Thursday, 22 January 2015

Wolf Hall

                                                                A wolf...

So everybody's talking about Wolf Hall. (Telegraph: here. Guardian: here.) We apparently like it.

I'll say something about the TV adaptation in a bit. But I wanted to try and say something about the books before I do. Treat this as part of an exercise in the phenomenology of reading rather than an exercise in close criticism. I read Wolf Hall pretty much when it first came out which means that I read it about six years ago. I read Bring Up the Bodies again roughly when it came out -so about three years ago. I read Wolf Hall in hard copy; I read Bring Up the Bodies on a Kindle.

I mention all that because those details affect how I feel about the books. (And that's what I'm going to talk about.) If this were proper criticism, I'd be obliged to go back and check these feelings against the text. But I'm not going to. Which is why this post is simply about my (current) impressions of the book and doesn't claim to be criticism. However, it may be of interest for two reasons: first, I seem to be one of those rare Catholics who enjoyed both; secondly, I haven't seen what I'm going to say precisely echoed by anyone else (and I'm arrogant enough to think that I might have an interesting perspective).

A lot has been made about the books' being, in some sense, about the rise of modernity: a very modern man (Cromwell), who achieves his position by merit, not birth, and who operates with managerial efficiency rather than (as with More) from theology or (as with Henry) from his codpiece. I think that's basically right. But what is often missed is that the first person narration of the book and general form of the book itself embodies that rise of modernity. Cromwell's take on the world is oddly flat: he sees the world with disenchanted eyes; he is alienated from it. (The confusions noted by Mark Lambert  reinforce this Verfremdungseffekt: Cromwell's consciousness becomes the one still, Cartesian spot in a blooming buzzing confusion.) What others have taken to be dullness I took as part of the point: a sort of extended exercise in Vonnegutian 'So it goes', the careless flatness of the modern, disembodied ego. (I think perhaps there's a slightly false note in the narrative with the death of Cromwell's family (and indeed his abused childhood): instead of his disenchantment being part of the structure of modernity, it hints at a pathological psychology where the disenchantment and lack of emotional connection is the result of personal grief rather than cultural shift.)

As I said, I'm not sure how fair that impression is to the text, but it is nonetheless why I tell myself now that I enjoyed the books. (Wolf Hall more than Bring Up the Bodies, I think, in part because I think it did this 'disenchantment' thing rather better.) It also relieves any anxiety I might have had about the unsympathetic portrayal of More: of course he is a grotesque. All those with light and colour and character are grotesque (just as the Middle Ages are grotesque) in front of the unfeeling light of the modern, rational consciousness. Mantel's take on that appears to be that Cromwell is good because modernity is good. My take is that Cromwell is bad (almost psychopathic) because modernity is bad. (But so it goes no doubt.)

And what of the TV series? Well, aesthetically it's great. (Great use of light and dark, not afraid to let whole scenes (almost) vanish into the Tudor murk). And one is reminded again just how wonderful gifted actors are, disappearing into another human being with no sign of the effort it costs. I'll certainly go on watching it. But (given the books) I think what I'm going to miss is the relief of the flatness by the penetrating consciousness of Cromwell: instead of being the camera through which all the world is viewed and reduced to something to be manipulated or played with or just seen, he becomes instead just one more character within the camera's field. He too becomes part of the flattened, disenchanted world rather than the eye through which it is viewed.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Happy birthday, Cezanne. (Catholic.)

There are a great many things I don't like about blogging (the sound of my own voice -or whatever the correct digital, visual equivalent is- rambling on in feeble imitation of professional commentators can be just as grating for me as it is for you, dear reader), but one of the things I do like is the possibility of bringing out the interplay of the personal and the academic. I am, for example, quite happy to admit that, on most (all?) subjects, I write having entered in medias res and will stop writing ex mediis rebus: we always stand a little unsure of the dimensions of the room we inhabit and we never quite get a firm sense of the contents of that room. (But that doesn't stop us talking. Oh Lord, not in the slightest.)

