Saturday, 2 April 2016

Soft Power

Theodor Fontane tells it straight: Sidonie von Grasenabb is a “43 year old maid”, who likes to attack society for its immorality, and is particularly scornful of the young. 

Here she is different. Sidonie von Grasenabb is an attractive woman who living comfortably with her husband appears to enjoy extra-marital affairs - with both sexes.

Rainer: what are you doing?

In a piece about Effi Briest I suggested that Fassbinder over-emphasised the coercive power of society; in contrast to Fontane, whose primary interest is the moral capacities of individuals. According to Fassbinder the official culture is the problem; it stifled Effie, and made her ill. And Sidonie von Grasenabb? She is a representative figure of this culture; a chorus that voices the prevailing morality and enforces it.

But the times are changing. Orthodoxy is no longer based on the habits of the old; increasingly it is the beliefs and practices of the young that rule and dominate…

Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant is divided into three acts: Petra alone and triumphantly independent; Petra in love and fragile; Petra jilted and distraught. There is also a tiny scene at the end, a sort of afterword, that restores Petra close to her original position.  

In the first act there is a long conversation between Petra and Sidonie. Petra cleverly describing her marriage; the original ideals, its complete freedom, where nothing is hidden, where there is no camouflage; each partner open and alive to the other’s mentality. It was a marriage of equals (and, we must add, an affair of intellectuals). Sexual liberty was permitted; a trivial concession when compared to the freedoms of the mind. Indeed, so unimportant was sex that they didn't exercise this right; love and mutual understanding kept them continent. It was a marvellous union! Then Petra began making lots of money… That a wife should earn more than a husband? Oh no, this would not do. Frank accepted Petra’s success, it posed, after all, no threat to his amour-propre. But that he should play second fiddle to Petra’s first violin…? Intolerable! The relationship declines; it becomes a competition, where the man loses. 

Mud has been chucked into a clear pond, and a child stirs it around with a stick… The transparency of honest conversation is made opaque by the lies of self-consciousness; talk no longer enlightening their relationship but used  only for attack and defence. Soon there are no confidences between them. They exist as monads in a universe of two. Inevitably, as her mind overcomes feeling and the emotions seep away, Petra falls out of the love with Frank; eventually she divorces him. The marriage falling apart Frank gets desperate, his passion increases, and he acts like a barbarian; he pins Petra down, forces her to have sex. Everything has changed. All civility has gone. Frank is a brute, and Petra can only hate him. She is disgusted by his smell - he stinks, she says, of man. Love has turned into revulsion.

For Petra the relationship was a triumph. She was hurt, of course, she will not hide that fact; but the quality of the experience outweighs that painful conclusion. Until its final collapse the marriage encapsulated her ideal of a partnership between two independent people. No games. No tricks. There were no cowardly compromises. To be with Frank was the same as being alone. Nothing was hidden. Restraints did not exist. This marriage, the creative act of two happy and talented people, was full dynamism and growth; her own success a tribute to its joyful and productive union. Even when it ends Petra triumphs - for she is the one who makes the choice to separate. It is the ideal of the intellectual, who embodies their ideas in life.

Her monologue, so confident and clever, so knowing, and tinged with ecstasy, is a fantastic performance. It unsettles Sidonie.

Sidonie von Grasenabb is a conventional woman. She too has had problems in her marriage; but rather than destroying it she has found a comfortable compromise: on the surface she agrees with her husband, but underneath she does her own thing. Both partners are content with this game: the man thinks he’s in control, while his wife enjoys an unlimited freedom. 

Petra disagrees: freedom and truth are inseparable. Actions must accord with thoughts; thinking and behaviour have to form a single integrated whole; the idea as important as the act, which is merely its embodiment. Petra is an intellectual for whom ideas have a concrete and determinate existence. Falsehoods pollute ideas, which are thus reduced to a secondary importance - they become words emptied of real meaning. Sidonie places little value on her words: what she does is more important than what she thinks. Petra cannot accept this! Ideas are public acts as well as private thoughts; and she must express them, truthfully and accurately. Lying puts a constraint upon the mind. And introduce lies into a performance? Inauthenticity and fakery is the consequence. It is why Petra fought Frank, even though in fighting him she was losing her freedom.1 The idea matters most of all. She must retain the idea of mental liberty, even if it means losing its actual reality. And she was right, for by sticking to her ideals - by divorcing Frank - Petra won an unconditional victory. She has remained free to retail her ideas.

