- Derrida: A very short defence
- Tony Blair: Idealist, Liberal or just Confused?
- Shakespeare and Wagner or Turning the Bard Inward
- Iris Murdoch on the Easter Rising 1916
- Antonio Tabucchi’s novel of pessmism and measured hope set in Fascist Portugal
- Victor Klemperer, the German-Jewish academic who chronicled everyday life in Hitler’s Germany
- Plato and the Christmas Carol
- Vaclav Havel died four years ago: Leaving was his last play
- Why Pamela Hansford Johnson disliked Iris Murdoch
- Thomas Mann, Freud and Music
- A Year in Philosophy
- From Pasternak’s novel to David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago
- Jocelyn Brooke’s ‘Drawn Sword’ — An English ‘Death in Venice’?
- The Natural History of Destruction
- Siegfried Kracauer’s idea of ‘Mass Ornament’
- A Conservative British Childhood Two Hundred Years Ago John Ruskin and his Parents
- Shostakovich and Football Another Way of Expressing the Soviet Tragedy
- Cold War Shakespeare
- Charlie Hebdo and the Enlightenment
- Did Nietzsche want Success?
- July 2016
- June 2016
- April 2016
- February 2016
- January 2016
- December 2015
- October 2015
- September 2015
- August 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- January 2015
- December 2014
- November 2014
- October 2014
- September 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- December 2013
- September 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- September 2012
- A Shoe Story
- A Shoe Story – my next book
- Anyone's Game – my latest novel
- Art History
- Britain Today
- Cold War
- Current Affairs
- english literature
- German Literature
- In The Communist Mirror – my book 25 years old this year
- Iris Murdoch
- Literature in Translation
- New York Intellectuals
- Nietzsche in Turin
- Philosophy and Philosophers
- The Secret Artist A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud
- Things German
- Who are you?
People fell in love with Tony Blair when he was elected Labour Prime Minister in May 1997. Ten years later they hated him. Parliament had been lied to over the Iraq war. There never were convincing reasons to believe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that could hit the UK in forty minutes.
Blair has tried to ignore his unpopularity. To the present day he persists in commenting on the British political scene. People aren’t interested and the media barely do their duty by a passé VIP. No other major public figure since King Edward VIII in 1936 has been so effectively ostracized, astonishingly in Blair’s case by the people’s will alone.
In Edinburgh in 2006 I was staying in a hotel with Blair’s old public school Fettes visible from the window. No one on the hotel staff had a kind word for a man who might a few years earlier have helped to keep their rooms full. A biography published in 2016 continued to heap up the charges of mendacity, coupled with a feeling, if you were a Labour stalwart, that the heart of the party had been betrayed. The writer Robert Harris, once a friend, was so incensed that in 2008 he published a novel, The Ghost, in which Blair’s fictional double, a corrupt socialite hiding behind an international reputation for goodwill, met a violent end. The evidence that since leaving office the once socialist Blair has also made a great deal of money out of his worldwide political celebrity has finally trashed his reputation as a decent man.
No doubt he feels hurt. No doubt his wealth is some compensation.
I never voted for him because I couldn’t bear his populism. Who respects a prime minister who only ever listens to pop music? Besides, I’m a Europhile ‘wet’ Tory, with a Green conscience, stuck in the very era, the early 1990s, that Blair surpassed. (The ‘wets’ were the gentler Conservatives sacked by Margaret Thatcher.)
So this isn’t a political defence or even a personal one. It’s just a way of opening up the question. Mendacity is a strong charge. But even in those more kindly disposed to Blair, or even impartial, there is a feeling of a strange incompatibility of ideas in his then outlook. Former Tory ‘Wet’, last Commissioner of Hong Kong and presently Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten observed, while reviewing a biography of Henry Kissinger, that the American statesman whose foreign policy views dominated the Cold War wasn’t the pragmatist the world took him for. Often he was guided by ideals. He asked, in passing, was not some similar confusion at stake over Tony Blair? ‘As Tony Blair’s career demonstrated, it is even possible, if confusing, sometimes to be motivated by both sentiments at the same time.’
To that one might say that a whole era was confused, and to glance at Blair’s career is to see it plainly.
It’s problematic to bring in the word ‘liberal’ but it can’t be avoided. It belonged to the age: of Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK, in a world morally uplifted by the demise of Soviet Communism. The London-based magazine of ideas Prospect was one of its chief mouthpieces.
Just to take an example from domestic politics first. In 2008 the then head of the Demos thinktank Richard Reeves stretched the definition of ‘liberal’ to a new degree of elasticity by suggesting liberals should interfere in problem families and promote ‘good character’ but not oppose the government’s support for casinos. (Prospect August 31 2008)
Wasn’t there, isn’t there, some terrible confusion here?
What these two arguments have in common is that they are both utilitarian. In the first case, society needs protection from minority antisocial elements. Treating them as the victims of their social circumstances hasn’t worked. The state is left with no option but to intervene, whatever that entails. In the second, the utilitarian argument is applied to the freedom of business to make what profit it can from what a socialist would see as the weakness or vulnerability of certain sections of the population, but what a right-liberal would simply see as offering choice. Neither of these arguments seems particularly appealing to me, taken singly, but fudged together and called liberal they become a source of real pain. They further show how by the mid-2000s the word liberal had become almost meaningless in British discourse, except as a kind of password among like-minded friends. Those ‘liberals’ didn’t want to be bossy, but they also didn’t want society to fall apart. (A whole book could be written on how ‘rules’ were made, to look tough, but not implemented, not to hassle anyone, in the Blair era.) The same ‘liberals’ had a social conscience, but with socialism so deeply out of fashion they didn’t dare oppose themselves to the market.
