’s own first name, Lev. There is evidently a close association between the author and his leading moral protagonist. But what then of the name Vronsky for Anna’s lover? As we know, Tolstoy used his capacious novels to comment on history, philosophy and much else. On this occasion, it was the very name of Vronsky that entailed his critical views.  

The surname was recorded in the 1892 Russian encyclopedia edited by F.A. Brokgauz and I.A. Efron as belonging to a Russian-Polish landowning family prominent in the seventeenth century. No more recent bearers of the name were identified. But a neighbouring entry drew attention to the Polish mathematician and mystic Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński (1778-1853). Did Tolstoy come across this curious figure? Otherwise the name was such an unusual choice. With its German and Polish components it was for a start difficult  to spell in Russian. Хене-Вроньский was one possibility. Хёне and Гёне were variations. Вроньский deferred to the Polish nasal ‘n’. But the Russian borrowing is usually spelt Вронский, transliterating from the French spelling that Hoene-Wroński used in his Paris exile. Latterly the Pole called himself simply Wroński.

Tolstoy deliberated over four possible names for his attractive sexual pariah. The first three, Kubin, Udashev and Gagin, all of them free from moral baggage, remained viable choices until 16 February, 1875, when a first extract from Anna Karenina featuring Vronsky  appeared in the journal Russky Vestnik.  Did Tolstoy settle for a semi-foreign surname because his negative protagonist was about to ruin a beautiful Russian woman? Was he imagining a lascivious Pole destroying a lovely Russian filly? But why then this rather awkward Polish name and not another?

The evidence is only circumstantial, but my feeling is Tolstoy came across Hoene-Wroński’s antipathy towards the railways. The Iron Way, as in England and France, was transforming life in Russia. The line from Moscow to St Petersburg opened in 1851. The Moscow-Kursk line, passing through a station just four miles from Tolstoy’s own village of Yasnaya Polyana, followed in 1867. The poet Nikolai Nekrasov had already protested that not only were Russian railways being built with slave labour but they  desecrated the country’s heart. Tolstoy associated the railways with sin. They made people more mobile and being away from home opened up new temptations. The married Anna and the unmarried Vronsky, embarking on a tragic affair, first met at a railway station. Their loose morals, just like the railways, hurt society. It was wrong to undermine the family, and the moral traditions of Russia, with a new social dynamism. The adulterers might plead love and the railway enthusiasts might argue their product as a bearer of progress, but neither case persuaded Tolstoy, at least not in theory. Though he often took the train in practice, so negative, so potentially disastrous were the moral implications of train travel to him that, in the texture of Anna Karenina, as in the later novella ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, the very presence of the railway expressed what Eikhenbaum called suzhetny parallelism: parallelism in the treatment of the principal themes of the work. Trains and their stations were just as wicked as the illicit lovers were.  Thus Anna and Vronsky were first drawn together when they witnessed a death on the rails.

In fact Hoene-Wroński – and we are told he dropped the Hoene once he moved to France – disliked trains because he thought them bad arithmetic. ‘Sur la barbarie des chemins de fer, et sur la réforme scientifique de la locomotion’ [On the barbarism of the railways, and on the scientific reform of locomotion] (1838) pleaded with the two legislative chambers of the French Parliament to reconsider whether it was right in multiple senses to lay more rails. ‘We can therefore predict that if we are condemned to accept the railways, we are condemned at the same time to submit in perpetuity to everything today that is inconvenient, economically, politically and even morally, in this present-day reproduction of the old, inert Roman roads, especially when we consider that the same capital, the raising of which is so onerous to the growing large industry of our era, could serve, with the same goal, and much more usefully, for the construction of canals, creations truly characteristic of modern civilization, insofar as they bring together with the great and instant advantage of a form of locomotion superior to the railways the immense advantage of fertilizing and in some way animating the countryside. ‘ At the time France was hectically debating whether the ideal society should retain its links with the rural commune or be engineered and improved by the systematic use of public works. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier and his followers favoured the phalansterie, a kind of mystically organized, work-oriented village, whereas the modernizing project was more to the taste of the Saint-Simonians. Wroński, a mathematician, mystic and philosopher, denounced the railway as ‘monstruous with regard to truth’. He avowed that a  transport system that lost so much energy to friction would be better replaced,  if movement across land could not be eschewed altogether, by more flexible, rail-free vehicles on caterpillar tracks. Wroński believed his insight into the errancy of railway locomotion came at once from God and transcendental idealism. His final appeal to French parliamentarians pitched the purity of Kant’s worldview, as a way of gauging progress, against the worldiness of Thomas Hobbes. Pure maths, in partnership with the Kantian categorical imperative, which was to say the moral law, rather than some horrible jockeying of Hobbsian appetites, should dictate the future of French transport.

