Mrs Lilian Broadbridge Returns

Well, I’m literally over the moon! Nirmal (we’re on first name terms!) says that he was so impressed by my political vision and the short shrift I gave to those feminist sacred cows, that he wants more from me. Rather than everything being politics, politics, politics (reminds me of the rather rude “Boobies, boobies, boobies,” I know it’s trashy but I did so enjoy Valley of the Dolls!), I thought this month things should take a more intellectual turn. I also know that Doctor Mark would approve.

And so, without much further ado, here is my 5 pence, I won’t say 5 new pence or heaven forbid – cents – on the worlds of art and music. And as there are probably more “petrol heads” reading this magazine than they would ever admit, I thought I’d add my perspective on cars.

It’s just possible that some readers who haven’t had the privilege of living in Radlett during the time I was in my true prime there (from the 1950s to the 1980s) may not know a few of the names I drop, so I’ve asked Doctor Mark to supply a brief glossary. Enjoy!

Mark Stocker: Sigh, how much am I paid? But anything for a quiet life, so here goes:

Sir William Russell Flint – slightly risqué British early 20th century watercolour painter of nudes and landscapes.

Rowland Hilder – hugely popular mid-20th century British landscape painter

Pietro Annigoni – kitsch, skilled and popular Italian 20th century painter, famous for portraits of the Queen. No known ballerina works, but never underestimate Mrs Broadbridge’s fertile imagination.

Matt Monro – British later 20th century singer, normally in the ‘lounge’ genre. Outstanding vibrato. Fond of golf, and alas, the bottle. Died too young.

Semprini – mid 20th century pianist, composer and conductor. Despite the name, British.

Mantovani – British orchestra leader, and with his pal Semprini, purveyors of popular dance music. Unlike Semprini, totally Italian, but bless him, says Mrs Broadbridge, he died in Tunbridge Wells!

Sir Jimmy Young – prominent later 20th century British radio host, formerly a hit parade crooner. Marginally more trendy than Manto and Semps,but not much.

Austin Allegro, Austin Maxi and Ferrari Dino – three kinds of cars, the first two outstanding British engineering of the late 60s/early 70s, the third foreign rubbish, though beloved of the utterly vulgar Mark Broadbridge.


Mrs Broadbridge On Gay Lib

It’s in my name and it’s in my character – Broadbridge and broad-minded. As a lifelong Tory you’d probably think I would be very intolerant about men loving other men, but though it’s wrong, I can understand it a bit and sympathise quite a lot. Certainly it’s unnatural – a man and a woman should love each other, marry and have children – that’s the normal run of things and god save us if it was anything else though sometimes these days you do honestly wonder.

That reminds me of a very funny joke I heard the other day, I think it was that clever young man David Frost. His friend told Mr Frost he was emigrating. Why? Homosexuality. But surely you’re not one of those people? No, of course not, but that’s the whole problem. First it was a capital offence, then it was corporal, then you’d simply be fined, and now it’s legal. I’m leaving before it becomes compulsory!

Seriously, I think there’s a good case for being true to one’s innermost feelings, and I don’t think any amount of Jesus can cure them. And let’s face it, there are some pretty dreadful women around, so sometimes I hardly blame them! It’s unnatural, yes, but homosexuals are human, they have thoughts and feelings, and Barry, my hairdresser, even seems to know my thoughts and feelings better than me. Lovely man.

I wanted him and his friend, Clint, to come to tea but Leslie wouldn’t have it. “Those homos, surely not? Whatever has come over you, Lilian?” Well, I was cross and said “You’re a homo too!” He got very angry but I quickly added “Homo sapiens! And I’m a Les-bian, hahaha!” He did manage a wan smile, and nothing came of it. Hate the sin, I say, though sometimes I am really quite fascinated about exactly who does what to whom, when and where (I have a curious mind, you may have noticed), but love the sinner.

Oh, talking of all that, the American lady down the road whose husband Bill is a big shot in Handley Page, Cleo, Miss San Diego 1920 she was I’ll have you know, always leaves very particular orders to our milkman – I think she must fancy him or something. Well, the other day I took a little peep at one of her notes by the empty bottles and she’d written this: ‘2 homos’ [laughs uproariously].

Mrs B On The Royals, c. 1980

I wish our Charlie Boy would hurry up and get married and settled. It’s getting ridiculous, everybody bar him can see that. He needs a good woman to talk to him, just as I do to Leslie, rather than all that talking he does to oak trees or some elderly Highland stag he’s hunting. You won’t get much sense out of them. I do like him but he can be a bit daft at times, unlike his father, who I love and admire to bits.

The Queen is a very, very fine woman, my idea of a perfect Englishwoman, don’t misunderstand me. But she’s not a patch on that terrific, witty, intelligent and oh so handsome husband of hers. Honestly, Philip is like a Greek god – well, he is Greek after all – and I can just picture him on Mount Olympus where the gods feast on Ambrosia – good old English creamed rice pudding!

I know I should bone up on the British constitution before I speak my mind, but I’ve got this idea. Tell me, just why is it that the Duke of Windsor, who cosied up to the Nazis and had that horrid, skinny, greedy American woman Mrs Simpson telling him what to do all the time, why was he able to abdicate perfectly easily whereas they can’t make Philip our king? Couldn’t they simply swap their positions and have the Queen as his consort? It’s degrading for a fine man like Philip to always be following two steps back, downright silly, and I take my hat off to him for never complaining. And if they swapped jobs, she’d have much more time to spend with her beloved horses, so it would be a win-win situation!

She may be a rich woman but she must be an ever so lonely one, our Queen. Like Mrs Thatcher, it’s an isolated situation she’s in and it really must get to her sometimes, despite her lovely husband and the good old Queen Mum. Margaret and her playboys wouldn’t help much though, and I’m none too keen on that rather calculating and wilful Princess Anne either.

All this made me think about the Queen having those corgis around her. On the face of it, it’s a puzzle – a very fine woman indeed but a breed of dog I don’t care for at all. But then it all made sense. Corgis love their owners and hate everybody else – probably poor old Philip too [giggles]. She though gets unquestioning love from those corgis and they help keep the horrible pappa – what’s that Italian word for them? Papa…papageno? No, paparazzi – the corgis keep those intrusive papa… bastards (sorry) away. I always wanted an apricot poodle myself, but it was a rare moment when Leslie put his foot down: ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle. The Broadbridge home is not a poodle parlour!’ I was cross at the time but secretly quite impressed.

Mrs Broadbridge On Art

When I said to young Mark ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, he told me “That’s very Kantian, Mrs Broadbridge!”

Well, whatever these eggheads care to call it is fine by me, but I must be careful how I pronounce such a strange word. I can’t claim to have the sophistication or knowledge of Sir Kenneth Clark – or even Mark, but both Leslie and I certainly know what we like. The female nude is the most beautiful and time-honoured object ever known to man in art, and I admired Les’s sophistication when he bought our two signed prints by Sir William Russell Flint. He’s a knighted academician you know – and that’s what I always say to anyone who calls them ‘sexy’ – a bit embarrassing but I have to laugh!

William Russell Flint, Jemima. Leslie Broadbridge’s favourite artist.

To me, the more accurate and realistic the art is, the more impressive I find it. Abstract art does nothing, nothing to me: it’s 99.9% pretentiousness. I know a bit of Cockney rhyming slang from the telly and have a guess what rhymes with a load of Jackson Pollocks [prolonged giggling]. As for Picasso, I feel frankly sorry for him. I know he’s rich and has got all those silly girlfriends one third his age and is always swanning around in the South of France, but he lost his way badly with all that cubed rubbish after painting those lovely, very sad circus folk. What went wrong, I ask?

Henry Moore, well, he makes me think of one of my favourite hymns but not in a flattering way: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’! [giggles] Back to the art that we have in our humble abode. We’re a cut above the folk who are satisfied with reproductions everywhere, though they are fine for the spare bedrooms and the hallway. I’m a generous supporter of Radlett Art Society, and I have a number of their nice landscapes and flowers in vases – still lifes, as they call them – or is it lives?

And I’m very proud of my Rowland Hilder original signed print, it’s so wonderfully English – a corner of England ought to be in every self-respecting person’s lounge, I say. If Leslie had his way, he’d have more of the Russell Flints, but I tell him there’s a fine line between respectable art, and art that makes you blush. Broadbridges are broad-minded, but we definitely draw the line at Hawaiian girls on velvet, though I am partial to those rather magnificent stallions in sunset.

If I had a lot of money, I’d definitely get an Annigoni ballerina – that to me would be the ultimate. Oh, I must tell you, Leslie told me many years ago that he’d like one of those [rolls her eyes] tiger-skin rugs but I shut him up promptly: ‘Les, that’s vulgar! Over my dead body!’ He’s said nothing about it since. I feel I’ve hardly started so now I must tell you all about our joint passion, our pride and joy, our small but highly selective collection of Royal Doulton Toby Jugs…

Mrs Broadbridge On Music

Music has really gone to the dogs since the late 1950s, I think it must be, what with that horrid rock and roll. Music by juvenile delinquents for juvenile delinquents I call it. And though I liked the Beatles, especially Paul, and the Seekers, it all nosedived again in the late 1960s and now seems to be at the beck and call of long-haired druggie weirdos and those squalid, promiscuous festivals. Gone to pot, haha! No, thank you. Give me a good melody, any day: Oh what a beautiful morning, Three coins in the fountain, Stardust, proper songs like that – Michelle by the Beatles is rather lovely, too.

The key thing is, you could hear every word they were singing, whereas singers today don’t have a clue apart from Matt Monro – I hear he used to be a bus conductor and I can just imagine him singing out ‘Fares, please!’ to the tune of ‘Born free’ [giggles]. I wouldn’t really call myself musical – when I grew up we had a nicely polished walnut Broadwood piano, but only my elder sister Violet was allowed to touch it and I can never forgive her for that. She lives in Surrey, and is honestly rather hoity-toity. We still see each other at Christmas, so it’s quite civil really.

But I can sing in tune – this may surprise you but I’ve got quite a powerful voice, and I beat time well. I certainly don’t mind what I call light classical – In a monastery garden, the lovely Mario Lanza (Elvis tried to imitate him – ‘It’s now or never’, and the answer is obviously never!) And those wonderful bands that Les and I would dance to in our courting days – I may be a large woman but I have genuinely dainty feet, or at least I did till those horrid bunions. We would dance away to Semprini, Mantovani, the Joe Loss Orchestra and more. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Happy days – and the youth of today just don’t know what they’re missing!

Mantovani, “King of Strings.” Music the Broadbridges danced to in their salad days.

Mrs Broadbridge On Race Relations

If I may say so, and I know it’s very controversial, but Enoch really has a point. I don’t think it’s really being racist to admit we have allowed too many of these Coloured Folk into our overcrowded country and you certainly won’t catch me in that curry house, stinks to high heaven, I bet.

Though I’ll tell you this [winks conspiratorially] Leslie and I do like our sweet and sour pork – Les likes his lemon chicken actually – at the New Garden, just for a bit of a treat every now and again. And, Joshua, Joshua, our very own Negro ticket collector at the station, he’s a real gentleman, lovely smile, and honestly, he puts the likes of us to shame. It’s a complicated world, isn’t it?

Mrs Broadbridge On Cars

I’m not one to hold forth on cars, I have plenty of other interests, leave that one to the men of the family. But when Les and I buy a new one, which is every 8 to 10 years or so, of course I like to try them all out and weigh up their pros and cons. It’s got to have a tasteful colour: beige, light green and primrose all appeal to me, nice and very fashionable colours for bathrooms too these days I believe.

And I do like a firm front seat, high up, so I’m Queen of the Road, and I can see everything ahead of me but also comment if need be on Les’s driving. He’s very good, but even he has his occasional lapses, like that silly little boy playing on the drive – but that could have happened to anyone, he wasn’t badly hurt and we even gave him a box of mini Mars bars when he was in hospital. We’re kind souls!

Well, I can’t abide those seat belts or any government which forces you to wear them – they can belt up, as far as I’m concerned. I do like my simulated sheepskin seat cover, and as a little luxury, a stereo radio, so I can listen in to Jimmy Young if we’re out at the time. As for the make of the car, I still say, when all is said and done, buy British. Les drives our beige Allegro with pride and honestly, it doesn’t break down at all often. And we certainly haven’t had a mishap like Mr Curtis with his Austin Maxi when he opened the door and the handle came off in his hand [giggles] – but Theo can be rather a rough man! No, very few breakdowns, touch wood – and I think there’s still a bit of veneered wood on the dashboard, though it’s not like it used to be.

Austin Allegro, Mark II. The Broadbridge mode of transport.

Fancy cars are strictly for the younger generation. So far I’ve said nothing about my Mark. He was a bright kid and very much his own man, downright willful, really. Still is. His profession, which sounds very grand, is a purveyor of recreational medication, and he’s certainly done very well for himself there – a grander house than Violet’s in Surrey and a villa in Spain, I’ll have you know. And a new girlfriend, they’re mostly blonde, seems to pop up every other month, though some of them really do speak “common,” as they say.

But you should see his car! A bright red Ferrari Diana, I think it’s called. He might have been a bit of a rebel but, bless him, he’s proud of the Broadbridge name and he’s got this cherished number plate which he tells me cost him several thousand which reads, wait for it, BB 69. The BB is obvious, but the 69 is more puzzling, unless dear Mark was thinking of his father, who indeed turned 69 only the other day. Boys will be boys!

Mrs Broadbridge On God

Though I don’t go to church except at Christmas, I like it because it’s there, a reminder of God and a reminder of that good Vicar, the Rev Manley, that we had for so many years. He once admired my jam at the Horticultural show, second prize for damson it was. Peggy Major’s was all runny – a damson in distress [giggles]. But that new young vicar looks like Mick Jagger, if you ask me, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he plays the guitar in Christ Church – perish the thought. If I was God, I certainly wouldn’t want to be serenaded like that, even though Cliff Richard isn’t bad – and such a handsome lad with a touch of the Indian in him.

Looking at the world today, we really could do with another Jesus, or at the very least another visit from Jesus, but if he prefers to stay safe up in heaven, I wouldn’t blame him one little bit. God help us! Occasionally a churchy friend asks me about what I believe in, and whether Jesus matters to me. I tell them I’m full of admiration for him. He was obviously a very great, wonderful man who performed all these miracles, turning water into wine, turning loaves into fishes, when all poor old Uri Geller can do is bend spoons, of all the useless things!

If there is a saviour of today, I’d definitely say it was Margaret Thatcher. She really is quite someone. Almost spiritual, I reckon, there’s an aura about her whole being and that handbag is like the symbol of a great saint. Her eyes are a seer’s eyes and her mind is extraordinary. Jesus himself would look up to her! The Christians I can’t stand are those RC’s – dumb Irish mostly – always crossing themselves, and saying Father this, and Father that, while the chances are their beloved Father is sleeping with his housekeeper.

Bloody hypocrites (excuse my French) but I have to say I do rather like that Cardinal Hume – he makes you think it can’t be all bad. Basil. Nice man! But even worse are those Christians who go from door to door, spreading the word so they say, more like spreading diseases says I. The Broadbridge oak is firmly closed to them. Those Jehovahs people don’t believe in blood donations – I know I should give my blood but I’m squeamish, I would faint, but they’re always needing other people’s blood for this and that, so why in god’s name can’t they see this?

The best thing ever said to the door-knockers was by Mrs Stocker, who lives in that semi in Theobald Street. She opened the door and saw a couple of these men in dark suits. I know she’s a foreigner and her English can be faulty but you’d never believe what she said to them: “Hello, are you hormones?” They just fled, serves ’em right! I had such a laugh when she told me.

But now for a serious question, which Christians who are deeper thinkers than me are always going on about. Is there life after death? Ooh, my brain hurts is what my lovely grandson, Liam, would say to that but as I’m quite an intelligent woman, I’ll give it some thought.

No matter how good we are, when we’re dead we’re dead – we simply crumble into dust and that’s why I want a good Christian burial myself, the idea of being microwaved in a crematorium is dreadful – and you should hear the cheap recorded music they play there these days – “Come on baby, light my fire” was one of the songs [giggles]. But seriously, I know I’d die happy if the remains of Lilian Broadbridge become part of the soil that gives birth to a beautiful Peace rose, with a thrush perched on it, singing. Peace, perfect Peace, they should write on my gravestone.

Mrs Broadbridge On Her Nearest And Dearest

Mrs Broadbridge confessed to me the following in a lucid moment:
‘I do know I talk a fair bit about myself, but I’m considerably shyer than you think, and also, this may surprise you, I’m really quite a private person when it comes down to it. Keep your private life private is what I tell my nearest and dearest. Leslie knows that full well, and my Mark has worked that one out too in his profession.

By the way, I’ve always wanted to try one of his medications but he seems to keep the lid firmly shut on that. “No, Mrs B (that’s what he calls me, isn’t that lovely?), you cope fine on that modest dose of Valium that Dr Saunders puts you on – it helps make you the Mum you are. You won’t need that stuff I deal in, I mean purvey, honest!” Fair enough!

As for Susan, Mrs Broadbridge changes the subject, rolls her eyes, or looks the other way at the very mention of her daughter, a primary school aide in St Albans, while Roger, her son-in-law, ‘that bearded, geography teacher in a comprehensive… a bit of a drip if you ask me’, is if anything worse. Roger’s Labour Party activities are of course completely beyond the pale.

In her more compassionate moments, Mrs Broadbridge realises she’s being a little tough on Susan and at one point even briefly dabbed her primrose Kleenex when she told me this:

‘Let’s face it, that well-known Broadbridge charm has somehow by-passed our Susan. And she’s rather a plain girl with it. But she means well, I know that in my heart of hearts. And she’s flesh and blood, though she’s now Susan Jones, and you can’t take that away from her.

