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The Free Press: An Essay on the Manipulation of News and Opinion and How to Counter It
The Free Press: An Essay on the Manipulation of News and Opinion and How to Counter It
Price: 3.89

5.0 out of 5 stars The Press Gang, 9 July 2014
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Written almost one hundred years ago by the poet, essayist, social critic and historian Hilaire Belloc (1970-1953), this is an excellent little essay written at a period when mass education had, for the first time, given huge power to the proprietors of the popular press. Belloc identifies the link between the market, politics and the press and shows how, from the very beginning, the rise of the newspapers was intimately connected with the evolution of of capitalism. Now, and in Belloc's own time, the mainstream newspapers exercised social and political power limited only by the power and opinions of those whose advertising they carried and the residual restraint imposed by the public's ultimate ability to distinguish the grosser forms of deception, manipulation and stupidity. Belloc excoriates the power of the newspapers and their proprietors to shape and manipulate 'public opinion' whilst remaining virtually unaccountable themselves; he expresses contempt for the professional politicians who exist in unhealthy symbiosis with media proprietors; and he correctly predicts the race to the bottom where 'news' is replaced by fashionable trash, superficial commentary, and inane satire.

'For men who know the way in which are governed, and who recognise... that the great newspaper is coming to be more powerful than the open and responsible (though corrupt) Executive of the country, the position is intolerable. It is bad enough to be governed by an aristocracy or a monarch whose executive power is dependent upon legend in the mass of the people; it is humiliating enough to be thus governed through a sort of play-acting instead of enjoying the self-government of free men. It is worth by far to be governed by a clique of professional politicians bamboozling the multitude with the pretence of 'Democracy'. But it is intolerable that a similar power should reside in the hands of obscure nobodies about whom no illusion could possible exist, whose tyranny is not admitted or public at all, who do not even take the risk of exposing their features, and to whom no responsibility whatever attaches' Such have been the obscure nonentities representing press power from Harmswoth, through Beaverbrook, and from Maxwell to Murdoch - a thoroughly disgraceful train of unelected and corrupt opportunists with their pockets stuffed full of sordid profit and servile politicians.

Belloc, who core some time edited an independent newspaper called 'The New Witness', then goes on to analyse the virtues and vices of a free press - by which he means a private press produced in competition with the mainstream papers, but at a disadvantage to them for lack of appeal to mainstream advertising and hence the resources of capital, sources, and distribution enjoyed by their main stream competitors The virtues of the free press is that it is usually staffed by those for whom the mainstream press has no place, or by those who reject it as hopeless corrupt. This guarantees a certain degree of hard-headed independence of thought and judgement; an adherence to principle; and a willingness to write the truth in the face of financial - and legal - penalisation. It reproduces the circumstances which obtained in the early newspapers, where news was usually based on the eye-witness accounts of people who were in a position to know, and were writing for those who knew them and could judge their opinions through personal judgment of the writers concerned. The corresponding vice of this free press in its modern form is an almost universal and blinkered fanaticism in any cause which the newspaper exists to serve. Belloc correctly writes that the Free Press 'so long as it springs from many and varied minorities, not only suffers everywhere from an audience restricted in the case of each organ, but from preaching to the converted.' But against this is the fact that the Free Press is likely to command the services of bright, principled and independently minded writers who do not subscribe to the almost wholly unconscious set of prejudices that immediately identify the hack. This brings Belloc on to the one crucial piece of advice which make this book worth reading for its own sake:

'Any instructed man today who really wants to find out what's going reads the Free Press; but he is compelled... to read the whole of it and piece together the sections if he wishes to discover his true whereabouts. Each organ gives him an individual expression, which is eccentric, often highly eccentric, to the general impression. When I want to know, for instance, what is happening in France, I read the Jewish Socialist paper the Humanitél; the most violent French Revolutionary papers I can get, such as 'La Guerre Sociale'; the Royalist 'Action Francaise'; the anti-Semitic 'Libre Parole and so forth... but I only get my picture as a composite. The same truth will be emphasises by different Free Papers for differently motives'. Discrimination is everything: an anti-Semite paper will draw attention to 'the way the Rothschilds cheated the French Gocerbnment over death duties' and it's editor Drumont, 'alone ultimately compelled those wealthy men to disgorge, and it was a fine piece of work. But when he went on to argue that cheating the revenue was a purely Jewish vice he could never get the mass of people to agree with him, for it was nonsense'.