The period up to the financial crash of 2008 looks to have been marked by a distinct bifurcation of the word liberal. There were left-liberals whose platform was social equality and right-liberals who talked about freedom and democracy but mainly proclaimed the freedom to spend money. Then there were the fudge-it liberals, call them proponents of The Third Way, who held both views at the same time.
All this might have been merely irritating if the test of whatever liberalism was hadn’t come with the Iraq War. To intervene in a problem country, or not? To be seen to be doing so on moral grounds while taking a casino-style punt on making a financial profit, or not?
One conclusion about Tony Blair might be that he thought he was a liberal, and the definition as managed by his friends and intellectual sympathizers was so elastic he was fully justified in his self-assessment. It meant he could do anything in the name of freedom and democracy, just like his US counterpart George W. Bush.
But there’s something else.
Here is one of my favourite stories in the history of ideas. A century ago there was a British philosopher who spent his entire life trying to work out what made people moral. At the end of his span he discovered the answer was that nothing necessarily did. No rational or emotional argument sufficed. He hesitated whether to incorporate this conclusion in his life’s work, and decided not to. The fragility of morality was not something, even if true, that he wanted to make public.
Did the great Victorian moral philosopher Henry Sidgewick do the right thing?
Bernard Williams, the greatest moral liberal in British philosophy of the twentieth century, was scathing. Henry Sidgwick, he said, had a’Government House’ mentality which was itself mendacious, because it placed ‘moral truth’ in the hands of the few, and held back the actual ‘truth’ from the many. It was a kind of imperialism of the mind, suited to a heirarchical, unequal country. It meant esoteric knowledge for the initiated and exoteric pap for the plebs.
But Williams’ contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre, a lifelong Communist and latter-day Communitarian, found that Sidgewick’s failure to find a fundamental source in human nature for morality was a tragedy.
If Williams was a liberal, and MacIntyre an idealist, whose side would you have been on? There was something definitive about these positions.
And yet in each case there was more to say about them. For Williams’s liberalism rested on a mixture of uncertainty and hope as to how human beings could arrange their affairs in a spirit of mutual tolerance, openness and non-interference, while MacIntyre, who had recently exchanged his Marxism for Roman Catholicism, believed in a guiding idea to shape the communal life. The fact that these positions appear to be irreconcilable opposites, and yet both aspire to a left-wing politics, may help us understand how confusion over what was liberal was put to the test of war in 2003.
The factor present in the Blair era but which went unspoken was MacIntyre-ish idealism. Idealist is just as unserviceable a word as liberal. But let’s say idealists are people who have a certain idea of what they want society to be like. Idea in the sense of an ideal pattern they’ve dreamed up in their heads, usually conforming to a vision of reason or of the good life. Idealists, said Patten, are ‘those whose ideals shape and infuse their actions.’ In these senses idealism contains a strong element of social construction, quite likes rules and is generally opposed to deregulation and laissez-faire. It’s a mentality that can come from the left – old-style socialism was idealist in this sense, or from the old-style paternalist right. But what idealism is not is liberal, neither economically nor socially.
What would you say? That Tony Blair went to war in Iraq because of a moral idea? I think so. Like a liberal government intervening in problem families for the sake of promoting good character, there he was, eventually allowing Saddam’s head to be used as a football, in the name of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately the idea was in its first assumption of justified interventionism shaky. Also the moral content it supposed itself to be carrying was empty. Deregulation and laissez-faire couldn’t give any guidance on how to live. They just made money for the post-war invasion of foreign contractors seeking a profit from rebuilding.
Freedom was another awkward word, and behind it lurked exactly the liberal/idealist dichotomy that in my view characterized the Blair era unbeknown to it. Negative freedom is leaving people to do their own thing. That is liberal. That is a la Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin. Positive freedom is putting ideals out there and encouraging others to aspire to them. That is idealist. That is MacIntyre. And yet it was the liberals in Blair’s sense who were interventionist in foreign policy, and yet in the name of an ideal.
In fact this same tension between letting people get on with their own lives and giving them an idea how to go about it lies at the heart of Britain’s current problems with Europe, and Europe’s own with the so-called anglo-saxon market model. The French ideal for two centuries has been to build society on certain secular, rationally determined principles. That rationalism includes a vision of how humanity ought to be, and unchecked liberalism puts a strain on the vision. The same is true of contemporary Germany. It’s why Chancellor Angela Merkel, nominally on the political right, seems to belong in British terms to the caring left. The EU is the ultimate moral-political idea of her time, and Francois Hollande’s. Brits are encouraged to think about whether to stay in or leave the EU purely in selfish economic terms, but the result of the June 23 2016 referendum will also be about their intellectual and moral future.
So it wasn’t just a confusion of the Blair era. In British domestic politics the liberal/idealist distinction – at least as I’ve set it out here – continues to polarize all of us. Economic liberals love choice. Idealists hate it as the supreme evasion of government and market responsibility. Idealists like the Welfare State. Liberals don’t, to judge by those militant Americans, incomprehensible in Europe, who blocked President Obama’s Health Care bill. Education equally tears us apart. On Grammar Schools, say, what once seemed an instrument of the good life stopped serving its purpose and academies were introduced, but they are suspected of being half a government Idea and half a market opportunity. Idealists on the left in education keep searching for a new political Idea acceptable to them ie. non-selective, and refuse to leave the market to sort things out. But they, the teachers, very often exercise a conservative effect.
New Labour, Blair’s party, rose and fell on the strength of getting rid of its idealism, the old Labour idea of defending the workers against the market.
Blair rose and fell because he was an idealist who thought he was a liberal. I wonder what he calls himself now?
For myself I’ll settle for idealist.
