Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Louis MacNeice Centenary (Sydney Morning Herald, 10/11/2007)

Though known to English Literature students as the author of some fine anthology pieces (‘Snow’, ‘The Casualty’, ‘Bagpipe Music’), Louis MacNeice is still regarded as a minor figure in English poetry. Of the factors involved in this estimation (or underestimation), two are salient: want of a community into whose grand narrative his poetry can be neatly fitted (artistically, he is caught between Ireland and England); and his association with W. H. Auden, with whom he shares his centenary year and who was, and is, such a mighty presence that there’s a tendency to regard the poets in his circle as second-stringers or also-rans – orbiting planets in a solar system of which that crumpled sage was the star. But one factor may be discounted immediately: the quality of his poetry. By any standard you wish to apply, Louis MacNeice was an outstanding poet.

Born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a severe Anglican rector (‘My father made the walls resound, / He wore his collar the wrong way round’), MacNeice studied Classics at Oxford University, going on to teach the subject at the Universities of Birmingham and London. Like Auden, he came to poetry early and his early poems are among his best. Rich and colourful and full of things, they are especially notable for their formal brilliance. Practised in all the traditional forms, MacNeice was also inventive and playful. Take, for example, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’, with its delightfully elaborate internal rhyme-scheme. Here are that poem’s first two stanzas:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

This excellent poem also points up a central theme of MacNeice’s poetry: the passage of time and our helplessness in the face of it. Indeed, MacNeice seemed to worry at this question to the point where it became peculiarly his own. And not only does his poetry explore the phenomenon, it presents a sort of bulwark against it, as if poetry were a stay against eternity. Many of MacNeice’s finest poems express a desire to hold the moment, to get it back – to treasure it:

… what of time they have
They stretch out taught and thin and ringing clear …
(‘Mayfly’)
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now …
(‘Sunday Morning’)
Only let it form within his hands once more –
The moment cradled like a brandy glass …
(‘The Brandy Glass’)
Time was away and somewhere else …
(‘Meeting Point’)

One of MacNeice’s favourite metaphors for the inexorable passing of time is the train, and trains come up so often in his poems that one is forced to conclude that that mode of transport was conducive to his particular gift. (I have a theory that the decline of train travel has been detrimental to poetry in English, particularly to the traditional metres.) But trains throw up another issue central to MacNeice’s poetry: the way he travelled backwards and forwards, physically and emotionally, between Ireland and England. His relationship with Ireland is particularly interesting, provoking as it did a special animus and some absolutely wonderful poetry:

The land of scholars and saints:
Scholars and saints my eye, the land of ambush,
Purblind manifestoes, never-ending complaints,
The born martyr and the gallant ninny …
(Autumn Journal)

But this is only half the story. For while Ireland, on one level, was a ‘bore and a bitch’, on another, more intangible level, her bucolic landscape and political neutrality afforded a metaphor for the individual in an age of ideology and upheaval, of the ‘mass-production of neat thoughts’ and the ‘Shuddering insidious shock of the theory-vendors, / The little sardine men crammed in a monster toy / Who tilt their aggregate beast against our crumbling Troy …’ These lines are from ‘Neutrality’:

Look into your heart, you will find a County Sligo,
A Knocknarea with for a navel a cairn of stones,
You will find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones …

But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat – on the flesh of your kin.

Though MacNeice rejected the communist beliefs of many of his fellow poets, he remained on the left throughout his life. Undoubtedly his boldest political statement is the book-length poem Autumn Journal, twenty-four expansive cantos containing a mix of autobiography, lyric emotion, reportage, philosophy, metaphysics and nightmare. Written at the time of the Munich crisis and against the background of the Spanish Civil War (and the slow defeat of the left-wing cause), it was, and remains, a powerful picture of Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’. MacNeice’s method, here and elsewhere, is to meld the public and the private spheres, though in a way decidedly (and crucially) unlike the confessional poets of the 1960s. In the personal passages, the real world gets in, but as a kind of background noise. (Philip Larkin put it perfectly when he wrote of MacNeice’s uneasy awareness of what the newspaper-boys were shouting.) In this passage, he is describing his academic role as ‘impresario of the Ancient Greeks’, but (and despite the last two lines) you can sense the coming catastrophe:

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

After the war and throughout the 1950s, MacNeice seemed to suffer a dwindling of his powers, losing control of both form and content (it is testament to how genuine a poet he was that when one went haywire the other followed suit). Oddly, he began to write in the third person – a sign, perhaps, that abstract thought had taken the place of lyric feeling. It was almost as if poetic inspiration had been rationed along with butter and bacon.