Her daughter Amy [shudders] does take after her mother, but I do remember her birthdays and she always gets a little something from Les and me at Christmas. She really needs to get her adenoids seen to. But Liam, Liam – the young scamp! I’d cross Tyke’s Water, I’d fight Hitler’s war for him.

That reminds me, I must go down the village to check at the pet shop when that ferret will be ready for him. Repulsive creature (the ferret I mean, of course!) but I’d love to see his face when he opens the box.

Talking of ferrets, I was watching Sir Kenneth Clark on da Vinci the other day and he was holding forth, as Sir Kenneth does with such style, about this portrait in communist Poland of a lovely blonde aristocratic girl which he called “Lady with an Ermine.” Well, these arty people really don’t have a clue – it’s obviously a ferret; my Fowler ancestors were good North Country people, and back in the day the menfolk, when they were in their cups, were known to stuff a live ferret down their mates’ trousers! I got that from Granny Fowler when I was a little girl and it all makes sense when I see my Liam and Mark!’

To confirm the above, and though no eavesdropper, this author was passing by the Broadbridge household just the other day and noticed Susan’s Ford Anglia parked there. The oak front door had been left inadvertently open, no doubt by her. Crouching down low beside the ivied wall, he was an unwitting witness to the somewhat one-sided conversation that follows. Clearly, Susan had been momentarily careless…

‘Don’t call me Mum, why do I have to tell you this? I never call you Sue though you say you wouldn’t mind. Call me Mother, or even, dammit, Mrs Broadbridge, if that won’t suit you. As for those flowers you gave me, you should know that reds and pinks shouldn’t be mixed like that and anyway, Leslie would tell you we’ve got quite enough Michaelmas daisies in our garden. But I suppose it was a kind thought. Now, here’s a shopping list of special things we can’t get down the village to get me in St Albans because the Allegro is in with the mechanics for the next few days. Normally I wouldn’t be imposing on you like this, and I’m sure you know that too. Though I’ve got one of those free passes they seem to dole out willy-nilly, I simply can’t abide those buses which never come, and when they do, they always seem to be full of silly pensioners!”

“Yes, Mother, and I’ll pay of course!”

“No, Susan, I know you mean well but I have my Mother’s Pride, and I don’t mean the bread. Here’s a £10 note and don’t lose your change, though it was your brother who’d always do that, bless him! Why not let our Liam keep the change, he could get himself a couple of those… what do they call them… transformers?”

“Okay, Mother.”

I resolved to linger no longer, but I noticed Susan grinning bravely, knowing that Mrs Broadbridge’s unquestioning love of one of her two grandchildren was something to hold on to, and no doubt resolving to split the change between Liam and Amy.

More Politics With Mrs Broadbridge

Young Mark, our near neighbour who’s a rising university star, tells me he’s a liberal. A man of intelligence and culture (you should hear him talking about art, mark my words, he’ll be the new Kenneth Clark before you can say palette knife!) – but – and it’s a big but, I think his brain must have turned into mush when it comes to politics.

I have words for him: wishy-washy, flip-flop, wet behind the ears and more. He’s so interested in what the person he’s supposed to be arguing with him says, half the time he ends up agreeing with them, though occasionally he can show sense and agrees with me! But that doesn’t stop him coming up with daft sayings every now and then like “A lot of crime is a cry for help. It’s not the criminals, it’s society that’s to blame!” [puts on a high pitched, feminine voice]. One of those bleeding-heart do-gooders who live in cloud cuckoo land is our Dr Mark.

Honestly, you need the intelligence of a five-year-old to know right from wrong and all those Cambridge degrees must have turned him a bit soft in the head. I say, let the punishment fit the crime – the Bible was on to a good thing when it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The other day, would you believe it, my bright little spark Liam bit poor Mr Van Noorden, the dentist! Well, he got his comeuppance alright when Mr Van Noorden went on to remove two of his teeth. That’ll learn him, as they say. ‘And count yourself lucky I don’t tie them to the door and slam it!’ he told him. Liam was quiet that whole evening Susan tells me, which must be a first. I reckon a bit of wisdom (not a wisdom tooth, he’s too young for that!) had sunk in.

Now back to politics: though I’m a true blue Tory, I don’t welcome all the kowtowing they do to those Brussels folk in the Common Market. It might benefit our trade but it certainly doesn’t benefit the cost of living. After decimalisation – they decimated us, as I tell people, there’s going to be metrication, and if that isn’t enough, fluoride in the water supply, all by order of Brussels!

I really don’t care much for those Continentals; at least all those coloured folk, well the older ones holding down jobs at least, do love and respect our Queen. While I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting we should have another war with the Jerries (though I loved wartime, I have to say), I’m very wary of them all the same. They need to remember that the three most important dates in German history are 1918, 1945 and (after extra time), 1966.

Those effete French aren’t much better: just imagine what it would be like on the buses and trains when we’re swamped with them and they’re breathing garlic at you. Their cooking is ever so la-di-da – cooking for poofs I call it – but the meat is just gristle and the way they disguise it with any amount of subtle sauces would never fool me. Chances are it’s rabbit or horsemeat – and they even ate cats and rats when they fought with the Germans a century ago! What with our problems with the coloureds, who wants a swarm of continentals on top of that?

Yet I do admit I have a soft spot for Italians, their men are ever so handsome in those tailored jackets and tight trousers (I can’t for a moment imagine my Leslie in a pair of them, he’d do the splits in seconds!). And to a man, those Italians know how to treat a lady, they have real charm. I’ve been to the Costa del Sol a couple of times and lovely and warm it is too (and getting all tiddly on far too much sherry and paella, yum yum!) but I would love a romantic holiday in Venice. I’d get a season ticket for those gondolas, and would look up with delight at the charming pilot who, while he’s steering me to the Doge’s Palace would be serenading me, just me, with “O sole mio!”

Back to politics. No wishy-washy liberals for me, and no stinking socialists taxing Leslie and me out of existence, and caving into striking miners, giving us power cuts and all those foul-mouthed trade union leaders with their Yorkshire and Scottish accents – at least you can’t understand a word the Scots say! Government by the government, say I, not those pesky unions.

Quite frankly, and if only more people could see it, the Conservatives are the only party with any backbone, and what with Mrs Thatcher now in No. 10, I believe she will be the greatest thing since Churchill and will make us all proud to be British again. With any luck she may even lead us out of the Common Market! The Tories are the party of the nation – One Nation as some of them call it – the party of the Queen and the Church (and don’t get me started on those liberal clergymen); the party of the armed forces, the police, law and order, an eye for an eye, three strikes and you’re in the clink.

A couple of years ago, Lady Radley took me along with her to the Conservatives’ conference in Brighton – I wore my best hat and quite enjoyed it for a couple of hours, though those politicos did talk a bit too much for my liking. A real highlight was that handsome Michael Heseltine, ‘Tarzan’ as some of the cheeky journalists call him – well, I can tell you, I’d be his Jane any day!

Bottesford Women’s Institute, 1977. “My kind of girls, salt of the earth types, and pity any man that crosses them!” (Mrs Broadbridge).

Appendix: The Mrs Broadbridge Limericks

Mrs Broadbridge
Down the village, on each working day
Mrs Broadbridge would chatter away
On the dear price of meat,
On her bunionèd feet
And whether that vicar was gay.

Mr Broadbridge’s revenge
The bank clerk who murdered his wife
Spoke thus, before sentenced to life:
‘Such a truculent nag,
An insufferable hag,
So I went – like this – with my knife!’

Mrs Broadbridge in heaven
The food, it’s all pretty and pink!
That angel, he gave me a wink!
James Last plays all day,
Frank sings us ‘My Way’,
I’ll stay here a while, I think!


The Importance Of Being Poirot

This month, through the very kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, it is a sheer thrill to present this excerpt from Jeremy Black’s latest book, The Importance of Being Poirot. Make sure to pick up a copy of this fascinating journey through England during the two world wars, and all by way of Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s masterful creation.

Black proves himself to be a worthy history-teller because he can aptly “detect” the meaning of stories that seeks to answer the past and guide the present. His erudition runs much deeper than his ability to navigate the stores of resources available on the subject, and the reader gets a glimpse of this early on when in the introduction he proffers his own defense for writing about the importance of a Hercule Poirot.

It all makes for truly fascinating and absorbing reading. Pick up your copy right away! You will not be disappointed.

Here’s a foretaste of what lies in store…


{…} The detective novel, as classically conceived, dates from the nineteenth century, but novels in which detection plays a role have a longer genesis, as even more do stories about crime and detection. Indeed, Simon Brett’s humorous spoof ‘The Literary Antecedents of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’ begins with the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf (S. Brett, Crime Writers and Other ). This was set in the sixth century, although dates from between then and the tenth.

Moreover, the notion of crime had a moral component from the outset, and notably so in terms of the struggle between Good and Evil, and in the detection of the latter. Indeed, it is this detection that is the basis of the most powerful strand of detection story, because Evil disguises its purposes. It has to do so in a world and humanity made fundamentally benign and moral by God. Thus, as with the Serpent in Eden, a classic instance of malign disguise, Evil seeks to exploit weakness and, to do so, has to lie, or to challenge Good by violence.

These sinister purposes and malign acts are disclosed, at the time or subsequently, and, accordingly, in all religions and religious cultures, tales developed, as did the conventions that affected their contents, framing, and reception. So also did processes to find the truth, some, such as physical trials, extraordinarily rigorous, others, such as the understanding of oracular testament, a challenge of frequently obscure clues that offers much for those interested in Golden Age detective novels in particular. Priesthoods had special functions in discerning, confronting and overcoming Evil, and guidance accordingly, as in confessional handbooks. Campaigns against the menace and deceit of witchcraft saw such anxieties rise to murderous peaks, as in seventeenth-century Europe. This echo of the priesthood as the detector of Evil was seen in G.K. Chesterton’s homely, but clearly moral, clerical detective, Father Brown, who first appeared in print in 1910.

Drawing on the same mental world, a different form of story of detection related to the journey to Salvation, as in John Bunyan’s epic The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), as individuals had to detect snares en route. In part as a result, there was a clear overlap between writing about this world and the next, the struggle with Evil being foremost. John Buchan used the Bunyan epic in his Mr Standfast (1919), a World War I story in which a German agent in Britain is a major threat and needs uncovering and vanquishing.

The development of the novel in England in the eighteenth century saw the notion of secrecy pushed to the fore, with an opening up of such secrets being a key theme in the plot of many novels, secrets related to behaviour, as in the exposure of hypocrisy, or to origins. This could be in a comic context and to comic effect, as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), with the unveiling of his parentage; but there were also novels that were darker and more troubling. This style came to the fore with the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, notably those by (Mrs) Ann Radcliffe, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and also Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). These novels had elements of both the thriller and the detective novel. The fears to which they could give rise could be a source of fun, as was clearly with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), but the popularity of Gothic fiction is instructive.

{…}

The moral framework of any society is one we need to consider when assessing literature as a whole, and fiction in particular, because in fiction it is possible to alter the story to drive home a moral lesson, a method that is not so simple when dealing with fact. Thus, we need to consider the changes in religious belief and sensibility in this period. Despite Murder in the Vicarage (1930), At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), and several other appearances, clerics do not play a major role in Christie’s novels.
Nevertheless, in Three Act Tragedy (1934), there is a positive account of Christianity from the dynamic young Egg Lytton Gore referring to a recently dead clergyman.

‘…He prepared me for confirmation and all that, and though of course a lot of that business is all bunkum, he really was rather sweet about it…. I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right … the Babbingtons really were Christians; they didn’t poke and pry and condemn, and they were never unkind about people or things’.

Canon Prescott, in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), is positive. In a gentler age, it was possible to say that Prescott is extremely fond of children, especially small girls, without that being seen as sinister.

Moreover, even though clerics are not thick on the ground, that does not mean that religion is absent, either in terms of the lay religiosity of the characters or with reference to the role of the author. Far from it. A similar discrimination to that of Egg Lytton Gore, in favour of a true Christianity as the basis for judgment, is offered in Christie’s Appointment With Death (1938), when Sarah King observes in the symbolic setting of Jerusalem:

‘I feel that if I could sweep all this away – all the buildings and the sects and the fierce squabbling churches – that I might see Christ’s quiet figure riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – and believe in him’.

This leads Dr Gerard to reply gravely: ‘“I believe at least in one of the chief tenets of the Christian faith – commitment with a lowly place”’. He goes on to claim that ambition is responsible for most ills of the human soul, whether realised or not. Asylums are filled, he argues, with those who cannot cope with their insignificance.

In a way, Christie presents murder in the same way, and the implication throughout is that it defies the true message of Christianity, not least the acceptance of suffering and the significance of the soul. Some ghost stories, for example those of M.R. [Montague Rhodes] James (1862–1936), explored similar themes. At the close of In Search of England (1927), H.V. Morton meets a vicar who tells him:

‘We are, in this little hamlet, untouched by ideas, in spite of the wireless and the charabanc. We use words long since abandoned. My parishioners believe firmly in a physical resurrection. … We are far from the pain of cities, the complexities … We are rooted in something firmer than fashion’.

In Three Act Tragedy (1934), the disabled Mrs Milray refers to ‘“The Lord’s will”’. At the denouement, there is also a social dimension, one that Christie brings up when Sir Charles Cartwright responds to Poirot: ‘He radiated nobility and disgust. He was the aristocrat looking down at the ignoble canaille.… Hercule Poirot, the little bourgeois, looked up at the aristocrat. He spoke quietly but firmly’. Speaking truth to power, or rather to social eminence and fame, Poirot is observed as taking a moral line, both in stopping murder and also in thwarting a would-be bigamist. The dubious morals of much of the ‘smart set’ have recently been highlighted in the 2021 first volume of a projected complete edition of the diaries of ‘Chips’ Channon. Poirot is more generally against crime, in The ABC Murders comparing murder to gambling. In ‘The Chocolate Box’ (1924), Poirot’s sole professional failure, he refers to himself as being ‘“bon catholique”’.

Religion is present again in Triangle at Rhodes (1937). Poirot goes to the Mount of the Prophet where he meditates on God permitting ‘himself to fashion certain human beings’ and advises Marjorie Gold to ‘leave the island before it is too late’, a moment recalled in the closing lines when he refers to being ‘on the Mount of the Prophet. It was the only chance of averting the crime… she chose – to remain…’ Thus, Poirot as prophet, and Gold as the sinner with free-will, who has rejected, through pride, the possibility of safety, are clearly revealed, with the message underlined in case the reader has missed it. Furthermore, as another aspect of morality, Poirot is convinced that, if the wicked escape, as in the case of ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923), it is at a price. In that story, and the capitalisation is in the original, the murderers gain the huge fortune of the victim, Harrington Pace, but Nemesis overtakes them. They crash in an aircraft and Justice is satisfied. In the penultimate scene in Death on the Nile (1937), Mrs Allerton and Poirot join in thanking God that there is happiness in the world. Earlier in that novel, Poirot has referred to a parable in the Bible when chiding Linnet Ridgeway.

Reference to God is part of everyday conversation; as in Murder Is Easy (1939) when Mrs Pierce reflects on the death of her young Emma Jane: ‘“a sweet little mite she was. ‘You’ll never rear her’. That’s what they said. ‘She’s too good to live’. And it was true, sir. The Lord knows His Own”’. However, in the same novel there is bitter criticism of the pompous press magnate, Lord Whitfield, who has a great faith and trust in Providence, with enemies of the righteous (the latter a group with whom he identifies) struck down by swift divine wrath. Luke Fitzwilliam finds excessive Whitfield’s retribution on the drunken chauffeur, and Whitfield’s comparison of himself with the Prophet Elisha is obviously inappropriate. Christie is clearly with Fitzwilliam, although, in a typical case of misdirection, the proud and pompous Whitfield is not in fact the villain.

The references to religion continue. N or M? (1941) takes its title from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, while in Evil Under the Sun (1941), Stephen Lane, a cleric, complains that ‘“no one believes in evil”’, whereas he firmly sees it as a powerful reality that ‘“walks the earth”’. Poirot agrees with this longstanding view. In Destination Unknown (1954), the villainous impresario of evil evades justice on earth, but Jessop comments ‘“I should say he’ll be coming up before the Supreme Justice before very long”’. The link between crime and evil is thus reiterated. Very differently, the continuity of ordinary Christian society is presented as significant in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), in which Inspector Weston of the St Honoré CID notes that there are few marriages on the island, but that the children are christened.

A practising Anglican, Christie was far from alone as a detective novelist with a strong religious sensibility. Others of this type included Freeman Wills Croft, as in Antidote to Venom (1938). The detective fiction of the period presupposed a providentially governed universe that could provide meaning. This was a key aspect of the religious necessities of such fiction and of the contemporary reporting on crime. At the same time, standards were more general. Thus, the world of Sherlock Holmes required a very striking stability so that clothes, routines, and other factors had a fixed and knowable meaning. These ideas of order, epitomised in character and behaviour, were an aspect not only of particular detective novelists, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, but also of the genre as a whole and, indeed, of social norms and practices.

Christie did not restrict her morality to crime. ‘Magnolia Blossom’, a magazine story of 1925, was not a crime piece but a three-way drama of a marriage under strain and of how people react. The role of the author in terms of judgment is not of course synonymous with the life of the author. It is well-established that some of the great detective writers had somewhat rackety personal lives (Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder). Yet, that rarely stops moral grandstanding or indeed simple conformity. And so with detective fiction, much of which relates to morality, directly or by reflection, and with both the author and the reader offering moral frameworks. Indeed, in one respect, fiction is an attempt to offer guidance in a post-Providential world. In an urgently-religious age, Providence brings an instant fate to the wicked, but, by the 1920s, the religious environment was somewhat different. Judgment in life came to be seen more as a matter of human agency and agencies, and the detective was to the fore. Yet, there could be a religious aspect to the moral dimension, a perspective vividly demonstrated in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (1945), a haunting drama of discovery.