Sidonie is dismissive: why make like so difficult? Rules and conventions exist to make life simple; to make it work without friction; without strife. We need lies; oiling the wheels of life, they allow them to run smoothly.

These are two very different conceptions about the world. Sidonie’s is about fitting in; formally abiding by the society’s customs, even if secretly you break them. Happiness and comfort are the main criteria here; it is a philosophy of the senses. Petra is in love with her mind. Appearances must conform to her inner reality, which has the supreme worth. Although I suspect she is more subtle than this: for Petra the mind and the outside world must exist in perfect balance; there must be no self-conscious tension between them; the individual unconscious of the society’s constraining pressures - think of a swimmer swimming through an empty and placid lake. It is a religious mentality; one that pays more respect to the inner spirit than to exterior forms, felt to be dead things without the force of a vital mental life. Petra is an intellectual; an artist; a successful designer who doesn't follow fashions, but creates them; her ideas possessing a transcendant value that others must both accept and recognise.

Petra is Effi in Fontane’s eponymous novel. But with a difference. It is Effi in an utterly transformed social setting; one where desire is unconstrained; women are allowed to act out their thoughts; their lives a carefree mix of the private and public - it is through marriage and work Petra that fulfils herself. 

Sidonie plays the same role of social critic. However, a changing society has also changed her character, which now has different motivations; reflected in the style of her opprobriums. Sidonie does not condemn Petra morally. Sidonie is no puritan. Quite the reverse! She criticises Petra precisely because she sacrifices pleasure to an idea. Today conformity requires us to enjoy ourselves, and to do this we must satisfy our own comfort. It is asceticism, substituting the rigours of an idea for the comforts of material gratification, that is the moral corruption. To enforce one’s will and to speak the truth… This can only lead to conflict and instability; unhappiness the inevitable result. To be comfortable one has to conform - to appearances; believed now to contain little of value. Sidonie is separating the public persona from her private thoughts and actions; it is only these, she believes, that can give her pleasure. Thus the face she shows to her husband…carefully applied cosmetics.2

Such subterfuge is impossible for Petra. An artist performing before an audience actualises their thoughts in action. To do this they need the free interplay between mind and behaviour; only this will allow them to impose their vision onto the world. Effi was unlucky. Married to a man unsympathetic to her romantic sensibility she floats adrift; becomes lonely; and trapping herself inside a private world of evasions and lies she slides into depression and defeat. Effi is the artist manqué. Petra born in more fortunate times finds there are no restraints on her mental life; her existence a seamless interchange between what she thinks and what she does. It is a victory!

Human nature doesn’t change that much. His honour under threat Frank retaliates, and the ideal relationship disintegrates. However, unlike Effi, who suffers terribly when separated from Innstetten, Petra flourishes, and completes her talent. She doesn't need a man to make her life whole. Even during the bitterest times of the marriage she retained her pride; for by defending herself, by insisting on the right to say what she thinks, Petra has ensured that her mind is free. It is why she can speak to Sidonie with such happiness about her married life. An honourable divorce far far better than an abject domesticity.

Petra contains aspects of Innstetten; a public official who in elevating an idea above ordinary humanity willingly suffered all the pain of an idealistic nature. The similarities - this mixing of ingredients - suggests a particular line of evolution: in entering the public realm women are becoming like men; they are turning into hermaphrodites.3

Sidonie’s motivations are complex. She wants power as well as comfort; in her marriage she is the éminence grise; an authority hiding behind fashionable dresses and silk underwear. But a husband is not enough. Sidonie also needs to dominate her friends; her sympathy and love a means of controlling them. Petra’s easily resists such machinations. She will not submit to Sidonie’s care. Indeed, she shows an arrogant disdain for such obvious feminine wiles. Her cousin’s disappointment is palpable. And we sense a new feeling. It is not only power that Sidonie has lost.  A frail and distraught psyche is desperate for reassurance; it needs soft words, hugs, later caresses, then kisses… We sense that Sidonie is attracted to Petra; and wants to rekindle a dormant love affair.