The truth and relevance of these observations are so obvious as to need no elaboration: the mainstream newspapers will be inclined to avoid telling the truth about matters which intimately effect the interests of the rich, but will, by and large, avoid the follies of single issue fanatics. On the other hand, the rich use the very evident fanaticism of sectional interests in the free press to distract attention from truths which they themselves find inconvenient, and even embarrassing to expose. Read the great newspaper that most accords with your prejudice, and you will find yourself sleep-walking into its prejudices. You will express those prejudices in your conversation, and in what you chose to post on the internet as if they were your own opinions, and as if they were self-evident to every man of reasonable intelligence and good-will - such as yourself. You will become irritated when you are challenged by other men who don't agree with you, but you will, amusingly enough, have no difficulty in identifying the newspaper from which you imagine them too draw their own opinions, and from that, you are likely to reach a lot of generally useful conclusions about their social class, preferences, and general culture. But you will not learn the truth, for the truth is not to be found in a single publication, and least of all in a newspaper that is financed by advertising and which is in league, for its own (usually financial) purposes with various cliques of professional politicians: if you want the truth, you should not seek to harvest it from the branded barn, but winnow it with the flail of your own intellect on the threshing floor of your own judgment.

Furthermore, you should consider the way in which the great papers use moralising to distract people from the real news. The expenses scandal was real enough news, but it was used to tar and feather politicians indiscriminately, and the real issue, which was how professional politicians should be remunerated in such a way as to avoid the distortions caused by the media pressures which had produced the scandal in the first place were conveniently overlooked. In the matter of 'Plebgate', the newspapers forced the resignation of the Government chief whip even before the case against him was made out. When it turned out that police had fabricated evidence, and that the matter had been 'mishandled' at the most senior levels, the press did little to inform the public of the true issues and personalities involved. And at this moment, we are threatened with months of investigation into the procedures which operated to suppress the investigation of alleged child sexual abuse by a number of MPs 30 years ago, Oner suspects that these investigations, and others like them, are motivated by the long-running struggle to impose restrictions on the capacity of the press to ruthlessly invade the privacy of anyone it chooses, but the mainstream press can hardly be expected to come clean as to that. Meanwhile, the public is excited in its general contempt for any authority by a steady drip-feed of scandal, pormography and prurience while the really significant aspects of the story go uninvestigated.

Belloc concluded this 1918 Essay with the expression of an optimistic view that the Free Press was gaining ground, and that it would gain more as people became more aware of the grosser forms of deceit and manipulation practiced by the leading papers. This now seems, and would. I think, have then seemed, overly optimistic. The evidence of corruption, jobbery, sharp practice, collusion, fraud, and misfeasance is now about as clear as it could ever possible be, but the whole debate is veiled by the self-interest of a media world, every attempt to reform which is met by the high-pitched squeals about freedom from pigs who, not unnaturally, would prefer a filthy stye to what they claim would be the abattoir of their readers' freedoms. No doubt Belloc would seek some comfort in the new styles and opportunities afforded by the internet, but could not, I think, conclude on the evidence of the social media that people were likely to do anything more than re-iterate exactly the prejudices with which the mainstream furnish them. The fact is that papers like 'The New Witness' and the 'New Age' were written for educated minds with a taste for independent judgment, but this class of person has long disappeared and is subsumed into a world of thoughtless opinion catered for principally by 'The Guardian'.


Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 - England's Most Brutal Battle
Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 - England's Most Brutal Battle
by George Goodwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Twilight of the Monarchy, 23 Feb 2014
This is a short account of the background, personalities and events leading up to the battle which may be said to have dealt a blow to the mystique of the mediaeval monarchy from which it never really recovered. It has been written not for experts or for would-be experts, but for those with a broad interest in the period 1422-1461, and a particular interest in the area around York and Pontefract. As regards the general period, the book is useful in that it publishes to a wider public, and in popular form, recent academic work done by Michael Hicks, Ralph Griffiths, John Wattts and A.J.Pollard, but in relation to the battle, the writer's touch seems less sure. This is partly because comparatively little is known about it, partly because what is known is not particularly trustworthy, and partly because Mr Goodwin seems over anxious to magnify the scale.

Of the 200 odd pages of text, 134 set the scene, leaving 66 for the campaign. much of it actually concerned with descriptions of munitions, armoury, and supplies. The account of the battle itself covers less than 15 pages. The agreed facts appear to be (a) that the battle was fought in appalling wintry conditions which favoured the Yorkist victors; (b) that the Lancastrians were driven from a strong defensive position, on a plateau between two marshy areas of ground; and (c) that the decisive event was probably the arrival, late in the afternoon, of a Yorkist force under the Duke of Norfolk which came up from the lower ground to the Lancastrian left, and caused that flank to disintegrate, thereby precipitating a general rout.

