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.

Posted in Brexit, Britain Today, British politics, Current Affairs, english literature, Theatre, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Agonies of George Steiner

George Steiner, literary critic and polymath, has died aged 90. The problem Steiner he faced professionally in Britain and America, and particularly in English academia, was that his enormous breath of knowledge seemed somehow bogus. He achieved grudging recognition on the strength of his many books, but only held a fellowship, never a teaching post in Cambridge.

One way to understand Steiner is as a last remaining practitioner of the Frankfurt School. He shared an intellectual and cultural world with Adorno and Benjamin, with Habermas and with Thomas Mann, and like them he faced the problems which representatives of Kultur felt intensely in the German 1920s and 1930s: how could the gulf between the intellectual and the masses be bridged? How could apparently self-absorbed intellectuals absolve themselves when accused of neglecting social questions? How could they defend their canonical aesthetic standards from democratic attack?

Steiner sided with the high-minded. He declared himself to be a postman to the great writers and thinkers of the past. A century ago a German thinker of his persuasion would have used the word epigone. But it was not the shadow of great men but of Germany between the wars that lay over all he did. All his tortured literary and cultural appraisals somehow seem to reflect the crisis that industrialization, the technological transformation of daily life, and Germany’s awkward, violent transition to democracy bequeathed to a generation of intellectuals who then failed to deal with the upheaval adequately. It was a crisis in which, as the sociologist Max Weber saw it, capitalism reshaped the intellectual profession in Germany in a moment of moral shock. German learning had so long contented itself with creating a kind of secret Greekness at the heart of modern life. Weber’s famous 1917 lecture Wissenschaft als Beruf, familiarly known in English as ‘Learning as a Vocation’  but meaning something much more like ‘The Academic Profession’ pointed to the difficulty of choosing to be a university professor in an age, under capitalist pressure and emanating from the money-making model of American universities, of unavoidable specialization. This was the shock that American capitalism inflicted on Kultur at the turn of the twentieth century.

For as long as they were neo-Greeks, epigones indeed, but still in search of Truth, German Geisteswissenschaftler, men and a few women deeply versed in the humanities, didn’t think of themselves as isolated socially and politically.  Truth was a common, albeit esoteric concern, which required them to be its priests. Yet specialization of a peculiar lofty and abstract kind – always the caricature thrown at German learning — became, in embryo already in Weber’s generation, the major reason why German academics were blamed en masse for their neglect of the German polis under the Nazis. To be looking elsewhere, to regard politics as a second-order domain, was the hubris of the German intellectual class into which Steiner was born.

The Frankfurt School’s Adorno and Horkheimer spent the rest of their careers in exile imagining what high-minded form critical protest could take, without entirely giving in to democractic mass culture. Steiner gave in to it not at all. If capitalism forced the serious German seeker after knowledge to accept the new limitations of his profession, if the Nazi catastrophe required him morally to attend to all that had made it possible, Steiner still had, almost as a secret, the Goethean range and depth of the education, the Bildung, that made an earlier era glorious. One correlative for that range he found in the very notion of ‘comparative literature,’ essentially based on Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur. In an article he published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1964,  he explained that that vision in turn was a response to the breadth and vitality of the European Enlightenment. ‘It affirms that languages live in persistent interaction…that it is absurd to regard any single national [literary] tradition as isolated or superior.’

Let me deviate here just for a moment and catch my breath. I was thirteen when Steiner wrote in praise of comparative literature. Five years later I had chosen it as my undergraduate degree, even though such a course didn’t officially exist. (In fact Steiner noted only two universities in the whole of the UK offered such a course at the time.) Steiner praised Edwin and Willa Muir for translating Kafka amongst others into English. I do believe that it was returning to Edwin Muir’s autobiography (1954) around the age of 30 put me back on the literary track after a short deviation into journalism.

But Steiner.

He could, quietly, by such means as Weltliteratur, and the deep interest he showed in translation, in After Babel (1975), sustain a little enchantment in a world from which the gods, or the one God, depending on whether you were Greek or Judaeo- Christian, had flown. That the gods had flown I was in no doubt as a doctoral student fifty years ago, thanks to Weber and the next German generation, and to Steiner himself. I wrote to him about the deus absconditus and the poetry of Paul Celan, that impossible answer in poetry to the German twentieth-century hubris. The answer was abrupt and not kind. People said Steiner was not an easy man. His relative lack of recognition encouraged his sense of superiority and the need to show it. Still I admired him so for dwelling on that question central to the metaphysics of morals, so very late, in our shared early 1970s. And for the rest of my writing life I’ve shared his frustration with a certain English narrowness and lack of interest in learning foreign languages. ‘What we need in England today is more openness, less of that grey climate of withdrawal, that retrenchment of feeling and imagination for which we have become internationally notorious.’ From the 1964 article again. Was he protecting himself from acusations of showing off his different skills, and breath, his Kultur, by writing ‘we’ here? Surely. He can’t have felt solidarity.

In Errata An Examined Life (1997) Steiner, born in 1929, suggested that he had continued all his life to wrestle with the German academic quietism that manifested itself in the crucial inter-war years. It seems to me he worried he would have behaved similarly, had Hitler happened in his own time, which is extraordinary.

I’ve been looking, for the sake of my own sustained interest in Kultur, most recently in depth on the intellectual life of those years. I too, sharing with Steiner my deepest interests, have to wrestle with the tenability of Thomas Mann’s famous pronouncement in favour of the good Germany that went astray.

Let me quote chapter and verse from Errata (the title itself perhaps an echo of Mann’s reluctance to give up the old Kultur:

On p118 he offers the following self-analysis in Max Weber’s shadow;  ‘ These truths and arguments are irrefutable. They breathe the air of democracy. They are, at the same time, impertinent… to my credo and the options it imposes. Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Pure thought…the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit…but cancers are non-negotiable…I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologise for the social cost of…grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals…[but] it happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza…) are the excuse for life.’ Even that ‘blinding’ strikes me as a distant echo of the fate of the self-immolating intellectual of the German 1930s in Canetti’s novel Die Blendung (‘Auto-da-fe’ in English.) Moreover somewhere in this moment of self-definition Steiner seems to become his own fictional character, to be elaborated upon in an unwritten novel in the Canettian vein.  And so the concatinations, which are also tradition in a tortured, oblique form, go on.