Christian morality is applied by Christie in part in terms of the newlyfashionable psychological insights and in terms of the belief in heredity Poirot mentions in ‘The King of Clubs’ (1923), and in which he follows other detectives including Holmes. These insights provide both a subject for discussion and explanation and a particular modus operandi for Christie and her detectives. This is true not only of the ‘foreign’ Poirot, but also, albeit using a different language, the very English Jane Marple, who is first introduced in ‘The Tuesday Night Club’, a thoughtful short story of December 1927. In The ABC Murders, Poirot insists that it is crucial to treat the murderer as ‘“a psychological study”’ and ‘“to get to know the murderer”’. Subsequently he adds, ‘“A madman is as logical and reasoned in his actions as a sane man – given his peculiar biased point of view”’. Cards on the Table (1936) also sees an emphasis on the psychology of the suspects, which is a theme underlined in Christie’s Foreword. A total misunderstanding, one that is all-too-typical of responses by critics, was offered by Camilla Long in a television review in the Sunday Times on 16 February 2020 in which she claimed: ‘Christie didn’t do personalities; she felt any hint of psychology could distract from the plot lines’.

So also for others. In Three Act Tragedy, Lady Mary Gore, who, in a Christie-like autobiographical touch, had fallen for ‘a certain type of man’, foolishly thinking ‘new love will reform him’, explains to Satterthwaite that:

‘Some books that I’ve read these last few years have brought a lot of comfort to me. Books on psychology. It seems to show that in many ways people can’t help themselves. A kind of kink…. It wasn’t what I was brought up to believe. I was taught that everyone knew the difference between right and wrong. But somehow – I don’t always think that is so’.

Satterthwaite adds that: ‘“Without acute mania it may nevertheless occur that certain natures lack what I should describe as braking power… in some people the idea, or obsession, holds”’. In ‘The Red Signal’ (1933), Sir Alington West, ‘the supreme authority on mental disease’, explains: ‘“suppression of one’s particular delusion has a disastrous effect very often. All suppressions are dangerous, as psychoanalysis has taught us”’.

The methodical and intelligent Superintendent Battle, who first appeared in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), acknowledges a debt to Poirot’s psychological methods in Towards Zero (1944). The language varies, but the theme is constant. In Death in the Clouds (1937), the young Jane Grey challenges the ‘“very old-fashioned idea of detectives”’ as involving disguise (as Holmes had done), as nowadays they simply think out a case psychologically.

Christie was far from alone in her interest in psychology. Thus, in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), Gladys Mitchell, who was up on Freud, introduced as her detective Mrs Beatrice Bradley, the author of A Small Handbook of Psycho-Analysis. Yet, Christie had a much more Christian feel for psychology. At the brilliant end of Crooked House (1949), where there is one of the more outstanding reveals, there is a psychoanalytic explanation in terms of ‘retarded moral sense’ and heredity, including of ‘ruthless egoism’. More bluntly, this becomes “There is often one of the litter who is ‘not quite right”’, and Christian judgment and justification are offered: ‘“I do not want the child to suffer as I believe she would suffer if called to earthly account for what she has done…. If I am wrong, God forgive me… God bless you both”’. In Hallowe’en Party (1969), Mrs Goodbody, the very pleasant local witch, or, at least, fortune-teller, is clear on the real presence of evil:

‘wherever you go, the devil’s always got some of his own. Born and bred to it … those that the devil has touched with his hand.
They’re born that way. The sons of Lucifer. They’re born so that killing don’t mean nothing to them … When they want a thing, they want it… Beautiful as angels, they can look like’.

Mrs Goodbody contrasts this with black magic: ‘“That’s nonsense, that is. That’s for people who like to dress up and do a lot of tomfoolery. Sex and all that”’. At the same time, Honoria Waynflete, in Murder is Easy, is compared to a goat which is presented as an apt symbol of evil, as also in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham (1931). In Honoria’s case, her behaviour is discussed as an instance of the touch of insanity allegedly present in old families, and she is definitely seen as unhinged. Being a ‘“wrong ’un”’ is the problem for Roger Bassington-Ffrench in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934).

Although there was no equivalent to Doyle’s strong interest in Spiritualism, the occult plays a role with Christie, one that is understated in television treatments. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ (1971) very much offers the idea of the mixing of this world with a spirit world, as the dead Lily joins Harley Quin from the other world to help Mr Satterthwaite protect the living in a combination that Christie described in her autobiography as her favourite characters. So also with the protection of many ghost stories both of this period and of earlier ones, such as those of Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–73). An altogether more menacing moral framework is on offer in Christie’s The Hound of Death (1933). The occult is to the fore in this mysterious and disturbing tale of an alternative ‘Brotherhood’, but a moral retribution is delivered on the vulpine Dr Rose. The hound is very different from that of the Holmes story about the Baskervilles, while in the title-story of the collection there is a religious dimension not present in the latter.

Not black magic, but a good equivalent, can be deployed, as with the kindly nurse in Towards Zero (1940) who comes from the West Coast of Scotland where some of her family had ‘the sight’ or ‘Second Sight’. Possibly because the nurse, like Christie, can see what will occur in the novel, she tells the suicidal Angus MacWhirter that God may need him, and is proven correct.

In many respects, Christie adapts psychological views to match Christian morality. That itself may appear to be one answer, but it is not so, for on matters such as free will Christianity offers a range of explanations. As a consequence, Christie’s work can in part be seen as an aspect of debate within inter-war Christianity, including English Christianity. In A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), the Calvinistic, very elderly Miss Ramsbottom, who is committed to missionary work as the ‘“Christian spirit”’, refers to Marple as ‘“frivolous, like all Church of England people”’. Christie was Church of England. Alongside Poirot’s concern for psychoanalysis, there is Marple’s blunter focus on, and denunciation of, wickedness, one that is more to the fore than with most of the clerical detective novelists of the period such as Ronald Knox and Victor Whitechurch: they generally left their cassocks at home. In A Pocket Full of Rye, Marple remarks ‘“This is a wicked murderer, Inspector Neele, and the wicked should not go unpunished”’, and Neele replies ‘“That is an unfashionable belief nowadays. Not that I don’t agree with you”’. Christie is speaking through both of them.

Aside from wickedness, the frequency with which murderers are castigated for ‘conceit and self-confidence’, as in The ABC Murders, is instructive. In that novel, Poirot seeks to psychoanalyse and profile the murderer after his first murder:

‘In one sense we know nothing about him – in another sense we know already a good deal…. A great need to express his personality. I see him as a child possibly ignored and passed over – I see him growing up with an inward sense of inferiority – warring with a sense of injustice – I see that inner urge – to assert himself
– to focus attention on himself ever becoming stronger …’

This approach is very deliberately contrasted with what is presented as a Holmesian one; although Sherlock also relied heavily on pre-Freudian psychology. This is to a degree that not all television and film versions of Poirot stories have fully represented. The point is very much driven home in ‘The Plymouth Express’ (1923), with the emphasis for Poirot on psychology, and not ‘scene of the crime’ footmarks and cigarette-ash. Inspector Japp, in contrast, focuses in this story on finding clues along the route. Based on Lestrade, Japp was introduced in the Mysterious Affair at Styles and appeared in seven Christie novels, always alongside Poirot, finally appearing in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940); although being mentioned thereafter. In The ABC Murders, Poirot jests with Hastings:

‘The crime was committed by a man of medium height with red hair and a cast in the left eye. He limps slightly on the right foot and has a mole just below the shoulder-blade’.
… ‘For the moment I was completely taken in’.

‘You fix upon me a look of dog-like devotion and demand of me a pronouncement à la Sherlock Holmes … it is always the clue that attracts you. Alas that he did not smoke the cigarette and leave the ash, and then step in it with a shoe that has nails of a curious pattern’.

In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot, to the anger of all, refuses to leave Boulogne to search for clues to the kidnapping such as tyre marks, cigarette-ends, and fallen matches because he must focus on a logical solution, which he does successfully. Similarly, in Death on the Nile, the murderer, as Poirot notes, is not so obliging as to drop a cuff link, a cigarette end, cigar ash, a handkerchief, lipstick, or a hair slide. Instead, in a comparison that would have come naturally to Christie, Poirot compares himself to an archaeologist clearing away the extraneous matter. This involves, as he notes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), using a hunting image, starting, as it were, several birds in a covert, as if seeking to create a form of creative disruption that will lead to the revelation of the truth. The misdirections provided through, and by, possible culprits are a form of this creative disruption as well as a response to it.

In practice, Christie offers a degree of caricature, as the Holmes stories include psychological insights, but she is correct to draw attention to a contrast. And not always simply with the detective. In ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (1923), Dr Giles tells Japp that he cannot give the time of death to an hour as ‘“those wonderful doctors in detective stories do”’.

And so also with other novelists. In J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Seven Dead (1939), Inspector Kendall, a figure of brusque intelligence and determined drive, remarks, ‘“When you don’t play the violin, or haven’t got a wooden leg, smartness is all you’ve got to fall back on”’, and says of Inspector Black: ‘“a good man. He doesn’t play the violin, either, or quote Shakespeare”’.

In a conversation in The Clocks (1963), not one of Christie’s better novels, Poirot gives Colin Lamb a long account of what he likes in ‘“criminal fiction”’. Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878) is praised for ‘“period atmosphere … studied and deliberate melodrama”’ and ‘“an excellent psychological study”’ of the murderer. Poirot then moves on to Maurice Leblanc’s The Adventures of Arsene Lupin (1905–7), which he finds preposterous and unreal, but also as having vigour and humour, which is indeed the case. Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907–8) is approved of from start to finish, not least for its logical approach. Charges that the novel is unfair are dismissed as there is truth concealed by a cunning use of words, which is very much Christie’s technique. Poirot notes that that masterpiece is now almost forgotten. The selection Christie offers in the account is scarcely insular, nor the approach xenophobic.

{…}
International malice and domestic conspiracy is an important context for some of Christie’s early work, and to this we will turn shortly. There is no but here, for categories overlapped, strands interacted, and there was no tightly defined set of parameters. Yet it is also important to see Christie in terms of the strength of a middle-brow reading public who wanted good stories and found detective fiction an established means to that end. This public was the key to the genre. At the same time, what this interest would mean in the post-war world was unclear, and authors developed their characters, plots, and styles, in the context of probing a readership that was resetting after that cataclysmic conflict.

And that probing was necessary in order to earn money, as Christie recorded making only an advance of £25 from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and that from a half share of the series rights which were sold to The Weekly Times. Her novel, however, had introduced two stars, herself and Hercule.


The featured image shows, “Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti,” by Tamara de Lempicka; painted in 1925.

The Compleat Mrs Lilian Broadbridge

Preamble

I grew up in Radlett, Hertfordshire, about 15 miles from London, in the same cunningly modified semi-detached late 1930s home for the first 19 years of my life, and would periodically return there, sometimes from New Zealand, for a further 19 years.

Our place was right by a bluebell wood and opposite wheat fields. Back then, Radlett was a rather smug, solidly, perhaps even slightly upper, middle-class place. Today it is dominated by footballers, plutocrats and other nouveaux riches. In my day, there were two titled people on my Horticultural Society delivery list (Dad was an avid dahlia grower) – and our quarterly bulletin was the splendidly titled, Weeder’s Digest.

The heroine of the literary amuse-bouches that follow, Mrs. Lilian Broadbridge, long gone to Jesus, lived in a detached house in the street running parallel to us, Newberries Avenue. Fortunately her back garden was one along, but within easy hailing distance – and, by Jove, her voice carried.

Were she alive today, I think she would be tickled pink by the thought of having her views on race relations and the Royal Family as well as her wider Weltanschauung committed to print (these are coming up in the months ahead)!. There’s even a thank-you letter from her to Dr Dass to that effect.

Her husband, Leslie, was a shadowy presence, whose later years were absorbed in his stamp collection, watching cricket on TV, and silently working in the garden during her lengthy absences ‘down the village’, as everyone called it.


Mrs. Broadbridge Talks Politics

Though I always vote what my Leslie votes for, for us it’s just like what Henry Ford said about cars. You can have any colour, so long as it’s true blue [laughs]. He actually said black, I know a thing or two about history, but you know what I mean. A proud, true blue Tory, that’s me, born, bred – and educated.

Mrs. Thatcher wants to protect our great grammar schools, and I can tell you that getting into Watford Grammar was a life-saver for young Les. You won’t catch me dead in a ditch voting Labour! Their aim is to make everyone, regardless of their ability and intelligence, everyone equal. That’s alright on a desert island maybe, but on our island with 55 million people on it, it’s another matter. Equality is the slippery slope to communism, mark my words. And what did we fight the War for, with Winston at the helm, if it wasn’t to keep out those nasty Nazis and their pals the Reds?

Labour wants to tax you up to the hilt, down to the final penny. Les and I have precious little to show for after the taxman cometh, even with Mrs. Thatcher, thank heaven she’s in no. 10 now. And the price of those fresh vegetables at Draper’s (you’d never catch me going to Daryll’s on the other side of Watling Street), is really shocking. Melons 50p each! Never did I ever think it would come to this.

We have to scrimp and save, Les and me. And when we drove through the council estate on our way to Watford the other day, there was a late model Rover, or even worse a Toyota (I’ll never forgive them for what they did to our lads in the War).

Where was I? Yes, a gleaming Toyota parked on just about every drive, it made me almost ashamed of our Allegro. I ask you, where does all their money come from? And you should see what they cram into their trolleys in the supermarket, honestly, all those Cola bottles, beer cans by the dozen, huge packets of crisps, it’s money no object – alright for some!

Well, talking of shopping, I’d best be going down the village again myself, Les is clean out of his pipe tobacco, he’s a very particular man is our Les, but let me tell you this, though I love watching Cilla on Blind Date and some of those young men are really handsome, I’d never, ever hope to find a better or more loving husband…

Mark interjects (no chance earlier): So he’s a real man, is he?

Mrs Broadbridge: Oh you are a one! [Dissolves into laughter].

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, favourite reading of Leslie Broadbridge.

Mrs Broadbridge On Feminism

Those feminists are whiners and whingers. I never needed feminism and
just look at me now! As for bra-burning, well that’s even more stupid. When Leslie was courting me, he admired my endowments. Wearing a bra is part and parcel of them. Burning it would be like smashing my lovely, privately prescribed, tortoiseshell glasses, cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Germaine Greer, seen confronting Mrs. Lilian Broadbridge.

And let me tell you this. If a woman can’t influence her husband in every way, she must be some kind of a ninny. I’m quite progressive, really, and once the children are at school, I quite understand it if a woman wants to go back into the big wide world and find a job – and do very well in it. But that’s about as far as my feminism goes and if that cocky Germaine Greer ever comes anywhere near Newberries Avenue, I’ll jolly well give her a piece of my mind!


Mrs Broadbridge Says Thank You

[Ooh! I have a soft spot for handsome Indian gents, while Les is a big fan of that cunning slow bowler in the pink turban, the Venerable Bedi he calls him!]

Dear Dr Dass,
Never would I have thought that our clever young Mark, from that semi-detached in Theobald Street, would be featuring an article on the likes of us!! Truth be told, I’m really chuffed. You notice, as a literary man, how
I write it correctly, not “never would I of thought.” There lies a story! I wrote that in primary school and got a black star, my only one. My teacher said, and full of sarcasm Miss Venables was, ‘You don’t want to be one of the great unwashed!’

No I do not, and to this day I’ll have you know I enjoy two hot baths a week, complete with my lovely Yardley Lavender salts. Leslie, he does the same, and – I’ll let you into a little secret – he sings rather loudly in the bath. Lordy, I heard him bellowing out :We all live in a yellow submarine” last night, and it gave me quite a giggle.

Well, that’s more than enough of our private lives for the time being at least, but before I go, just to say many thanks indeed for publishing our boy!!

Sincerely yours and God bless,
Lilian Broadbridge (Mrs.)


The featured image shows, “Housewives’ Choice,” by Winifred Hartley; painted in 1956. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Crawford.

What A Piece Of Work Is A Man: Dostoevsky And Humanity

Your meeting with a book that became one of the most important books in life remains forever in your memory. And the writer who created that book becomes close to you, like family. Of course, this is not immediately understood, but only after the years go by. You return again and again in your memory to that day and hour when that cherished meeting took place. This happened with me when, as a student of the Urals University, I left the reading room all shaken after reading the novel, The Idiot. It seemed to me that my hair was standing on end, that my soul was as if struck, and it shook from the blow.

And so, from that same university winter, from age nineteen and for the rest of my life, the characters of Prince Myshkin, Nastasia Philippovna, Parfen Rogozhin, and others in that immortal novel entered into the very center of my heart. And later, throughout the course of my life did this novel and Dostoevsky’s fate call back to me, often determining turns in that course—at times even sharp turns.

This is what I want to tell you about today. Especially since we are in the “Year of Dostoevsky.”

Dostoevsky As A Herald Of Christ

After the second year of university, we students of the journalism school were sent for internships to the regional newspaper. I ended up in the town of Bogdanovich in Sverdlovsk province, at the newspaper called, “Flag of Victory”. I was supposed to write about the harvest, and how things stood with dairy yields. And after my ridiculous forays into the fields and dairy farms, my searches for people who were supposed to tell about the business (I could have gotten all this information over the telephone but I was “studying life”), barely alive because I either hitchhiked or used my own two feet, I flopped down on the dormitory bed to have at least a tiny rest. Then I rose early to write my reportage on the zealous work in the fields and farms.