Mr Goodwin takes at face value reports of the day which suggested that 28,000 were killed, and accepts the argument that anything between 50,000 and 75,000 men were engaged. These figures seem extraordinary given the period, the season, the shortage of time which Edward IV had had to muster his forces, and the general principle which says that when dealing with numbers in historical sources pre-dating the availability of public records, the safest course is to reduce all figures to one tenth of the number advanced in any given source. Dealing with the archaeological evidence, Mr Goodwin emphasises the discovery of a grave pit unearthed near Towton Hall in 1996 the 38 bodies in which bore the marks of summary and savage execution. Horrible though the facts are, neither they, nor any other archaeological evidence, would seem to corroborate the extraordinary figures for the dead. The suspicion must be that that the number of killed was unusual by contemporary standards, but that putting precise figures on them, whether by reference to contemporary documents, or on academic calculations based on the supposed proportion borne by males eligible for military service to the total population for the period is an all but pseudo-scientific exercise.

Whilst the lack of reliable evidence means that accounts of the battle can only be sparse and disappointing, Mr Goodwin's account of the period as a whole is competent and well-written, not only in the way it deals with a confusing series of events and people, but in the way it traces the collapse of the Lancastrian monarchy. Under Henry V, the pride of England had been restored to a position of international prestige unmatched since the reign of Edward III. Under his infant, and later half-witted son, England collapsed into anarchic savagery. Controlled initially, by his able and prestigious uncles, the kingdom and its overseas empire fell apart as the mentally incapable king came of age and failed to impose his will. Instead, a clique or faction soon established a dominance which reduced the wealth, power and prestige of the monarchy, and created in its turn, an alliance of the excluded. As men of all ranks lost confidence in the ability of the government to guarantee law, order and probity, traditional hierarchies of service and patronage were broken, and the chivalric principles which had guaranteed the decencies were replaced by the principles of pride, provocation and vendetta.

And yet Towton was a battle that the Lancastrians should have won, not least because the institution of kingship still had a mystique that transcended the personal qualities of whoever occupied the throne for the time being, Richard of York's ill-executed bid for the throne in 1460 ended in disaster, not least because it was perceived by too many potential supporters as an intolerable usurpation by a man who, at every stage, had used successive Parliaments to advance his own interests at the expense of his opponents'. The irony is that his son's bid succeeded largely because he controlled London and Calais - the new centres of wealth and commerce controlled by a mercantile class that were beginning to demand a voice of their own in the affairs of the nation, and who saw the young, vigorous combination of the Earls of March and Warwick a guarantee of their own ambitions and aspirations.

The defeat at Towton, the death (or possibly, the execution of) his son at Tewkesbury, and the murder of Henry VI shortly thereafter were series of events that dealt crushing bows to the idea of divinely ordained monarchy, and when Edward IV married a commoner, and sired heirs whom a large proportion of the aristocracy felt inferior to themselves in terms of birth and rank, the monarchy was further compromised. Faced with the second long minority in two generations, and a powerful interest group again ready to siphon of the kingdom's wealth and patronage, it was hardly surprising that Richard of Gloucester and Henry Tudor should have been ready to massacre innocents in order to prevent the kingdom spiralling once again into anarchy.

The moral is that any form of government that combines being corrupt, self-serving and inefficient with a failure to represent the interests of real power and money (which were rapidly becoming more or less the same thing) is likely to end in ruin and disaster - if you want examples, just look around you.


The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
by Alan Jacobs
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars If thou,Lord, should shouldst mark Iniquities., 18 Feb 2014
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Towards the end of this study of the life and imagination of C.S.Lewis, the author quotes an article by the novelist and critic Philip Hensher in which the latter invites his readers to 'drop C.S.Lewis and his ghastly, priggish, half-witted, money-making drivel about Narnia down the nearest deep hole, as soon as conveniently possible. In fact', writes Hensher, 'I'd more or less assumed that these frightful books had stopped being read years ago... They are revolting, mean-minded books, written to corrupt the minds of the young with allegory, smugly denouncing anything that differs in the slightest respect from Lewis's creed of clean-living, muscular Christianity, misogyny, racism, and the most vulgar snobbery' (The Independent, 04/12/98). Mr.Jacobs then cites Philip Pullman who suggests that the late Professor Lewis' philosophy can be summarised by the assertions that 'Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are like dark-coloured people; and so on There is', writes Pullman, 'no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia... the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the misogyny, the racism, the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method...' (The Guardian, 01/10.98).

It is one of the excellencies of this book that Mr.Jacobs,, a professor of English, former director of the 'Faith and Learning Program at Wheaton College, Illinois and,since 2012, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honours Program at Baylor University , and a man who clearly admires Professor Lewis, not only allows these voices to be heard, but deals with the criticisms in a fair and balanced way.