In Effie Briest Sidonie von Grasenabb controls her immediate environment by attacking its members with moral censoriousness. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant she manages her surroundings by seducing its citizens.

Karin enters the play. 

Introduced by Sidonie, who appears to fancy her, Karin immediately fascinates Petra; who invites her back the following evening.4

Never has Hanna Schygulla looked so beautiful, as on this first date. Petra is captivated; she falls in love, and the hard and clear outlines of her abstract personality softens; it melts; Petra talking about the need for humility before one’s craft; saying that we must accept those realities that cannot be changed. But Karin is no intellectual. She does not understand Petra; and so misses the metaphysical nuances of these generalities; whose meaning she will find vague and foolish. It is a sign: that this affair is not to be one of equals. Petra is the master; her intelligence and talent, her fame and wealth, charm and conquer Karin, who submits to their dominance. 

Such mastery can only be short-lived. In the long run the strong mind will fall victim to passionate love and sexual desire. And Petra is in love; unlike her lover, who is merely enchanted by this fascinating woman; a new-found celebrity. Karin is a creature of her senses; a disposition that will inevitably reduce Petra’s influence; for the fine intellect requires an equal if it is to achieve its best effects. Intelligence is dissipated on the dumb. While passionate love is a mode of stupidity. Oh Petra! drunk on emotion, your mind intoxicated by feelings which you are too weak to control, you're to be reduced to an intellectual ruin. It is a typical case. The intelligent person, suffering neglect and slow decline in the presence of an unworthy lover, and only too aware of their fading powers, becomes an angry and forsaken, a worldly, fool.5

Petra’s words are ambiguous. To have humility before art is to practice a special kind of freedom; the artist needing the catalyst of a tradition and the constraints of form if they are to create original work. Petra is lost to her own words. She forgets that humility has a more banal meaning - to be meek and submissive. Karin’s mind is very ordinary; it understands only the simple things of life. Petra, by inviting a misinterpretation, is already losing her mastery.

Words, especially when spoken across different sensibilities, will convey more error than understanding.6 Even Sidonie doesn't grasp all of her cousin’s subtleties, and they belong to the same milieu. Karin comprehends none. The differences - in outlook, in intelligence, of class - being enormous, the opportunities for incomprehension are numerous; and Karin is bound to misconstrue what Petra says. The consequences are paradoxical. With no resistance to her thoughts - Karin lacks the intelligence to critically engage with difficult concepts - Petra projects her own ideas onto this beautiful woman to create an entirely fictitious person. “I was the same!” Petra cries out, when Karin says that she was good only in those subjects she was interested in. Oh dear! “good” and “interested” have completely different meanings for these two women. Petra is too clever to notice this. Instead, having identified Karin as her childhood twin, she goes on to recall how wonderful she was at maths. Reality is slipping away…

But not for Karin. Her mind is too ordinary to accept such a fantastic version of herself.  She therefore punctures Petra’s enthusiasm: “I didn’t like school, I studied better in the summer…” Poor Karin, in the face of Petra’s enthusiasm she cannot tell the shameful truth; so she hides behind an innuendo - “summer” is almost certainly a reference to games and sports! It is clear: Karin lacks the academic gift. The ecstatic Petra, rhapsodising over her lover’s intelligence, misses the nuance; and the real meaning of the phrase is lost.