 Niall Furguson Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist reviewed in the Financial Times Sept 18, 2015
What is it links Shakespeare and Wagner?
Almost a hundred years ago Edgar Istel examined how Wagner borrowed from Measure for Measure to create his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)and set out how Wagner read Shakespeare and returned to him throughout his life.  But the real Wagner/Shakespeare story it seems to me is much more interesting than a conventional historical approach can reveal. Essentially it takes us through two ages of philosophy. We need to compare a certain overlap between Descartes and Shakespeare, and another, three hundred years later, between Husserl and Wagner. It will help us see exactly what Wagner was doing with his Shakespeare.
Descartes (1596-1650) would have been six when Hamlet was first performed in London, and he never referred to Shakespeare. The Bard is much more often compared with the sceptical Montaigne (1533-1592) But when the philosopher Bernard Williams called Descartes ‘the soliloquizer of The Meditations’ he was not wrong, for Hamlet was full of cognitive doubt.  In that 1641 text Descartes dared challenge God and the moral order by asking a set of forensic questions. Like the character Hamlet Descartes opened up a new universe of subjectivity which risked being godless.
With Hamlet Shakespeare was interested in how a world including England was poised to change with Luther’s Protestantism. In Wittenberg Martin Luther, professor of theology from 1508, had nailed his decrees of protest against Rome to the church door in 1517. At The Diet of Worms in 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V outlawed him as a heretic. Both of these signifiers became key functions in the 1610 play: Wittenberg played a role right from the first two scenes of Act I and the Diet of Worms was a joke in Act IV scene iii, closely followed by ‘The present death of Hamlet. Do it England…’
Luther and Descartes agreed, more or less, that only the individual can say whether the experience in our heads corresponds to what is actually real and true of whatever world we are part of. Luther’s Christianity eschewed the authority of the Church in favour of personal faith alone: fide sola.
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was shown to be the instrument of the new Wittenberg inwardness. It had turned him into an acute agent of moral conscience/consciousness, with his ‘globe’ ‘distracted’ (I:v). He spoke ‘I’ in a new way. Moreover, because of his emotional character, and what had happened in his life, he was about to show how the new faith, with its insufficient guarantees of certainty, could drive a susceptible man to madness.
Now we can follow Hamlet’s torment from outside, as a study in subjectivity, and as a dramatic reflection of the Cartesian doubt, which the Romantics did.
But as a twentieth-century critic suggested around fifty years ago now, under a different kind of philosophical guidance we can also immerse ourselves in Hamlet’s consciousness, and perhaps have a rather different philosophical-artistic experience. ‘It is no longer a question of pretending that Hamlet is real so that we may become interested in his adventures. Instead we make ourselves present to Hamlet’s world so that it may touch us and flow into us. Feeling has depth…and does not proceed without fervour…There is even love…the expectation of a conversion by the attention we pay to the other…in the aesthetic attitude.’ 
It is the phenomenological approach to Hamlet, I want to suggest, is what helps us see the Shakespeare-Wagner relationship in a new light.
With his phenomenology Husserl took the Cartesian cogito – the I think, I am – in a new direction by asking not what it was to know, but what it was to be conscious. When the mind is awake, even semi-awake, it has thoughts, and fantasies, references to past, future and nowhere and never, which all get drawn into the experience of now. Intentionality is what Husserl calls everything filling our consciousness at one moment; and what he wants to pin down is all the wishing and hoping and fearing and promising and speculating and fantasizing and regretting that engulf us. Husserl’s phenomenology is about what grammar calls the subjunctive mood. Wagner set that to music.
In fact Husserl thought that his work was like that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an extraordinary lyric poet and one of Wagner’s immediate operatic successors, but the parallel with Wagner works much more powerfully. Wagner himself once brilliantly defined his approach: ‘As the drama does not describe human personages but lets them present themselves directly, music in its motifs immediately brings before us the character of world-phenomena in their most intimate seity. The movement, configuration and variation of these motifs are…not simply related to the drama, but the drama presenting the idea can in reality only fully be comprehended through the movements, shapes and changes of these motifs of the music…Hence if we gather together the complex of the cosmos of Shakespeare’s shapes…and compare it with the cosmos of Beethoven’s motifs…one must become aware that the one microcosm is fully the equivalent of the other…’
Wagner admired Shakespeare’s grandeur and range. He paid him the ultimate compliment of calling him ‘The Second Creator’.
But where the composer’s originality began he became Shakespeare’s rival. He made two crucial autobiographical statements which show the path he took. The first was that he actually became a composer to equal Shakespeare. The second, intricately related to the first, was that Shakespeare originated the music-drama.
In truth Wagner wanted to be Shakespeare. He summed up why late in his life: ‘Shakespeare, the great mimetic talent, could not fulfil all the roles he created. The composer, however, may realise all aspects of music and may be at one with the executant musician.’
And so he drew Shakespeare’s world of epic grandeur and Hamletian interiority into his own religion of art, where he transformed it. Consider only the leitmotiv by which he approached his Shakespearean-style heroes and heroines, warriors and lovers, from inside their emotions, and represented those interiorities of longing, loving, hating, promising with a new musico-dramatic device. The leitmotiv has been described as ‘an all-embracing amalgam of sound, feeling and experience, the little phrase is a single unified thing, in ordinary terms “a moment in time”.’ 
One of his biographers has suggested the ‘Total Work of Art’, Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, was simply a formula to use all of Wagner’s talents. But I suggest rather it was a homage to Shakespeare, stoked by Wagner’s desire for his audience to submit to a rival total experience.
Meanwhile the philosophers we have referred to make it clear that Wagner was striving to convey consciousness, not subjectivity, and that was what made him post-Romantic and Early Modernist, if we want to stick even more labels on his achievement.