Biographies can easily descend into tiresome slogs through thickets of unwanted facts and/or waterlogged fields of speculation but Mr.Jacobs makes it clear in his introduction that his book is not a biography of that kind, but what he, perhaps rather wearily, calls 'a life of a mind'. To those who already know about Lewis' life, and have read the 3 volumes of his correspondence, edited by Walter Hooper, this statement of intent will come as a relief. Not only was the greater part of C.S.Lewis life passed in the libraries, lecture halls and common rooms of Oxford University, but Professor Lewis was a not the man to talk much about himself or to engage in talk about other people. A.N.Wilson, who produced a characteristically spiky 'Life', wrote that Christopher Tolkien (the great man's son) often remarked to him 'that Lewis rejected any attempt to gossip in his presence' and that 'he would display no interest whatever in a friend's private life (C.S.Lewis: A Biography, Harper Collins (1990), p.234 - elsewhere Mr.Wilson remarks that Lewis 'never discussed his private life with friends').

It is true that Professor Lewis' role as a Christian apologist was not without it's ironies, and it sometimes strikes this reader as surprising that those hostile to the whole christian project have not made more of them. Here was a man who was ambitious, hard-nosed and intellectually ruthless, with an Orangeman's capacity for unsparing logic combined with an Orangeman's susceptibility to sentimental righteousness. In a penetrating aside, A.N.Wilson wrote of 'Lewis' tremendous capacity for thinking that the saw human situations extremely clearly, but getting them plumb wrong (Wilson, 'Lewis', p.255)., and Mr.Jacobs repeatedly demonstrates the accuracy of this assessment not simply by reference to Lewis' youthful lack of sympathy towards his father (a man who, having lost his wife, never re-married, and worked selflessly and supportively to his sons' interests and was rewarded with priggish condescension), but also to his deluded assessments of himself and his circumstances in later life.

Humphrey Havard, once mischievously suggested that the title of Lewis' biography, 'Surprised by Joy' might more properly have been 'Suppressed by Jack', and it is difficult to read Mr.Jacobs without concluding that there were certain disjuncts between Lewis' thought and Lewis' practice. J.R.R.Tolkien was surprised when Lewis' acceptance of christianity did not move naturally to an acceptance of catholic orthodoxy; later, he felt that in assuming the role of a preacher, Lewis usurped a teaching role that was more properly reserved to the priesthood; in addition, Tolkien may well have felt that Lewis' personal arrangements with his long term companion, Mrs Moore, were inconsistent with the hard choices which conscience might otherwise have been expected to force upon him and it is significant that when Lewis decided to marry a divorcée, the one person whom he diid not consult was Tolkien. It is difficult, too, for readers of 'A Grief Observed' not to feel that Lewis' angry expressions of resentment at his 'treatment' by God sit uneasily with a true understanding of the faith on which he had so freely written.

And yet, for all that evidence so fairly presented by Mr Jacobs, one cannot but be impressed by the other side of C.S.Lewis: the side that sublimated self persistently to the interests of others; that shared 30 years with a woman who affected to despise his religion, and, at times, to despise Lewis himself; the side that unquestioningly offered a home to a brother whose success had not matched his, own who disliked his brother's partner, and who regularly disgraced himself in fits of uncontrolled alcoholism; the side that set aside his earnings from christian apologetics to christian purposes; the side that respected, even where it fell short of christian duty; the side that made a man of the highest intellectual gifts and achievements kneel down every night by the side of his bed to pray.

This is a well-written, knowledgeable and humane book by an author who demonstrates the peculiarly christian virtues of uncompromising clear sightedness and compassionate sympathy for a man who, despite his immense gifts as a scholar, probably never achieved the literary greatness on which he had, in early life, set his sights.

It might, I suppose, be said, that having fallen short of those higher aims, Mr.Lewis should have refused a place of honour in the second tier. Mr. Jacobs thinks that that what chiefly annoys third tier writers like Mr.Hensher and Mr.Pullman is Mr.Lewis' 'holding to -and more, emphasising - the Christian promise of 'eternal life... Of all the Christian beliefs with which atheists disagree', writes Mr.Jacobs 'the only one that seems to generate real and deep rage is the belief in eternal life - the offer of 'pie in the sky by and by' - and the corollary belief that the eternal life that some people choose is a miserable one'. But i can't help thinking that the real outrage springs from an arrogance that regards it as vastly unfair that a man who subscribed to what it sees as a set of contemptible beliefs should have achieved the kind of international fame that they themselves will not achieve, and who seems destined to be more long-lived and influential than they will ever be.