Errata p156 finds Steiner ‘educated in a hypertrophied reverence for the classics…so characteristic of emancipated central european Judaism…It took too long…before I realised that the interactions between high and popular culture…had largely replaced the monumental pantheon.’ Exactly. It was German-Jewish intellectuals who upheld, and were most hurt, by the Kultur which Hitler in Germany and capitalism the world over together destroyed.  One of the good things they were able to achieve, in exile was to re-found Weltliteratur in the form of Comparative Literature. ‘Those who gave comparative studies their direction in the United States were men of a multilingual background who found refugre and acceptance in that open-hearted country.’ (TLS, March 12, 1964) Again the comparison was to the detriment of post-war England, on its long slide into insularity, populism and mediocrity, however much a handful of writers, critics, translators and publishers tried to slow the pace.

Steiner’s varied career pursued many of the problems that worried German philosophy in the year of his birth. He followed the question of interpersonal understanding from its unsatisfatory treatment in Kant and the neo-Kantians into its restatement in terms of language by Wittgenstein. Thrown into an Anglo-American commercialized version of the intellectual life, as Weber’s whole generation was, Steiner tried to assimilate its ways and tastes, while finding the style of the culture intensely alien. He was bound to become caught up in the inadequacies of translation. He was himself a token of that good German culture that Mann and Adorno and Horkheimer strugged to hold on to, or express in another form.

Steiner squirmed to find his probings of Celan and Canetti surrounded by advertisements for mackintoshes and soup when he wrote for The New Yorker. Not so much that he was precious but that so much more was at stake, namely ‘the certitude that in the face of a Homer, of a Goethe, of a Beethoven or a Rembrandt, the second-rate is precisely that…’ According to Errata p.157 it was also what his father believed, in tandem with ‘scepticism in regard to direct political action.’

Now this is what in his autobiography Steiner wanted to tell us, though it caused him agony to admit and risked only adding to the unpopularity of his high-mindedness and his foreignness. One can’t help being second, third, tenth-rate, but one can struggle against it. If there are generations out there who have never registered high culture’s early twentieth century objection to democracy’s downsides, and the commodification of everything, then this would now be a reason for reading Steiner, for he is a unique demonstration, within his own agonizings, of what has gone lost.


Posted in autobiography, Frankfurt School, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Things German, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger Scruton – A Personal Memoir

Roger Scruton – A Personal Memoir

Roger Scruton, the foremost English conservative of his generation, was a brilliant man who would have wished to be a genius. This tension, and ambition, which he felt fiercely, kept him writing and publishing to the end of a self-consciously grand life. His interests and skills were encyclopedically broad. When I first met him thirty-five years ago he was learning Arabic and teaching his neighbour’s children basic German. He played chess. In the kitchen he made his own harissa, and weekly batches of brown bread. If you discussed fiction with him – he published four or five novels and a volume of short stories —  you would uncover his lurking desire to follow in the footsteps of Joyce. I never saw him read a newspaper – and indeed on a couple of occasions heard him seem to suggest they were beneath the level expected of intellectual friends. But he was deeply engaged, around the time I first knew him, in saving the Lebanese Christians from the civil war in that country; and then of course he was active in helping the unfree peoples of Communist Eastern Europe, the Czechs above all, hold on to their culture and their capacity to resist. He learnt Czech to share that people’s fate. So where did he get his news, since he regarded television as a vice? Probably from the wireless, between classical music broadcasts on Radio 3. And then wherever. Reading news was, for him, I suspect, necessary but a mite undignified. It was rather the attitude he took to keeping fit, when once I found he had been out running.

Seriously ‘We all worried about that Communist other Europe,’ he said. Indeed. I was travelling for my book In the Communist Mirror when I met him to talk about that. For he was not only a writer and philosopher but an editor, later with his wife Sophie of the imprint they called the Claridge Press. He began, as I first knew him, with the journal The Salisbury Review. Like many of his enterprises, he expressed from my point of view such an extreme degree of anti-liberal feeling that it was just too much to swallow. He never propounded as much of a positive conservative political programme as he might have hoped. But The Salisbury Review rightly and uniquely championed the honesty of dismissed headmaster Ray Honeyford, a cause celebre of the 1980s when he accused multiculturalism of damaging British education. The Salisbury Review also gave a home to my report early in 1986 on how the impoverished Romanian capital Bucharest was existing under curfew and with breadlines starting at 2am, because of the policies of Communist Party leader Nicolai Ceausescu. Hailed as a maverick of the East Bloc, given an honorary knighthood in 1978 by Queen Elizabeth II (since revoked), Ceausescu was still too much a darling of the mainstream press for any Fleet St editor to want to publish what I as a first-hand witness had to say.

A grammar-school boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge, Roger in those days had a chip on his shoulder. I felt that I didn’t, which is why I noticed, although I had also  also benefited from that now outmoded, but otherwise over-maligned Eleven Plus exam which was a passport to a thorough academic state education. We were both examples of the dilemma Richard Hoggart mapped out in The Uses of Literacy, where learning cut us off from our origins. Still it surprised me to hear him speak of himself as of ‘the wrong social class’. For what, for heaven’s sake? But then he married Sophie Jeffreys, who gave him the love and reassurance he craved, and with her own pedigree made social recalibration possible.  I used to think of them fondly, in the fifteen years 1996-2011 when I had regular glimpses of their unaffected, generous and busy family life, as ‘my landowning friends’.