 Margaret Inwood The Influence of Shakespeare on Richard Wagner (1999).
 Bernard Williams Descartes The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978,1990) 68.
 Mikel Dufrenne The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1953) tr. Edward S. Casey (1973) 405-406.
 Edgar Istel Wagner and Shakespeare (1922)
 Roger Paulin The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914 (2003), 429.
 Malcolm Bowie Proust Among the Stars (1988) 109
 Brian Magee Aspects of Wagner (1968) 84
(The above a shortened version of a talk given to Kingston University Shakespeare Seminar on Jan 8, 2015.)
The Red and the Green was Iris Murdoch’s seventh novel and stood out in her fictional career as a unique attempt to capture an historical event. The topic was The Easter Rising, Dublin 1916, in which independence fighters staged an abortive attempt to defeat the island’s British rulers. Home Rule was anyway in the offing, and six years later a free Ireland was born.
Murdoch was interested in two things: an era of heroism and accounting for her own departure from Ireland and Irishness. Born into an Anglo-Irish family in Dublin in 1919 she, like Frances in the novel, left to make her adult life in England and never returned. But in a coda to the novel’s main action she had Frances more than two decades on weep at the memory of good men; and especially at the memory of rebel leader Pat Dumay, whom she had secretly loved. When she wrote the novel in 1965, as if for the half-centenary of the Easter Rising the following year, Murdoch wished, through Frances, that the feelings surrounding the Dublin men’s self-sacrifice for their country shouldn’t be forgotten. Again through Frances she compared it to the moral debacle of the Spanish Civil War. National feeling was also a mystical element in the novel.
Murdoch in England felt with her characters on both sides of the divide and all around it. The mystique of old times and of the fighting spirit of oppressed small nations was something Frances’s English husband, decent, kind, an Establishment figure, could not appreciate. Frances too chose England, yet loved Pat.
None of her novels before or after reflected quite such a battlefield of loyalties, in one city and two closely linked families. Moreover they were loyalties that went to the heart of her growing body of work as a writer and philosopher. She was interested in moral feelings; in the dialogues people had internally with themselves over the right thing to do; in feelings of love avowed and hidden, known and unconscious. Interwoven through the whole was the role religious faith played in those feelings, or not. ‘Muddle,’ was a repeated word. Perhaps it was the case that you couldn’t have heroism without muddle. That in turn left Murdoch, a philosopher, in some professional difficulty. Another repeated, spurned idea in the novel was ‘logic’. Logic never helped anyone work out what to do.
The descriptions of Dublin were rich and evocative, the dialogue sharp, and the characters among the most convincing she ever created. This was Murdoch at her nineteenth-century realist best, with only a hint, at the end, of the kind of Dostoevskian Gothic that would turn too much of her fiction into arch melodrama.
In fact Pat Dumay did not particularly stand out as lovable among the brilliant interweave of English, Irish and Anglo-Irish characters. But he was noble. What was said in the novel of the historical figure of Roger Casement, whom the British later hanged, applied to Pat. ‘He’s a brave man and a patriot. He does it purely for love of Ireland. To love Ireland so much, to love anything so much, even if he’s wrong-headed, is somehow noble.’ Pat Dumay felt ‘the enormity of the insult laid upon his people.’ More intimately, he was a Lawrentian figure in his physicality, only with an un-Lawrence-like obsession with sexual purity. He loves none of the women in the book. One passing suggestion is he might prefer men. The scene when his fourteen-year-old brother Cathal prepares him a hot bath sticks in the memory as uniquely sensual. Their father long dead, Pat will guard Cathal with his life, in a relationship that is at once surrogate-paternal and erotic.
Cathal, precociously involved and desperate to fight, takes up themes often underplayed in historical accounts of the event. The rebels’ cause was overlaid with a sense that they were overthrowing the ruling class in the name of the international proletariat. One of their leaders, James Connolly, Cathal’s hero, was a follower of Lenin. Murdoch as a young woman had been a Communist sympathiser.
Like any novelist she couldn’t help setting out, early on, many of the themes that would recurr through her work. To moral muddle add sexual muddle and gender confusion, and remnants of mystical and religious feeling her characters don’t know what to do with. It is rightly said that though this novel was set in 1916 it was suffused with the sexual liberation of the early 1960s and with the questioning of traditional gender roles.
The author has a particular debate with herself in The Red and the Green over what kind of woman to be. Frances is bright and determined but remains demure. She embarks on a conventional marriage, with children, which turns out happy if slightly dull. Her opposite is Millie, a flamboyant aristocrat said to have been inspired by the historical figure of Constance Markievicz. Millie wears trousers and instals a shooting gallery in her home. Her animality – Murdoch uses the word – her prettiness and her charm repeatedly ravish men. To use another 1960s word, when such behaviour was still seen as unconventional and unacceptable, Millie was promiscuous in her favours and probably never really in love, except with the heroic, unreachable Pat Dumay. There are moments when Millie seems like a principal boy in an operetta, or a schoolgirl playing a man on stage. She’s pushing the boundaries of gender.
Another 1960s element was a strong whiff of existentialism: of defining oneself through action rather than, as long centuries of philosophy had insisted, through contemplation. Murdoch had written one of her most successful books on Jean-Paul Sartre’s ethos of political commitment.
Looking from outside, Murdoch herself was at least two things. She was an English conservative Romantic, picking up postwar where the interwar Romantic modernists had led in painting and poetry. She loved landscape, light, sea, and was inclined to find there some metaphysical significance. She was also a liberated woman of androgynous appearance and inclination, leading a bisexual life that would force her to resign her Fellowship at St Annes College, Oxford. Her fiction fused mystical love with the discovery of the decade that casual sex could be fun.