And so, Cezanne. Brought up in a lower middle class, pretty philistine home, we just didn't do the visual arts. (Actually, I'm not sure we did much of anything except TV.) And not having any natural abilities in that area, I just didn't pay much attention to painting and the like until undergraduate courses on aesthetics forced me to engage. I remain pretty ignorant, not really even knowing what I like. But as I get older, I find the enjoyment of paintings, the sensual enjoyment of seeing, incredibly satisfying. I suppose this is all to say I dabble. And Cezanne, for a variety of reasons, is one of those painters I find most satisfying to dabble in...

When I realized that today was Cezanne's birthday, I turned to the Alex Danchev biography of Cezanne to find something helpful to tweet. And knowing that Cezanne was a daily mass goer, I thought I'd probably say something about that. So to Danchev's index. Nothing. Absolutely nothing on Catholicism. Freud, of course. Heidegger. Hegel. Even Billy Whitelaw. But nothing under 'Catholicism' or 'Mass' or 'God' or 'Christ' and so on. I did (by dint of extensive flipping) find the following exchange (p291) where Danchev contrasts his understanding of Cezanne with that of earlier biographers:

It constructs a helpless, almost childlike Cezanne in his dotage, a political simpleton, a preconscious pilgrim, clinging to le bon droit in all its forms -the Church, the State, the Army -even the Boers...It is tone deaf, to wit and to wisdom. 'I'm going to get my helping of the Middle Ages,' he would whisper, mischievously, near the font. 'To be a Catholic,' he told his son, near the end, 'I think one has to be devoid of all sense of fairness, but to keep an eye on one's own interests.'

And that, so far as I can see, is that: one paragraph exemplifying as much as noting a tone deafness to wit and to wisdom. (If you can't imagine all sorts of ways in which a devout Catholic might mischievously speak thus without stopping being a devout Catholic...) The reviews of the book (the Guardian here; Telegraph here; Waldemar Januszczak here) neither mention religion (which suggests that I'm not missing something in the biography) nor suggest that this is a failing (which suggests that Danchev is not atypical).

All this is particularly strange in that Cezanne is quite clearly an artist who is engaging in that very Catholic thing of trying to find form in the world: a form, not with the accretions of tradition or French bourgeois seeing, but 'the dearest freshness deep down things'. And coupled with a purification of the see-er, we have almost a perfect case study of Catholic art and the encounter of French Catholicism with modernity. (I look up Bernanos, Peguy. They're not there either. Weil gets a one line mention -but a throwaway (and certainly no reference to her religion).)

Googling a little more, I find this essay by Patrick Reyntiens. Reassured to notice that I'm not going mad in noticing something is a little odd here:

An aspect of Cezanne's personal life not much harped upon is that he was a staunch Catholic. He was a daily Mass-goer. Such aberrations are best left unemphasised in the structure of the myth of the Modern Movement. But it explains a great deal. Cezanne's religion, however conventional it may or may not have been, constituted the prime basis for his sense of identity, stability and personal probity. This in turn fuelled his obsession with painting to heroic lengths.

None of this matters much to Catholics, at least educated ones. I guess most of us are used to suspecting the airbrushing that goes on in cultural history (my children tease me for my adding, when possible, 'He's a Catholic' to any passing description of this or that celebrity) and can look (search) past it. But if you enter this world in medias res, unless you're a Catholic on the look out for lacunae, you find yourself in a world that has been scraped of its Catholicism in the same way that Protestant reformers scraped our churches of paintings and colour; and, unless you have it continually pointed out to you, you start to think that the normal state of the world is this barren remnant, smashed ruins being mistaken for the complete original. Cezanne's a small, relatively insignificant case study of that secularization, which is not simply an absence, but an act of positive violence, a distortion of what our Lebenswelt, the cultural environment we inhabit, is really like.

Happy birthday to Paul Cezanne. Requiescat in pace.

Friday, 9 January 2015


I held back from commenting immediately on the murder of the journalists in Paris in part because I knew I'd get the tone wrong if I said anything immediately and in part from a feeling of nausea at how many commentators were hitching this or that bandwagon to the event. Fundamentally, it's about human beings having their lives violently snuffed out and perhaps the only totally satisfactory immediate response is sorrow and prayer.