And so, in the morning as I walked past the movie theater to the office, I saw an announcement for the film, “The Idiot”. I was stunned. All that day I only thought about getting to the theater as soon as possible to watch that film.

I watched it. And that same evening I set about writing my first review. I really regret that I didn’t save it. The editor stripped down my “creative torments” to mere notes. His conclusion was that it was “too long”. The newspaper was of a small format—culture and sports, weather, and all the rest that allowed it to pay for itself left but a small spot on the fourth column. Into that spot did they squeeze my ecstatic notes on the film. I’m sure that it must have looked crazy in that newspaper.

It was 1958; after all, the “thaw” had begun, and our dreams were swirling around something as yet unrecognized but definitely significant, and human—something pertaining not to the number of hectares of harvested wheat and rye, but to the life of the human soul.

I recall those notes because when I returned to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), I had something to talk with my brother about. At the time, Anatoly was studying in the acting studio at the drama theater. Of course he had read The Idiot, and we watched the film together, then discussed it vigorously. In the theater, the excellent theatrical production of The Insulted and Humiliated was on, with Boris Feodorovich Iyin, a “people’s artist of the USSR”, brilliantly playing the role of Prince Valkovsky. And the young hero, the writer Vanya, was played by our favorite actor Constantine Petrovich Maximov, Anatoly’s teacher. He knew about my brother’s passion (besides Dostoevsky, we were voraciously reading the poetry of the “Silver Age” and had even organized an “Evening of forgotten poets”).

That is why he confirmed in the role of Andrei Rublev the totally unknown provincial actor, Anatoly Solonytsin, against the opinion of the entire artistic council.

But why does Prince Myshkin touch us so deeply, even stun us with his character, his fate? Why does Feodor Dostoevsky’s hero so stir us, despite the eccentricity of his actions? One critic has aptly compared Dostoevsky’s prose with “congealed lava”. Yes, he writes in such a way that his words as if erupt from the crater of a volcano, flow rapidly down the slope, wiping out everything on their path, and then congeal before our eyes, in our souls. The “golden pens” of the Russian literati, such as Turgenev and Bunin, even accused Feodor Mikhailovich of chaotic and sloppy writing.

Yes, Dostoevsky’s prose really was “unpolished”, as the author himself has said. But that is what makes it so remarkable and unique—its force and impetus. His characters are taken into “borderline” situations, when the “major” issues of life, as the author put it, are in the balance—into man’s existence in general.

Can a person in such moments of life talk without “choking on his own words”, in separate phrases? Moreover his heroes get entangled, and the entanglement comes from the fact that Dostoevsky is not afraid to show man’s “duplicity”, digging down at times to the most hidden depths of the soul. That is why his heroes say one thing but mean something entirely different, twist their way out of it and lie, while Prince Myshkin’s openness and childlike ingenuousness exposes them.

Just as do the exceedingly bold and “reckless” acts of Nastasya Filippovna.

Recall how she throws the bundle of 100,000 rubles Rogozhin brought into burning fireplace. One researcher of Dostoevsky’s works figured out that 100,000 rubles in Dostoevsky’s time would equal over a million USD today.

In the 1960s, out of romanticism I left for Kaliningrad to get a job on the whaling ship, the “Yuri Dolgoruki”. Because I was considered “unreliable” and therefore not someone who could be let out of the country, they didn’t take me out to sea. But I wrote my first stories about sailors “ashore”, and published my first book, with which I was accepted into the Soviet Writers’ Union. This took place at a meeting of young authors of the Northwest in Leningrad. There I saw the famous stage presentation of “The Idiot” with Innokenty Smoktunovsky in the main role.

I am not the only one who was stunned by the show. All who saw how Smoktunovsky played his role understood that a miracle was happening before their eyes. His Myshkin was naïve like a child, open, defenseless—and at the same time protected by the truth of Christ the Savior. It could even be that the actor did not understand that he was embodying on the stage a blessed one, whom everyone around him took for an idiot. Nor did the theater understand this. Years later, just before his death, on a lengthy television program the actor related that he roused the entire theater against himself because he continued to shape the role differently from how everyone—from the chief director down—was telling him to do it. He did it according to his heart’s urgings. The show’s premier was scheduled for December 31. It was four hours long. G. Tovstonogov was prepared for a failure, and that is why the premier was scheduled for New Year’s Eve.

For the first time in many years, the theater was half empty. But on January 1, news spread throughout Leningrad that in the Great Drama Theater a miracle had taken place. Then it became simply impossible to get a ticket. Because on that stage, for the first time in nearly century of godless rule, people saw authenticity of feeling, not human but divine truth, which shown in the actor’s eyes, in his inimitable intonation as he pronounced words about faith, love, and God. And the souls of all present in the theater opened up, empathized, wept, and laughed together with him.

Here is what Prince Myshkin says when Parfen Rogozhin asks him whether or not he believes in God:

“An hour ago, as I was returning to the hotel, I ran into peasant woman with her infant. The woman was still young, and the babe would have been about six weeks old. The child smiled at her, as she observed, for the first time since she was born. I looked, and the woman very, very piously, suddenly crossed herself. “What’s that, young lass?” I said (for I asked her about everything then). Well, she said it’s maternal joy for seeing her infant smile at her for the first time; for God has the same joy when He sees from heaven how a sinner starts praying to him with his whole heart for the first time. That is what the woman said to me in almost those exact words; and such a profound, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought in which the whole essence of Christianity is expressed in a moment; that is, the whole understanding of God as our own father… It’s a most important thought about Christ! A simple peasant woman!.. Listen, Parfen, you asked me just now and here is my answer: The essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit into any sort of discussion, any actions or crimes, any kind of atheism. Something is amiss there, and it will be that way for eternity. There is something on which atheism will forever slip up and miss the point. But the main thing is that you’ll most probably and clearly notice this “something” in the Russian heart—and that is my conclusion!”

When the show was over, for two or three minutes there was a sepulchral silence. Then the auditorium exploded in applause, shouts, and in such a pervading stormy ecstasy that’s hard to describe. This went on for twenty to thirty minutes. I was told that there were times when it lasted even longer. As the years passed, critics both in Russia and abroad (the presentation played also in London) understood that an event had taken place that was so huge, on a scale so significant that it’s hard to express in words. Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky stood before the people—alive, authentic, the man who is rightfully called a Russian genius.

The role of Prince Myshkin, I think, was the one for which actor Innokenty Mikhailovich Smoktunovsky was born. He played about a hundred roles in the movies. He acted in many good, even excellent theater productions. But none of them reached the heights of Prince Myshkin. The actor did not act, but lived on the stage the life, I repeat, of a man of God. He was also like that in real life—strange, and unfathomable for many. And in his best roles in both theater and film are heard those familiar intonations of Prince Myshkin—pauses, expressions of the eyes, gestures—of a man who is not of this world.

The [communist] party leadership also felt this, and that is why the performance was never videotaped. Only small snippets were saved for programs. Thank God, it was at least preserved on vinyl record disks, and a three-volume album was made available.

I still have my old “music center”, and favorite records. From time to time I listen to the recording of that amazing show, which during atheistic times told of a man who sacrificed his own life for the sake of his love of God and people.

What did Feodor Dostoevsky write about in his immortal novel?

To Guess At The Mystery

In a letter to his brother Mikhail, the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky wrote:

“Man is a mystery. It must be unraveled, and even if you’ve spent you whole life unraveling it, you can’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am occupied with this mystery, for I want to be a man.”

That is how the young Feodor determined the purposed of his life even before he’d written his first short story, Poor Folk, which Belinsky read and then exclaimed ecstatically, “A new Gogol has appeared!”

Feodor Mikhailovich felt with his heart his purpose in life. It is important to determine this purpose, or it would be better to say, calling, which is the meaning of your life. It is important not to betray it, but to walk what is often a thorny path, but a path that calls to you to follow the call of your soul. I don’t in any way want to compare the scope of the great writer’s gifts with those directors and actors who had the fortitude to play and produce the author’s works in theater and film. But the yearning to express in their creative work the hidden mystery that is embedded in his great novels, remains the cherished dream of many. This would include such film producers as Andrei Arsenievich Tarkovsky. After his films, “Ivan’s Childhood” and “Andrei Rublev”, which brought him international fame, he wrote an expansive proposal for the screening of “The Idiot.” An anniversary date was approaching—in 1981 it was proposed to have a grand celebration of the one hundred years since Dostoevsky’s death, and 160 years since his birth. Tarkovsky had the idea of filming a television series. In his diaries he wrote, “Solonitsyn would be ideal for the role of Dostoevsky.” In his proposal he determined that the author of the novel, i.e., Dostoevsky, should play the role of the narrator. This actor, Anatoly, was entrusted with the role of Lebedev—that very liar who swears his love for the “excellent prince” but at the same time writes an “exposé” about him. Myshkin was to be played by Alexander Kaidanovsky, and Nastasia Filipovna by Margarita Terekhova. My brother and I were transported when talked about the work ahead. Anatoly was even ready to have plastic surgery in order to look more like his favorite author.

“How are you going to play other roles if you undergo such surgery?” Tarkovsky asked him.

“Why would I need any other roles, if I’ve played Dostoevsky?” my brother answered.

The surgery never happened, because Tarkovsky’s proposal was rejected. But Anatoly would yet experience the happiness of embodying the great writer’s image on screen—albeit in a film of a completely different scale.

The film was called, “26 Days in the Life of Dostoevky”.

I’ll tell you in a little more detail why in that memorable time an amazing “coincidence”, as it would seem at first glance, took place.

Anatoly was forty-five years old—just like his hero when in 1866 he dictated the novel, The Gambler (to a stenographer). Like his hero, after a family catastrophe Anatoly had proposed to a girl who was half his age. Like his hero, Anatoly’s love was requited—and she transformed the entire rest of his life.

And hadn’t Anatoly also worked under similar circumstances?

“Well, the novel will have to be rushed by post-horses”, Feodor Mikhailovich said to Anna Grigorievna [his stenographer and future wife].

And the film was also shot as if by “post-horse”. Anatoly was under pressure to make a down payment on a cooperative apartment, and he was in debt up to his ears.

When I arrived in Moscow and met with my brother, I read the scenario and told him about all this.

He smiled, “Do you think they know about this? They hired me as a serious and reliable professional, and that’s all.”

But in fact they didn’t just “hire” him so simply. N. T. Sizov, director of Mosfilm at the time, summoned Anatoly and asked him to help the group of “26 Days in the Life of Dostoevsky”. “People’s Artist of the USSR” Oleg Borisov, who was playing the leading role, had just left the group. Half of the film had already been shot, but the creative formats of the director and the actor, different from the very beginning, had now irreversibly diverged. My brother could not bring himself to refuse the requests of the general director, who had shown both attention and care towards the actor, and of the producer, who had produced Anatoly’s favorite films from childhood on. Anatoly knew that the picture would be filmed under tough deadlines—a plan is a plan, and cinema is also a production line. But as an actor, Anatoly always needed time to “rev up”, time to take on his role. Anatoly was also dissatisfied with much of the screenplay. But after all, we’re talking about Dostoevsky!

“I don’t have enough time… You see, I’m living in a hotel across the street from Mosfilm. We’re punching two shifts in a row… It’s an endless race… You know, the only thing that seems not so bad to me so far … One scene… Where he’s with students, where Anna has taken him. He talks about hard labor in prison, and argues with the youths… And then he has an epileptic fit… Only don’t tell anyone this, understand? (He always began with these words whenever he wanted to tell me something important.) Do you understand, they started applauding. The entire group… That’s not acceptable in filmmaking, it’s sort of against the rules of decency. But they applauded, and Zarkhi didn’t criticize anyone for it. Then another double, and again applause. It’s stupid of course. The guys explained that they couldn’t help it. Well, there you are, I’m boasting… But even without the applause I feel that the scene was successful.”

But that very episode was cut from the film—it supposedly “didn’t reflect the writer’s character.”

Our bureaucrats “of art”, as if they had a mine detector in their hands, always find the very best scenes or pages in books, which they simply must “delete as extraneous”. And this applies not only to the past—even today these “mine detectors” are still in their hands for some reason.

Nevertheless, the film was successful not only in our own country but also on the international level. It represented our film industry at the thirty-first International Film Festival in Western Berlin. Here is what the papers wrote:

“Outstanding in the film was the role by Anatoly Solonitsyn. In conjunction with the sincere ingenuousness of Evgenia Simonova, it all together gives us a glimpse into the creative mystery of those literary works of genius, and into the character of a great man who inspired the whole world’s admiration… (Die Welt).

There is no point in comparing the performances of actors in films and plays in which they played the same roles. Different times determine differently both the position of the producers and, correspondingly, the role of the actors. But there are “breakthroughs”, when the performer of the leading role refuses to conform himself to the will of circumstances, producers, or even collective opinion, and does not waiver from the path leading to understanding a man’s mystery.

So it was with Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who wouldn’t heed the “vulgar” advice of famous actors and a no less famous director, as he expressed it in the foregoing story I’ve told you concerning the play, “The Idiot”. He walked a torturous path to the hidden mystery of the man whom Dostoevsky named, Prince Myshkin.

So also was it with Anatoly Solonitsyn, who against all circumstances, both mundane and creative, was able by force of his God-given talent to break through to the secret of that author, who lived and created to the glory of God.


Alexei Solonitsyn is a prominent Russian actor and film script-writer. This article appears courtesy of Pravoslavie.


The featured image shows a portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, by Ilya Glazunov; painted in 1968.

Limericks A Tad Quitain

Me, I’ve been a poet since the age of six or seven, when my mentor was the very great Spike Milligan. The following was my favourite “Uncle Spike,” and I somewhat fear, dear readers, that it isn’t especially woke:
“A thousand hairy savages/ Sitting down to lunch/ Gobble-gobble, glub-glub/ Munch, munch, munch!”

Not only did I admire its visceral intelligence, but for a six-year-old, being taught stuffy English middle-class manners and mores, it was irresistibly subversive. Under Spike’s influence, I penned the following couplet:

“My dear,” said I, “my bonnie lass.”
But she replied, “You silly ass!”

It would prove uncannily prophetic à propos my subsequent overtures to the fair sex. Though my creativity and quality have somewhat dimmed since, I now find the Muse hits me powerfully, and in my unbiased view, not unimpressively. Blame semi-retirement for that. So here, dear reader, find a number of art historical Limericks – these shouldn’t upset anyone fearing an abrupt transition from the genre of my jokes. Talking of which, one really good joke does accompany this selection.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915.

In this preface – the editor considers my output here worthy of Dr Johnson on the Bard (and he’s spot-on, as usual) – I will refrain from providing any of the usual, tedious art historical summaries. Apart from the Kiwi-Croatian painter Milan Mrkusich (1925-2018), an abstract artist of singular intellect, rigour and impenetrability to fools who wish every picture to tell a story, my exemplars are all well-known figures, compatible with everybody’s cultural arsenal. “Bloody Arsenal!” protests one reader (the epithet was stronger), “What about Spurs?”

My good man, is my reply, pray what do you think you are doing, reading this erudite journal?

But first, some amuses-bouche…


A well-known writer, Marcus Stocker, had just written a novel which he was quite pleased with, but for reasons best known to himself, decided to change the name of his leading character from David to Geoff. The “find” and “replace” function did its bit. Rather too well, as Stocker only remembered when it was too late that he had referred to a famous statue by Michelangelo…

My friend Lisa, an attractive young woman with plucked eyebrows who has a lovely smile the rare moments she is serene, is nonetheless prone to whine and whinge. You qualify as an art historian if you can guess her nickname.

My Maori friend Tama is slightly affected, and has artistic aspirations. Hence, he named his beloved daughter Moana Lisa.
[pause for laughs]
Later on in life, Tama was prone to eloquence in praising Moana’s beauty: “Moana Lisa rocks; she’s older than the rocks among which she sits”, blahblahblah. Moana is a smart lass, and and her response is “Oh shut up, Pater!”

Right. Now on to the much-anticipated limericks…


Eat your poor heart out Yeats,
You’re no better than Stocker or Keats
There was once a time
You could make it rhyme
But now who admires your bleats?

An elderly painter named Milan
Said, “I’ve got this brilliant p-lan
I’ll paint a red square,
What it means I don’t care,
But critics will all praise my e-lan”

Rodin told Camille Claudel,
You really are my kind of gel,
You’re a real good looker
Ma petite French cooker,
Now, help with those damn Gates of Hell!’

The Thought (Camille Claudel) by Auguste Rodin, 1888-1889.

A very idiomatic translation of the above follows from Mark’s attractive friend, Antoinette. He asks, “Why do the French always end up going to bed when we’d rather play Scrabble™?” To which she replies, “Come with me, Dr Stocker, and find out!” But I digress!

Rodin dit à Camille:
T’es quand même une chic fille!
Tu excelles au ciseau
Presque autant qu’aux fourneaux.
Mais tu es, mon canard,
Encore mieux au plumard!

The heterosexual male
Will try but invariably fail
De ne jamais toucher
Le grand sexy Boucher;
He really is beyond the pale!

Mademoiselle O’Murphy by François Boucher, 1752.

Georg Baselitz leaped into fame
With paintings that all looked the same.
His figures – inverted –
Made us once disconcerted,
But he’s now at the top of his game!

Henry Moore said, “My sculpture is goals,
Organic and pierced with great holes.
This was Barbara’s idea,
Now it’s mine – the poor dear,
You women have second’ry roles!”

An erudite scholar of Mich-
elangelo, Klee and Van Dyck [not our Bard – Ed.]
Claimed, “For my part,
I know all about art,
But I’ve no idea what I like!”

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
Insults sweet Avignon gels.
But he said, “I don’t care
If they’re cubic or square
So long as my masterpiece sells!”