Though some eminent folk who should know better walked in the opposite direction whenever I mentioned his name, in the 1990s and 2000s, I don’t think Roger was snobbish or elitist in the way those words have become standard terms of abuse. Or rather, that was the point. When he wrote about truth, and art, and music, the point of his life as a writer and philosopher, on almost every occasion he polemicized against the Left. He despised the New Labour mania for dumbing down, as well he should. He admired ‘well-stocked minds’. On the other hand in Roger’s company it was difficult to make the grade, and easy all the more in minor matters to be made to feel foolish. My decision on how to deal with a fish recently eviscerated by a heron was a wrong one, as was my theory why the Times Literary Supplement had changed editors. We somehow agreed to differ in areas where I might plausibly be thought to have some real knowledge. I knew Russian and German and their literatures well, I had published books on food, and he somehow he formed the view that I was oenologically sound.

In truth, even if he was strangely defensive, he did do everything better than most of us. With his newspaper columns on just about everything, from wine to Czech philosophy to his cherished rural life, he simply excelled, in theory and in practice. My moment of respite was that we had horses in common. A quirk of my neither affluent nor university-educated background were the leftover aspirations of my middle-class mother, whose family had – nightmare of my childhood – mysteriously ‘lost’ its money. The riding habit came from there, and when my kind father on his modest salary struggled to pay for those costly lessons, I chipped in with funds from babysitting and working in a sweetshop. My faint advantage was that Roger was well into adulthood when he first got the equestrian bug. The habit for students and lecturers at Birkbeck College London was to retreat for a reading week to Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, and there was the chance to ride. It wasn’t the classiest start to a lifetime of foxhunting, but oh it became so grand, and so enviable, the way he had a string of lovely hunters stabled at the end of the drive. Some of the happiest moments of my middle life were spent galloping across Roger and Sophie’s land, courtesy of Sam or Barney’s bold stride and willingness to enter into human partnership. I don’t think any genuine rider can ever cease to be fascinated by that – even with evolution — barely explicable phenomenon, and give thanks for being part of it. Facts like that nourished Roger’s conservative existence, while they were the poetry of mine. We regarded them with something like religious awe. The philosophy we admired in common, German Idealism, Kantian aesthetics and almost anything that was not utilitarian, led him eventually to become a professor of theology.

He was my distant, generous landowning friend who I could see adopting many proteges, helping with their riding, their education and their study of philosophy. As a philosopher, after a period in the wilderness, in those 1980s and 90s when his anti-liberal attitudes were vilified, he held successive formal academic positions which eventually saw him enshrined in Oxford. But he never really belonged to Oxford or Cambridge, where he originally studied, and the benefits he bestowed on others came about more through personal contact than within the walls of the university. Others can say a great deal more about this than I can, so I’ll confine myself to what over the years I noticed, as a novelist.

I noticed the kind of aspects of his character that probably best belong in something calling itself fiction but actually based on moments in the author’s life that seem emphatically true. I remember the carefully arranged, leather-bound books on a side-table when we first met. I shouldn’t mistake him for anything but a savant. Of course I wouldn’t have dared. Later I remember hearing the story of how his lower-middle-class father, in frustration and envy at his son’s accomplishments, slammed the piano lid down on his teenaged fingers. Roger was defensive. ‘Now I don’t know what makes you think that’s so important.’ We quarrelled over Sigmund Freud too. But for me the piano lid incident explained that intense competitive drive on the part of this near-genius. It explained a desire to compete which I found comically irrelevant when he was in my humbler company. Moreover, he had told me the story himself.

To the extent that, because of his anti-liberal views, and his parvenu success, which his subtly trembling and deliberately slowed voice sought to convert into unique vocal gravitas, he went through two decades of being an outsider with regard to both the educational and the social establishment, he undoubtedly suffered. I think it was Sophie, above all, who helped him find a way back, or in, as belated recognition of his achievements followed. She soothed him, she made him better with people. Or when he was abrasive one simply spent the next few hours in her protective company. Meanwhile, after his knighthood in 2016, he became almost entirely angelic.

We shared an interest in Nietzsche. Indeed I really got to know him when he liked my Nietzsche in Turin, in 1996. It was the self-made person we both admired in Nietzsche, and the rebel. (The young, astonishingly handsome Roger resembled the existential actor-hero of the 1950s, James Dean, star of the film Rebel without a Cause.)  Live dangerously! said Nietzsche in a characteristic anti-bourgeois moment, and we took that to heart too. ‘You didn’t even lose a stirrup!’ he yelled, as we jumped a few fences across the land. I think he might have preferred that I did. Barney his old horse had become blind and tripped, landing me the heaviest fall of my life. I could have done with knowing this in advance. But Roger liked physical risk-taking. There was the night my husband and I had to follow this potential rally-driver home through the Wiltshire lanes. We risked death trying not to lose him, and he knew it. À bas health and safety!

Just so you don’t forget: he knew Latin and Greek and French well, and Italian too, as I found when, as the car engine started up, the tape deck resumed a reading in Italian of Dante’s Inferno. ‘Surely you recognize it, Lesley?’

We didn’t meet often, but he supported my various enterprises and read my books. I admired the grandeur he aimed for and achieved, and, like many, I’m sorry he’s gone.



Posted in Britain Today, British politics, Cold War, Current Affairs, Nietzsche in Turin, which I published in 1990, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A giant step, but for whom?

I had the feeling this now passing year, 2019, that celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the American landing on the moon were underwhelming.  The BBC showed a  documentary by director Robert Stone which in its first two parts featured President John F Kennedy wanting to beat the Russians in the space race. I base my comments here on what that slow-moving film, rich in archive material, but without critical analysis from the present day, showed. The commentary by Sergei Khrushchev, son of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, took the story to 1962, by which time Alan B. Shepherd had caught up with Yuri Gagarin by surviving the journey into space – the two great journeys from 1961 — and John Glenn had orbited the moon. In September 1963 Kennedy was dead and in 1964 Khrushchev was ousted as Soviet Communist Party General Secretary.  According to Sergei Krushchev the great humanitarian mission accompanying the scientific achievement was now over. As it happens I think Khrushchev junion was right (although perhaps for the wrong reason of trying to glorify his father). Since the mid-sixties our space age bequest has largely been the scientific advances it brought, some sought-after, some accidental. Think GPS, think MRI scans for a start. Meanwhile the humanist vision slipped quietly away.