Nevertheless, he wrote some good poems, and in ‘House on a Cliff’ and ‘Selva Oscura’ even came close to his brilliant best. In the 1960s, he began to improve, but as his poetry picked up his health declined. Always a dedicated drinker (alcohol is often lovingly described even in the early poems), MacNeice became a compulsive one. He must have sensed the end was nigh, for the later poems are infused with fear. They are not so much dark as downright creepy. ‘Charon’ is a case in point:

We flicked the flashlight
And there was the ferryman just as Virgil
And Dante had seen him. He looked at us coldly
And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar
Were black with obols and varicose veins
Marbled his calves and he said to us coldly:
If you want to die you will have to pay for it.

The poem proved to be prescient. In 1963, one year after it was written, MacNeice contracted pneumonia and died. He left behind him more great poems than the sensible reader has a right to expect – not just a few anthology pieces, but a body of work that cannot be distilled beyond 150 pages without doing it, and MacNeice, a disservice. The final lines of ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ could very well stand as epitaph. For we are,

glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Malcolm in the Middle (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/11/2007)

Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
MUP; $32.95; 229pp

‘The whole world knows Gertrude, / from the prose style to the hairstyle’, writes the British poet Christopher Reid, in a poem collected in Expanded Universes (1996). The Gertrude referred to is Gertrude Stein, the impenetrable modernist par excellence and one of the subjects of Janet Malcolm’s fascinating new book, Two Lives. The other subject is Alice B. Toklas, whose selfless dedication to Stein brings to mind another poem, the last six lines of which are as follows:

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

Thus W. H. Auden describes the way in which the subjects of biography – the famous – tend to be reliant on the kind of people about whom no biographies are written. Such, indeed, was Stein’s relationship with her brooding companion, Toklas (‘Pussy’), who managed the practical details of Stein’s life ‘almost to the point of parody’.

For Malcolm, as always, this relationship is of interest for what it tells us about biography as well as for what it tells us about Stein. A staff writer on the New Yorker of many years’ standing, Malcolm is drawn to lives and stories that seem to test the limits of knowledge. In essence, she is an investigative journalist whose investigations wander beyond the ostensible subject matter of her books and enter the sphere of epistemology. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), a hack’s bad faith occasions a meditation on journalism (its implicit morality, or lack of it), while The Silent Woman (1994) explores the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in a way that raises questions about the efficacy of biography. Two Lives explores that issue still further. Does the whole world know Gertrude? Almost certainly not.

The title operates on at least three levels. First, and most obviously, ‘Two Lives’ refers to the lifelong ‘marriage’ of Stein and Toklas. Second, it is an allusion to Three Lives (1909), Stein’s first published work of fiction. Third, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the lives of those in the public eye will tend to take on a ‘life’ of their own. The famous, that is to say, have ‘two lives’: the one on which the fame is attendant and the one that takes over once fame is established.

In the case of Stein, these separate lives interacted in profoundly interesting ways. Indeed, her life seems tailor-made for Malcolm’s special brand of scrutiny. For one thing, she wrote her own biography. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) she adopted Toklas’s voice and perspective in order to tell the story of her life – a device that freed her from the niggling constraints of the traditional memoir or autobiography (modesty, candour, emotional truth). And yet, against this ‘anti-biography’, must be set her other work, which throws light on aspects of Stein’s inner life that The Autobiography studiously avoids. As Malcolm notes: ‘even the most hermetic of her writings are works of submerged autobiography’.

Malcolm is especially interested in the question of Stein’s Jewishness, which she mentions hardly at all in her work. How, asks Malcolm, did two Jewish lesbians living in provincial eastern France during the Nazi occupation avoid the fate of their fellow Jews? Malcolm’s suggestion is that Stein and Toklas may have been a little too friendly with a collaborator named Bernard Faÿ, an advisor to Pétain with links to the Gestapo. Indeed, she goes so far as to speculate that Stein was a Jew of the ‘self-hating’ variety. In support of this, the story is told of how, in 1943, Stein recommended that a Jewish refugee should not be adopted by a non-Jewish family, but rather by a Jewish one (this at a time when Jewish children were being deported to Nazi death camps). A chronological correction, however, makes it clear that Stein’s remarks were made a full year later than Malcolm thought – after the liberation of France. What looked to be the smoking gun turns out to be just so much smoke. Thus:

What do we know? Perhaps Stein had a secret Jewish life. Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell. A cache of letters between Stein and a rabbi may be discovered that will cast a whole new light on Stein’s Jewish identity. Such discoveries are a regular inconvenience of the biographical enterprise.