David resolved for a laugh,
He’d paint old Marat’s last bath.
He paid for his error,
Supporting the Terror,
And did Charlotte hurt him? Not half!

Bernini, when sculpting Theresa,
Said, “I just know what will please her.
An angel – so fierce
Her body will pierce
As heavenly sentiments seize her!”

As an apt aside, here are some of my favourite artists… There’s Jackson, the painterly dripper, Fontana the loose canvas ripper, The pious Giotto, The decadent Watteau And Frith, the Ramsgate day tripper!


Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.


The featured image shows, “Self-caricature in profile, standing,” a drawing by Edward Lear, October 1870.

On Homer’s Iliad: Why Eris, Mimesis and Menis Matter More Than Ever

The excerpt that follows is from Confessions of Odysseus by the late Nalin Ranasinghe (1960-2020), who was professor of philosophy at Assumption College.

This book is a unique reading of Homer in that it seeks to examine modernity through the Iliad and the Odyssey. As Predrag Cicovacki in his indispensable preface to the book, elucidates: “In Ranasinghe’s view, Odysseus is both the first recognizable human being and a model of curious and concupiscent human rationality that constantly strives toward the virtues of self-knowledge and moderation. Homer leads us to believe that the cosmos leans toward virtue, although its fundamental truths may be inherently unspeakable. This is the line of thought that Ranasinghe believes was further developed by Socrates, Plato, and Jesus, while being obscured by Aristotle, Augustine, and their followers. Homer’s later epic and his central insights are, according to Ranasinghe, the most fertile soil on which a humane civilization can grow and flourish.”

The book is forthcoming from St. Augustine. Be sure to pick up your copy of this very interesting journey of ideas.


When I started this book, it was Obama’s hour. He hoped to end the Bush wars, fix the economy and bridge our divisions. Homer’s epic pointed towards a new Oresteia: a millennial trilogy going from oracular Oprah and orgulous Osama to obsequious Obama. But we fell from tragedy into a satyr play, an infernal Punch & Judy parody of Achilles’ divine rage/Menis at Troy. This internecine strife delights the ruling rich; taking sides like Olympians, they pit puppets against proles. Yes, they can plunder without risk (or even dismantle the state) if we’re distracted by rage.

Our masque of Menis began when a new Clytemnestra enraged the white proletariat; its honest but blind fury soon found a demagogic messiah. Thirsting for hot blood they declared war on the bi-coastal elite, “deep state,” Jews, blacks, aliens, science, and the world. While this rebirth of rage thrills the mob, our hidden gods use its innate nihilism to push a crass agenda. As his war against all rages endlessly, their puppet-messiah mocks morality, fakes news, fosters crony capitalism, and gets America high on hatred. My tale ends apocalyptically when his puppeteers emerge to claim power over a bankrupt state and its alienated citizenry. Corporate tyranny, race war, cyber addiction, and debt slavery await if we do not stop this fake Achilles and the real rage he arouses.

That is why we must return to our origins—reading the Iliad and studying the blinding power rage exerts over city and soul before seeking Homer’s cure for this disease. While the remedy is found in his tale of Odysseus’ late return from Troy to save Ithaca, we must first ask our oracle the right question by decoding the Iliad. Homer has done most of our work for us; Socrates and Plato only retrieved what was implicit in his texts. They used a way of Midrash finely begun by Attic tragedy. This playful exegetic art was replaced by Aristotle’s scholastic science, but it can yet be recovered.

Homer must be read as the wisest Greeks did, not for fantastic tales of the Olympians but because his myths reveal eternal constants of the human state: the soul’s ruling passions and the possibility of knowing and educating these false gods. Wrestled with thus the Iliad becomes a cautionary tale, not one urging literal reading or mindless mimesis. It may always be that for the few who grasp Homer, many more will obey his gods or imitate his antiheroes; but the Odyssey hints that while its poet sees this potential for misuse, he is willing to take a noble risk and hope that eros can listen to and educate thumos. This faith is implicit in his tale of Achilles and the Trojan War. It is vital today that we see how the West’s end resembles its angry origins, as depicted in the Iliad. This is why Homer is said to be as fresh as the morning newspaper. His wisdom may outlive our literacy.

Even as subservient propagandists try to justify the ways of kings to man as divine providence, genuine inspired poetry continues its subversive struggle to reveal how the true gods see the world in all its fragile beauty; to this extent bards are literally poet/makers or better, savior/refreshers of reality. Thus, the Iliad shows how a plague of Menis, divine or divinized rage, infected our ancestors. But if this tragic poem is not read rightly—but seen as a paean to the glory of Ares/Achilles—this plague will return to punish our perverse piety and violent ignorance. Eris’ apple that began the Trojan war thus resembles the forbidden fruit of Eden that brought us the Fall. These very forces, viral strife and toxic knowledge, have joined their baleful powers again today.

The Unlikely Aristeia Of Hephaestus

Achilles is the starting point of each generation. Politicians raising new armies to kill each other rekindle his wrath and deploy his ever-alluring archetype for power and profit. He is used today in a way that would make even Agamemnon’s gross shade blush. The formless souls of our young are stunted by easy access to infernal weapons; we become self-forgetting, superpowered and superfluous by technology. Hephaestus does not hobble anymore; by his artifice and Hobbes’ counsel, the war of all against all has been escalated exponentially. No more Aphrodite’s cuckolded spouse, this god now exceeds Ares and Athena in glory and might; he makes angry boys socially inept and economically useless, but able to take pagan vengeance on judgmental Christian culture.

In short, as Max Weber sagely saw, Hephaestus the deformed deity once thrown down from heaven, may now be seen to have restored the Olympians for a secular second sailing. Today it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the Gods (worship them as Hera, Ares, Aphrodite and Dionysus or call them jealousy, violence, sex and alcohol as any good sociologist would) are more powerful than that Enlightenment paradigm, the educated post-Christian individual, could possibly imagine. The confidence in calculation that led men to abandon the Homeric, Platonic, or Christian soul and replace it with Aristotle’s nous or silicon chips is thus proven by experience to be misplaced and unfounded. Even artificial intelligence or the much-anticipated event of the “Singularity” cannot save us from ourselves. Thus, if they have not done so already, the Gods and/or centrifugal forces of postmodernity have chosen to tear soul, city, and cosmos apart. Today technology has created a world where everyone from 8 to 80 strives to be Achilles at 18. Even worse, since our culture has been infantilized by promises of eternal youth and mindless pleasure, we are all concupiscent consumers: selfish suitors as ripe for slaughter as Penelope’s wooers.

But the deeper question is if we, like Achilles, his comrades, and the stupid suitors, are trapped by Hephaestus in a Hobbesian Hell, a war of all against all from which there are only apparent armistices but never any true respite or relief. Even Jesus could not bring peace on earth. Then, after Christianity became the exclusive faith of a persecuting empire, St. Augustine rendered unto Caesar the perverse doctrine that due to original sin, life on earth is a dark state of continual deserved punishment; further, as peace is impossible, good Christians must meekly await the apocalypse. In this condition slavery is to be preferred over rule since there are fewer opportunities for sin. Augustine also denied self-knowledge; we only know ourselves as sinners. He asserts, and we must believe, that God/the Church knows us better than we know ourselves. He/it also predetermines whether or not we are good or evil, destined for heavenly bliss or hellish damnation.

Made to choose between undeserved slavery/sin and ostracized outlaw-hood, many men plea-bargained: they accepted the false charges against their soul and picked theocratic authoritarianism over raw anarchy. This craven wish for liberation from freedom trumps self-knowledge’s lonely innocence. As Paul told the Romans, if human righteousness is possible then Christ died in vain.

Modern technology offers a way out of this dilemma. It promises the Epicurean earthly pleasure of a suitor’s life to those who follow religion merely to enjoy the bliss of Christian heaven. As long as he renounces egalitarian ethics and spurns talk of human rights or justice, a bold man can enroll himself among the ranks of the elect and become a predator on a natural order that is destined to pass away. In time he may also come to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of chastising the natural slaves of creation. Augustinian Christianity, as both Luther and Calvin discovered, even gives a religious justification for this Darwinian distinction between the elect, the few mysteriously and undeservedly favored by God, and the losers left behind, unredeemed and doubly predestined. In short, we can enjoy a glorious life of a predator on earth and do so with a divine mandate. As the allied gods of terror and technology have brought us back to Homeric times, this book will claim that only Odysseus can redeem us from Achilles and set the cycle of civilization in motion again.

The Afterlife Of Achilles

But does blind Homer presume to criticize shining Achilles? Is the hero of the Iliad truly more like one of Penelope’s suitors than Odysseus? Is Achilles’ tale but an epic tragedy, and not the West’s founding epic of a betrayed hero? Can we hear his cry of rage and not hear Roland’s horn in an empty forest? I will argue that instead of trying to emulate him, as Alexander did, we must instead resist the siren song of his splendid vices and opt for the way of life led by Odysseus and Socrates. Achilles and Alexander spelled death to civic friendship, even as their bellicosity seemingly united Hellas. Achilles’ rage caused the Dark Ages as surely as Alexander ended Athenian freedom; Augustus then destroyed the Roman Republic and became universal landlord of a pacified empire. Later Augustine solidified this Thousand Year Reich by making a castrated Christianity its creed.

Perhaps only Odysseus and Socrates/Plato deliberately deviated from the brutal order wrought by Achilles’ potent afterlife. Achilles, Aristotle, Alexander, and Augustus are ultimately imperial and un-Athenian in that they address hoi polloi in the imperative. It is presumed that their divine mandate, tradition or force majeure trumps any right of plebs to think, speak, or act for themselves. Silencing dissent is necessary once the “best” lose reverence for the soul, their own included, and deign to rule directly over the huddled many they could have had killed. Statesmanship becomes a technique serving the Hobbesian imperative of keeping the people alive, orderly, and productive.

In short, the natural result of charismatic Caesarism is implicit slavery. And, if Caesarism is the telos of Achilles’ immortal desire for glory, his legacy or body is empire. From each of Caesar’s wounds grows a tradition, a Roman road or information superhighway, bringing civilization and trade smoothly down to every categorized part of a far-flung empire in time and space. There is no possibility of questioning precedent or going upstream by the liquid medium of dialectic; truth is reified as sacred tradition or even naturalized so that other possibilities cannot be imagined. Happiness is found when men pursue safe commodious pleasures under their landlord’s shadow.

Shakespeare saw that while the evil men do out-lives them, the good is interred with their bones.

Even a benign Imperator will use bad epic poetry to elevate his deeds, power, and divine mandate; he does so at the expense of nobles like Glaucus and Sarpedon who looked to tragedy to hallow their heroic rights. Poetry rather than sheer force of arms is the ultimate basis of lasting power over men; it gives their hegemony divine sanction. This is why Homer is greater than Achilles; what is a hero without a poet? While Augustus rather than Aeneas is the hero of Virgil’s artificial epic, Homer is dishonored when paid epigones turn his heroic tragedy into pseudo-epic founding poems.

This is why we must continually ponder if Homer sought to elevate Achilles to the unrivaled status he came to enjoy in pagan antiquity and every subsequent classical revival. In short, was Homer’s original intent descriptive and cautionary or prescriptive and valorizing? And if his true purpose is the former, could it be that the Iliad’s alluring surface serves to preserve its esoteric meaning over time, to survive a barbaric or imperial age when texts had to be memorized and recited? We shall make this argument later when we consider the end of Book 5 of the Odyssey where this very possibility seems to be analogically depicted. It is possible that Homer arrived after the Dark Ages and saw the potential for a tragic rendering of much older tales of Achilles and his mad wrath. Even though my reading of the Odyssey presupposes the ultimate insufficiency of the Iliad and its hero, a vexing matter that has consumed more gallons of ink than the quantity of heroic blood originally shed at Troy, and thus necessarily cannot be irrefutably proved here, I can show plausible grounds emerging from within the Iliad to support this outlaw interpretation.

It all began when Achilles lost faith in Zeus. After first rebelling against the selfish ways of Agamemnon, Zeus’ mortal counterpart, he then found himself to have been ultimately tricked by the god. But what is he apart from Zeus’ favor? Achilles once likened Patroclus to a little girl crying to her mother but is he any different? Further, the toxic deal Achilles has with Zeus leads to the disgrace of the hero as well the discrediting of the Iliad’s gods. Both Zeus and Achilles, not to mention Agamemnon, are ruled by necessity and care only for their own ascendency, glory, and power. While Zeus undergoes change in the shift from Iliad to Odyssey, Achilles only sees the emptiness of the deathless glory he cold-bloodedly sought. First, the sad wraith of Patroclus indicates the existence of soul, then Hector’s body proves immune to every humiliation Achilles can inflict, and finally Priam reveals that he too is braver than Achilles. Priam humbled himself, before the man who killed so many of his sons, out of love. This fond folly made him risk war for Paris; now it leads him to travel with Hermes, the leader of souls to Hades, to plead with Achilles’ Hellish rage. But Priam’s action shows us that he is a braver man and better lover than the “Best of the Achaeans.” Achilles’ guilty secret is that he loves his rage more than Patroclus. It makes him hate himself more than the man clad in his armor whom he slew: Hector. This could be why he protests too much in his humiliation of Hector’s body. He is already punishing himself in Hades.

*****

Voluntarism And Nihilism

War is easy to declare and almost impossible to conclude. For this reason, unjust relationships are so hard to end. Admission of prior wrongdoing leads to a demand for compensation and discredits illicit authority. This is why Agamemnon readily concedes Achilles’ martial superiority but then invokes a qualitative difference he must maintain by force of will; if not, he ceases to be king (or God in the case of Zeus). Even Zeus must maintain this irrational ratio with the other gods. Any true king or god thus must exceed logos! This absurd necessity compels masters but rules slaves.

Agamemnon grants that Achilles is a better warrior—but only because he displays a psychopathic indifference to life that his corrupt cynical commander can only feign sometimes. The Lion King creates rough order within but claims that he must always fight the original chaos outside. Yet if this logic is taken to an extreme, Agamemnon fears it will expose its ugly origin in his greedy will. The evil Achilles rages against is not ontological but artificial; it feeds on human selfishness. In short, growth and becoming must not be denied for the sake of being—defined as rigid order. Men need not be herded like unruly animals. Such an attitude denies the fluid quality of a human soul, affirms the cosmic primacy of violence, and denies the goodness and beauty of ultimate reality.

The seemingly craven Greek kings know quite well that if they query Agamemnon’s arbitrary will and undeserved hegemony, it is not only the justice and plans of Zeus that will come ultimately under fire, their own lordship will soon be scrutinized by men like Thersites; and so even meritocratic Odysseus cannot voice the resentment he feels towards aristocratic Achilles. The prospects of demagoguery and nihilistic anarchy loom once we have an exploited army united by unjust suffering; the demos must never see that sacred hierarchy ultimately rests on the human soul unknowingly denying itself. As they vainly defy Zeus’ will, Hera and Poseidon hint that their brother’s claims to total power are not as absolute as he says. This is also mimed in Odysseus’ duel with the Cyclopes when the hero claims to act in Zeus’ name. Wordy Polyphemus, the hero’s own ugly shadow, voices the resentment of the chthonic life forces exploited by Cronos’ crooked son. But this craft of cheating craftsman is not a tool to be readily turned against its users; if not used prudently, it can be a potent demagogic/fascist device once the many wrest power from their rulers. Freedmen must not emulate divine power; they should try instead to become fully human. Homeric humanism deftly steers between the Charybdis of greedy kings and the Scylla of the mob.

This is why the potential Achilles stands for must not be ruled by Ares or armed by Hephaestus. While he posthumously serves as an archetype by which angry youth are manipulated, Achilles himself is not courageous; true courage is erotic, it is not born of thumos, rage, or despair. Achilles is as solipsistic as Hamlet, but his rage is indulged by Thetis the ultimate helicopter parent. His guilt for Patroclus reveals all that is left of Achilles’ humanity. Patroclus was the last human Achilles had a loving relationship with. His lover’s affection was all that could contain Achilles’ titanic rage. After his death, many mediocre myths about his quasi-divine rage for glory began to possess/infect other men, even Penelope’s wooers. The myths made its victims as blind to results as to causes; they were happy to live in the immediate now, in the presence of the deluding power possessing them. Ares is not in the Odyssey; he is replaced by the giant shadow of Achilles. Ares only exists in the past via pre-Homeric bards, or in a caricatured form, in the present, as the suitors.

By reducing Ares to human proportions, both in his comic portrait of the god and by his tragic account of Achilles, Homer makes it possible for the contagious power of rage to be understood and addressed. But as we saw, Ares will be reincarnated as Mars the father of Romulus founder of Rome. Such a resurrection spells death to city and Eros; Roma is Amor spelled backwards. It represents a recipe by which a cold-blooded will to power can be made sacred and eternal; in effect, the so-called Eternal City is actually the death of the city state and the triumph of oligarchic family values. By contrast, Athena stands for the erotic ideal of a polity based on the potential for logos in all. The Odyssey may be read in this political way, not as the mother of all revenge tales.

Moving To The Odyssey

This political reading can be summed up simply. While Achilles saw too late that political theology’s gods are as unjust as its goals are empty, Odysseus is fated to atone for his sins and order his soul. Only then can he reconcile with Athena and receive a new account of divine justice, Troy’s true treasure, that may be brought back to Hellas. The two Homeric works are two halves of a whole: the first, a tragedy describing the perennial temptations inherited by every generation; and the second, an epic prescribing how these psychic diseases are cured. But while all youth seek to be Achilles, a truth as universal as that attributing mortality to Socrates, few gain the telos of life; Odysseus’ self-knowledge is as hard to hold as Socratic wisdom. The Iliad attracts the diseased many by its angry allure before a self-selected few are cured by continually re-reading the Odyssey.