With a bit of distance, perhaps it's possible to start drawing necessary distinctions. #Jesuis Charlie is fine as fighting talk, a quick and necessary way of showing solidarity with the victims. But as reflective political commentary, it's inadequate. 'I am not Charlie': I don't like its brand of satire; I don't like its crudities. I don't think it adds to democracy to shriek at your opponents. 'Free speech is the foundation stone of democracy': well, some (large) amount of free speech is a foundation stone of democracy, but that isn't the same as having the right to say anything that pops into your head. Civility is also a foundation stone of democracy. So is restraint. So is the exercise of rationality. So is not alienating large  numbers of your fellow citizens who happen to be of a different Weltanschauung. (Yes, I do primarily mean Muslims.)

'Islam is...' A lot of things apparently. '...the problem.' We shouldn't have to worry about placating them or worrying about Islamophobia or backlashes. We need to arm up and fight them. (And what? Bomb Southall?) Do something about the fifth column. (Send them back to Birmingham?) If you must say that Islam is the problem, then I suppose you must so long as we can also say that secularism and legal positivism are the problem. But I don't see how it helps either analysis or solution, certainly in the short term.

The murders in Paris changed nothing: that's part of the tragedy. Terrorism has been a feature of twentieth century Western democracies whenever we've paused fighting continental wars. 'The Troubles' (as one of my children remarked recently, is that supposed to be an example of British understatement?) killed over 3,500 people in roughly thirty years in a population of roughly two millions. And you can add to that the Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, ETA etc etc. Undoubtedly, the current situation in the Middle East with IS looking to establish some sort of regional Caliphate is new. But we've only just emerged from a generation who, often with good reason, daily expected to be incinerated by a global nuclear war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

Nothing has changed from the Tuesday before the murders. On Tuesday, we knew that there were Muslim terrorists who wanted to conduct terrorist campaigns. We knew that they had had some success in the past and that, in all probability, they would succeed again. On Tuesday, we knew that freedom of speech is an important area in a democracy, but that there are difficult philosophical issues regarding its extent and justification. (If anyone is going to contest this, would you read Mill's On Liberty and Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity before doing so? Or at least this?) On Tuesday, we knew that there are cultural and racial tensions in French and other Western European societies which are difficult to deal with. On Tuesday we knew that the Middle East is a rapidly escalating source of instability.

One of the cornerstones of democracy (not sufficiently mentioned in recent days) is the rule of law and the use of force by government through a disciplined army and police force. It is fortunate that, whatever else has been dismantled since the 1960s, both France and Britain possess professionally trained men and women in these institutions with an ethos of public service that will, in extremis, allow them to lay down their lives for others. The main achievement of civilization is the restraint of stasis, the restraint of civil unrest which allows people to pursue the good life. The main question since Wednesday is what needs to be done and what can be done to prevent terrorism from undermining civic stability without wrecking the possibility of living well, particularly in the areas of privacy and liberty. That is, for the most part, a question of policing and intelligence methods, but also needs deeper (and continued) reflection on the nature of politics. It's there that I worry that the fetishization of one element at the expense of all the others -liberty or freedom of speech or the preeminence of satire- distorts the complexity of democratic culture. As I have said before, there is politics as campaigning, fighting talk, where such slogans or fetishization serve an immediate rhetorical purpose. But that needs to be supplemented by reflective thinking that aims at the truth in politics rather than momentary effectiveness or the mobilization of the public.

If I have to have a hashtag at the moment then #jesuislaloi would be my best bet. That's law which both controls stasis, but which also reflects ethics (ie natural law). Frankly, I wouldn't defend to the death the right of satirists gratuitously to insult people or beliefs, particularly if that right is bought at the cost of cheapening public discourse and coarsening society. But I would defend to the death their right not to be murdered. And the solution to that is primarily a question of policing.

Originally considered this as picture, but felt it didn't quite convey the sense of impersonal, rational justice required...