This is not an original book. Malcolm has made these points before and, in my view, has made them more forcefully. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent read. Malcolm may be a one-trick pony but the trick is performed with such adroitness that readers will always come back for more.

Meddlesome Subtexts (The Australian, 17/11/2007)

Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog
Allen & Unwin; $35; 346pp

That Michelle de Kretser’s third novel, The Lost Dog, arrives at almost precisely the point that her second novel, The Hamilton Case, is awarded yet another honour (the German LiBeratur Award; it has already won the Encore Prize, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Tasmania Pacific Prize) lends it a certain notional padding – a layer of protection to add to the layers of bubblewrap and publicity puff in which it is inevitably swathed. Clearly, here is an Important Novel, written by an Important Novelist. However, it is also a disappointing novel written by an important novelist, and not to say so would not only be dishonest but ultimately unfair to de Kretser herself. After all, as Cyril Connolly put it: ‘What kills a literary reputation is inflation.’

The central character of The Lost Dog is Tom Loxley, an academic of Anglo-Indian background. When the novel opens, he is staying in the bush, putting the finishing touches to his book, Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny. Out walking the eponymous dog, a wallaby hops across his path, causing said dog to take off in pursuit. The subsequent search for the errant pooch is conducted over the course of ten days and occasions various recollections of the recent and not-so-recent past. Hence, for Tom, the search for his dog is also an exercise in self-exploration, one in which his own ‘meddlesome ghosts’ are embraced, put to rest, or allowed to linger.

Thus, The Lost Dog, like The Hamilton Case, has a deliberately weak narrative centre. (For all its religious symbolism, Moby Dick is still a book about a whale; The Lost Dog is not a book about a dog.) Clearly, what really interests de Kretser are the relationships constellated around that centre. Of these, the most significant by far is Tom’s relationship with Nelly Zhang (‘an enabling, untragic muse’), whose bush shack Tom has been staying in and into whose circle of artists and friends he has recently been initiated. An artist herself, Nelly is also at the centre of a mystery (at least, Tom chooses to regard it as such) involving the disappearance of her ex-husband, a trader in bonds at an investment bank who vanished after being exposed as a crook.

On the whole, the book is exceptionally well written. De Kretser is an excellent narrator and her almost obsessive attention to detail – the mighty effort of imagination expended on the incidental – is revealing of a dedication that should serve as a model to younger writers. Take, for example, the following sentence: ‘Nelly was endlessly forbearing, tolerant of the dull, the deluded, the earnest, the video artist who steered all conversations to his gall bladder meridian.’ Many novelists would not have bothered with the twelve words after that final comma, and yet this colourful bloom of detail with its roots in the world of real people ensures that the observation hits home.

The problem with the novel can be simply stated: the subtext isn’t sub enough. Much of the book is a meditation on the possibility of authenticity in a postmodern, post-colonial world. This finds an echo in Nelly’s paintings, which are, in fact, not paintings at all but photographs of paintings since discarded. Even Nelly herself raises questions about how authentic it is possible to be in a world of simulacra and ephemera. Thus:

The cast of her adulterated features was only vaguely Asiatic. She exploited it to the hilt, exaggerating the slant of her eyes with kohl, powdering her face into an expressionless mask. Stilettos and a slit skirt, and she might have stepped from a Shanghai den … She wore her hair cut blunt across her forehead, and drew attention to what she called her ‘thick Chinese calves’.

This is well described, as always: we get the idea because we get the picture. But two paragraphs later, de Kretser writes: ‘Tom could see Nelly’s choices as parody, as a defensive flaunting of caricature. There was playfulness in her imagery; and something sad. It was also kitsch.’ The question is: Is this really needed?

Of course, there is nothing to say that Tom (who teaches something called ‘Textual Studies’) can’t, or wouldn’t, have such thoughts, and we are not to take such meditations as the novelist’s own gloss or commentary (indeed, there is plenty of evidence that de Kretser is mocking the clichés of postmodern ‘discourse’). But there is something nevertheless contrived about the way that she explores these topics. In The Hamilton Case, one character writes stories, while another is immersed in detective fiction – facts that occasion much metafictional speculation about the nature of narrative. In The Lost Dog, such speculation abounds. It’s a sort of Pompidou Centre of a novel: it wears its circuitry and plumbing on the outside.