In The Red and the Green a terrific, conflicted character called Barney has had to abandon his vocation as a priest because of his feelings for the ‘animal’ Millie. Ever after, even after having married the staid Kathleen and become an alcoholic figure of fun and pity, he hangs around Millie’s Dublin home. In fact this failed priest draws from Murdoch an extended outpouring of religious feeling, as he follows the progress of the Easter story. These feelings in turn segue into a mystical sense of ‘Ireland’. The English in Ireland don’t get it. ‘In Ireland religion was a matter of choosing between one appalling vulgarity and another,’ says Andrew Chase-White, who always hoped to marry Frances. But Barney, even as he denounces the rebels as incapable of running the country, and the Irish church as ‘mushy devotional nonsense’, always comes back to some national essence. ‘Ireland for him was a dark place, slow dignified and mystical.’
In Murdoch’s wonderful evocations, the weather has a great deal to do with Ireland’s distinctiveness. The rain in Ireland, she once said, had the same mystical import as snow in Russia.
History was the feeling of ‘a rhythm of a much larger scheme which has included us within its composition.’ (Chapter 12) Although here she sounded pedestrian, what attracted her, as a writer, was the moment of historical witness. ‘Of course the men had been told, from long ago, that they must be prepared for anything on any occasion when they marched out at arms. But they had marched out in arms so often and returned afterwards to their tea. There was a ferment in Dublin all the same …[which] was dangerous. It was still only Thursday.’ She didn’t quite capture that ferment, but she made the Easter Rising a stunning family affair in a haunting city.
Pereira Maintains, by the late Italian writer Alexander Trocchi, is a minature masterpiece. It is as satisfying in its form as it is morally, and contemporary literature doesn’t offer so many chances to say this. A smash success in Italy after it was published in 1994, it came out in English soon after, in a smooth and elegant translation by Patrick Creagh. Reviewers were highly positive, albeit anxious to pigeonhole the book as ‘an intellectual thriller’.
It’s about how a man makes a moral decision which in this case is also a political decision. The setting is Portugal, where under the (never named) dictator Oliviera Salazar the climate has become increasingly thuggish as the Civil War rages in neighbouring Spain. Pereira, newly appointed editor of the cultural section of his newspaper, is concerned, like most of us, with his immediate needs. He needs to find new contributors, meanwhile his overweight body is suffering in the stifling weather. Somewhat compulsively this widower of some years now finds himself in a bar ordering one sweet lemonade after another, and eating cheese omelettes, while turning over the pages of some periodical lying around.
There he reads an article about death, and you might say that the process of his decision begins to unfold. Trocchi though writes with a light touch, and the moral architecture of the novel only becomes clear at the end.
The contributor of the article on death is a young man, recently graduated. Pereira contacts this Monteiro Rossi and asks him to write obituaries for his paper. None is publishable, because each deals openly and honestly with a recently deceased artistic figure caught up in Europe’s madness. Articles attacking the Mussolini supporter and Futurist poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti as a fascist warmonger, and defending the art and honour of the dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, recently murdered by the Nationalists in Spain, are unpublishable, but the increasingly weary Pereira finds himself so drawn to Rossi that he doesn’t object. He pays him anyway and when he meets Rossi’s attractive, politically outspoken girlfriend, there is a faint sense he is adopting Rossi as his son, and helping the couple make their way in life.
The relationship is put to the test when Rossi asks Pereira to hide a friend of his, a fugitive Spanish republican. And then it is Rossi himself whom Pereira tries to hide, as the ununiformed and brutal political police get wind of his involvement with the anti-fascist activists.
At the beginning of the novel Pereira is reading classical French literature, and translating it for his feuilleton. He chooses stories of resistance and repentence which will cause no one offence though perhaps he might hope for their indirect influence on the present climate. Nevertheless the pressure from above comes soon enough, to pay more attention to Portuguese national poets and join the chauvinistic chorus of the Lisbon dictatorship. If Pereira is to resist then he must see that the classic intellectual resort to literature as only obliquely related to political events is not enough. (Remember that this novel was set around 1936, the year Lorca died.)
Is it this professional crisis, or is it the heat, that inclines Pereira to seek help from two parallel sources? One is his priest and the other is a kind of broad brush psychoanalysis dispensed by a sanitorium doctor who, after Pereira stays for a week, becomes his friend and confidante. It becomes clear in retrospect how these two help Pereira make his decision. The doctor talks about not one self but many selves, and how in a person it can happen that a long dominant version of the self can suddenly or gradually give way to another possible way of being. To the reader this seems to be happening to Pereira, as he confronts his suppressed fear of death. The witty and worldly priest discourages him from any political hesitation. He must know where his duty lies. Pereira himself has witnessed or heard of alarming stories of anti-semitism, revived every time he passes the local kosher butcher, and of murder. All the while he is in conversation with the photograph of his dead wife, a device which seems to combine the inevitability his own mortality with hints of the loneliness that makes him reach out to Rossi; and finally there is the sense of what his wife would have expected of him, as a good man, as he delivers his account of the days to her.
And so the violent climax of the novel unfolds which it would be a pity to reveal, for it is deftly handled and gripping. Out of it emerges a new, courageous and resolute Pereira who, having committed an act of irrevocable political suicide, quickly exits the country for exile in France.
It is possible, as some reviewers have suggested, that, since the narrative is punctuated every few sentences with the refrain ‘Pereira maintains’, Pereira has all along been giving an account of himself to his captors.
But essentially Pereira Maintains is a novel about how a man saves his soul. On my reading there can hardly be any doubt that a positive outcome is meant, and that it is an endorsement of Catholic faith. The standpoint is God’s, and the narrative turns out to be, retrospectively, what a man has to say about himself when he arrives at the gates of St Peter.