The class differences are brought out in an extremely interesting way. Karin tells of a hard childhood in a small flat with parents largely indifferent to their children. Petra says this is terrible, and compares it with a doting mother, who developed her mind by engaging it with art and culture. “Mine was a paradise…” “No. Not at all!” replies Karin. “We were happy, because they left us alone.” Petra is acting like a typical bourgeois, holding a simple idea - that the poor are victims, their poverty suffering - that barely corresponds to a complex reality.7 

Karin says something extremely interesting: it is not good for parents to play with their child’s mind. Very quietly she is attacking Petra’s Bildung. It is an example of the traditional anti-intellectualism of the working classes; a prejudice that nevertheless contains a truth - working class children do have more liberty than their middle class cohorts.8 

Shouldn’t parents educate their kids? 

We stumble over Karin’s simplicity. She could mean something complicated; something like: instead of allowing their children to think for themselves parents force them to acquire ready-made ideas about the world. This will not do: this interpretation is too intellectual. Let’s try harder… Karin is saying: the adult world of order and rationality is wrongly imposed onto a life of play and sensuous experience; fun is lost; while the intellect becoming prominent, the mind loses its common sense (though even here I have put too many sultanas in the cake). While there is some truth to this belief,we guess that Karin’s motivation is different - inside every ordinary person’s psyche is a fear of those who are too clever by half.10

The second act is perfectly pitched, capturing, as it does, the tension of a first date, with its fragile balance of attraction and wariness.

Six months later… Petra is obsessively in love; while Karin’s feelings have faded away. It is a disaster. Petra completely at the mercy of a woman obtuse to her suffering.

The passion-fuelled lover cannot endure indifference. Confronted with a lack of feeling Petra obsessively searches for signs that she is still loved; she needs reassurance; she becomes very intense and demanding, further alienating the object of affection, whose indifference, now a form of protection from emotional harassment, increases. The battle is intensified. “Please say you love me.” “Just say the word!” “Say love!”  Karin finds it difficult to respond; she replies “yes me too” or “I do”. It is not enough. Paranoid with unreciprocated feeling Petra easily spots that Karin is not actually speaking the magic word… There is a row, and Karin relents. 

Here is a model of the unequal relationship. Karin does have some feelings for Petra, but she has no passion, no love for this woman. Love is spontaneous and unconscious feeling; a smile rewarded with a smile, a touch with a touch, which flows easily into a kiss, into erotic foreplay. When indifferent we must consciously exert ourselves to produce a tender response. Feeling little we become emotionally lazy. 

Karin is a natural sybarite. Poor Petra! Her demands can only irritate Karin, who is forced to recognise the fraudulence of her position. This beautiful woman has come to the end of an affair. Once occupying the borderlands of love she is now living far inland, where she meets more congenial folk - first a black stranger, who satisfies her sexually, later her estranged husband, with whom she will live again. Of course Petra instinctively knows that she has lost Karin; it is a truth she will not accept. She prefers illusion, purposively misreading the signs of disaffection to give them a loving spin; just a smile, an “ich liebe dich” or a kiss is enough to satisfy her - for a few moments only. It cannot last. She knows they are false. So immediately the doubts begin again. The questions go on and on…

Karin is in charge. Such an odd tyrant!  Lying in bed, in her nightgown, reading a glossy magazine, she is the epitome of the soft, yielding, beautiful starlet; so cuddly and so pliant. It is Petra, with her straight red wig and angular clothes, who looks like the strict disciplinarian. Appearances deceive. It is Petra who is in trouble. Drunk and infatuated she pours out praise and blame, makes petty snipes, lavishes her adoration…on a person not worthy of her grandeur.  Love. It is a fissile emotion, constantly tearing the ego apart with its worship and hate; its idealisation and caricature; its need for self-sacrifice, the ugliness of its abusive attacks. Flooded with emotion Petra’s mind is waterlogged, it is wrecked.

“I slept with a man last night…” Petra doesn’t want to hear. Lies are better than truth, even when she knows they are lies.