Many readers won’t mind such intrusions and some may even welcome them. Personally, I find them irritating. De Kretser’s fiction would be better served if she could just put ‘textual studies’ aside and trust to her inner storyteller.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Of Minds and Men (Australian Literary Review, 07/11/2007)

Kati Marton, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
Simon & Schuster; US$27; 271pp
P. D. Smith, Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon; Allen Lane; $59.95; 553pp
Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe
Simon & Schuster; $49.95; 675pp

[First published in Australian Literary Review, 07/11/2007]

In Point of Departure (1967), the British journalist James Cameron evokes in darkly humorous detail the formative event of his life and career: his attendance at Operation Crossroads in Bikini Atoll in 1946. In his account of the preparations for the test – ‘a monstrous scientific joust’ designed to analyse the effectiveness of atomic weaponry on a battle fleet – Cameron recalls the ‘extravagant multitude of strange personalities’ and their stacks of equipment. In particular, he remembers

the underwater specialist whose contribution to the sum of human knowledge was the fact that the shrimps at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon could talk. They made a sound, he said, resembling: ‘Awk, awk.’

Cameron continues:

Questioned after the explosion as to the behaviour of the atomised shrimps he replied: ‘They are still saying “Awk, awk”, only shriller.’

It is one effect of nuclear weaponry to have made us all a little shriller. And small wonder, when you consider the subject. The two explosions at Bikini Atoll were, scientifically speaking, a failure (neither did the kind of damage predicted). But no one can watch the explosion footage, or the footage of any nuclear explosion, without experiencing a flash of emotion analogous to the blast itself. Is this what the human race has come to – this spectacular act of Promethean hubris? A witness to the Trinity test in New Mexico, the first ever test of a nuclear weapon, described the resulting mushroom cloud as looking like a ‘diseased brain’. Confronted with the pictures, it is hard not to feel that that description works on two levels.

However, and as these books testify, the moral waters are far murkier than that, and we shrimps, if we want to be taken seriously, do well to put our ‘awks’ of protest on hold until the facts are in. Retrospective clairvoyance is a historian’s luxury – one that the better historians avoid. Looking to the future, there are no counterfactuals for precisely the reason that there are no facts to counter. Put simply: ‘what ifs’ are all we have.

The big ‘what if’ in 1939, seven years before Operation Crossroads, was almost too appalling to contemplate. What if Germany – Nazi Germany: stomping, genocidal Germany – develops an atomic weapon? The possibility was by no means remote. In Berlin, the physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had split the uranium nucleus. Moreover, the Nazis would soon have access to the world’s most important source of uranium: the Congo, then a Belgian colony. Of course, we know now that Hitler’s scientists were behind the game in all kinds of ways and that one of the principal reasons for their failure was the fact that the Nazis’ pathological anti-Semitism had chased away (and often killed) the very people who could have finished the job. (Hitler loved to wax hysterical about ‘Hebrew’ science and the German ‘soul’.) In 1939, however, none of this was obvious. To act on any other assumption than that the Nazis would soon be in possession of the bomb would have been morally negligent.

In a sense it is fitting that the very people who might have gifted Hitler the bomb were the ones who eventually developed it for the allies. Indeed, it is tempting (though potentially hazardous) to see the development of the atomic bomb as proof of the link between ingenuity and freedom. The Nazis were the enemies of civilisation. What better revenge for civilisation than to make the war unwinnable for the Nazis?

Kati Marton’s The Great Escape, the story of nine Hungarian Jews who ‘fled Hitler and changed the world’, makes this point implicitly. In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James has shown how anti-Semitism in pre-war Vienna resulted in a thriving café society in which creativity was able to flourish. Marton shows the same chain reaction at work in Vienna’s sister city, Budapest. If anything, it’s an even better laboratory in which to study the phenomenon. It was Hungary, after all, that ushered in the age of militant anti-Semitism with Horthy’s proto-fascist regime and its discriminatory legislation limiting the number of Jews allowed in most professions to twenty percent.