A wonderful fiction, like no other I’ve read for a long time. Tabucchi died in 2012.
Victor Klemperer was a German-Jewish academic whose survival of the Hitler years made possible his unique and irreplaceable testimony. Through 1931-1945 he kept detailed diaries of daily life in Dresden. There were sketches of a few friends who became Nazi enthusiasts. Those he wouldn’t meet again. Some turned from Hitlerism to Communism, and Klemperer found them misguided. A few others, like himself and his wife Eva, quietly held out against the ideological pressures of the era. How did they manage it? Eva was Aryan, but even so. Both it seems survived by the skin of their teeth.
By 1934 the professor of Romance studies at the university of Dresden succumbed to raising his right arm in greeting and saying ‘Heil!’ to colleagues. But he swallowed the name of Hitler. He and Eva bravely voted ‘no’ in the August 1934 plebiscite when the Führer asked the German people to accept him as what he had already declared himself to be, Germany’s absolute leader. He would be Chancellor and President, now that the old and infirm outgoing President Hindenburg, for months reduced to a puppet figure, had finally died.
Victor was by the way a cousin of the famous classical music conductor Otto Klemperer, magnificent interpreter of Beethoven, who had already fled Nazi Germany. Victor, with his constant money worries and his deep attachment to his job and his way of life, stayed. His early diaries are full of political and personal worries as he comes more and more under Nazi pressure. From year to year they spell out in rapid succession how Victor loses his job and his right to use libraries. When the Klemperers are confined to a succession of ‘Jew Houses’ their story seems to demonstrate something of what Hannah Arendt meant when, in connection with the Nazi phenomenon, she wrote of ‘the banality of evil’. As the days and years pass we watch how this once affluent bourgeois couple, who for much of the early diaries are building a house and motoring about in a new car, are forced into humiliating racial house arrest under a regime that despises them. It is a story that deserves dramatic treatment in its own right, not least because of its unradical, unheroic beginning in ordinary middle-class affluent life.
The Klemperers’ Nazi persecution ends dramatically the night the Allies bomb Dresden, one of Germany’s most beautiful and historic cities, southeast of Berlin. After this so-called Baedeker Raid (the Nazis had long been targeting historic city centres in England) Dresden burned all night. In the small hours the no longer young Klemperers became separated and thought the other one lost. Still they survived to live out the natural span of their lives.
Dresden, where Klemperer was reinstated at the university postwar, was in eastern Germany, and so after 1945 their new country became the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). That’s why the diaries for so long remained unknown. All through the Communist years Klemperer’s 5,000 typed pages lay untouched in Dresden’s Saxony Regional Library (Sächsische Landesbibliothek). The collapse of Communism in the East Bloc late in 1989 finally gave historians access. A first edition of the 1933-45 diaries appeared in 1995, and a revised and annotated second edition in 1999. The material was so important that translations immediately followed. Klemperer’s companion study of the language of the Hitler years, Lingua Tertii Imperii, came out in English in 1997, and the abridged diaries edited by Martin Chalmers in 2000. The postwar diaries have since also appeared.
My topic here is only the first German volume of the diaries covering January to December 1933-34, and all the translations that follow are mine. I’ve been reading it to feel my way into the daily life of a German university academic with a liberal political disposition and a sharply critical mind, as he witnesses his country’s culture of the last century and a half crumble overnight. In his view, and no one would think he was exaggerating, his countrymen have become beasts. The very first word of the first entry, on Saturday 14 January 1933, leaps from the page. Rektorwahl, it says. A new Rektor (the prominent representative position known in English universities as that of the Vice-Chancellor) is to be elected at Dresden University. It’s a stitch-up, Klemperer reckons, but not yet one that favours a Nazi candidate. For that the German universities will have to wait another two months, for Hitler’s full accession to power. But for anyone who knows the period it’s exactly what that word Rektorwahl unwittingly anticipates. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer, the first Jewish Rektor of a German university ever, was poised to be dismissed from his post in Hamburg and chased out of the country in April 1933. Meanwhile his great philosophical opponent Martin Heidegger would become Rektor in Freiburg am Breisgäu in May, joining the Nazi Party along the way. Heidegger would remain German, but at the price of never returning to the university to teach and being posthumously outlawed by the liberal world. Such were the fates of university professors in Germany. They either chose, and in Heidegger’s case made a colossal error, or they had their position chosen for them, by their ethnicity.
It was in this climate that Klemperer kept a record of the daily press, and the gossip, and his wife’s troubled health, and the declining numbers of his students – on some days just two or three. The diaries are a gripping, if sometimes repetitive compilation of life stories, daily events and whatever this consummate intellectual is trying to find time to write and read. He was a passionate lover of the French eighteenth century. The climate of fear forces him to know who he is. On 9 July 1933 he writes: ‘For my part I can see ever more clearly what a useless creation of High Culture I am, unable to live in more primitive environments. [The names of friends and colleagues] can find their bread here and there and somehow reinvent themselves in the practical sphere. But I by contrast can’t even be a language teacher, I can only lecture in intellectual history, and only in the German language and in a wholly German way. I have to live here and die here.’