In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon Johnson, already deeply involved in the space project as Vice-President, held steady on the American side. The Apollo 11 expedition of July 1969, the event the 2019 anniversary has been celebrating, was conceived on his watch. The United Sates sent up a three-man team, two of whom walked on the distant silvery globe that hitherto only poets had gazed upon in awe. ‘This stark lonely world…[with] a beauty all of its own…[it’s very pretty out here,’ astronaut Neil Armstrong relayed to earth. Raising the star-spangled banner, he and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin radioed back that ‘we came in peace for all mankind.’  The sentiment was echoed by President Richard Nixon on the ground: ‘All the people on earth are truly one’ and ‘the world has never been closer to unity’.  Cut to a documentary which director Al Reinart began in 1976 and finally released in 1989, Apollo 11 — for All Mankind, which has to be viewed alongside Stone’s.  Reinart’s narrator told us that ‘man had touched his destiny…and must continue to reach out.’ ‘It is time for man to break free of his provincial planet… and enter reality.’

Fifty years on we’ve lost a grip on that word ‘mankind’ and who would ever talk about humanity’s destiny, except in negative, planet-wrecking terms? In English there seems to be a gender issue with the very word. Even Queen Elizabeth II, who took Armstrong’s historic utterance — ‘one small step for a man, one giant stride for mankind’ — as the theme for her Christmas 2019 message, felt the need to add: ‘or, indeed, womankind.’ The literalness of objections to the ‘man’ in mankind is evidently irritating.  In, say, German — die Menschheit -or Russian — chelovechestvo the problem just isn’t there. The ‘man’ in question is a collective noun, like Mensch or chelovek. But we have the problem in English and we’re stuck with it, because language, not the existence of a silver orb in the sky presiding over our dark nights, dictates our reality.

In fact, however, there is an even greater difficulty with the concept ‘mankind’ and that applies whichever dictionary you use. The very desire for ‘unity’ that it expressed fifty years ago was central to the humanist rhetoric of the 1960s, on both sides of the Cold War. Post-1989 we talk differently. Unity now seems imperialist. Who is doing the unifying, after all, round what central point? Post-1989 we’re post-humanists, and diversity our goal. I’m not totally comfortable with this, but I’m describing what has happened in my lifetime.

Dame Onora O’Neill recently told a philosophy meeting in London that ‘what we really mean by diversity is fairness.’ Well yes and no. Why not use the word fairness then, if that is the ultimate goal of a progressive society? Lexicologically  the term diversity has two opposites. One indeed is unity, which suggests we’ve turned, in the West, volte-face, actually in as little as thirty years. The other antonym of diversity is uniformity. Now there’s the rub. It seems to me that the dropping out of the cultural picture of both unity and uniformity  are entailed when we idealize ‘diversity’ and that we should work harder to separate the two.  To call for diversity as fairness is to insist on equality in difference. That shouldn’t preclude unity, the unity of mankind.  But it does, because our insistence on equality in difference is suspcious of the uniformity once required by a dominant class or culture or ideology.

At heart the unity/diversity issue is the problem we have with the Enlightenment. Mankind as envisaged by Locke or Hume or Kant or Diderot was united in a quest for scientific knowledge and social progress in a cosmopolitan spirit. We worry today that this was a Western project, that it wasn’t socially and racially inclusive, and had very few women as its spokespeople.

A moonman returning home today after taking a university humanities degree on earth might therefore find the plaque that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left behind beside the lunar shores of the Sea of Tranquillity a strange relic, with its reference to ‘all mankind’.

Were the earthlings passing through an era of extreme optimism or extreme arrogance when they embarked on their lunar adventure?

Stream Part 1 of Stone’s Chasing the Moon and you will hear pundits of the day speculating: ‘I was thinking what a wonderful animal we are…’ ‘[We have reached] a new stage in the evolution of the species.’

But what we’ve ended up with is a ‘two cultures’ divide on the merits of the space race. Science has benefited enormously while the humanities have gone awry. There’s a good unexpected moment in Stone’s film where protesters objecting to Alan Shepherd’s 1961 venture arrive at Cape Canaveral (not yet renamed Cape Kennedy), some of them by horse and cart. Black activists calmly state their objection to a venture costing 2% of GDP, and to the very idea of expanding America’s hold on a wider universe when so much inequality remains — of human making — on earth. The idea of heading skywards to make a new start, leaving behind all the horrible consequences of human error, seemed to those visionary protesters morally quite wrong.

They were an almost inaudible voice fifty years ago, but as we see now, they have so changed our self-perception that the very idea of ‘mankind’ is hedged around with apologetic uncertainty.

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Le Carre’s Agent in a New Field

What a genius John Le Carre has for turning out highly readable and perfectly plotted novels! Now into his eighties with Agent Running in The Field he shows no signs of flagging. It’s true there’s something old bufferish about the first chapter. MI6 aka The Office man Nat is back in a Britain where no one has a surname any more. At his badminton club in south London, where he’s top of the league, newcomer Ed challenges this stuffy fellow, vaguely purporting to be a businessman, to a series of matches. I might have let it go there, but then Nat began to explain his ‘recruitment to the secret flag’ and once more I was hooked.

