Monday, 29 August 2011

Punch Him in the Face

They drink too much.  And though polite they often hate each other; and rather a lot, we are led to believe.  A don’s life, what a life it is.  There are books about, but not that many.  And most of their talk seems somewhat lacklustre; dull, if you’d like the truth.  There are moments of wit, but erudition hardly any.  A don’s life: we’d pay for the privilege, wouldn’t we?

A View from the Top

…but without the hedgehog’s generalizations – on the class struggle, imperialism, (colonial) dependency etc… the poor foxes like myself are condemned to a sort of intellectual pointillism lacking an overall design.  Even more, we remain deprived of the satisfactory experience of digging a tooth into and clamping a jaw on a generalization in order to break its neck.  (Raymond Carr quoted by Ronald Fraser TLS 29/07/2011)

Carr wrote the standard history of modern Spain.  He is referring here to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, and the fox who knows lots of little ones.

This quote came to mind after my recent punch up with Michael Albert.  As I recovered from the severe swelling around the forehead, and surreptitiously peering over my dark glasses when no one was about, I mused on what he meant by my “special approach”.  I didn’t think I had one.  I haven’t, of course.  But what if I did?  I’d be a hedgehog, like disciples everywhere; such as those who follow Freud and Marx, Darwin and the rest…

Sunday, 28 August 2011

To Carl von Gersdorff

Forgive me, my dear friend, for not thanking you earlier for your letters, of which each one reminds me of the vigorous cultural life you lead, as if you were basically still a soldier and were now seeking to show you military cast of mind in the realm of philosophy and art.  And that is as it should be; only as fighters have we in our time a right to exist, as vanguard fighters for a coming saeculum, whose formation we can roughly presage from our own selves – that is, from our best moments; for these best moments do obviously estrange us from the spirit of our own time, but they must have a home somewhere; therefore I believe that we have in these moments a sort of obscure presentiment of what is to come.  Have we not also retained from our last common Leipzig recollection the memory of such estranged moments which belong in another saeculum?  Well then – that is how it is – and let us live for wholeness, fullness and beauty!  But that takes a vigorous resolve and is not for anyone.

…Next Tuesday our new philosopher is giving his inaugural lecture, on the “obvious” subject: “Aristotle’s Meaning for the Present.”

You are kindly remembered here.  I celebrated the daimon rites with Jakob Burckhardt in his room; he joined my ritual act and we poured a good two beer glasses of Rhone down on the street below.  In earlier centuries we would have been suspected of witchcraft.  When I got home at eleven-thirty that night, feeling rather demonic, I found to my surprise friend Deussen there, and walked the streets with him until about two in the morning.  He left by the first train in the early morning.  I have an almost ghostly memory of him, as I saw him only in the pale lamplight and moonlight.

Write again soon, my brave and valued friend!  You now know that the vignette is needed in a hurry.  Cordial greeting from your

Saturday, 27 August 2011

On the Appointment of Rudolf Eucken to the Chair of Philosophy

Slowly he fades,
His voice, some words,
From a streetlamp,
Its white face
Hanging free.

“Goodbye…” you hear
To the sound
Of footsteps
On cobbled stones.

How it surrounds you
In this street
You no longer see.

But you wait still,
Under a light
Far too weak
To illuminate this night
Around you.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Go Away!

I seem to upset people all the time.  Many’s the chief executive who has gone home crying to his wife.  Why won’t that Mr Schloss just listen!  Why indeed…

After I wrote my piece on the Hackney riot I was naturally proud of it.  And being my usually naïve self – innocence the source of most trouble – I thought I’d comment on Michael Albert’s piece on the same topic, referencing my own very different perspective. 

His reply was initially odd, then hopeful, then finally derogatory.  Unable to be saved by him I had got on his nerves.  How often have I experienced that before.  Paul, if you would just listen to me you would see the truth!  You could become a director of the company, if you would only accept reality.  I have remained in my happy ignorance.

Maybe I wasn’t clear.  Perhaps what I write is odd.  My style strange?  Do I make any sense at all…  You must tell me good reader.

An alterative explanation is that my perspective is too different for him to understand.  There is an old Chomsky story about how a small Marxist paper rejected a piece he wrote on the fall of the Berlin Wall.  They were so ideologically conditioned they couldn’t understand it.  His view that the collapse of Communism was good for Socialism simply could not be assimilated into their theology.  In this case, it could be the tendency to reduce every explanation to politics; one of the new religions of the age; coupled with his strong ideological commitments.

So maybe it is the same as with those old Marx fans.  You must judge, my friends.

I Know Nothing About Them

A couple of interesting replies to my piece on the Hackney riot on the Media Lens Message Board.  Inevitably I have responded.  It seems a shame to lose it into internet oblivion….