The interesting thing is that Professor Lewis was a convert who passed through rejection, cynicism and contempt for religion every bit as dismissive as that to which writers such as Messers Hensher and Pullman themselves evince. One of the achievements of Mr.Jacobs 'Life of The Mind' is to demonstrate beyond argument that the path to faith followed by Lewis was anything but a 'romantic' one. There was no period of emotional collapse; no period of prostration - no 'damascene conversion'. Lewis was clear in his own mind that even his experience of of otherwise unexplained 'joy' was not immediately recognised by him for what it was, but had to be identified through a period in which he was actually engaged in 'mental fight' against the logical conclusions to which he was drawn by thought applied to experience - namely, the Christian position. In conducting this 'rationalist' rear-guard action, as much as in his subsequent apologetics, he was aided by the remarkable training in logic which he had received in early adolescence from an atheist tutor. William Kirkpatrick (the 'Professor Kirk' of the Chronicles, and from the Platonic idealism of George MacDonald, both of which were to be the key influences in the formation of his literary and his personal style

It is very dangerous to allow the simplicity and clarity which Lewis was able to deploy as effectively in his fables and in his apologetics with a supposed lack of intellectual sophistication. Lewis was one of the best-read men of his generation with a command of the European canon extending from Homer to Tennyson. Of modernism he had no understanding, and with it, he had no sympathy. His dismissal of T.S.Eliot - with whom he might have been expected to be in some intellectual league - betrayed an intellectual limitation which is, in some ways as startling as his evident strengths. But it is great folly to dismiss Lewis as a fool: in terms of his reading, his capacity for concentration, and his power of reasoned exposition, Lewis' was a highly impressive intelligence, and his capacity for presenting issues in simple, every day terms is a mark not of his limitations, but his astonishing strengths. H e would, for example, probably have dismissed the criticisms of Messers Hensher and Pullman as what he referred to as 'Bulverism' - the tendency to dismiss arguments not be reference to their truth, to the supposed characteristics of the people who hold them - a judgment whose deadly accuracy is only too apparent when one considers the passages quoted from those contemporary
writers.

Although most people who read this review will be people who already have some knowledge of the man, his works and the literature, and who will therefore be comparatively unsurprised by this endorsement, it may be worth the trouble noting that I discovered one or two facts that have deepened my appreciation of the Chronicles. I did not know, or had forgotten, that the character of Puddleglum was at least partly based on the personality of Lewis' gardener, Frank Paxford who memorably parted from Lewis on the latter's one and only trip by air abroad abroad with an emphatic reference to a recent air disaster in which all the passengers had been killed, and their bodies 'burned beyond recognition' (p.288).

Even more delightful were the grounds which Mr.Jacobs book gave me for believing that the the surname of 'Uncle Andrew' in 'The Magician's Nephew', (Ketterley), probably derived from 'Ketley' the otherwise forgotten joint author of a book called 'The Control of Language' which advanced the typically modern proposition that value statements ostensibly directed at objective phenomena were no more than expressions of 'personal feelings'. Digory's Uncle, Andrew Ketterley, is a man who falls precisely into the category of those whose delusive ideas of what is real and not what is not stem directly from ideas which have become detached from any idea that the world with which they are confronted is anything more than a projection of their own, limited capacities, and who will do anything to deny the reality of anything that challenges that presupposition.

And yet, much as I admire C.S.Lewis as scholar, a thinker and fabulist, what I took form this book was a sense of something admirable about Lewis the man, for Mr.Jacobs, having cited the judgments of Messers Hensher and Pullman, refers to that of the dramatist, screenwriter, critic, essayist, director and impresario, Kenneth Tynan.

Tynan went up to Oxford in 1945 and was tutored in English by C.S.Lewis. In 1948, and approaching Finals, Tynan, who had been jilted by his fiancée on what he had supposed to be the eve of their marriage, and who was 'horribly ill' with bronchitis went to Lewis and asked him if he could postpone his final examinations to Christmas. 'To this', wrote Tynan in 1974, 'Lewis at once agreed: after which he got on with the christian business of consolation'. His tutee had apparently once told Lewis that he had narrowly escaped death 8 years before when a landlmine dropped from a German bomber had narrowly missed the house in which he was being brought up in Birmingham. So when Tynan told his tutor that he saw no reason to go on living, Lewis 'gently pointed out' that but for that hair's breadth, he would already have been dead for eight years. Every moment of life since then had been a bonus, a tremendous free gift, a present that only the blackest ingratitude could refuse. As I listened to him, my problems began to dwindle to their proper proportions; I had entered the room suicidal, and left it exhilarated.' In the diaries which Mr Tynan thereafter kept, and right up to hid death in 1980. C.S.Lewis and his writings offered their writer recurring matter for deep reflection

Hensher and Pullman may well be right about proper place which C.S.Lewis should properly occupy in English life and letters), and I am not sure that Mr.Jacobs world deny it - were their views more temperately expressed. Nor, on the evidence of Mr.Jacob's fair, but unsparing analysis of facts will we easily acquit this great man of a number of the graver and the lesser sins. It may be that in the absence of any decent sense of our own deficiencies, we will be inclined to see in Mr.Lewis a troubling discrepancy between publicly proclaimed faith and private practice. But what is hard to get away from is the persistent evidence of a man engaged in the persistent search for truth and ready to translate his understanding of that truth into a practice which may have failed at moments of great trial but was nevertheless implemented from day to day in small but persistent acts of personal kindness.