Le Carre’s oeuvre has alongside its formal literary merits, and its author’s love of many languages, and the nuances of idiom and intonation, four great preoccupations for me. One is his love of Germany. Read the early novels for loving evocations of small German towns and their ways, and read your way through classical German literature with George Smiley. Second comes Le Carre’s particularly lethal version of office politics. Every novelist needs to give us pages of routine, doors we regularly pass through, faces we know, and people we thought we knew until they did us down or vanished and he does it so well. Third is a fascination with Russia. The Cold War has been central to Le Carre’s life, as it has to mine. Around 1979 I wrote an article complaining that he didn’t know Russia very well: that it wasn’t just the big bad bogeyman as seen through Western eyes. But then who did know Russia, in those days? The latest novel contains a short passing tribute to a powerful and complex country, although one of whose political ways we should always be wary.

Fourth is a moral urgency. This is the feature of his work that’s sometimes hard to place. In narratives that turn on professional mendacity, manipulation and betrayal, no secret service agent is innocent. The greatest of German moral philosophers, perhaps of moral philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant, said: use no other person as a means. Treat every person as an end in himself, herself. But this decency is impossible in Le Carre’s world. His spies let down their friends and lie to their partners. The last sentence of this latest tale runs, as if the author were making a lifetime confession to one such friend: ‘I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late.’

Step in the right kind of political views to make the right gesture. Those views are left liberal for Le Carre, despite the lingering cultural conservatism you might expect of an Englishman educated post-war to serve and belong to an elite, and who once taught German at Eton. Le Carre is incensed by the indecency and cruelty of Big Pharma, for which see The Constant Gardener.  He took up the deep ambiguities of other countries’ involvement in unhappy and unfair relations between Israel and Palestine in The Little Drummer Girl. The British establishment, though he abhores the hypocrisy and the lies, continues to fascinate him. He is deeply suspicious of the interests of big business, many of them lurking in that establishment. Through the Cold War it was basically on the right side, but now where does it stand? Le Carre feels Brexit, and those mechanisms of government supporting it, looking to strengthen ties with Donald Trump’s America and lessen them with Europe,  to be such a vicious cause, that he makes badminton-playing Ed, an agent frankly running amok in the field, a rare decent man who wants to rescue his country from this latest betrayal. This now is the cause to be fought for, even if it means passing information to unintended recipients. Even if it entails being almost a holy fool. Certainly a fool for love of a certain hope for one’s country. it has to be done, where there are judges who think Germany is still Nazi, and basically worse than Russia. Even if one has no hope of winning. Read the novel. I don’t want to spoil the plot.

I suppose that for all Le Carre’s lifetime, as mine, Britain has been in decline after its glorious but hard-won victory in the Second World War. An old Russia hand who has  been working abroad remarks to Nat: ‘First thing you notice every time you come home: nothing works, everything’s a lash-up. Same feeling we used to have in Moscow, if you remember, back in those days.’

I do remember and I can see it. The queues. The overstretched services. Urban grimness. Wrecked and distorted private lives. Miserable health.  I lived in Russia in 1978-79. I travelled from Leningrad to Novosibirsk, Moscow to Astrakhan before life outside the capital had a chance to change. There are similarities. The Soviet Union was ahead of us by fifty years, as well as fifty years behind.  Something of that cruel and chaotic mass society lay in waiting.

I would only add though that in Agent Running in the Field that this is a wealthy man talking, who, like many, though a dwindling number, of middle-class people, can buy his way out of the worst; and who has also forgotten about the basic freedoms in Britain, which are still intact. It’s a good country to live in, the way Soviet Russia never was.

Agent Running in the Field a complex novel then, the complexity visible the moment you begin to compare it with Le Carre’s work of a lifetime. It also has a remarkably slippery title. Who is doing the running? A senior figure who ‘runs’ agents in the field? Or a man running about wanting to do good but ultimately trapped in a space that only seems unbounded. That the title should be syntactically so loose may or may not be deliberate on the author’s part. Le Carre is also rich enough as a literary author  to invite critical reading between the lines.  


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A European View of Jeremy Corbyn

I don’t normally blog about politics but in the wake of the general election of December 2019 I can’t resist this. It’s the view of the liberal German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Boris Johnson couldn’t have had an easier opponent to beat, says commentator Stefan Cornelius. ‘The British had no choice’, he writes today, Friday 13 December, and it certainly felt like that.

‘Jeremy Corbyn actually guaranteed the Tory victory. He will enter the history of the Labour Party as a nightmare MP and Johnson must be eternally grateful to him. Corbyn’s mixture of authoritarian worker leadership with lots of chauvinism, nationalism and anti-semitism made the flesh creep of every voter from the enlightened middle.’
German readers can check out the original German here.

Stefan Cornelius, pictured on the website

Why is it no British commentator would dare describe in such true and powerful terms the Labour leader, still ungraciously hanging on to his position? I suspect we’re bamboozled into thinking that because he’s on the political left that must entail some moral virtue. There can’t be fundamental nastiness there, can there?

Of course the chauvinism and the nationalism have been part of Prime Minister Johnson’s spiel too. As a country the soon to be disunited United Kingdom is in a grave existential mess. Johnson, a wit and a brain, is a bit of a joker all the same, which means his concepts are flexible.

He has the grudging support of so many who find the populist rhetoric insufferable because he is pragmatic, and it’s one of those British things: we’re superficial but we’re pragmatic. We like role-playing and dressing up and being one of the tribe, but we distrust ideology.

Brexiteers make their feelings felt

Is it endearing?  I don’t think so. Everyone knows how the Conservatives got the old mining towns of the northeast to vote for them. They encouraged the belief that the EU, not the complexities of the post-industrial West, and the end of Empire, were to blame for the damage that global competition has done to the northeast in the last twenty years.

They forgot to mention the regeneration funds that the EU poured into other needy areas, like parts of Wales and Cornwall.

The Tories wisely kept Johnson’s unelected firebrand adviser out of public view in the last weeks before the poll.  I saw him on the Tube recently, beanie pulled down low over his eyes, yearning to be recognized. I’d like to hear Stefan Cornelius’s view of Dominic Cummings.