While Homer is magnificently impartial in his refusal to take sides in the tragic conflict between Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad, it is evident in the Odyssey that there is a chasm between the two texts that has to be resolved. There is also a most urgent political problem to be addressed. This state of affairs may be seen to stem from the Iliad and the Trojan War but is found to derive more immediately from Achilles and Agamemnon. The mimetic attraction exerted by the former and the latter’s inability to assert legitimate authority have led to the state of affairs we see at the start of the Odyssey. It is not just the anarchy in Ithaca that is troubling. Many of the best heroes have perished and those who survive are but shadows of their great reputations. For all their fine war stories and professed love for his father, neither Nestor nor Menelaus can offer Telemachus even minimal military aid. They can no longer lay claim to Zeus-given authority over their war veterans or their angry orphans. This is why Odysseus is warned not to return home as Agamemnon did.

The losses and disillusionment caused by the war has made the alliance between Greeks forged by Agamemnon disintegrate. Anarchy reigns in many places and there is no longer any stomach for war or respect for rule. While Nestor, the ultimate survivor, is now more priest than king, Menelaus seems to rely on magic potions and money to rule Sparta. The Dark Ages are upon Hellas and they result from the Trojan War’s bitter aftereffects. Before it men thought they were divine puppets; too weak for self-rule, they preferred currying favor with gods and kings that licensed them to violate the even weaker. But the war exposed the weakness and folly of kings and even gods. Men who cannot trust their betters often lose the power to believe in their own virtue or that of others.

Hannah Arendt saw that politics, the basis of any human community that fosters true virtue, is the opposite of violence. The Iliad and Odyssey both reveal this crucial disjunction. In the Iliad Ajax and Priam are both braver than Achilles for neither embraced rage. Aristotle teaches that courage involves virtuous but risky acts chosen deliberately despite loving life and hating death. While Ajax is always there for his comrades, Achilles likes to slaughter the fleeing for his greater glory. His psychopathic indifference to other lives is punctured by his lover’s death; Patroclus’ display of civic courage shows the emptiness of Achilles’ entitled excellence; love, courage, humility, and friendship are all erotic and relational virtues. As such, they are alien to Achilles’ thumotic soul.

No longer secure in his thumotic identity as the chosen one, Achilles is driven back from his unreflective “heroic” existence between divine and human realms, down to the shallow depths of his soul. It now means little for him to be the spoiled darling of the gods. Even if fools imitate him and envy his great menis, Achilles’ spirit is already dead. In his lurid tale of the underworld Odysseus hints that like Heracles, the Iliad’s hero is in two places at once; despite the rage that made his glory immortal in Hellas, Achilles’ soul only knows self-hatred in Hades. It is clear that he does not want to be recalled or admired for acts that now torment him eternally. He wishes to be even less than a slave; even a slave is trustworthy within limits. We too realize that Achilles is limitless and untrustworthy. Role models like him make politics—and its basis, trust—impossible.

It follows that Achilles, being incapable of friendship, is inimical to cities and civilization; he must not be seen as the West’s founding hero but as the hater of every city and wall—not just Troy’s. Walls do not make a city, but a wall of fear is built around the Greek camp after Achilles changes the quality of the comradeship between this band of pirates. Even Troy becomes less of a city by the favor Zeus bestows on Hector at Achilles’ request. Though for a while Hector is the besieger of the Greek walls he is but Achilles’ factor, even before donning his fatal armor. Is the temporary rout of the Greeks due to Hector, Achilles, or Zeus? Once Zeus withdraws his favor, hubris-hungover Hector elects to fight outside the walls, dooming himself and his city. The loss of Hector cost the Trojans more than Achilles’ death weakened the Greeks. It could even be that Achilles had to die before Odysseus takes Troy; glory is exchanged for guile and human intellect seems to matter more than the short-lived gifts of immoral gods. It is as if Odysseus must bring Achilles down with Heracles’ bow for the war to end. Athena’s metis has to defeat Ares’ raging menis.

The reader of the Iliad has knowledge that neither Greeks nor Trojans were privy to. Intelligence of Thetis’s successful request that Zeus help her son by humbling Agamemnon’s forces helps us see through the brazen “armor of the lie” worn by Achilles; he is not one who hates more than the gates of Hades someone who says one thing and means another. While Nestor shrewdly suspects that Achilles has a secret deal with Zeus, a deal never disclosed even to Patroclus, but which serves as the basis for his confident expectation that Agamemnon will come begging to him, we see that Achilles is not just a spoilt glory-hound but a real traitor. This pledge explains Achilles’ belated promise to arm when his own ships were attacked. But, as with most divine bargains, he is fooled when Patroclus is killed. Then, as Phoenix warned, an ugly thumotic necessity, born of rage, shame, and self-hatred makes Achilles take up arms but at the cost of the immortal glory he madly desired.

Achilles stands for the disillusionment of the young with corrupt leaders and the rigged community norms sustaining them. Like him they return to their tents or Hobbesian suburbs and commodious booty. While Achilles’ earlier immediate and unreflective “all-in” state is like Heidegger’s fatalistic rejection of self-knowledge, for it lets us be at the disposal of Zeus or Hitler, his deep grief is proof of a soul’s existence. But this sorrow must be led from the tent/cave and clad decently—not left in the brazen armor of the lie. Achilles was first ruled by false value-markers that disordered his soul; those were norms of virtue set by corrupt Agamemnon. These honors he rejects with fitting disgust. But nihilism is not the answer. Neither is a long obscure life. We turn to the Odyssey. It is Odysseus who must “transition” from Ares/Achilles into himself: he must be more than a Hephaestus who captures the Achilles-miming suitors of Aphrodite/Helen’s cousin in his web of lies and trickery.

How A City Should Read The Iliad

Achilles’ tale is tragic, not epic. The Iliad is cautionary and not foundational. After losing his quasi-divine self-sufficiency, realizing that he too needs the political goods of love and comradeship, Achilles sees that his peers could no longer give him respect or friendship. Since he is favored by gods and not truly fighting beside them, he is merely a tool for victory: like Philoctetes’ bow. So even killing Hector is empty; it cannot remove the disgrace or negative kleos he sustained by allowing Patroclus to be killed in his place. Achilles reveals the extent of his knowledge when he rigs the games for Patroclus. Earlier he rejected the glory gained from a rigged war and the cheating Olympians. Next believing there is nothing more and, playing the role of Zeus as he presides over the funeral games, he offered a less violent glory for those like Antilochus who belong to the next generation. Then, as noted, he meets a braver man than himself: Priam. Priam’s futile love for his dead son penetrated Achilles’ arms and did what Hector could not. The Iliad teaches that there is no glory without courage; but this quality is born of love, not from mad despair or tragic thumos.

Tragedy exposes the deeper rules undergirding the beauty of the cosmos and the tragic hero is happy to see this sublime vision, even in death, although he gains no profit from this insight and lacks the ability to take it back to the cave. Achilles is not truly the best; what he has is the unfair favor of the gods, compounded further by the treacherous deal he makes with Zeus. This inequity is imaged in Patroclus’ funeral games. It is also so with Ajax; it is ultimately the favor of Athena who gives Odysseus Achilles’ arms. Yet this very apotheosis as Achilles/Ares destroys Odysseus; he cannot educate his own soul. As Heraclitus said, “it is difficult to fight thumos, it buys what it wishes at the cost of psyche” DK B85. Odysseus must learn to renounce this rough magic, become invulnerable in the heel and spike the landing or return to common humanity in a way that truly redeems the ache/rage of his laos/people. This is how he truly surpasses Achilles! The hero of the Iliad merely stands beside the people’s pain but does not mitigate or represent it. Homeric tragedy becomes true epic in the Odyssey. Here, instead of living off his thumos, Odysseus uses his psychic and erotic ability to see all souls and cities. He thus gives fine expression in both speech and deed to what Aristotle would describe much later as a soul’s power to be all things. The soul is also the basis for the axiomatic assertion of human equality, a lofty ideal first explored in the Odyssey.

The Greeks came to see that human souls were best cultivated in a polis. And, as Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, a polity finds its origin in the extension of friendship. The Iliad shows how even the gifts and favors of the gods were not sufficient to actualize Achilles’ soul. While interactions among the Greeks provide fine examples of comradeship, their union does not on final analysis exist to foster a good life for all; despite providing us many pregnant pre-political instances of ad hoc deliberation among pirate kings, their discussions pertain to tactics rather than the common good. It is only after the war’s bitter pyrrhic end that the true interests of the many become visible.

But Troy does not serve as an example of a polis either. Priam’s city is but the oikos or household of a wealthy family; the Trojans do not argue over strategy or discuss whether or not Helen should be returned to Menelaus. It is hard to imagine the besieged men of Troy putting Paris’ marital bliss before their bodily safety and fighting ten long years just for Helen. While men like Priam and Hector were pious, and duly offered fine sacrifices to the gods, there is something lacking in merely ritual virtue—although failing to honor the Olympians in this way will certainly incur their ill favor. Trojan piety is stagnant and there is no mutually beneficial interaction with the gods; Troy’s god-built walls are too thick. The towering city of Ilium is but a royal citadel held together by its great wealth. His gold lets Priam indulge Paris, buy allies, and withstand a long siege. It is vital to see that Odysseus’ household is like Troy. Here too, great wealth is feasted away and not replenished.

But the Iliad also gives many reminders that Olympus itself is like a rich household. The gods seem to lead an Epicurean existence that is only relieved by the excitement of the war. But even the gods are not truly self-sufficient since they crave honor and a self-knowledge they cannot give themselves; it seems that happiness or eudaimonia is closely related to divine activity beside heroic mortals; the deathless gods can only revel in their power when they use it meaningfully. This involves human tragedy and not divine comedy. Left to themselves the gods are like the idle playful Phaiakians, and Athena is no better than lovesick princess Nausicaa; it seems that even gods must go “slumming” like Paris to find beauty and meaning beyond their perfect essentiality. Even the gods are political animals; they can best be groomed, known, or seen by us in a just city.

The converse of this ironic situation is seen in the Odyssey’s second half; now we find that the heroes whom the gods need do not hold virtue apart from the gods or their fellow men. This is the essence of tragedy; the case of Achilles is paradigmatic and not exceptional. As much as we admire towering Ajax, he is not self-sufficiently clad in virtue. Sophocles will have jealous Athena break Ajax: first by seducing him with glory, then manipulating his rage, and finally leading him to see his comrades through divine eyes: as cattle. While Ajax never manifested this fury when he took on Hector and was most himself when he fought fearless foes threatening these comrades, he seems no better than an angry ox once Athena champions Odysseus, his rival for the arms of Achilles.

Upon final analysis the Iliad could be read as a duel between a god and man: Zeus and Achilles. Both seek to remain in unrivalled unchanged superiority and yet, by the tragedy’s end, both have lost. While Achilles’ fall is more overtly imminent, the seeming victor—following a pattern seen with Patroclus, Hector, and even Achilles himself—is warned of his own swift approaching death. Even as Zeus and Apollo will unite to bring about the end of Achilles, seemingly the greatest threat to the limits between gods and men, the doomed mortal’s disillusioned rage has exposed the “two-faced double-dealing” ways of Zeus and himself. While these most ignominious epithets were hurled at Ares, careful readers/hearers of the Iliad know that the god and man to whom they best apply are Zeus and Achilles. They are as badly exposed as Patroclus was before Hector slew him.

But how then do we deal with the problem of Achilles? His angry ghost appears before each new generation of disillusioned youth, and his siren song lures them towards short brief lives of rage and destruction. As noted before, the issue is most acute in our time; surely it is not by chance that a zombie-resurrection of the Greek gods occurs before us. Hobbes’ mad “war of all against all” has reached a crescendo today with a loss of faith in Christian logos and a recognition that our technocratic elites are as shamelessly corrupt as they are ignorant. We must find a better way of interaction between gods and men before Achilles’ rage gives us up to scavenging birds and dogs. In short, the corruption of Agamemnon/Hillary does not prove Thersites/Trump to be our savior.

I will conclude by saying that Homer’s solution to the problem of Achilles is to be found in his Odyssey. While the Iliad describes it with unmatched eloquence, the problem would have existed whether not Homer would have given it expression; but his tragic poem provides an account of Menis and its causes that makes it possible for us to discern the outlines of a response. We need to conceive of a relation between gods and men in terms that are less adversarial and fatalistic. Homer helps to us view Achilles skeptically, to not allow his blazing anger and mimetic attraction to blind our capacity for prudent action. Odysseus exemplifies this human power when he successfully prevents Achilles from leading the army against Troy before it was fed. Homer likewise provides intellectual nourishment that protects his careful readers from the heady intoxication of the Menis he describes so well; he makes it possible for us to not be stampeded into seeing Troy through Achilles’ bloodshot eyes; as noted, Agamemnon’s corruption does not make Achilles infallible or even right. The armor of glory given him by Hephaestus make Achilles’ soul hard to see. It is only by studying his afterlife, in Hades and Hellas, that the tragic truth of Achilles becomes visible. As we shall see, even Odysseus must overcome Achilles’ blinding charisma if he is to return home.

While Bruno Snell brilliantly describes Homeric divinities as puppeteers manipulating men through strings attached to their various emotions and vital organs, Vico is more faithful to the esoteric intent of Homer. He depicts heroes wrestling with their gods, much as Jacob did with the Angel of the Lord, gaining meaning and identity from this nightlong struggle. I suggest that a similar agon is undertaken in the Odyssey by its hero, himself a peerless wrestler as Book 23 of the Iliad recounts. But Odysseus must not only strive against the gods, he has to also contend with two other equally slippery opponents: his own soul and the Iliad itself. For this ultimate trial he must descend into the psychic underworld and reconstitute the collective consciousness of Hellas. His tale gives posterity a mythic account of a higher justice, a subtle erotic power that guides souls better than anointed king or jealous god could. The humanistic arc of civilization itself originates from Odysseus’ bow and Homer’s lyre. The following book seeks to describe this epic beginning.


The featured image shows Dante, Homer, Virgil on Mount Parnassus (detail), by Raphael, painted ca. 1510-1511.

We: A Dystopian Masterpiece By Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1921, is the ur-dystopia of all modern dystopias. True, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, both of which this book influenced, get more attention today. In fact, it is nearly a cliché, at least on the Right, that we are heading to some combination of the two, the only question being which our future society will resemble more, if we do not first overthrow the lords of the present age. That is as it may be, but Zamyatin’s novel offers a third future, certainly a future more to the liking of today’s ruling class than either of those other futures. And, crucially, its story ends with a lesson lacking in those other books, even though that lesson is, it appears, universally ignored by those who discuss this book.

I warn you now, this entire review is one big spoiler. We is written as a journal of sorts, the stream of consciousness of a man named D-503. He is a mathematician and the Chief Engineer of a spaceship, named INTEGRAL, being prepared for imminent launch to explore Venus, Mars, and beyond. D-503 is a citizen of OneState, under the absolute rule of, apparently, one man, the Benefactor. D-503, along with other members of the citizenry, has been ordered by the Benefactor to create intellectual cargo for INTEGRAL, to be delivered to inhabitants of other planets in order to propagate the ideology of OneState. He decides to simply record what he sees around him, because what he sees is the “mathematically perfect life of OneState.” To speak of it is to herald its perfection. But D-503’s journal turns out to be, without his intent, a journal of his awakening.

Why does D-503 consider OneState perfect? It is the twenty-sixth century; OneState is two hundred years old, and followed two hundred years of war that killed the vast majority of Earth’s population. OneState is a single city, surrounded by an impenetrable glass wall, the Green Wall. All construction within is also of glass, both a technological achievement and a means of ensuring every citizen may be observed. Nobody ever goes beyond the Green Wall—not because the wilderness is a blasted wasteland, but rather because it is the opposite, an area of uncontrolled growth, a riot of plants and animals.

It is not random that D-503’s rocket is named INTEGRAL. The theme of calculus is shot through this book, and the purpose of the rocket is to “integrate the indefinite equation of the universe”—that is, to subject the rest of the universe to the perfection that is OneState, to turn the natural curves of the universe into the straight line and finite quantity of OneState. It will be, for those unknown peoples in space, “the fiery Tamerlane of happiness.”

OneState aims to order the life of man rationally, in contrast to the disordered irrationality of past ages, that led to war, disease, and suchlike unclean and inefficient happenings. The ideology of OneState is not Communism, or any other modern ideology that actually gained traction in real life. We should remember that Zamyatin wrote in the early days of Bolshevism, and before any example existed of the modern cult of personality. Thus, not only is this book not an attack on Communism, the Benefactor is not an analog of Stalin or other Communist big men. He is not even an absolute ruler, but simply the manifestation of the ruling class that has created and maintained this supposed utopia. Who the others at the top are, how they live, and how power is handed onward, is unclear. It doesn’t matter; what matters is the ideology of OneState, and what that does to the minds and lives of the mass of citizens.

The ideology of OneState is Taylorism, or rather the perfectibility of man through Taylorism, the achievement of his total happiness through a total loss of freedom. Frederick Winslow Taylor, who died in 1915, was, of course, the apostle of efficiency engineering—the breakdown of industrial tasks into smaller tasks and an obsessive focus on completing each such task as efficiently as possible, that is in minimum time with minimum labor. (Very strangely, a translator’s footnote says that the Taylor constantly mentioned in the book was “long thought to be” an obscure early eighteenth-century British mathematician, Brook Taylor, who worked with calculus. How that mistake could be made is beyond me, even with the frequent references to mathematics in the book.) Taylor’s “motions per second” are the underpinning of the Table of Hours, which for each citizen, each Number, is a breakdown of what he is to be doing at any given moment throughout the day, down to “fifty statutory chews of each mouthful.” The story sold by OneState to the citizens, as the narrator tries to remind himself as the truth dawns on him, is that because of the reduction of all action to pure rationality, “the gods have become like us—ergo, we’ve become like gods.” This fake theosis is what the ruling class of OneState offers the regimented citizenry.