When we look into the mirror of this third act we no longer see a clever and strong Petra, an independent and confident woman. What happened to that earlier performance? Was her monologue fake? Were her ideas about marriage just a fairy tale? It is possible: for language, especially when used by an intellectual, is apt to create an autonomous world separate from the quotidian reality.11 

Petra’s case is more complicated. Husband and wife were similar characters, who both being in love at the same time produced a shared equality, especially during those first few vulnerable months at the beginning of a love affair. Neither could dominate by an emotional detachment. When the marriage floundered they had already moved to more temperate climes. Feeling still existed, but now it was tempered by habit and reason; and this allowed Petra, ordinarily no servant to her emotions, to become the dominant character; thus her decision to divorce. Throughout all stages of the marriage husband and wife shared a similar temperament; Frank becoming more passionate only because he tried to assert an authority that he knew was already lost. For sure, Petra has idealised her self-control; while her ideas weren’t perhaps as clear as she later made out; nevertheless, the general outlines of her account are almost certainly true; the rough and ready equality through all stages of the relationship giving Petra the chance to exercise her superior intellect, which did win out in the end. It cannot be so with Karin. An enormous inequality exists from the very first meeting - only Petra is in love. Karin’s later indifference transforms this love into fanaticism.

When talking to Sidonie Petra talked like a typical intellectual; generalising from a particular case which is only contingently true. The mistake is to assume that her ideas hold for all relationships. Karin proves her wrong. In doing so she forces Petra to act like Sidonie’s husband; to be satisfied with lies and evasions. Indeed, the more Karin lies the greater Petra loves her…

Petra is not a conventional person. Ultimately, she cannot be satisfied with the lukewarm existence engendered by Sidonie’s falsehoods. For Petra, life and her ideas about it must be synonymous. Always she will intellectualise her feelings; try to ground them on reason, on words. “Tell me you love me!” She needs Karin to speak the truth. But Karin can only tell lies; until she can lie no more: she describes a black lover in heart-crushing detail. It is a terrible paradox. And confirms the wisdom of both Karin’s and Sidonie’s commonsensical views - that we mustn’t think too much about life; only enjoy its simple pleasures. Of course Petra doesn't have a choice; her mind is destroying her love but she cannot voluntarily give her mind up; always she will push her affairs to the limit; it is the fanaticism of the reasoning faculty that questions what shouldn't need questioning, and looks for rational foundations where there are none.12 With her reason a slave to the passions, Petra breaks down.13


Karin leaves. And Petra falls prey to her own emotional fantasies; Sidonie finding her in a curly blond wig and a green dress (and a red rose attached to a black neckband). Petra is Karin.14  She is in an hysterical state. How life has changed! Sidonie is the strong one now. She gives Petra a doll that looks like her lost lover.15 The humiliation is complete. Revenge? Did Petra steal Karin from herself? Or is it merely the triumph of the victor?  A crown of thorns…

“She loves a girl!” It is Petra’s mother, shocked by what she is seeing.

There is a crisis, and Petra recovers. She tells her mother that she was frightened to mention Karin. There are some things one doesn't say to one’s parents… Petra’s ideal of truth-in-life is a romantic fantasy; social constraints will always force us to keep part of the mind secret.

Effi Briest has been transposed to the permissive society. Petra is what happens to Effi when there is no barrier between thought and action; an Effi who can speak freely, who acts out her thoughts; projects her fairy tales onto the world at large. At first it all seems so wonderful. With luck she will find a sympathetic lover. She will be happy. She will experience some glorious moments! but…they cannot last; for beauty, as Petra herself says, has a short lifespan. If Effi has talent her fantasies will be fulfilled – Petra is a famous fashion designer - but life is not monopolised by our public deeds. Dangers exist in every decade, for always we will want someone to love. And if, as seems likely, Effie falls in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate her fine feeling, a character who doesn't share her ideals and who is unsusceptible to her intelligence, her freedom from convention will make her extremely vulnerable; for she will have no defence against the indifference of those she loves so freely, so intensely.16 

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a more sophisticated reading of Fontane’s novel than Fassbinder’s own Effi Briest. Effi’s unique character is at risk in every kind of society; always there is a Crampas ready to pounce, an indifferent Karin; a vicious Sidonie von Grasenabb. Suffering is inevitable for the eccentric human being – because only the very few can relate to them.17

Love is dangerous. It has its own crazy rules that only the lovers themselves can truly comprehend; rules which, by their very nature, breed instability and madness. Marlene is a classic case. She works as Petra’s assistant, and is mute throughout the film. She loves her mistress. It is a love engendered through ritual and work; one which creates the feelings of the indispensable servant - Marlene typing the letters, drawing the designs, making tea; and, we surmise, tidying up the bed after Petra has slept with Karin. It is a love where no affection must be shown, for contentment feeds off distance and submission, and requires abasement and self-sacrifice.18  Such a love produces a special kind of freedom - that of the disciple.