The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
by John Gray
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Getting into the Closet and Closing the Door., 17 Feb 2014
Although it is not strictly true, I sometimes think of Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' as the last gasp of the pagan world. That gasp, if not one of despair, is a gasp of deep melancholy. Of human life, the Emperor says that 'all things of the body are as a river, all the things of the spirit a dream and tomb: life is like a war and a sojourn in a foreign land'(Meditations 2.17); and of existence generally, he says 'In such a fog and filth, in so great a flowing past of being and of time, of movement and of things moved, what can be respected or pursued with enthusiasm I do not know' (Meditations, 5.10). It hardly needed the two references in the author's latest book (at pps.86 & 203) to make me feel that, whatever the truth of the matter, John Gray might see himself as standing in a relationship to the age of the enlightenment that is not dissimilar to that in which the Emperor stood to pre-Christian philosophy.

Mr.Gray is a former School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and this is the most recent of several best-selling books. In 2002, Mr Gray published 'Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals' in which he attacked the humanistic belief that Man was radically different from other animals, describing humanism as 'a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth'. The success of this book may have resulted first, from the fact that Gray writes in clear, simple, and possibly simplistic terms about complex issues; and secondly, from the fact that in doing so, he commands a wide range of cultural reference, particularly of writers who are congenial to the set of the contemporary mind.

'The Silence of the Animals' displays both these qualities in similar measure. Prefaced by an epigraph from Arthur Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' in which the sportive 'civilisation' of tree dwelling apes is contrasted with the uncouth 'barbarism' of Naenderthalers, the first part of this book opens 'in medias res' with a further quotation from Jospeh Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress' , and moves rapidly on through expositions of the arguments in books by Norman Lewis, Curzio Malaparte, and back through Koestler to Joseph Roth, George Orwell, Sebastian Haffner, and Alexander Herzen.

The combination of these names all but tells the story, but it must be admitted that the effect of their introduction, though cumulative, has a somewhat perplexing effect on the reader until at p.74/209, the wraps come off, and the argument of the first of the three parts of this book is briefly set out. and found to be familiar: civilised life is the idle scum on the surface of a muddy pond in which nasty, sharp-toothed monsters swim; when the surface of the pond is stirred by war, plague, famine or utopian ideologies the monsters rise to the surface and a feeding frenzy begins. It is Mr,Gray's thesis the humanist belief on 'progress' is belied by the facts, and is in any case incoherent because it bases ideas of 'progress' and 'purpose' upon a supposition that the findings of science justify either: 'Humanists believe that humanity 'improves' as it attains greater knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in 'humanity' is no better than a assertion of faith. 'Humaanists' see the realisation of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal; they exalt nature, while insisting that humankind - an accident of nature - can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Science and the idea of progress may seem to be joined together, but the end-result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in 'humanity'..Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same. Scientific inquiry may represent a triumph of logical inquiry, but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals. The fact that humanists refuse to accept the demonstration only confirms its truth' (pps 80, 81).

Having demolished the modern myth of progress, Mr.Gray turns to Freud, who is presented (not wholly convincingly) as the pioneer who accepted the fact of man's 'incurable irrationality' - and who advocated a morality of 'convenience' in the 'pursuit of 'achievement' (which seems peculiarly apposite to the circumstances of Freud's own case, notwithstanding Mr.Gray's rather starry-eyed assessment). From Freud we move to Schopenhauer, Santayana, Ernst Mach and Hans Vaihinger through whom we arrive at the assertion that although 'science and myth are not the same' (in as much as 'their methods are different, and so are the needs they serve') they 'are alike in being makeshifts that humans erect as shelters from a world they cannot know'. Far from being a cause for despair, Mr.Gray (or possibly Wallace Stevens, an analysis of whose thought immediately precedes the passage quoted) argues that 'admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may may give a kind of freedom - possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are,' the argument claims, 'liberated from confinements in the meanings we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves' (p.108) - a set of statements that I found cruelly divorced from my own experience and, I suspect, from the experience of anyone whom I have ever known, or am ever, likely to know.