Conformity to the Table of Hours is enforced by the secret police, the Guardians. They are needed because not all is as perfect as it seems. In fact, public executions for crimes against the state are common, for such crimes as writing a poem that criticizes the Benefactor. Such executions are a public religious ritual, a type of Girardian scapegoating. Zamyatin describes one, conducted as always through dematerialization by the Benefactor’s Machine. He explicitly analogizes it to the ancients’ “divine service” and the Benefactor to a high priest, who “slowly passed through the stands—in His wake were gentle white female hands raised aloft like branches and a million hosannas in unison,” with the invisible (to the populace) Guardians standing in as angels.

The government’s control over the minutes of citizens’ lives is subject to only one limit: two hours in the day when citizens have Personal Hours, and can occupy their time with what they please, within strict limits, naturally. This highlights the interesting separation between the ideology of OneState and that of Communism, or more broadly the ideology of the Left, of which Communism is merely one branch. Left ideologies desire to control the thought of the people; this is what Orwell got right. To that end they use many tools, among the most important of which are the mutilation of language and the perversion of justice. But even as their thoughts are constrained, citizens can spend their time largely as they please, the opposite of OneState. As Orwell pointed out, in a review before he published 1984, in which both thoughts and actions are regimented, Zamyatin offers a much more realistic dystopia than Brave New World, which would in practice immediately collapse of ennui and enervation. Here, the citizenry has a feeling, even if wholly artificially inculcated, of meaning, unity, and accomplishment, which can continue indefinitely—until the spell is broken.

We should remember that in 1921, all elite opinion, or at least that found in decent circles, West or East, assumed the scientific perfectibility of man, and that is still a core belief of the Left. (This was one reason the Bolsheviks were treated as serious thinkers; there was some small excuse for reasonable people thinking that at the time.) Still, the idea of regimentation under total government control has always seemed undesirable to most of us in the West; that’s why We has always been thought of as a dystopia. Liberty, or now libertinism, sells better. Or at least it did until 2020, when our own governments reacted to the very modest problem of the Wuhan Plague with a grab for total control, aided and abetted by large swathes of the population, ants who were suddenly revealed as eager for safety and the comfort of being regimented.

As I have noted before, there is something in human nature, and in particular in those who climb the greasy pole of political power, that loves an unfettered ability to minutely control others—but they need an excuse to get the people to swallow it, and usually the excuse fails to convince the populace (as was the case with global warming alarmism). Rarely does the populace cooperate, but when they do, climbing back out is not allowed, as we see all over the West today. The desire for control is not purely a Left impulse, to be sure, although because extreme control is needed to allow rule while denying reality, as the Left inherently does, it is necessarily a very prominent trait among all Left regimes. But maybe, if there were any Right regimes, it might be evident there as well. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, generally center-right and reality-based, has implemented an extremely strict plague regime, which surprises me, and is something I cannot understand, but perhaps this is the answer. After all, virtuous regimes that enforce limited government reach are not thick on the ground of modern history.

Despite the best efforts of the ruling class, peeking through the Taylorized life of OneState are human emotions such as jealousy, and the desire of the woman sexually “assigned” (non-exclusively) to D-503 to have a child, forbidden to her because she is short, and eugenics demands she meet the Maternal Norm for height to be allowed to reproduce. D-503 largely lacks the vocabulary or thought patterns to identify emotions, however, making such things, and any non-rational human behavior generally, an irritation to him, because they are something unquantifiable and therefore disturbing. But, as happens, he falls in love, another emotion that has been supposedly Taylorized out of existence. The object of his love is I-330, a mysterious woman he meets, whose public behavior skirts the boundaries of acceptability, and whose private behavior, smoking and drinking and talking treason, goes far beyond it. The meeting is not coincidental; she has targeted him, because she is a leader of a group desiring the overthrow of OneState, the Mephi, and he is the operational leader of INTEGRAL, which they wish to hijack.

No surprise, falling in love troubles D-503, who cannot understand what is happening to him. When I-330 fails to follow the Table, he knows he should report her to the Guardians, but finds excuses to not do so. He logically concludes that he is sick. This sickness is not just his newly discovered romantic feelings, but all his newly discovered emotions and unbidden thoughts, slowly morphing into the realization that he has been lied to his entire life—a realization against which he struggles mightily. He intermittently tries to retreat into the linear realities of mathematics, which he has always believed are the same realities as those offered by OneState—but even there, reality pursues him.

As he descends into what feels like madness, but is really coming awake, D-503 realizes that the conspiracy of the Mephi is broad, and extends through tunnels to outside the Green Wall, where live wild, fur-covered humans. It even extends to within the Guardians, perhaps. He also realizes that I-330 is, if not wholly using him, at least partially using him. But he doesn’t care. Tension rises in the city as the Mephi begin to move—a mini-riot ensues when a marching citizen (they all march in unison as a matter of course) breaks ranks to try to free a prisoner of the Guardians he sees on the street. The newspapers start to make strange statements: “Reliable sources report the discovery once again of signs pointing to an elusive organization whose goal is liberation from the beneficent yoke of the State.” Then comes the annual Day of Unanimity, where the Benefactor is reelected by the assembled populace, the “We” of the title, who vote publicly to show their devotion. He descends from the sky, explicitly a divine figure—and when the pro forma question is asked who votes “No” to his reelection, thousands of hands are raised, instantly casting the city into chaos, as the Guardians pursue those who have dared defy the power of OneState.

The city is, to a small degree, as the organs of OneState retreat, left free. Yet for every action, a reaction, and only a fool ignores this truth in his battles. The powers of OneState announce “Rejoice! For henceforth you are perfect!” In what way? In that every person is to complete the transition to a machine of flesh, through an operation to burn out the “imagination”—meaning independence of thought, including emotion. (This being allegory, we can ignore that turning a person into a calculating machine might very well result in him calculating that the overthrow of the Benefactor made mathematical sense, even for a purely rational actor.)

Perhaps surprising the ruling class, the Operation is greeted with widespread opposition from the populace at large. Wildfire, disorganized resistance arises. Meanwhile, the Mephi implement their plan to seize INTEGRAL—which is thwarted by the Guardians, who had caught wind of the plan. No matter—fighting spreads in the City, and the Mephi smash through the Wall, something thought impossible, letting in the wild outside, heralded by the appearance of birds of prey in the air. Free men skirmish with Guardians and “postoperatives,” bringing up light arms and then heavy weapons; D-503 perceives his civilization collapsing.

Or does he? The last pages are written deadpan again, without the strained emotion characterizing those immediately before; D-503 has been seized and subjected to the Operation. He then gladly, or rather without emotion, betrays what he knows of the Mephi. I-303 and her compatriots have been tortured and are to be executed the next day. But why tomorrow? Because OneState actually is collapsing. The executions “can’t be put off, because in the western quarters there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, animals, and, unfortunately, quite a lot of Numbers who have betrayed reason. But on Fortieth Avenue, which runs crosstown, they’ve managed to build a temporary wall of high-voltage wires. And I hope we’ll win. More—I’m certain we’ll win. Because reason has to win.”

But of course, reason, with its ever-fluid meaning in the modern world, doesn’t have to win. Reality has to win, and that final sentence reveals the truth—OneState is doomed. D-503’s journal is a narration, though he never realizes it, of the inevitable reimposition of reality. Reality cannot be made to conform to calculation; this is the flaw in all ideologies that purport to perfect mankind, because reality always returns, whatever its opposition. The revolt of the citizens of OneState could, for example, be an allegory of the January 2021 Electoral Justice Protest (which, I just noticed, took place nearly one hundred years to the day after this book was written). The parallels between this book and that event are not coincidental; they are the nature of resistance to the loathsome tyrannies of the modern age, which resistance will always rise in a recognizable shape.

As I say, Zamyatin’s book has of late started receiving more mention on the Right, as intellectuals on the Right try to understand the present moment. Yet they ignore the crucial lesson of the book—that OneState is tottering and about to fall, not because of an inspiring book or pithy article, but because the Green Wall has been breached with explosives, corpses litter the street, and the Guardians have been reduced to cobbling together makeshift barriers to the advance of militia forces. Our Right intellectuals ignore that the road back to reality when oppressed by a pernicious ideology, forward to renewal, is always steeped in blood, because ideologues never give up their power voluntarily. He who denies this lies to himself. Once all men knew this; they will be reminded of it, to their sorrow and pain.

Those on the Right who wail about the coming dystopia, whatever brand they forecast, are entirely right that we have already long passed the foothills of dystopia, though its shape remains to be revealed precisely. But most refuse to countenance that the Mephi are right, and they are wrong, with their Benedict Options and grey-man passivism. In a passage that some say was the cause of Zamyatin being exiled by the Bolsheviks, even though his book was not published in Russia until 1988, I-330 says just as infinity dictates there can be no final number, then “how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one. The number of revolutions is infinite. The last one—that’s for children.” So it is.

What does that imply for us? Does it imply that we should join whatever the equivalent of today’s Mephi is? Not necessarily—though not because things aren’t that bad. On the contrary, they are that bad. Our current state is fully as evil as OneState (with our internet standing in for their ubiquitous glass). It offers less Taylorism, and more of an even fouler tyranny of false emancipation and forced egalitarianism, combined with sedation through catering to each citizen’s emotions and base desires, as long as those emotions and desires are approved ones. These are distinctions without a difference; the control sought by our rulers is the same as the rulers of OneState, as is their behavior. Just ask Derek Chauvin, this week sacrificed in a Left religious ritual, a parody of justice, on our equivalent of the Benefactor’s Machine.

To be clear—our current American state is entirely illegitimate and a criminal organization; it has no moral claim on our loyalty, and actively working for its complete destruction is wholly morally justified, that our children may live decently. Paradoxically, however, the reason it now makes little sense to form or join our own Mephi is because our Brawndo Tyranny is far more fragile than the state Zamyatin portrays. Unlike the Benefactor and his myrmidons, our overlords are incompetent idiots, disunited, fragile, stupid, and cowardly. Perhaps that means they could be pushed over the easier, but cornered rats fight, and why pay the cost if not needed? We can be sure they will begin to fracture of their own accord, or under the pressure of external events, at which point the equivalent of the Mephi will be much more effective, though no doubt the types of costs borne by our Mephi, even then, will be the same as those borne by Zamyatin’s. It is in denying that the Mephi are ever necessary that the error lies, not in refusing to build the Mephi now.

To be sure, this is the easier and safer course, and lays the proponent open to the charge of dissimulating, trying to avoid risk while talking big. Perhaps this is a fair charge. Time will tell, and not much time, either.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.


The featured image shows an illustration for We.

Woke Moralism: #DisruptTexts And The Abrogation of Literature

Introduction

In the spring of 1966, before the violence of the Cultural Revolution washed over China, the CCP initiated a campaign against the “Four Olds.” This project aimed to eradicate Chinese culture in order to protect Chinese culture. “Sweep Away All Monsters And Demons,” enjoined the Party’s print organ. What followed was a violent “cancel culture.” As then, so now.

In 2018 the #DisruptTexts group was founded by Lorena German. Much like Black Lives Matters and AltRight, #DistruptTexts marshalled decades of critique into a single legal entity. Why the advocates of these edgy ideas are so intent on handing over their work to the Bar Association system is beyond me, but much as we speak of the AltRight and BLM, when I speak of #DisruptTexts I will be referring to the movement in general and not the fictional entity. So sue me.

This essay argues two points concerning the approach of #DisruptTexts. Insofar as this movement is principally a pedagogical effort, my first points concern the way we in the general public understand literature. The approach of #DisruptTexts is inappropriate because (1) American society is too unstable at present to dismantle narratives as we have too little to work with as is, and (2) their powerful observation of social dynamics, even the conscious inclusion of Critical Race Theory, is being taught to students who do not have the intellectual matrix to responsibly digest these ideas. As we consider #DisruptTexts in the context of the mass education crisis, and while I will address theoretical errors which exist in their approach, we need to realize how our own individual and social sloppiness exacerbates these woke errors. There is plenty of blame to go around, and #DisruptTexts is but one factor of several.

Concerning my second point, #DisruptTexts is problematic (how’s that for a Leftist word!) because of its inability to contribute towards the construction of a social order. There is on the Left too much breaking down, not enough building up. The racial genie has bewitched the partisans of #DisruptTexts and there is no end to the deconstruction road. And not to put too sharp a point on it, for people who are hip to what is called “race,” they should respect the white culture of America as much as the Indian culture of the Subcontinent, or anywhere else.

Orientation & House Rules

From the start I ought to say that #DisruptTexts is not especially alarming to me. It is one of a conga line of educational fads which regularly burn through my vocational field. In fact, as it lacks coordinated state patronage it is a few clicks less pressing than No Child Left Behind or Common Core, recent foci of educational wariness. It is always important to remember the frequency of these sorts of fads before emotionally reacting to them.

As I wrote in my late series on We The People, I assert that there is no day to day racism in America. It is an insult to both the dead generations of Americans who suffered actual racism, as well as those of our day who suffer like discrimination across the world. The tribulations of the Tutsi, the Uighurs, and the Rohingya are a damn sight more serious than the pettyfogging gripes of American academics. #DistruptTexts, Black Lives Matter, et al. represent one of a number of divide and conquer tactics which the American ruling class excels in implementing. Keeping the ethnic groups annoyed with each other distracts from the track-trace-database system Mr. Schwab and his eponyms are building; it distracts from the endless Pentagon wars and the thousand-front looting of the American working class.

What racism there is exists in institutions which are in an adversarial relationship to the population they rule over, and their crimes literally have nothing to do with subject Americans. #DisruptTexts is right in saying there is profound and systemic racism in social institutions, most outstandingly via subsidiary state corporations like their military branches, police departments, and prisons. However, the U.S. Federal and state governments, and the business/legal system of which the state is a product, have officially existed in a state of war against the American people since the 37th Congress (March 1860). Charges of racism in those arenas have nothing whatsoever to do with flesh and blood Americans. Deconstructing all the books in all the canons of the world will not do one thing to affect the guilty entities. I wish these racial critics well as they make the governments and their hirelings confront their racial errors. However, insofar as the American government is foreign to the population it claims rulership over, I as an uninvolved party wish to be left alone by #DisruptTexts.

The Concept

#DisruptTexts aims to reconsider the ways literature is taught and experienced in American schools. Where this immediately draws popular attention, as it eventually will from us, is in the specific choices of books assigned in class. However, their reconsideration only begins by challenging the canon. To focus primarily on their book selections is to miss the deeper point. Most educational critique does this, it gets caught up on the superficial externals with little grasp of the principles at play.

Now when we speak of “the canon” we mean the group of texts more or less taught throughout the country. Its advocates are aware, in ways most men are not, of “literature” being larger study than a simply a litany of stories. #DisruptTexts’ proponents are sensitive to dynamics such as intertextuality, discourse, and identities of all sorts, and their relationship to literature. In this they are to be praised.

The Canon

#DisruptTexts is not altogether without praise. In the interest of graciousness, and towards an honest understanding of their approach, I should want to continue my analysis on this note. For one, #DisruptTexts’ proponents are aware of both “the canon” and what was once called the “Great Conversation.” By the canon they mean those go-to books which form the core of American lit classes country-wide.

From sea to shining sea I’d bet Americans mucking about in their 20s through their 40s are more or less familiar with The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993), S.E. Hinton’s Outsiders (1967), Their Eyes Were Watching God written by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), and Streetcar Named Desire from the pen of Tennessee Williams (1947). This is the canon. It can change, it inevitably does change. Usually this happens during that unicorn of a department shakeup when old timers have been pensioned off and newer energetic teachers haven’t burned out and moved onto other avocations. In other words, the literary canon does change, but it does so only slowly, locally, and insofar as even the spunkiest of teachers can only take so much before other saner work beckons, the canon changes only temporarily before the old go-tos are back.

The Great Conversation

The “Great Conversation” is more abstract than the canon. It is the concept that authors are in a sense in a dialogue with each other over the centuries. That specific label comes from Robert Hutchins’ and Mortimer Adler’s essays of the same name which used to lead off the University of Chicago’s Great Books series. Ah, talk about changed reading habits! Just two or three generations back encyclopedia salesmen were a thing. Encyclopedia men fought with colleagues hawking The Story of Civilization and the Great Books of the Western World. More remarkable still, everyone had work. As a testament to our present contempt of knowledge, as of this article’s composition the entire 54-volume Great Books series is retailing on eBay for about $20 (and that’s $20 in devalued 2021 fiat dollars, mind you).

The Great Conversation is a thrilling concept. Just think, Plato and Bede and Renan and 10,000 other greats were all part of the same work. And mirabile dictu, that work was not a dead thing. No matter how mundane the world might see one, the Great Conversation held the promise of a millenia-long discourse anybody can plug into as soon as they can open the nearest book or pick up the closest pen. To familiarize yourself with the Great Conversation, if Adler doesn’t float your boat you might read Dean Swift’s delightful Battle of the Books tale for a humorous treatment of the same idea.

The Great Conversation is also a powerful concept. I’ll never forget when I came across the idea as a young teacher. It doubtless enriches one’s appreciation of literature as a discipline. It is a simple idea, a powerful one, and a democratic one. Like moveable type, phonetic alphabets, or chord notation, simplifications of existing technologies which greatly increased common access, the popularization of the slim and trim Great Conversation can do much to move the general public toward a consciousness that literature is more than a collection of subjectively good or bad entertainment, more than mental popcorn. Though they do not use the specific term, #DistruptTexts is right to popularize the idea of the Great Conversation.