They also told Jacob Rees-Mogg, the daft Old Etonian fop who opined that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire should have been quicker to think for themselves, and who last September branded as ‘a constitutional coup’ the judgement of the Supreme Court on Johnson’s strategic but wrongful suspension of parliament, to shut up and stay out of sight. He did. He’s a lapdog at heart.

So now we’re stuck with them, yes, Herr Cornelius, for lack of any alternative. Some decent senior figures in the party comes to mind: Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood. May they do good, while we mourn all the talent and commitment to public service that this terrible crisis has driven out of British public life: Dominic Grieve, Chuka Umunna, David Gauke and Anna Soubry among them.

And one last positive thought for the near future: Tory renegade Rory Stewart will stand as a candidate for the London mayorship next year. If he wins Boris will have a real opponent and one who, like Johnson himself in his time as mayor, will seem to be waiting in the wings for a future premiership opportunity.

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Letter to Nietzsche

Edvard Munch: Nietzsche

The letter below was commissioned as part of an initiative this year to mark 175 years since the writer and philosopher, classicist and composer Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in the German province of Saxony. The editors, Elmar Schenkel and Fayçal Hamouda asked ‘friends and enemies, admirers, therapists, sceptics, artists, writers and critics’ from every continent to contribute ‘poetic statements, political judgements, biographical observations, fictions and confessions’ to their volume which appeared, late in 2019, as 101 Briefe an Friedrich Nietzsche. This is the letter as I wrote it in English to a man who changed my life as a writer when I published Nietzsche in Turin in 1996.

The original cover of my 1996 book on Nietzsche. The aim was to get away from the stereotyped image of the moustachioed madman and show him as a more sympathetic figure. The old image crept back into later and foreign editions, alas.

Suffolk, England, May 15, 2019


Dear Friend,

I’ve been walking with you along this wild coast. Glaciers once flattened the lowlands here, as they did the gravelly uplands high above Sils Maria, where you used to walk. I joined you there many years ago and we talked, though you would have preferred to be alone.

You once said that man is an animal whose nature is unfinished. Who knows then what is to come for humanity? Your point exactly. It’s a frightening question for those of us looking back from the twenty-first century, and forwards, but I think you meant it joyfully: as much an invitation as an observation. Also you were being provocative. One of your chosen roles was to provoke a society, and a world, in which the vitality of Christianity had stagnated, and no one had the spiritual vision to respond to Darwin and say yes, we have evolved, but still we have a hand in our destiny. We can live well. Of course you called your last book Ecce Homo. Today, from my vantage point, this title reminds me of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. Your errant Übermensch has wandered far in the century and more since you died. Today he stalks an abused planet. But, in your way you had hope. Post-Christian hope. That’s right. That’s what we need.

Der Mensch ist etwas, was überwunden werden muß. Many of us feel in middle life that we have tried, but no one else can see what we overcame. We’ve come so far along the path that the beginning is out of sight to all others. And yet what we have made ourselves, in an effort of self-overcoming, is what we are. We had hopes, and some of them paid off.

You helped me become what I am. I’m a writer who works with texts in the German language. A traveller. An inventor of my path. But let’s just say for the moment a writer. (I’m thinking how evasive you were yourself in Ecce Homo, as to who you were. You were of everything the greatest exemplar, but then always already moving on.) Everywhere I go today language has been simplified. Vocabularies have shrunk. Grammar has no muscle. People forever speak borrowed lines. The force of style is lost. Irony skipped over. Here I’m not going to ask you for guidance over what to do with the great sadness I feel. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of your descendants, another latecomer, knew best when he told a young poet: still, still, do not feel contempt. We have a great poem in English, written in your lifetime, by Matthew Arnold, that speaks of the flow tide of a great culture receding. Is that part of what we must go through to emerge stronger?

You felt contempt. You felt you had the powerful remnants of an entire complaisant church to clear away, so that humanity might take a new path into the future. Your message was liberation. Look what humanity can become. Look at how we could live on this planet, if we had the energy and the courage. Yes, yes. That’s right. But look at what we did become, in the meantime.

You were also able to laugh, at and with all of us. Your laughter is still good. In an age when people look for leaders and prophets – any age, that is – you were also right to undo your words as you went along. Like Penelope weaving, and unweaving, waiting for Odysseus to come home.

And you loved beauty.

By the way I’ve never understood what you meant by ‘eternal return’ if we’re supposed to be overcoming our weaknesses and looking to the future. Do you mean to suggest some vibrant, dialectical relation between our sense of futility and our willingness to try? That would be cruel.

Perhaps it was just an aspect of your anti-Christianity, that message of eternal non-delivery. Do you know there’s actually a famous academic who tried to work out what you meant mathematically? I agree. Such an approach to you is absurd.

I’m afraid you confirmed me as an outsider. That way I could understand your joys and fears. Still that was years ago, and fate and health and love have been kinder to me than they were to you. Give me time, Lou! You cried, when you had your one chance. I need time to get used to being with another human being again. I always remember your forlorn plea, that you might still take a wife, and how your jealous sister worked against you.

How dangerous you have been, and how inimitable! When we read you we have to remember how all that talk of self-overcoming and renewed strength could serve massive evil, even if in solitary individuals it could quietly strengthen their resolve to be this person, and not that; and to try to achieve their goals, and not lose heart.

Here on the wild North Sea coast, with the savage unfeeling grey waves churning beside me, the wet pebbles gleaming beneath my feet, and the brine-washed wrecks of trees creating fantastic antler-like forms against the blue sky, I like very much a new-old idea of you I read the other day. I mean new because it was freshly voiced; old because I had long ago taken from you an idea of personal ecology. It was the idea that we must save ourselves, and then the planet will be saved, and what was meant was we really must decide, with your help, the kind of animal we want to be.

Walk on, dear friend. Give each of us the encouragement we need.