After this flight into what one might, on the basis of the arguments previously advanced, have thought illusory clouds of metaphysics, Mr.Gray returns to earth to do battle with the modern myth of 'personal fulfilment' which he (quite rightly) calls 'the most destructive of modern fictions' (p.111). 'Looking for your true self invites unending disappointment, If you have no special potential, the cost of trying to bring your inner nature to fruition will be a painfully misspent existence... The Romantic ideal tells people to seek their true self. There is no such self, but that does not mean that we can be anything we want to be... A society of people who have been taught to be themselves cannot be other than full of fakes' (pp.110, 111). Against this destructive myth, Mr Gray derives from Freud the supposedly preferable system of 'ego-building' or 'making up your life as you go along' but not becoming 'too attached to the stories you tell yourself on the way' (p112) - a proposed course that most of us will find worryingly close to that long since adopted by bankers, politicians, advertising executives and other sociopaths, though Mr.Gray himself chooses to illustrate it by reference to the more sympathetic literary self-therapy of J.G.Ballard which Mr.Gray describes as a form of alchemy, 'turning the dross of childhood trauma into gold' (p.123). After a brief excursion into the the work of Jorge Borges (for whom this reader has never been able to feel any enthusiasm), Mr.Gray elaborates his earlier argument through the work of the imagist thinker and poet, T.E.Hulme, claiming that 'Human beings are animals that have equipped themselves with symbols'. These symbols are 'useful tools' for dealing with the world, 'but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from these symbols actually exists' (p.132). From here it is only a short step to arguing that the tool of tools is language itself and proposinh a system that denies the validity of word symbols themselves. So, in what its proponent, Fritz Mauthner came to call 'godless mysticism', language ceases to be anything other than a practical convenience'. God and the world become 'not a creation of language, but something that... escapes language' (p.145). Hence 'pure' atheism becomes something which 'has nothing in common with the evangelical disbelief' of our day. In a pure form, atheism is no more to do with unbelief than religion is about belief...atheism is an entirely negative position. You are not an atheist if you deny what theists affirm. You are an atheist if you have no use for the concepts and doctrines of theism' (p.144).

Having reached this point, there is not much further that Mr.Gray can go, and he turns instead to consider what a 'godless mysticism' might be like. This is where the animals come in. According to Mr.Gray, man is, in essence, a sick animal whose sickness is manifested in his inability to stop 'going on' to himself. The last, and perhaps the most difficult section in this book deals with what 'the silence of animals' might teach their sick cousin, man. Once again, Mr.Gray approaches this topic by examining the experiments of others in 'looking at the world 'with eyes that are not covered with a film of thought' p.168) , and in particular, the thought characterised by rational humanism which combines the Platonic 'myth' of being, 'truth and beauty' with the christian assertion of salvation in human history'. (p.205) In doing so, he moves from J.A.Baker's attempts to 'deanthropmorphise' himself in his strenuous efforts to partake in the mental world of a hawk ( a desperate venture, shot through with intimations of a fascistic 'philosophy of transcendent will'); Paddy Leigh Fermor's gentlemanly search for 'silence' in the self-imposed stillness of monastic life; Ford Madox Ford's impressionistic attempts to experience the all too solid world as a hallucinatory succession, not of reality, but of 'fragments', where 'no perfect perception of things is possible, since things change with each perception of them' (p.172); Llewellyn Powys' 'darkness innocent of sensation, innocent of thought; a darkness careless of all save a blind, unenvious commerce with the dust of unending ages' (p.184); and, inevitably, Samuel Beckett. meditating on the omnipresence of a man's habits as 'the guarantor of a dull inviolability, the lightning conductor of his existence' subject, however, to certain moments of transition 'when for a moment the boredom of the living is replaced by the suffering of being' (p.193).

This is an enjoyable and stimulating book which offers a great may jumping off points for the discovery of writers and ideas which may be unexpected, and even unwelcome, to some of its readers. As the world moves way from the absolutes that underwrote 500 years of culture and consensus, and degraded forms of what Mr Gray calls 'spilt religion' come to operate the levers in men's minds even as those men claim most hotly to be exercising their right to 'personal' and 'independent' judgment, it is good to have a writer like Mr.Gray reminding us how childish and hollow such claims tend to be. Nor are his claims that foreign to persons of genuinely independent - and even theist - turn of thinking. Many christians have long tired of the stupidity of those who dismiss their religion as intellectually incoherent while holding to a humanist agenda which, in the absence of transcendence, 'is hard to defend, or even understand' (p.77). 'These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been' (p.75). Elsewhere, Mr.Gray notes that 'humanists are also ruled by myths, though the ones by which they are possessed have none of the beauty or the wisdom of those that they choose to scorn. The myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world, which in Socrates and Plato was part of a mystical philosophy, has been renewed in a garbled version of the language of evolution' (p.77). And 'In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves. If we know more than before, it means that we have greater scope to enact our fantasies. But - as the Genesis myth also teaches - there is no way we can rid ourselves of what we know. If we try to regain a state of innocence, the result can be a worse madness. The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature' (p.79-80).