Narrative

It is to the credit of the Left that as a general rule that they’ve a sharper sense of sociological dynamics than your regular John Q normie or—heaven forbid—your local conservative. During the preliminary stages of the 2020 Biden coup, during that hot summer of racial rent-a-mob riots, I’ll never forget the anchors of one conservative U.S. outfit. Throwing their papers on the desk they begged, “Please, we just want to live regular lives.” Clueless. They were seemingly unaware of the purpose of direct action.

Likewise, five solid years into the Left’s weaponization of gender dysphoria and most of your “black pilled” sorts, people who have “seen through the matrix” and flatter themselves in knowing all the backroom deals and agendas, don’t seem to have grasped that the academic Left has made a simple but adamatine distinction between gender and sex. Much less do they know how to respond to such a thesis. Ah musha, if it were raining soup your conservatives would be out and about with folks. But b’times Leftists lay off Twitter and they do read books. When they do, they learn things and they observe, and this wouldn’t serve any of us badly. One area of observation which undergirds #DistruptTexts is the idea of narrative.

Narratives are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. They link the amalgam of experiences we as individuals and communities encounter into a manageable story. Without narratives we’re left with a nearly infinite blob of facts with no rhyme or reason to them. As John Gaddis writes in The Landscape of History, narrative makers are like map makers. For a map to be intelligible, just like the discipline of literature, those involved must include some things and they must leave out (most) others. If they didn’t the map would be 20 square miles, and literature would collapse into endless and random stories. Narratives are necessary. They are similar to worldviews, a concept which received widespread dissemination a decade or so ago, but they have more of communal quality to them because they explain who we are as a people.

Narratives are profoundly human. It is man’s fondness for narrative which will forever place the simple but story-filled Bible higher than the eloquent but pedantic Quran in the hearts of men. And in the grand sweep of things the lack of narrative thus will happily banish the tiring politio-religio-techo tracts of the modern West from the minds (to say nothing of the hearts) of later generations. The advocates of #DistruptTexts grasp the power of narrative, and they shudder at the profundity of it. We all must.

Critique, The First

With the duties of graciousness seen to, we turn to our critiques of #DistruptTexts. As we come to grips with the movement we must first appraise the state of the public. In this I do not mean the reading public, for such a thing does not exist. There are men, and they read; sometimes they read books; sometimes many people read many books. However we cannot speak of a reading public (or more magisterially, the reading public) in the manner people of a century ago did. Time moves apace. As it does the literacy of c.1750-1950 will be seen as the peculiarity it was. The public is alliterate at present. It can read but chooses not to. The Great Conversation is less and less a lived experience for Americans.

Because the Great Conversation is a fading memory, because it is a reality less men are participating in, it is taking its effect on society. The decline of religiosity can be pegged to the inability of Western men to envision abstract concepts, this is an ability which is kept in good form by reading. Religiosity in illiterate societies can be explained because, while illiteracy is more common, those skins often enjoy something deracinated Westerners do not, a cultural matrix which encourages the abstractions of faith. It seems that religion can carry on alright with either a strong reading population or a strong lived culture, ideally religion would do best with both, but if neither are available faith is doomed. The absolute thrall which the mainstream media is able to hold the country in, a spell which explains both Coronavirus saga and Mr. Biden’s outrageous yet effortless installation, are nearer examples of what readingless brains will tolerate.

When a movement such as #DisruptText comes along, a movement predicated on the reading habits of a century ago, it encounters men who read menus and cell phones and BuzzFeed. Powerful ideas are proposed to men whose sloth has not prepared them for serious ideas. It is like giving retarded people rocket launchers. Nothing but damage will result.

As a mighty tyranny comes into focus, it is ill advised to spread #DisruptTexts’ critique of literature. Until there is a substantive culture to work with, a substantive reading culture, a culture which will be strong enough to shove back the statists and technocrats, a culture which is powerful enough to keep its boot on the throat of commerce and legalism and the humorless crew now in the ascent, there is no sense in deconstructing anything. We must knit together the wisps of society into serviceable culture once again. The is not the time for #DisruptTexts. Until common agency, identity, and community are built into a bulwark against The Agenda, spreading #DisruptTexts’ ideas are a liability. There will be no books, woke or otherwise, down on Bill Gates’ plantation.

Critique, The Second

Continuing with our look at the people #DisruptTexts means to influence, I assert that their approach is inappropriate given the dynamics of modern pedagogy. As each year goes by the incompetence of our educational system comes more to the fore. By “educational system” I do not mean the bureaucratic structures of education, which is usually the meaning of that term when used. I mean the DNA of industrial learning, the structure of knowledge dissemination, the assumptions and daily rhythm of the classroom.

School is overburdened as is. There are too many demands, too many specializations, too much going on but yet the same amount of hours in the day. Like Madison Avenue’s ideal teenagehood, things like the after school job, the driver’s ed classes, SAT classes, social life, sports, band, modern education finds itself doing too much too often, and none of it well. Six or seven specialities are proposed to be taught, and all the Federal testing, and all the State Of testing, and all the mental health practices, and anti-bullying efforts, and, and, and… Busyness is the predominant fault of modern education.

Into this activity, into this clamor for hours and minutes, #DistruptTexts wishes to introduce an academic sophistication which cannot possibly be digested properly. In this, like with my above point, this is not the fault of the advocates of #DisruptTexts. It is the failure of American society and of our ridiculously overburdened school system. As stated above, there are actual strong points to #DisruptTexts, particularly their ideas of literature being in dialogue and their point about the canon being stale and largely being perpetuated because of laziness. However, at present #DisruptTexts is not realistic given the sorry state of pedagogy.

Let us embrace the seriousness which #DisruptTexts promises to bring to literature education, let us embrace the opportunity to change our pedagogical format to include, if not the specific sociological outlook they propose, at least their more substantive appreciation of letters. However, until this is systematically done—and this will not be done because the masters of this society do not want an erudite population of any political affiliation—#DisruptTexts will produce whining from all sides but little of academic substance.

Critique, The Third

Until now I have kept my analysis of #DisruptTexts confined to the larger milieu they mean to operate in. This is sensible insofar as a good many problems of education have more to do with the sorry intellectual condition we tolerate in our own individual lives, in our “real world” non-school society, than they have to do with plots to manipulate society. Plots there be, but all the Rockefellers and Nixons and NEAs don’t explain why I didn’t read a book last month. Charity begins at home, and so does criticism. But there are problems proper to #DisruptTexts, and to these we turn.

Ethnic Exaggeration

“White” is as clumsy an ethnic designation as “black,” and I pray that people stop using the labels which the merciless rulers of this society propose. There are no “white” people mentioned in Genesis’ Table of Nations, and it’s a great oversight that the same people who tear Darwinism to shreds are the same people who cleave so fondly to Charles’ ethnic designations. But for brevity’s sake #DisruptTexts is plainly anti-white.

There is nothing wrong with being of European stock, and #DisruptTexts’ assertion to the contrary is an error. I want little Arab children to be steeped in Arab culture, I want little African children to be steeped in African culture, and it frankly annoys me to see what is considered American culture holding the allegiance of non-American peoples the world over. However there is nothing wrong with American culture being taught to Americans, and there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that that culture is largely associated with people men call “white.” There are robust ethnic literatures which the American school canon, however musty and dated, already factors in. Indeed, so-called minorities may have a statistically larger place on the canon than their numbers warrant. The constant deconstruction of #DistruptTexts ignores the voice of whites in this country.

It has always been in the favor of reading that the activity puts the user’s life and circumstances in perspective. Broadcast media of various sorts does not have this quality; things are at once too dated and too fast. For example, a film on television invites the viewer to bog down in superficial details from the time of its production, and the tale will doubtless soon be interrupted by a commercial. This does not happen with literature. There are temporal aspects to the expression, of course. Les Miserables cannot be divorced from the 19th Century Republicanism which so inspired Hugo any more than the Bible can be split off from the time and culture of the ancient Hebrew.

The role of history on a specific text’s composition is as delicious a study as any, it’s analogous to historiography’s relationship to history, and it provides one of the great “Easter egg” surprises devoted readers may stumble upon. Nevertheless, literature of any lasting quality, and no small amount which has slipped the mind of the latest generation, transcends time.

#DisruptTexts will sever this multi-generational boon of art. Recent authors, indeed authors who for the most part may still be living on this earth, will crowd out the pens of past generations. Seen in the grand scope of things the dearest concerns of any given generation appear to those removed from that time and place as trifles.

Herein lies more than an irony of #DisruptTexts, but also a hole in its approach. In seeking to include the greatest number of voices (provided they’re “woke” and located on a relatively narrow bandwidth of the political spectrum) #DisruptTexts excludes the voice of the most ignored, maligned, and agentically-deprived group on the planet, the dead. Though they comprise a supermajority of humanity, the dead will receive no representation from the woke ones.

White man, black man, yellow man, Left, Right, and Center, we need to realize that authentic American culture has been sabotaged by this country’s ruling class. The advocates of #DistruptTexts ought to be on guard against their ideas being used to further this policy. Go read some books from the 1880s and ‘90s, listen to music from that time. You will see there was as true as true can be distinct American culture coming into focus at that time.

Evolution may be bunk in the biological order but in the cultural realm one culture certainly can morph into something its very own. That was absolutely happening by the late-19th Century. And just as true as true can be, this new specie was purposefully disassembled into the deracinated consumer which has gobbled up the last century of North American existence. Regardless of its intention, #DisruptTexts will contribute to this trend. Until the larger strata of culture can be improved and matured #DisruptTexts will be a danger.


John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.


The featured image shows a Chinese communist poster from ca. 1966, which says, “Destroy the Four Olds [old ideas, old customs, old habits, old culture].” The banner reads, “Disruption is justified!”

Romantic Nationalisms And Pop-Kultur: An Interview With Andrzej Waśko

This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.

All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?

Andrzej Waśko.

Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.

Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.

ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:

Empty spaces.
What are we living for?
Abandoned places.
I guess we know the score.
On and on.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero,
Another mindless crime
Behind the curtain.
(“The Show Must Go On”).

Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?

AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.

Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.

This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.

Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.

ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?

Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?

AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.

This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.

Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.

ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.

AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”

ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.

This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.

Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.

Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.

AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.

Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.

ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.

The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”

Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.

AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.

The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.

A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.

All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.

ZJ: Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.

One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.

Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”

Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”

To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?

Walenty Wańkowicz, “Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz,” ca. 1827-1828.

AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.

All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.

A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.

In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.

The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?

Nazis toppling monument of the Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in Krakow, August 17, 1940.

The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?

The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.”
However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.

The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.

ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”

In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.

What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; his A Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.

If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.

AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.

Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?

ZJ: Thanks to the works of Jacob Talmon (Romanticism and Revolt, 1967; Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, 1960), of Sir Kenneth Clark (The Romantic Rebellion, where he discusses art), and of later writers such as, Adam Zamoyski (Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871), we can form a general impression of how Romanticism influenced the way 19th century man thought. However, if you want to pinpoint what exactly Romanticism contributed to political thought, we are unlikely to have a clear answer.

However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.

Here is what Capaldi says:

“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.

“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”

Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?

AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”

Ivan Trush, “A Portrait of Juliusz Slowacki,” ca. 1880.

Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.

Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.

Ary Scheffer, “Portrait of Zygmunt Krasiński,” 1850.

ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”

I’m a man with a one track mind,
So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me)
Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies
So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all,
And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all,
It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth,
Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants.
Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.

AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?

This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.

Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.

So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.

The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.

The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.

The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.

The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.

ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.

Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.

One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?

AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.

But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.

This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.

Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.

Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.

ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?

AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.

ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Our Life In Pop Culture

A simple song, but it contains a good thought…
(Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady, Part IV)

I should warn my readers at the outset that the topic of this piece is not my area of expertise. I am not an avid fan of Queen, and my knowledge of rock and roll is no different from others of my generation and those who spent their youth enjoying this type of music. I also haven’t seen Brian Singer’s 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, and I am unlikely to have time to see it anytime soon.

Although it was never more than just fun for me, two friends whom I played football with after school in the 1970s later became well-known music journalists in Poland. My friends would meet in the evening at one of the student clubs in Krakow, and listen to records together. One of the two, who later became a music specialist, received these records from an uncle in London – they would come in packages that contained clothes for the family and other items that were hard to get in a socialist country. Sending such packages was also typical of post-war immigrants.

It so happens that I also had an uncle who helped us, and who invited me to Hanover in 1979. At that first trip out from behind the Iron Curtain, I brought back three CDs that were not available in our country. One of them was Queen’s double album, Queen Live Killers, with many hits that were hugely popular at the time. Over subsequent years, Polish Radio began to broadcast this type of music in programs for young listeners. These programs were highly popular. And, I can still remember the first appearance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Polish Radio and even the comment of the journalist who hosted the program, who said that the “new, little known” band Queen is “very skilled vocally.”

This truth was confirmed in the following years, when Freddie Mercury and his bandmates celebrated their greatest triumphs, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” won numerous accolades from listeners around the globe. This song, known to everyone, recently came back into my head again by accident. I was preparing a lecture on romantic ballads for my students at the Jagiellonian University, and it occurred to me that the words of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” especially the opening part of the song, correspond exactly to one of the most popular traditional folk ballad patterns. The hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury) complains to his mother that he has shot someone, so if he’s “not home tomorrow,” she should “carry on.” His life “had just begun,” and now he’s gone and thrown it all away.” He then speaks of “shivers down my spine” and his “body aching all the time.” He says goodbye to his friends because he has to “face the truth,” alone. And although he “doesn’t want to die,” he sometimes wishes he’d “never been born at all.”

Even for the listener who knows that the subject of crime and punishment constantly appears in ballads of all eras and in all countries (from the Polish Romantic poems of Adam Mickiewicz to the songs of the American Johnny Cash), Freddie Mercury’s lamentation sticks in our heads, hitting us hard; the piano keyboard sounds surprisingly serious.

Even stranger thoughts come to mind, if you listen to the lyrics of the middle section of the song, a quartet sung by all the band members. This quartet breaks the continuity of the ballad story with a monumental scene of judgment over the hero’s soul in the afterlife. The operatic associations suggested appear not only in the musical layer, but also in the text, in which individual Italian words stand out (“Figaro,” “magnifico,” and others). But this is not just a reference to Italian as the language of opera. It is also a trace of Catholic religiosity. The “Galileo” that Freddie asks to “let him go” is not Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) the famous physicist persecuted by the Church and the hero of the progressive education we received in the 1970s. He is the “Galilean” – Jesus Christ, whom the hero asks for freedom from this monstrosity, accompanied by a choir asking angels for his release (“Let him go, let him go, let him go…”).

Similarly, the “mama” Freddie invokes when he cries out “Mama mia” – after the chorus of Hell spirits declare, “We will not let you go” — is also not the mother of the protagonist from the first part of the song, but the Mother of God, whom Freddie calls in his hour of death, as does every Catholic. Of course, with these terms (“Galileo,” “mama mia”), the entire religious morality play is camouflaged and parodied here. Freddie plays to his judges for pity, complaining that he is only a “poor boy” and the backing choir adds that he is “a poor boy from a poor family” – as if hoping that “Galileo” will give him credibility points for his humble origin. However, mixing seriousness with irony in this part does not change the essence of the outcome: the punishment of the hero is condemnation – “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me ….”

And at this point, in the transition to the third and final part, the ballad convention is finally broken. In ballads, crime is always accompanied by punishment. This “law” is accepted by everyone, including the punished hero, because these are the moral foundations of traditional society and ancient popular culture. Meanwhile, in its dynamic ending, “Bohemian Rhapsody” expresses a vehement rejection of this judgment. The soloist breaks the bonds that had bound him thus far (during the performance of the song, Freddie Mercury emphasized this with appropriate behavior on stage) and throws out – against God – rebellious, well-known Promethean accusations:

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye,
So you think you can love me and leave me to die.
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby…

Addressing God as “baby” is a special idea. I don’t know (although perhaps it should be checked) if Shelley and Byron came up with something similar. So now by freeing himself from his guilt, from reproach, from the Last Judgment and by throwing his accusations back on his Judge, the hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” becomes both the modern Prometheus and Don Juan. Since judgment no longer has any authority for him, the difference between good and evil ceases to matter. The phrase “nothing really matters” changes its traditional meaning, as expressed in the first part of the song. Now it means the state of ataraxia promoted by libertine philosophers: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters… to me.”

A strange song. Sweet and bitter; simple but full of hidden allusions, mixing buffoonery with seriousness, and seriousness with irony and mockery. Cheap? Pretentious? And is this important, since the song has conquered the world? The story told in “Bohemian Rhapsody” corresponds to that of Don Juan from Mozart’s opera. Only that Molière and Mozart showed in their works the horror of sin and the justice of the punishment that befell Don Juan. But the sinner condemned in our song, the self-pitying “poor boy” in the end becomes a rebel against harsh moral law. He declaims a manifesto of self-liberation from the shackles of religious morality and gives others a model to follow.

We couldn’t understand all of this as teenagers. We swayed to the beat of the song, glad that the words were sonorous and matched the music. Music that released our youthful emotions and provided a sweet purification from the fear of life awaiting us. Now that we have more experience, in the seemingly nonsensical flow of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we find something from our later experiences and thoughts. Something that was already in the song from the beginning and which is probably not at odds with maturity. Undoubtedly, 40 years ago Freddie Mercury knew much more about serious matters than we could have imagined then as teenagers.

Today we are no longer “poor boys from poor families,” as we used to be. We may not be completely innocent either; but that doesn’t bother us too much, since we have rejected the religious superstition that Galileo will judge us someday for all that we have done. Anyway, even if he could judge us, he would have to show us that he has the right to do so. Isn’t that the moral history of the entire modern West, especially the West in the age of pop culture? It may not be that “nothing really matters” to us – but certainly nothing matters to us the way it used to. Unfortunately.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Dan Sproul, 2019.