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Van Gogh in Kent: the inspiration he took forward from his days in England

Van Gogh brings us so much happiness, although much of his life was tormented. He suffered like so many artists from the difficulty of finding a place in society and thus of keeping himself alive. In his early adult years in England however he showed all the qualities that would sustain a foreshortened lifetime. His love of nature,  the alternating comfort and discomfort of religious belief, the dignity and harshness of physical work, and quality of human love etched themselves into his creative soul.

Before he moved to Kent, Vincent aged 23, had worked in London for the art dealers Goupil et fils, where he had a family introduction. The job as a salesman didn’t suit him and he didn’t handle customers well. But he knew English and that landed him a teaching job in Ramsgate, unpaid but with board and lodging. He arrived in that lovely old port on England’s south east coast, from Holland, on 17 April 1876 and wrote to his brother Theo four days later from his new surroundings. [Letter 078, of 21 April 1876] You can see the Blue Plaque today on No 6 Royal Road, from where he drew the view. The tall, classic English Victorian mansion stood on a slight rise in the residential middle-class heart of the town and looked down to the cliff and the sea beyond. Vincent’s parents back in Neunen in Holland hoped this would be the foundation of a successful new career path for their difficult son.

In the Ramsgate sketch you can immediately see how lyrical was his perception of the created world. The curving sweep of the empty road is almost loving, with the vertical street lamps drawing in attention to the centre of the composition. In later work these verticals will often be trees, especially cypress trees, or spires, or towers, or factory chimneys.

But it’s even more in the letters of that spring and early summer of 1876 that Vincent’s sense of artistic form and his early palette are already evident.

Here he is writing to Theo on 31 May 1876:

Have I already written to you about the storm I saw recently? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the beach: a streak of light on the horizon, and above this, tremendously huge dark grey clouds from which one saw the rain coming down in slanting streaks…

This was the palette for a couple of early paintings that will stand out as landmarks in his career: The Potato-Eaters (1885) and Boots with Laces (1886).

Looking inland and back again to the sea, Vincent went on:

On the right, fields of young green wheat, and, in the distance, the town with its towers, mills, slate roofs and houses …I also saw the sea last Sunday night, everything was dark grey, but day was beginning to break on the horizon…In the distance the light of the lighthouse, the guardship etc.

From this paragraph written when he was 22 a whole series of later paintings seems to emerge, from Outskirts of Paris (1886), with its start-up factories and smokestacks to Wheatfield with Crows ( 1890) in the south of France.

That same night I looked out of the window of my room onto the roofs of the houses one sees from there and the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above those roofs, one single star, but a nice big friendly one. And I thought of us all… and the words and feeling came to me: ‘Keep me from being a son that causeth shame…Thou art love, beareth all things.

He might have been looking up at another future canvas, Starry Night (1889).

The young teacher mused:

Many a boy will never forget the view from that window. You should have seen it this week, when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.

The Kent letters were sketches in words. Their themes include roads, and all kinds of sources of light, and the starry night, and things that are broken or faded or as he will say ‘things over which life has passed’. One day he’ll linger over blousy sunflowers in a vase, beyond what common judgement would say was their ‘best’. In Ramsgate he homed in on a broken floor.

Another extraordinary place is the room with the rotten floor, where there are only six basins at which they wash themselves, with only a feeble light falling onto the washstand through a window with broken panes. It’s quite a melancholy sight, to be sure. How I’d like to spend or have spent a winter with them, to know what it’s like.

I want to dwell on his lifelong painterly fondness for broken, decaying things (and which he would pass on to future artists, right up to Anselm Kiefer in our own day.) Van Gogh would emphasize something about the materiality of objects which it seemed no one had noticed before, namely, that they didn’t need to be perfect to have meaning. The murky light of Mr Stokes’s school washrooms was indeed hardly a testament to beauty and happiness, but then nor were the factories where the weavers he would encounter in a few years’ time would work in miserable light. In the future too there would be many sketches and paintings of derelict property.

If he taught his pupils anything, we might hope van Gogh  taught them this praise-filled attentiveness. His father was a Protestant pastor and surely he acquired this devotion in childhood. The Ramsgate letters have a warm and open sympathy for the world as he finds it. Existence is friendly. Despite the evidence of suffering, hinted at through material decrepitude, there is a divine mover at work.

Here he is describing a walk with those pupils:

Now let me tell you about a walk we took yesterday. It was to an inlet in the sea, and the road to it led through the fields of young wheat and along hedgerows of hawthorn etc. When we got there we had on our left a high, steep wall of sand and stone, as high as a two-storey house, on top of which stood old, gnarled hawthorn bushes. Their black or grey lichen-covered stems and branches had all been bent to the same side by the wind, also a few elder bushes. The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells. To the right the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky where the sun was setting. It was ebb tide and the water was very low.

[from a letter of 28 April 1876]

Yet Vincent couldn’t conform to the moral code, or, in the end, accept the literal belief of his father, and that was his agony. The troubles in his nature moved him on from Ramsgate after only two months.

Still what we can see was what a great painter of himself he was, already in words that mingled the faith he had been taught with the feelings he thought were true for him:

Although I have not been trained for the church, perhaps my past life of travelling, living in various countries, associating with a variety of people, rich and poor, religious and not religious, working at a variety of jobs, days of manual labour between days of office work, perhaps also my speaking various languages will compensate in part for my lack of formal training. But what I should prefer to give as my reason for commending myself to you…is…the Love of God and humankind.

[Letter of 17 June, 1876 to Theo]

The text was intended as his CV for his next job, but it was more a fragment of spiritual autobiography than a job application. He talks about how manual labour demands his attention; how a Christian faith sustains him, even as he spends his time wandering here and there. There is a dynamism in the writing which expresses a restlessness of soul, and that dynamism will one day appear in the painting too. Not yet a painter, he keeps on the move and writes letters. The walk from Ramsgate to London, at three miles an hour, via the dockyards at Chatham, with a few hours’ sleep under the hedgerows, is, in its way, at least to us readers, an epiphany.