Wroński’s mysticism first made an impact in Russia in the 1820s. Prince Vladimir Odoevsky, a beacon for the non-rational tastes of the early century, had one of the Polish writer’s works in his library. With social reform at the top of its agenda, the mid-century intelligentsia was less inclined to look in Wroński’s direction. But Tolstoy may have encountered his name through his own interest in pure mathematics. It doesn’t appear in Tolstoy’s 91-volume collected works, but in Tolstoy’s lifetime Wroński had written to tsar Nicholas I suggesting that mathematics should play a greater part in deciding his autocratic policies. Let a be the degree of anarchy, d  the degree of despotism, suggested the brilliant, eccentric Pole, who also wrote to other European rulers with formulae for political solutions. The numbers also favoured Panslavism, Russian-led pan-humanity, and Russian protection for Poland. Wroński had the most powerful mind in Europe, exclaimed Balzac. He died in Paris in 1853, after living there in exile for half his life.

Without necessarily knowing his work, Tolstoy shared Wroński’s interest in pure mathematics as a guide to happiness. The interest, first set out by Eikhenbaum, derived from his friendship in the 1860s with the mathematician (and oustanding chess player) Sergei Semyonich Urusov. From Urusov Tolstoy learned that mathematics could state the objective laws of the universe in which human beings were caught up. In War and Peace, for all his love of his characters’ individuality, Tolstoy wanted to show in just that spirit that ultimately individuality didn’t matter.  Likewise, in the later novel, Anna’s fatal passion was no more signicant in the end that the forgettable dalliances of Stiva Oblonsky. The historian of Russian philosophy Andrej Walicki has called Tolstoy’s outlook ‘metaphysical impersonalism’. An attitude which could only very distantly be called religious, it was a belief resting on the idea that the mathematical a priori ultimately disclosed the truth of humanity, indiscernible to ordinary men.

It was an archaic point of view in a century devoted to progress. The huge expansion of the natural sciences, and engineering, filled the nineteenth century with optimism and rationally justified ambition. But Tolstoy thought the idea of progress was either Hegelian twaddle or a new form of idol-worship. And so in Anna Karenina the steaming locomotive sounded a warning. For Eikhenbaum the novel’s epigraph: Revenge is Mine and I will Repay, did not only sit at the start of the narrative, it was emblazoned on the head of the train. It was incidentally borrowed from the profoundly anti-Hegelian Schopenhauer, before Tolstoy recast it in Old Church Slavonic.

The anti-progress message of Anna Karenina echoed the denunciation of individual historical agency as a mere illusion of truth in War and Peace. The true direction of history was not be understood as the creation of prominent and powerful individuals, but as an infinite whole unfolding through the infinitesimal actions of humble humanity. Now huddled together, now shocked into sudden displacement, men and women were like ants who, whenever a new invention came along, found their hill disturbed. None of this had to do with the progress of reason.

In one respect Tolstoy’s opposition to the coming of the Iron Way resembled Wordsworth’s in England. The peace of his Yasnaya Polyana estate no more deserved to be disturbed by an infernally dirty, spitting machine in hourly transit than did Windermere. But peculiar to Tolstoy was to add into the mixture his own sexual fear of railways. In a diary entry  he noted, almost with a note of self-reproach: ‘the abomination of the stock exchange, the railways etc seems to us like debauchery because it’s new and difficult.’

The fear was of losing control of himself. On 9 April 1857 he told the novelist Turgenev that the friction-filled hours of a journey from Dijon to Paris had left him so excited he felt he had made an excursion to Sodom. ‘The railway is to travel as the bordello is to love. It’s just as pleasurable, but also just as mechanical in a non-human and deadeningly monotonous way.’ Now he longed for Vengeance to strike down Anna and her lover. Faced with cosmic powers over which he presumed he had no control, and which included sexual excitation, Tolstoy oscillated between fear and reverence. The sweep of history, the power of accident and the tremblings of the flesh that turned a man into a sexual beast left a great writer in distress and awe. He revered those forces. Art itself was among them. But any force that over-stimulated the all-too-human physis made him angry. Like many a moralist, Tolstoy resented passion. The power of Beethoven’s music over him, the vigour with which he subsequently coupled with his wife, tormented him into writing ‘The Kreuzer Sonata’. By chance a stranger on a train had told a friend of Tolstoy’s of an adulterous affair that ended in suicide and this tale was duly passed on to the writer as yet another tale of immorality connected to the trains. As the railways became a part of everyday Russian life Tolstoy interwove antipathy towards his own sexuality with a portrait of the modern age in which self-control was becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