I want to know how that German High Culture collapsed, in detail, and how philosophy, and philosophers, were caught in the disaster. ‘Jews should write Hebrew, not German,’ says a poster Klemperer spots on the wall of the Student Building at the University (April 25, 1933). ‘When they write German they lie.’ In fact, as the Nazis would find to their irritation, the German culture they claimed as their own was being maintained through the brilliant expertise of German Jewish scholars in every field. In the forefront of philosophy and the higher journalism were Cassirer, for instance, and the even better known names of the philosopher Edmund Husserl, the philosopher, sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno, and the journalist and essayist Siegfried Krakauer. Walter Benjamin, with his essays on literature, and on the new media, his memoirs and his street pictures, was emerging as a German genius sui generis. Klemperer for his part is left staring at the poster on the wall. ‘I make a note of only the most brutal things, just fragments of madness, in which we are immersed over and over.’ Almost every day as he takes in the latest news he speculates whether Hitler’s power can last, for how long, and whether, as his neighbours think in ’33, the French might come to Germany’s rescue. It is a time of febrile uncertainty, in which, as if in times of greater normality, Eva, a talented concert pianist who has given up her career, is simply chronically ill with her nerves, and the childless couple with their two cats decide on a house-building project in the countryside which might help her pull through.
It’s in these times that Klemperer also turns his observations on his fellow Jews, and not always with sympathy.
15 September, 1933: ‘The position that Gerstle has taken up displeased me. He seems almost to have reconciled himself with the situation, at least he was divinely respectful, declaring Hitler a genius; he didn’t want to underestimate his opponent and considered the present state of affairs evidently by far not the worst of the awful states of affairs possible, etc.’ The same Gerstle offends again on 9 October, along with friend Blumenfeld who declares that ‘one can’t live off wish-dreams’ and ‘must keep one’s feet on the ground of facts.’ The wife of a third acquaintance, ‘ an eternal silly goose’, has been so taken in by the newspapers and the radio that she can only ‘parrot’ statements about the ‘system which had to collapse and has now been overcome.’ ‘Eva’s bitterness is even greater than mine,’ Klemperer notes. ‘National Socialism, she says, more precisely: the way the Jews are behaving towards it, is making her anti-semitic.’ For the Klemperers all Germans have a duty to hate Hitler (22.10.1933) and never for an hour to let that hatred sleep. A year later and Victor is furious this is not what is happening at all: ‘What I hate above all is the specific Jewish pessimism with its amiable self-certainty. [It’s the] ghetto mentality, freshly awoken. We get kicked, that’s how things are. If only we could get on with our business, and [if only] no pogrom comes. Better Hitler than someone worse! Recently an evening with Mrs Schnaps was awful in this way. And the Blumenfelds are in their element with it and think just the same.’ (30 December 1934)
Still, the problem is this monstrously irrational and murderous National Socialism. The Germans, with their great Kultur: how could they turn on the Jews like this? How could they fall prey to a regime of illiterates and a demented leader? One of Klemperer’s persistent themes is the general atmosphere surrounding Nazism, of dumming down coupled with a vicious anti-intellectualism and a campaign against higher education. Can culture, can spirit (Geist) ever fight back, he wonders at one point. As university students are diverted from learning into ideological campaign work and academic timetables are curtailed to make way for more ‘sport in the service of the Reich’ (9 October 1933 and 9 November 1933) he concludes that the Nazis, as they continue to defame the values of intellect and of higher education, count on the primitivism and the stupidity of people (1 August 1934) to make a stupid insensitive Germany happen. His question, the question German historians would have to ask themselves for decades to come after Hitler’s defeat, is, already formulated on 14 July 1934: how can a European people do this? And the mass slaughter of the Jews is yet to come.
Another theme of the diary of the first two years is the similarity between Hitlerism, Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism and Zionism. Repeatedly Klemperer notes the similarities between totalitarian regimes. He is also no friend of Palestine, the future Israel, where friends are emigrating. ‘Anyone who goes there is exchanging nationalism and narrowness for nationalism and narrowness. It’s a land of immigration for capitalists. It’s said to be about the size of the province of East Prussia. Inhabitants: 200,000 Jews and 800,000 Arabs.’ (9 July 1933)
Since I’m trying to feel my way into the daily German life that was the backcloth to a huge upheaval in German philosophy, I can’t help noticing where Klemperer overlaps with thinkers in almost all camps. (Even Heidegger observed the stupidity of the Nazis which repelled him.) Klemperer is a liberal, but there is more to the German crisis than adhering to a recognized political position. There is for instance the day he sits down and starts reading Ernst Cassirer’s last published work in Germany, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which will quietly echo his own consternation and misery that German culture, the creation of Goethe and Schiller and Kant and Lessing, came come to this. In a different vein his constant monitoring of the ideological misuse of the relatively new medium of the wireless, of the newspapers and of the propaganda machine that uses the techniques from marketing and advertising, has to remind us of Benjamin and Krakauer. Krakauer had been making similar observations in Frankfurt until he lost his job at the Frankfurter Zeitung after March 1933. A culture which couldn’t withstand ideological manipulation by a dictatorship was also the exact jumping-off point for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’. Adorno and Horkheimer had meanwhile been studying mass media and totalitarianism in both Germany and America for years when they wrote, in 1944, their Dialectic of Enlightenment. Like Benjamin and Adorno and Horkheimer the refined and learned Victor Klemperer, who published books on Voltaire and Montesquieu and many other eighteenth-century French literary themes, felt himself ‘entdeutscht, innerlich entwürdigt und ganz resigniert’ (5 April 1934). With the rise of Hitler he’d had ‘his Germanness taken away, he was inwardly degraded and completely resigned.’ As these terrific minds fell to different fates, the new philosophy in the making, much of it now written in flight and in exile, was poised to change the twentieth century once it recovered from war.