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Victory for Law and Order

…the police spring into the saddle, swords drawn and swinging, coming out of the sidestreets, with police on foot sealing off the streets behind them.  Horses fall, riders lurch, the paving stones are torn up, exploring fingers dig between them, stones rain upon the breaking walls of police.  Two powers are trying to come to grips, the mass of the powerful and the mass of the powerless, and the police cordons have been torn asunder while the hungry are forcing their way towards the well-fed.  Above the frenzy of the people rises the singing of those who are pressing from behind.  Now some are singing and some are bleeding, and sometimes a shot splits the frenzy of the songs, so that for a fraction of a second there is silence and one hears the falling of the autumn rain, and the drumming of it on roofs and windowpanes, and it is as if it were raining on a peaceful world preparing to sink into its winter sleep.

But then comes the lament of a motor horn, sounding like a wounded beast, and from far off comes the confused sound of the streetcars’ bells, whistles shrill, trumpets cry like children.  A dog who has been crushed howls like a human, becomes human in the hour of its miserable death, chains and bolts rattle from doors and again a shot rings out.

From the university comes Marinelli with fifty young people armed with carbines, to reinforce the students.  The fire engines come.  Their hoses send forth cold jets of water that falls with a painfully powerful hiss among the people.  For a few moments the crowd scatters.  Then it reassembles.  Little groups form and develop.  A shot strikes a hose.  On the pavement lie firemen’s helmets.  The hose is torn.  Police clatter up in lorries.  The street paving rumbles.  The windowpanes tremble.  The police are at once dragged down, stamped on, bloodied, scattered and disarmed.  Workmen smash carbines over knees.  Women are swinging sabres, pistols, rifles.

From the grey northern quarters more hordes come pouring, carrying household implements, pokers, spades, axes and shovels.  High up above, a machine-gun stutters.  Someone lets out a cry, and at once thousands have turned to flee.  A thousand hands are raised, pointing nowhere.  From every rooftop, guns are pointing.  From every rooftop machine-guns stutter.  Behind every projecting wall crouch green uniforms.  Black muzzles are poking out of every window.

Someone shouts” ‘Soldiers!’
(The Spider’s Web, by Joseph Roth)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Poor Hackney

It was a very British riot.  Civilised, as I walked through its aftermath, and quiet.  It is the quietness, the general calmness, that I will remember the most.  Disturbed only by the police; with their occasional sirens and later, when I reached Mare Street, the helicopters’ thick pulsating whir, transforming the sky into a mechanised motor; a London shopping district into a battle zone.  It was not what I was expecting; although if truth be told I had no idea what to expect.  Who knows what will happen when madness and rage, those two media stars, visit central Hackney.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Friday, 12 August 2011


A woman in pants and bra, her lipstick scarlet, her tongue extended like some wobbly diving board, performs lasciviously before John Faustus, gesturing him jump in.  He does.  Lust has overwhelmed his senses.  We are watching an arrogant scholar reduced to a travelling showman; to an old fashion celebrity who has fame and every woman that he wants.  A large mind once intoxicated by knowledge and its possibilities has been reduced to a body’s appetites.  It is the senses that hold court now.

It is a sad fall.  To give up the chance of eternity for drink and pretty girls.  It seems so trivial, conjuring up Alexander and his paramour from the dead, mucking around with the pope’s dinner, cavorting with the empress…  It is a circus act; with no grandeur in it, and thus no tension, we feel, as the play comes to its close.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

(Liberal) Fundamentalism

Janet Malcolm, attacking a review of a new Naipaul book, which criticises his misanthropy and its all too common corollary, an overly sentimental attachment to animals, quotes Milan Kundera:

Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.  And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.  (Letters, TLS 29/10/2010)

Her view?  The reviewer has failed that test.  Before going any further it is worth quoting the context:

[following a long description of a lorry full of cattle, and the author’s anguish over their treatment] It’s worth thinking again of Naipaul’s chilling remark about the pigmies in the face of this overwrought lament; “It is hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals.  Perhaps they weren’t.”  (William Boyd, TLS 06/10/2010.  My italics)

It is easy to love what is far away: Stalin’s Russia, Obama’s America, and red squirrels on the European continent.  There are no ugly contradictions or irritating resistance for us to overcome.  We do not have to compromise or argue our points of view.  Thinking is superfluous: for us they are either saints or victims; who we can worship and sometimes assist; allowing two extremes of human behaviour, submission and domination, to sit comfortably side by side in our modern living rooms. 

How much harder to accept other people as their really are; as humans like you and me, with their strong personalities and different ideas; their resistance to our imperial benevolence. 

It is easy to hate what is in another continent.  Clerics in Iran, communists in Angola; G.W. Bush in the White House…  People turned into simple abstractions, with none of the complexity of those close to us.  Abstractions to which we give a simplistic moral value, they are evildoers in a public melodrama, to protect us the pain of real understanding; and the hard work that that entails.

And how much easier it is with the lower species…  Love the beast and hate the human; although we too are animals.  As Nietzsche might have said: how human this is, all too human!

Why should this be so?  Let us speculate…