London, the largest city in Europe, was overwhelming. Vincent’s sense was that cities, with their troublesome industry and new, often uncomfortable and distressing ways of bringing people together, needed meaning bestowed upon them.  It was as if they needed divine blessing and this was something his art, or, for the time being, his eye, translated into words, could provide. He would feel it first with London and then with Paris:

Many a worker in a factory or shop has had a remarkable, pure, pious youth. But city life often takes away “the early dew of morning”, yet the yearning for the “old, old story” remains, the bottom of one’s heart remains the bottom of one’s heart.’ Follows a reference to George Eliot describing in one of her books the life of the factory workers and calling it ‘God’s Kingdom upon Earth.

[letter of 12 May 1876]

The young van Gogh may have been, as his sister Anna said, ‘groggy with piety’, but that would be his art’s great gain, as he captured some of the pains of industrialization.

After Ramsgate he went to teach in Isleworth, on the southwest edge of London today, beside the Thames. But then his parents recalled him to Holland at the end of the year, anxious that his life was not on track. What followed  were difficult years of moving about the Low Countries, sketching and finally painting. His interest in manual labour led him to stay a year with the miners in the then coal-mining district of the Borinage, in Belgium, from 1879-1880. He took up a ‘position’, as he called it, though it was hardly that, as a lay preacher who cared for the sick and hungry and poor.

The palette and the preoccupations of these years, as I have argued in my book A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West, were fully incorporated in the 1886 painting A Pair of Shoes, aka Boots with Laces. This painting can be seen as itself a kind of self-portrait, matching the self-description in the Ramsgate letter of June 1876. In it we find the walking that was his daily practice, the boots he walked in, the suffering of the miners, the Christian interest in light and the transcendence of suffering, and the yellow and black palette of the storm. Even as the dim Dutch palette, the fondness for grey that he several times expressed in the Ramsgate letters, prepares to give way to the bright palette  he discovers the south of France, all his main themes seem to be condensed in the colourways of this 1886 canvas. He will paint more shoes and more roads in the few years he has left, from brighter, drier resting-places in the south of France. But he never forgot the Borinage, he wrote, and we might feel he never forgot grey, damp Ramsgate either.

On his sympathy with the labouring class, we need to remember that Van Gogh was born in 1853 into a world which Marx decried as immiserated by capitalism. The same vista of pain, squalor and exploitation horrified Engels, in his 1844 study of working-class London and Manchester.  The painter too noticed the spread of the industrial landscape and working-class distress, and tried to redeem them with art and faith. Like Marx he felt the nineteenth century was so strained by progress it was likely to go out with a big bang. This is in one of the later letters. Anthony Blunt once said that van Gogh was a founder member of a school of true working-class art.

This may be true. I will name some of the painters of the working class whom he inspires in a moment. Yet it must be said van Gogh lacks all political sense. He is sympathetic to individuals because he is solitary himself and has time to notice and care for them. His little groups of people are not organised by an idea of class solidarity. They occur  in restaurants or cafes or brothels or in small groups collaborating for work or leaving church.

In fact his own life was difficult because his relationship to other human beings was so oblique.

It was something Vincent felt already in the Ramsgate year about himself:

If there should be no human being that you can love enough, love the town in which you dwell…I love Paris and London, though I am a child of the pinewoods and of the beach at Ramsgate.

[Letter to Theo, autumn 1876 ]

Think of the deserted Ramsgate street he sketched. When he paints workers and labourers they are more isolated one from another than bonded. In Paris he’ll notice people strolling in the park. They will be solitary individuals or distant pairs and clusters, fond but remote objects for the painter to reach.

He arrived in Paris at the mid-point of his career.  At first the painting  Outskirts of Paris seems no great distance from the Vincent we first found sketching in Ramsgate. But  Road with Cypress and Star and Starry Night take us into a new realm. He began to translate old themes into spectacular colour and into biomorphic forms that bordered on the delirious.

Before illness descended on him he could see a kind of romance in industrialization which for me points forward to the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. While painting Russian villages at the turn into the twentieth century Malevich found the same poignancy there arising out of the muted conflict between permanence and change, nature and industry, that Van Gogh had done in his experience of the Lowlands, and rural northern France, twenty and forty years earlier. Malevich’s 1928 Haymaking has the hallmarks of a homage to the earlier painter. It’s not quite the same van Gogh who  inspires twentieth-century English social painters like L.S. Lowry and Norman Cornish. But it’s another role for him, with one foot in modernism and another in realism, with a northern palette and a one closer to the Mediterranean, that van Gogh can also inspire, as if directly from Ramsgate,   Lowry’s Returning from Work (1929) and Cornish’s Two Miners on Pit Road (1980s?).

Vincent always loved houses. We can capture yet one more span of his career if we set alongside each other his sketch of Royal Crescent in Ramsgate, from 1876, with his famous oil painting of The Yellow House in Arles of 1888.  Though this last is best-known to us pastel- coloured against a deep blue sky there is an extraordinary unity between the little Ramsgate drawing  and a pen and ink sketch of his Arles home. Not finding human objects for his affections, Vincent directs his love towards towns, and houses, and roads, and the way of things. That’s where the kindliness of his street scenes comes from, and it’s how he comes to shape the townscape with affection, always emphasizing the uniqueness of the houses and their living, ongoing quality. The buildings are as if ready to grow and adapt and lean and sympathize. This is the urban counterpart to the passionate reciprocity of his feelings that he derived from nature.

Illness intensified his feelings for buildings and street scenes and nature beyond realism. By coincidence a van Gogh groggy with colour burst upon the scene of European painting just as other painters opened up new pathways. The Fauves in France and the Cubo-Futurists in Russia and the spectacular German Expressionists can therefore seem like his immediate descendants, and many of them, especially in Germany, derived great inspiration his work.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Dark Blue Turban (Helene with Dark Blue Turban), 1910,

This article was originally given as a talk to the Canterbury Festival on October 22, 2015. It was a lovely occasion, in a great and historic city.

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