Marton’s Hungarians are Robert Capa (photographer), Andre Kertesz (photographer), Michael Curtiz (film director), Alexander Korda (film director), Arthur Koestler (novelist) and the members of the so-called ‘Hungarian quartet’: Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann: three scientists and a mathematician, all of whom worked on the atom bomb. Marton’s thesis (never stated, but unmistakable) is that all of these men were instrumental in the fight against totalitarianism: not just Nazism, but fascism and communism. Curtiz’s film Casablanca, for example, was an attack on American isolationism, ‘a call to anti-fascist arms’, while Capa’s immortal photographic record of the victims of Generalissimo Franco alerted the world to the savagery of fascism (his most famous photograph, The Falling Soldier, is likened to Picasso’s Guernica). However, it is the Hungarian quartet that has had the biggest effect on history. Indeed, the book begins with the meeting between Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein (another refugee from Hitler) in Long Island in 1939, in which Szilard argued that a chain reaction could be harnessed to make uranium bombs. ‘Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht’ replied Einstein. ‘I had not thought of that at all.’

The story of the science is its own taut thriller and there isn’t space to retell it here. Nor is it dealt with in any great detail by Marton in The Great Escape, which has many other things to recommend it, including a wonderfully lucid style and a skilfully woven narrative. But for those with the time and inclination to get their heads around nuclear physics, with its dizzying intermingling of the massive and the infinitesimal, then P. D. Smith’s Doomsday Men is as good a place to start as any. Despite its rather titillating title and the schlock-horror gaudiness of its fifties-style cover, Smith’s is a hugely interesting history of some hugely difficult subject matter, in which the alchemy of nuclear fission and fusion is merely part of a wider story stretching back to the nineteenth century and taking in the research into radium conducted by Marie and Pierre Curie, Ernest Rutherford’s ‘disintegration hypothesis’ (which showed that radioactive substances were in a state of constant disintegration), Einstein’s breakthrough in 1905 (his theory of special relativity and its punchline, E=mc²) and Szilard’s flash of inspiration while waiting for traffic lights to change near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London (it was here that Szilard first conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction). Then, of course, there’s the Manhattan Project, the building of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Trinity test in 1945, and the starting-point for all moral discussions about the use of nuclear weapons: the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Smith is no less fascinating on the pre-history of weapons of mass destruction, from the chemical weapons of the First World War, to Japan’s experiments with biological weaponry, to the bombing of German and Japanese cities (the accounts of which are scarcely less harrowing than the accounts of the effects of the atom bomb). He also tells the story of the H-Bomb (the hydrogen, or fusion, bomb), in which Edward Teller played a crucial role. Teller, indeed, according to Smith, is one of the models for Peter Sellers’s crippled ex-Nazi, Dr Strangelove, in Stanley Kubrick’s film of that name, though the idea for the so-called Doomsday device with which the Soviets blow up the world in the final scene of that incomparable film actually came from Leo Szilard, who suggested, by way of a warning to the world, that a hydrogen bomb could be rigged to produce a deadly pall of radioactive fallout, thereby ending all life on the planet.

It is here, of course, that the ethical issues begin to take over from scientific ones and Smith is excellent on the moral debates that went on amongst the ‘Los Alomites’ – the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Nuclear science is Janus-faced; it has the potential to be both saviour and destroyer. And it is interesting (and more than a little worrying) that the members of the Hungarian quartet – four men with near-identical backgrounds – should have reached such wildly different conclusions about the role of nuclear weapons. For while Teller and von Neumann, and to a lesser extent Wigner, became pillars of the conservative establishment, Szilard experienced a crisis of conscience not dissimilar to that experienced by the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel. Consequently, he became, if not a prophet of doom, then at least a pretty vocal Cassandra. As early as 1943, he was advocating international controls to prevent a post-war nuclear arms race. Unfortunately, the attitude in Washington at the time is best summed up by the popular chaff that there was no need to fear a Soviet attack with a nuclear weapon concealed in a suitcase since the Soviets had yet to perfect a suitcase.