Many conservative nineteenth-century writers and commentators were afraid of the moral effect of the railways. They were terrified that mass mobility would change human mores by bringing new opportunity. But Tolstoy had this exact and extraordinary physiological fear too. The only other nineteenth-century writer to express anxiety, rage even, at being involuntarily stimulated by the vibration of infernal wheels was Sigmund Freud. It’s not the most prominent theme in Freud’s vast oeuvre, but it is there and he did take an interest in our sexuality in relation to our being in motion. For the cultural historian Peter Gay, the underlying point was that Freud was aware of the degree to which objective laws repressing human behaviour were losing their authority. ‘Freud’s ‘consequential erotic perception on a train, that supreme metaphor for a nineteenth century in motion…’ supplemented ’disheartening evidence for the limits on human objectivity.’ (The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud  v 1, Education of the Senses, Oxford 1984). The bourgeois world was falling apart because the uncontrollability of private experience was becoming more and more apparent.

Tolstoy like Freud was a master observer of the erotics of late nineteenth century bourgeois society. Protesting against trains, protesting against adultery, like a typical neurotic he left behind a clue to his inner torment in the name of Vronsky.  

Though he loved trains they led him into temptation. He travelled far and wide both inside and beyond Russia. He wrote more about stations and carriages and travelling in different classes of coach than any other Russian novelist of his day. The railway gave him a mass of new detail for his epic realism. But, mindful of the Vronsky within himself, he had to disdain the prospect of greater sexual opportunity.

Of course I can’t be sure about the source of Vronsky in Wroński. But I wanted to follow up on a clue laid in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. In a way Benjamin preceded Peter Gay by half a century when he compiled this vast, and indeed rather Tolstoyan, conspectus of the life of senses in the bourgeois nineteenth century. Benjamin’s Paris-based topics included fashion, the theory of progress, prostitution and gambling, the railways and the stock exchange, all of which engaged Tolstoy. Benjamin juxtaposed a long passage from Wronski’s ‘Sur la barbarie du chemin de fer’, in his Project, with short references to a work that echoed Wroński, namely Victor Considérant’s Déraison et dangers de l’engouement pour les chemins de fer (1838).  Tolstoy in his notebooks at least quoted Considérant several times: another route to Wroński perhaps.

But let me conclude with a reminder of how Tolstoy’s ideological interests could threaten his art. To write an essay on the debauchery of the railways, had he decided so to proceed, would have driven the narrative of Anna Karenina into a siding. Like War and Peace, Anna Karenina would have ended with a tract. In it Tolstoy might have left his archaic Russian mark on a controversy that for most of his lifetime divided the Fourierists and the Saint-Simonians in France. Most of us will rejoice that the artistic instinct prevailed, leaving only the name Vronsky to suggest so much more.

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The Crown The Making of A National Epic

Towards the end of the first episode of Peter Morgan’s masterpiece The Crown, a dying George VI  is given a present by the local people. In the drawing room at Sandringham, the Norfolk country estate where the British Royal family traditionally spends Christmas, he unpacks a cardboard crown. Placing it on his head, he stands with tears in his eyes among the impromptu choir who sing a verse from a famous carol: ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ The loved sovereign is dying, unbeknown to his audience and family. The sweet-voiced villagers are his devoted subjects. Yet what is the crown made of? Brown paper. Thirty episodes later his daughter Princess Margaret will confirm to her sister Queen Elizabeth what they both well know: ‘Our job is to paper over the cracks.’

There’s something all the more gripping about an epic which aired its first three seasons in the three years of Brexit agony, and which we continue to watch as new royal crises come and ago. Meghan and Harry’s retreat from royal studies and surroundings, William and Kate’s troubles with the pair, and Prince Andrew’s scandalous friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein hovered in the background of the third season of a series that has so far spanned the end of the war to the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977. As I write, season four, centred on Princess Diana, our late twentieth-century queen of hearts, is about to air. Since the Queen’s accession in 1952, according to Morgan’s portrait of the first fifty years, Britain has already changed so radically that the monarch can now only see decline, compared with the Churchillian greatness in which her reign began. The actor Olivia Coleman, interpreting the sovereign’s mood in middle age, is stony-faced in her determination and self-effacement. She has learnt since taking the throne: ‘The hardest thing to do is to do nothing.’ She must let the government govern. But can it? Her seven prime ministers have all let her down. Anthony Eden lied over the Suez crisis, Harold Macmillan was distressingly weak; a gauche and oily Edward Heath poor company. Meanwhile the economy struggled and strikes burgeoned.