Intellectually the philosophers had to make up their minds with regard to Germany’s great Enlightenment inheritance. It was specifically the German Aufklärung they addressed, which Cassirer had newly defined. The Aufklärung meant two hundred years of progress in European thought in which the individualism of the Renaissance came to coexist in productive tension with the rigour of the scientific spirit and a new historical conciousness. Through Leibniz and Kant this tension was finally resolved, Cassirer suggested, in a modern, progressive doctrine of individual freedom and dignity. This was German Idealism in its classical (Kantian) form, and Cassirer saw it as a kind of philosophical maturing of Protestantism to serve a new spiritual secularism. The German Enlightenment, he rightly noted, had retained, within the scope its rational inquiry many of the psychological, moral and spiritual concerns that had once been the province of the church, and that made it less one-sided than the more mechanistic and materialistic versions of the Enlightenment that happened in France and England.
Cassirer and Husserl would retain their faith in this liberal European German spirit they believed offered a great universal example of what a modern civilization could be. They felt that the German mind was at its finest when it was European, in contrast to the primitive nationalism to which it had now regressed. Klemperer in his diaries was perhaps more pessimistic, wrapped up in his own fate, trying to stay alive while he watched a great culture disappear. But one feels all these men of the 1920s and 1930s were expressing something that Europe still struggles to hold on to today.
For Benjamin and Adorno, German Jews of a younger generation, however, there was simply no chance of a return to the cultural past. Even as Benjamin was working out how to move on from Idealism, and considering what comfort he might find for himself in a specifically Jewish spirituality, he was on the run from the Nazis and killed himself rather than be captured on the Franco-Spanish border. Adorno and Horkheimer had prudently left for America six years earlier, and Columbia University was providing a home for the Frankfurt School of Social Research, even as, in 1940, the Klemperers were being ghetto-ized in Dresden. The direction in philosophy the Frankfurt School would stimulate would call itself critical theory, and much of the trauma of the era would feed into a postmodernism that undermined the persistent Europeanism of the old humanists.
It is an extraordinary story, to follow German philosophy at once at a theoretical level and at the same time on the level of everyday life in the Hitler years, and continuing postwar, and it’s the work I’m embarking on this year. In time I’ll be reading all the Klemperer diaries. Victor kept them almost until his death in 1960, aged 79. This is the first therefore of a several essays to come.
Plato is despised for trapping the obsolescent ‘West’ in persistent binary thinking about the rational light and the irrational dark. Such thinking apparently persuaded us that the West itself was light, compared with parts of the world mired in bigotry and superstition.
Yet Plato lives after two and half millennia. He is what I suspect many people mean by spiritual, when they use the term not in connection with any particular religious faith. Plato puts forward a case for Eternal Ideas over bodily involvement in making our way to a true knowledge of the real. Purity of intellectual understanding is his beacon.
I write this at Christmas because I believe a much attenuated memory of Plato’s idealism is why some of us still find Christmas carols so moving, long after we’ve left organized Church of England faith behind. Plato’s vision is there for instance in verse four of the carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’:
‘Now at last our eyes shall see him…’
Plato inspired Christianity with his theory of an Ideal World distinct and eternal in comparison with our own. Christianity took over wholesale the basic Platonic envisioning of a patient human ascent out of darkness towards the light. Paul of Tarsus told the Corinthians that now we see through a glass darkly, but one day the truth will blaze forth. In Plato’s account in The Republic when we arrive in the Ideal World we can’t immediately look at its brightness, only at reflections in the water. But then at last our eyes can directly see. In the Christian version of the story the truth and the light appear as the Messiah.
‘Now our eyes at last shall see him…’
Diarmaid MacCulloch in his History of Christianity notes that Plato propelled this basic impulse in Christianity, to look beyond the immediate and everyday to the universal or ultimate. He figured it as a great imperative: ‘We should not be content with the shadows.’ So Christianity reworked the Myth of the Cave, in which human beings are from birth chained up in the darkness, unable to see the real. It’s a trace of this great upward straining of the soul to be free of its chains, historic and obscure now, that returns every year, still, as the idea of Christmas.
Look in collection of essays entitled Plato and the English Imagination, and you find Milton and Traherne and Blake all wrote the poetry of the ‘Platonic ascent’ . This in turn became the work that inspired the great carol-writers, from from the classically educated Charles Wesley in the mid-eighteenth century to Fanny Alexander in the nineteenth.
For Blake it is the Eternal Forms we come to see.
Traherne meanwhile writes:
Sacred Heavenly Flame
That shining for us upon Earth by Night
Restores the World unto its Ancient Light
The native characters of Bliss, that were
Engraven in the Soul.
Transcendent Metaphysicks soar, abov
The reach of Physicks, to Eternal Lov,
Discovers GOD, and brings the Angels down
Makes known the Soul, and what it shews doth crown.
It walks among Invisibles.
And this is also the world we relive in Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Angels from their Realms of Glory.
Milton is superbly hieratic:
O Adam, one almighty is, from whom
All things proceed, and up to him return,
If not depraved from good, created all
Such to perfection, one first matter all,
Indued with various forms, various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refined, more spiritous, and pure,
As nearer to him placed, or nearer tending
Each in their several several active spheres assigned,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportioned to each kind.
In Wordsworth the power of Plato’s metaphysic of light and truth segues with the emerging Victorian cult of the innocent child as a cause of rejoicing:
Our childhood sits,
Our simple childhood sits, upon a throne
That hath more power than all the elements.
I guess not what this tells of being past,
Nor what it augurs of the life to come,
But so it is.
When Blake observed of Wordsworth that he was no Christian but a Platonist he was saying that for Wordsworth, as for Coleridge, the philosophy of Plato had a power that Christianity lacked. As A.W. Price puts it in one of the essays in Platonism and the English Imagination, it was ‘the power that can come to ideas, like a resurrection from the dead, when they are no longer believable,’ that Platonism carried forward.
And isn’t that exactly the power of the Christmas carol today, that we don’t believe, but we are most deeply moved?