Many is the time that Marlene is jealous, angry and upset. But she does not express her emotions; and so maintains the relationship. Such control! Marlene the strongest character in the play; a nun who dedicates her life to an idea and a feeling.

Over time this inequality of feeling has created a highly formalised relationship, one in which Marlene’s feelings are sublimated into her role; symbolised by the shop mannequins that litter the studio; and which contrast strongly with Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus, an enormous painting, that full of lust and life dominates the flat.

Recovered from her breakdown Petra softens to Marlene. This is a mistake. She has destroyed the fragile balance of a relationship that requires her own indifference. Marlene desires the liberty of the slave.19 But her mistress has turned into a human being… The servant storms out.


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1. This is a brilliant insight: to fight for our freedom is actually to lose it, because in fighting we make far greater compromises than we when were at peace.

2. The change in Sidonie suggests a major shift in social moeurs - the public realm has been utterly devalued.

3.  The single gender cast is suggestive.

4. Does Sidonie want Petra to fall in love with Karin?  Is she using Karin to punish Petra - for her opinions? because she won’t resume their affair?

5. Alberto Moravia had a genius for describing this kind of relationship - in The Empty Canvas, for example.

6. The converse also seems to be true:

There can only be close friendship and solidarity between two men when their intellects have made contact. (E.M. de Vogüé, quoted in V.S. Pritchett, Lasting Impressions.)

7.  This seems linked to education, which replaces concrete particulars with generalised concepts (nicely illuminated in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, where the foreman Joe Scott meanders through a detail-clogged narrative, which his master, Robert Moore, summarises in a short abstract).

The danger of such education is that the content that informs the idea is lost totally. This is illustrated in the battle between the Ancients and the Moderns in the seventeenth century, when the primitive scientists and the Puritans attacked the learned, whom they accused of talking in empty and meaningless concepts. 

The seventeenth century saw a major cultural shift (reminiscent of the 1960s, and suggests the appeal of these times to the then rising radicals) when an over-refined intellectual system was exposed by a return to primitive roots; to the facts; to nature (see Richard Foster Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England).

The way to destroy the middle classes is to de-educate them. For along with their big ideas will go their religious spirit. And indeed, this is precisely what the 1960s tried to do - in the name of truth and authenticity. The consequence? A Petra who is drunk, who is in despair, who is sprawled on a thick white carpet in an empty room; clutching a telephone, waiting for a call that will never come. She is beautiful. Indeed she is! She is also insane. The telephone rings. She jumps on it like a starving animal…

8.  Which, it should be superfluous to add, is a negative quality. Thinking about the artist…to develop herself, to grow aesthetically, she needs constraints; liberty more her foe than her friend.* Or to speak in lofty continental tones: freedom encourages being; restraint fosters becoming; the artist eternal potentiality.
* Consider the author’s father in Maxim Leo’s Red Love: The Story of an East German Family.
9.  The origins of modern science are suffused with ideological attacks on the rational mind; believed prone to error and intellectual fantasy. To understand nature, the early scientific thinkers argued, we need to look at the facts; and to do this we need to use our senses; observation helped by experiment was the only way to truly comprehend the world (Ancients and Moderns). 