Churchill was an exception. He fibbed to her too, but she loved him.

‘You were my guardian angel/the roof over my head/the spine in my back/ the iron in my heart./You were the compass/that steered and directed me/Not just me all of us/Where would Great Britain be/without its greatest Briton?’

Elizabeth’s address to a dying Churchill, as penned by Morgan, seems to echo one of the great English love poems, W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’:

he was my north, my south, my east and west,

my working week and Sunday rest,

my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song…

pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood,

for nothing now can ever come to any good.

As the statesman sleeps Elizabeth kisses his brow. A once grand imperial power is also slipping away. His death is one of the highpoints of the series, and indeed, of the life of the nation. 

The Crown is a tragedy about the plight of a monarchy and a people in the wake of a war it won, but at too great a cost. Tragic in a strict Aristotelian sense, it obeys the unities of time, manner and place as it explores the personal and public lives of  those born into a high-walled institution of mythological power and cruelty. In Malta or in Africa, in the Antarctic or the backstreets of London, Elizabeth and Margaret and their husbands and children carry the burden of royalty like a divine sentence. The hamartia of entitlement, bearing the name The House of Windsor, refuses them free will, while their people, losing their deference, careen between idealizing their royal family and cawing at their frailties. The press pack descend like Furies.

The Crown is lyrical and epic by turns. Hans Zimmer’s opening music and the innovative soundtrack he directs throughout is replete with Wagnerian leitmotifs. The horns that for Wagner sounded the mythic pull of the Rhine Maidens here rise from the depths to signal repeated moments when human psychological need hurtles against the realities of power. Not half way through Wagner’s Ring Cycle a redundant and half-blinded Wotan leads his family over the bridge to Valhalla. That majestic parade into extinction is never far away from what Elizabeth is instructed most to fear.

It must depend on your political sympathies how you assess the powerful pressmen so far singled out: from the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, still willing at least to warn the palace of impending scandal on the front page, to John Armstrong, a republican-minded columnist at the left-wing newspaper The Guardian, who scents blood. The age of Diana will bring new torments and a new kind of counter-temptation: the historic Diana was adept at manipulating the media who hounded her. Here the truth presented to us is that the monarchy already from the mid 1960s was defenceless in the face of a new kind of political will able to express itself through innovative technology. With photo lenses prying and television intruding into hitherto private spaces, the British Royal Family risked in the prime of Elizabeth’s reign losing its mythical aura and succumbing to ill-will and ridicule.

The first televised Queen’s Christmas Message in 1957 was one of a number of reforms prompted by a well-meaning rogue peer of the realm. In Morgan’s version the Queen herself had taken Lord Altrincham’s advice directly. But what can she do, having been taught that to feel nothing is the essence of her calling? It takes a Labour Prime Minister in 1964, Harold Wilson, to put her in touch with her repressed emotions. Wilson, brilliantly portrayed in season three by Jason Watkins as kindly and shrewd, at one of their formal weekly audiences breaks the mould and confesses what he too must disguise to make himself sympathetic to the popular vote. ‘Look at my hands. I’m an Oxford don, I’ve never done a day’s manual work in my life.’ A cigar-lover in private, he smokes a pipe in public to seem a man of the people, or so he is shown to us here. Wilson’s reciprocal love of the Queen he serves, in the face of the anti-monarchist hostility of his own party, leave us agonizing over a class system which Britain wrestles with year on year yet can never escape.

At Wilson’s insistence Elizabeth finally visits the Welsh town of Aberfan devastated by a mining disaster. She shed a tear. Or did she? It won her hearts and minds but she tells Philip it was feigned. The Duke of Edinburgh invites the television cameras into Buckingham Palace and to a family barbecue in Balmoral ‘to show we are normal people’, but the results are a public relations disaster. The ‘royals’ just aren’t relatable. But then Wilson suggests they shouldn’t be relatable. The public want their royal family to be ideal. Once again the Windsors are caught in a trap.