Szilard, however, had an impressive ally: his friend and colleague Albert Einstein, a man so fundamental to this story that his contribution is easily neglected. Einstein, of course, is key in two ways: first, as the genius whose 1905 paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, had formulated the theory of special relativity, which challenged the basis of classical physics and provided science with the conceptual tools with which to build an atomic bomb (the equation E=mc² states that the amount of energy liberated when matter is annihilated equals the mass of the matter itself multiplied by the speed of light squared); and second, as signatory to the famous letter, the fruit of his meeting with Szilard in Long Island, urging President Roosevelt to fund research into the atomic bomb. But there is also a third, more indirect way, in which Einstein is connected with the nuclear story: his shifting moral response to a technology with the power to rescue civilisation and the potential to wipe out life itself.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography Einstein: His Life and Universe is as excellent on this absorbing topic as it is on every other aspect of Einstein’s remarkable life and career. Isaacson shows how deeply allergic Einstein was to all forms of nationalism and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. Indeed, he was so averse to conflict that he even disliked playing chess with friends. In 1939, however, Einstein put his pacifism on hold and agreed to sign the letter to Roosevelt that led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project and thence to the invention of the atomic bomb. However, and as the destructive power of nuclear weaponry became apparent, Einstein, like Szilard, had a change of heart and began to worry at the question of arms control to the point where it threatened to rival his search for a unified field theory that would explain the universe. A socialist and an internationalist, Einstein’s answer to the nuclear problem was a sort of one-world federalism – an international body backed up by force.
Einstein was right in one regard: the solution has to be political. The nuclear bomb cannot be uninvented; it can only be restricted and monitored. We are now in the midst of a second arms race, one in which the logic of deterrence looks to have markedly less to say, assuming as it does a reasoning mind. (How funny will that crack about the suitcase be when a dirty bomb goes off in London?) Is civilisation up to the challenge? Put simply: if it is to endure, it must be. When Einstein was asked what kind of weapons would be used in a Third World War, he replied: ‘I do not know how the Third World War will be fought … but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth – rocks.’

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Our Precious Inheritance (Sydney Morning Herald, 03/11/2007)

A. C. Grayling, Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West (Bloomsbury; $49.95; 336pp)

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 elicited a great number of moving responses. But for me perhaps the most moving of all (and the most inspiring) came from Jon Stewart, the affable presenter of Comedy Central’s spoof news digest, The Daily Show. Back after one or two weeks off the air and clearly struggling to retain his composure, Stewart exhibited both grief and defiance. His final words were especially poignant:

The view from my apartment was the World Trade Centre. And now it’s gone … this symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labour and imagination and commerce … But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the South of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty.

Since 9/11 some Western commentators have tried to shift the blame for the attacks away from Islamic fundamentalism and towards the Western powers themselves, especially the United States. But other public intellectuals, many of them on the liberal left, have mounted guard over the very principles on which the West’s political arrangements and institutions are variously based. For them, the ideas of Thomas Paine, John Locke, John Milton and John Stuart Mill, far from being out of date, have come into even sharper focus. Reason, humanism, secularism – these ideas seem suddenly urgent again. A fundamentalist assault on the West has driven us back to our own ‘fundamentals’.

Looking every bit the eighteenth-century sage (with his cravat and flowing, shoulder-length locks), the British philosopher A. C. Grayling is one such public intellectual. His latest book, Towards the Light, is both an analysis of the rights and principles upon which liberal democracy is founded – individual liberty, privacy, free speech, due process of law, representative government and a regime of equal rights and entitlements – and of the men and movements that fought for them. As Grayling reminds us more than once, the road to liberty has not been easy. ‘Many died in furthering these processes – in fire at the church’s stake, in chains in royal dungeons, on the battlefield.’

The ‘story of the struggle for liberty and rights’ is the story of a chain reaction. It begins, of course, with the Reformation, which, though it spawned its own atrocities, contained the seeds of a revolution ‘aiming for liberty in the kingdom of the mind’. From this flowed the erosion of the idea of heresy, a burgeoning spirit of free enquiry (which further undermined the claims of religion) and the crucial attempt to extend that spirit to every area of human endeavour: that is to say, the Enlightenment. Grayling shows how Enlightenment ideas – in particular the idea of the rights of man – combined to produce the campaigns to end slavery, improve the conditions of the working poor and liberate women from domesticity and the domination of their male masters.

Given that many of the gains described in this brilliant and indispensable book were achieved in the teeth of religious opposition (for Grayling, indeed, the story of liberty is one more chapter in the mighty struggle to get the clerics ‘off our backs’), it is something of a sad and bitter irony that the recent erosion of our civil liberties should have come as a direct response to another assault on civil society from a group of deeply pious individuals who believed they had a divine warrant for mass murder. Thus, the polemical element of the book is addressed to those in the political sphere who would limit our rights in the name of security. Benjamin Franklin’s devastating dictum – ‘he who puts security before liberty deserves neither’ – is the bottom line of Towards the Light.