Petra is a wonderful example of how cleverness hides truth rather than reveals it.  And yet, and yet… it is only through such clever fantasies that we can grasp complex truths. As Richard Foster Jones notes, the scientific ideologues were philistine and narrow. Also: they were parasitic on the very intellectual culture - the Greeks - that they were rejecting.*
Early modern science appears to be an attack on the later Renaissance, with its overvaluation - its worship almost - of the classics, and especially the Greeks. Anthony Grafton’s What was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe seems to confirm this; Grafton showing how modern history grew out of a critique of Roman historical writing, with its reliance on rhetoric, which was imported wholesale into Renaissance thought. 
Reading Foster Jones we see two separate attacks on the old learning - scientific and Puritan - which overlapped; the emphases being a little different; the latter more attuned to an older scholastic culture, and its reliance on Aristotle. Elsewhere in England there were other attempts to reject what were regarded as modern accretions - in this case those belonging to the Norman conquest. The revolt consisted in accumulating a mass of primary sources from the medieval Church, which helped to sustain a theory that emphasised an original - and thus more pure and authentic, a more native - Anglo-Saxon culture (David Douglas: English Scholars 1660 - 1730. This book charts the formation of a more informed and scholarly medieval history - which was arrested, he argues, by the Enlightenment -; the scholars involved both politically engaged and intellectually objective; this combination of qualities a creative stimulus). 
We get a sense of an intellectual movement that has grown too big, its vast strength a weakness; for it has become both overburdening and superficial; inviting a reaction; and on all fronts. Intellectual paradigms collapse not because they are weak but because they are too powerful; expanding beyond their feasible limits.

10.  Today this fear takes on very strange forms - in order to protect ourselves we now praise everyone for their intellectual abilities. We are all geniuses!

11.  For extreme examples of the mistrust of language, believed to be mere windbaggery, read the early modern scientific ideologues collected in Ancients and Moderns. 

In the 1960s a favourite concept of the Left was false-consciousness; the idea almost exclusively applied to a working class that was believed not to comprehend its best interests - to fight for a socialist society. In retrospect, the only people suffering from this conceptual disease were the Left intellectuals themselves - it was they who believed in a completely untrue vision of the workers. Petra, with her false ideas about Karin, seems an ideal type.


13.  I use Hume’s phrase for a suffering that is Nietzschean. For a wonderful analysis of Hume’s “cool passions”, which is contrasted with Nietzsche’s rather hot ones, see Ernest Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason (and quoted in my A Broken Fairy). 

14.  Compare with Mizoguchi’s Oyu-Sama (in my Beware the Butterfly).

15.  The sudden introduction of a disturbing object reminds us of Strindberg; particularly Miss Julie.

16.  We see the dangers in the wonderful “piano scene” in Shirley, where the wild and highly intelligent heroine lets herself go. But, crucially, she is not lost. The nineteenth century believed that the true and the good could be reconciled, the intelligent and the romantic would find their ideal mate. 

We are not so optimistic. We believe that the artist, the intellectual, the truly religious person, are society’s outsiders, destined never to find warmth at a domestic hearth.

The change is a simple one: for Charlotte Brontë the artist is essentially a good person; the feelings of the spirit (a sort of holy essence) enough to reconcile them to the surrounding community. 

At some point in the late 19th century artists stopped believing in this idea; they rebelled against society, and pictured themselves as morbid and anti-social beings; a conception that seems to have reached its apogee around the time of the First World War.

Today. Well today! Both the religious spirit and the spiritual sickness have been safely exorcised. Today art is merely social activity; entertainment; community empowerment; therapy for the mentally ill; a job; a means of making money…

17.  Such as Gieshübler in Fontane’s novel.

18.  Compare with the Captain in The Fastest Clock in the Universe (in my Midlife Crisis)

19.  Nothing ever charms me more than when I meet my superior - one who makes me sincerely feel that he is my superior… the higher above me, so much the better: it degrades to stoop - it is glorious to look up. (Shirley).

This novel’s intensively female company, with its strong cross-currents of feeling and power, together with its strangely transgressive air (the heroine is often referred to as a man), creates an atmosphere that closely resembles Fassbinder’s masterpiece. It is only Brontë’s (disappointing) resolution of the central emotional triangle that reminds us that they belong to different centuries.

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