In this complex portrait Elizabeth has few sources of true moral and political authority to guide her. In her late twenties she turns on her mother, furious not to have received an education. A fictitious Professor Hogg, suitably shabby, admirably clear-minded and cogent, is quietly engaged as her belated tutor. Later she will admire and ask the advice of US evangelist Billy Graham.  

Still she and her family are at the mercy of  a mephistophelian figure in Tommy Lascelles. Her principal private secretary for twenty-five years, Lascelles is an arid, rule-bound bachelor who destroys the emotions in the young Elizabeth, ruins Margaret’s life by denying her first choice of husband, and has a hand in depriving Prince Charles of his own first love. Prince Philip as played in middle age by a magnificent Tobias Menzies, all self-discipline, clipped speech and frustration,  curses Lascelles as a demon. But Queen Elizbeth the Queen Mother, a silly, convention-ridden woman with whom it is hard to have much sympathy, retains him.

The people of Britain don’t know what they want and the Windsors don’t know who to be, as the country loses its role in the world. Under Wilson the industrial economy that once gave every part of the island its identity and made the nation cohere grinds to a halt. An erotically –driven Margaret, whose imagined love agonies we witness startlingly close up, sings and dances her way to persuading U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to come up with a financial bail-out. A new temporary special relationship is founded on the longing of a younger sister for a meaningful role in public life. She and LBJ make a glitzy duo, sharing a taste for off –colour limericks and Irving Berlin. Elizabeth, ‘a queen, but not a saint’, is jealous, as is she was of Jackie Kennedy’s glamour. The requirement to be solid and dependable undermines her as a woman. As Morgan shows it to us, however, it is a fine marriage, with Philip loyal to his task of loving her and protecting her. One might only wonder then why Elizabeth in 1977 tells us the person closest to her is her sister, as Margaret’s marriage to a sadistic, narcissistic Anthony Armstrong-Jones fails.

What makes The Crown a national epic, and not just a loosely strung together series of episodes in the life of the British royal family, are events and revolutionary shifts in manners engrained in the national psyche, now revisited from a conflicted palace viewpoint. In the first season the abdication of Edward VIII left deep scars on a conservative palace. The infernal Lascelles compares it to the tragedy of The Battle of the Somme in the First World War, which inflicted horrific losses. But a modern-minded British people sympathize with Edward and his beloved American divorcee Wallace Simpson. Morgan pays tribute to the exiled Windsors by playing the consummation theme from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde over their lovemaking. Through Margaret meanwhile we look beyond the palace to a society which is painfully liberating itself from unsatisfying marriages and life-stifling proprieties. Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969, a heartfelt and beautifully directed episode written with award-winning playwright James Graham, presents Charles as the kindly but crushed son of a cold mother, whose sense of neglect gives him a  special sympathy for Wales as an equally under-respected creature with a beating heart in a United but desperately unequal Kingdom. In its role transforming the perception of the royal family, in line with a changed society, the press becomes increasingly insistent. The fourth estate is the revolutionary force, not the political Left, and it is borderline violent. One inevitably thinks ahead to what will befall the Princess of Wales.

And then there is Brexit, written on British hearts as the third season of The Crown aired, and still an open wound as we prepare to watch the fourth. In an extraordinary third-season episode Cecil King, the greasy-haired, pinstripe-suited managing director of the popular tabloid The Daily Mirror is so incensed at British decline under Wilson’s Labour government that while the queen is out of the country he proposes a coup d’etat, led by her distant cousin Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Charles Dance at the former last Viceroy of India entrances a room of middle-aged establishment figures who have seen action against Nazi Germany and Japan. He recites Rudyard Kipling’s‘The Road to Mandalay’ to waves of delirious pride in lost glory. ‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’ Of that magnificence it may seem that only the jewels and the costumes and the pageantry remain, and the risk is that television as a medium will turn them into only so much entertainment tinged with  nostalgia for feudal England. But we know too that Brexit inspired violent nationalist feeling and divided the country, as if it were fighting an ongoing civil war over the value of its imperial past. And here we have that self-destructive violence, that vicious conspiring to settle on this or that haughty or defeated, deluded or reborn, conservative-imperial or international -liberal, post-war image, that has marked Elizabeth’s entire reign.

Morgan, whom the Queen made a Companion of the British Empire in 2016, for his services to film, has created a national drama studded with twentieth-century battles of the soul, poetry and prejudice, beauty and character, love and loss. The spirit of Shakespeare hovers. From a German-Polish family named Morgenthau who fled to Britain in 1933, Morgan grew up watching how his mother’s passion for the British royal family gave meaning to her life. As we Brits struggle with who we are, this is his gift to us.

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