Though Grayling regards liberty and rights as triumphs he is certainly not triumphalist. Nor, to be sure, is he complacent. ‘As the light of modern times grew stronger … so some of the shadows it cast grew deeper.’ There have been setbacks – considerable ones. The French Revolution descended quickly into terror and demagoguery, while the revolutions of 1848 spawned nationalism as well as liberalism. Nor does progress always mean happiness for those whose lives it most affects. ‘Artificial lighting improved in quality, making it possible for factories to work longer hours. In many the workers were locked in after their dawn arrival, and the doors were opened only after darkness had fallen, twelve or more hours later. Ulstermen called factories “lock-ups”.’ Given Grayling’s central trope – the metaphorical ‘light’ of liberty – this is an especially affecting observation.

Nevertheless, this book reminds us what a precious inheritance liberty is – one we should be loath to tamper with. It has been said that if the suicide hijackers who mutilated the New York skyline had wanted a truly symbolic target then they should have attacked the Statue of Liberty. Well, they didn’t, and Liberty is still there, her torch held up for all to see.

Emotional Ellipses (Sydney Morning Herald, 03/11/2007)

William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta
Viking; $39.95; 232pp

In literary-historical terms, the short story is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, mass-market magazine publication and a new generation of middle-class readers created a huge demand for short fiction, with the result that many established novelists were drawn to it as a way of making money. But there soon emerged a number of authors (Saki, O. Henry, Katherine Mansfield) for whom the short story was the principal discipline, and of these the greatest living heir is the Irish writer, William Trevor. Over the course of a long career he has written more than a hundred short stories and, as Cheating at Canasta shows, he remains an incomparable master of the form.

W. Somerset Maugham once wrote that he preferred his short stories to end with a full-stop rather than with ‘a straggle of dots’. By contrast, a William Trevor short story will often end with an emotional ellipsis. Like Chekhov’s, his stories are non-judgmental and unsparingly attentive to the unexalted life, to the banal and the quotidian. To the extent that they conclude at all, they do so, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Though Trevor dwells on certain themes – loneliness, old age, middle class marriage – he has always managed to move with the times, while also exploring the lives of people for whom the times are moving too fast and in directions that they find disconcerting. In Cheating at Canasta, as in other collections, this preoccupation is especially evident in his treatment of his country of birth. His Ireland is one in which different worlds collide to often revelatory effect. In ‘At Olivehill’ an Irish estate belonging to an Ascendancy family is converted, at great emotional cost, into a golf course – an ‘ersatz landscape’ – while in ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’ a young mechanic agrees to take two Spanish penitents to see the ‘Sacred Virgin of Pouldearg’ (also called the ‘Virgin of the Wayside’), charging them fifty euros for the ride and choosing not to disclose the fact that Mary’s tears are nothing more than ‘raindrops trapped in two over-defined hollows’. Driving back, he hits a child, and the guilt and fear engendered by the accident allow religion and superstition gradually to reassert themselves from beneath the veneer of ‘modern’ Ireland, with its Cyber Cafés and spanking new currency:

He visited the Virgin of the Wayside, always expecting that she might be there. He knelt, and asked for nothing. He spoke only in his thoughts, offering reparation and promising to accept whatever might be visited upon him for associating himself with the mockery of the man the Spaniards had met by chance in Dublin … taking fifty euros for a lie. He had looked at them kissing. He had thought about Madonna with her clothes off, not minding that she called herself that.

The key to a successful short story is compression, and if Trevor has an overarching skill it’s the remarkable speed with which he is able to establish a scene or situation. On occasion, however, this compression can result in an uncharacteristically ugly sentence. For example, in ‘The Room’, he writes, ‘Fascinated by what was lived with, an hour ago in the room that was his temporary accommodation her afternoon lover had wanted to know everything’, while the wonderful story ‘Folie à Deux’ contains the truly hideous construction, ‘Air from the window Wilby slightly opens at the top is refreshing and brings with it, for a moment, the chiming of two o’clock.’ Such sentences have no place in any book, let alone one by an author celebrated for his crisp and usually pellucid prose.

On the whole, however, Cheating at Canasta is a fine and often moving collection. Clearly, Trevor’s Collected Stories, published in 2003 and running to well over a thousand pages, was far from being a valediction.