Mr.Gray's 'pure' atheism, such as it is, is not so far, as he himself points out, from Meister Eckhart's 'negative theology'. The issue, when it comes down to it, is one of belief. C.S.Lewis said that the moment of his conversion came with the acceptance that the central drama of Christianity was 'a myth that actually happened'; Mr.Gray clearly thinks that it is a myth that did not. What's to quarrel with? It may be that I don't much care for some of the people whom he choses to admire: writers, in general, are a self-regarding lot and seldom attractive in terms of the day to day virtues that mere christians esteem. Freud's cheerful advocacy of immorality (p.87/8) is less shocking, than it is typical; A.J.Baker's 'hatred for the sound of man... for their suddenly uplifted arms, their insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways' (p.150) is at once recognisable as being cognate with the loathing felt by Conrad's 'incorruptible' Professor in 'The Secret Agent' with his hatred for 'the odious multitude... calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world' (p.11). It is a depressing fact that atheists of this type are so often lost in admiration for animals into whom they can project their own arrogance, cruelty and lust for blood; that they would prefer to soar loftily with a bird of prey, than to trot, like the more humble of us, in the direction of the shepherd's affectionate wolf-whistle.

What, I found myself asking, does Mr.Gray's atheism offer except what he calls 'mere being' (p.208)? I suppose this type od metaphysical minimalism may in some sense be 'brave', but to me, it conveys he somewhat comic impression is of a man who has climbed into a wardrobe and closed the door on himself. And how easy is it, anyway, to live a life based not so much on a 'revaluation of all values' as on the complete abstention from them? Mr.Gray might be expected to find it hard, I think, to reconcile some of his attitudes to 'civilisation' and 'barbarism' with any kind of thorough-going implementation of a system: he is quick, for example, to condemn Robinson Jeffers and says that 'in demanding American isolation in a war against a hideous version of modern barbarism, the reclusive poet was badly mistaken' (p.201). - a view that seems to me to beg a whole raft of embarrassing questions, suggesting, as it does, that one can partition one's intellectual and moral 'position' statements from one's day to day practice, thereby having it both ways - which, by an irony which appears to be lost on him, is precisely the charge that Mr.Gray brings against Mr.Jeffers (p.201). How, I found myself asking as I closed this book, does this ideal of 'mere being' compare with the pre-christian humanism of Marcus Aurelius which the latter summed up by saying: 'If you do the work on hand following the rule of right with enthusiasm, manfully and with kind-heartedness, and allow no side issues to interrupt, but preserve the divinity within you pure, and upright, as if you even now might have to return it to its Giver - if you make this firm, expecting nothing and avoiding nothing, but are content with your present activity in accordance with nature and with old-fashioned truthfulness in what you say and speak - you will live a happy life, and there is no one who can prevent' this (Meditations 3:12)? Though not strictly an atheist, Marcus Aurelius' god was essentially the Aristotelian 'Unmoved Mover' who directs the Universe from an immense height, who shows no fear or favour, and who, in the perpetual light of eternal being watches the hurrying shoals of humanity flicker briefly on the surface of existence before passing away into unremembered oblivion - and yet it was, for the Roman Emperor, this divine entity that guaranteed the rule of right and rectitude accessible to all men who had the money, time and leisure to pursue- and to impose - them.
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The Lion Sleeps Tonight
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
by Rian Malan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Un Prophète qui se trompe toujours, 12 Feb 2014
If most of us were asked to name a leading South Africa journalist, the odds are that few of us would be able to do so, but that those few would almost certainly light on the name of Rian Malan. There is some irony in this, because whilst Malan might once have been thought of as anything but representative of the white establishment from which he comes, he can hardly be said to be any more generally representative of the liberal consensus which helped to undermine it. An 8th generation Afrikaaner, Malan is the great nephew of the D.F.Malan under whose presidency (1948-1954) the Republic of South Africa created what proved to be its last laager (assuming, of course, that you exclude those modern South African shopping precincts which, under a new form of apartheid more acceptable to the West, admit the rich and to exclude the poor). But even as the wagons led by an elder generation were forming an inward-looking circle against an increasingly hostile world, the eyes of the young Rian and many of South Africa's other most privileged children were fixed on the mesmerising orthodoxies of white, anglo-saxon 'rebel' culture: so Rian left behind the mild social satire of 'Wait a Minim' and 'Ach! Please Daddy!' and became a trendy outsider: a rock-band revolutionary; a spray-paint propagandist; a bedsit buddhist; a barfly marxist, and finally, a righteous draft-dodger from the country which his forebears had helped to create.

In 1990, Malan returned to South Africa and published a book called 'My Traitor's Heart'. This came as a surprise: it was well-written, intellectually sophisticated, and emotionally compelling. Here was a man who seemed to combine a passion for truth and justice with a shrewd estimate of the real effort required to sustain them in a world where history, fashion, and self-interest conspired heavily to thrust them under. Not for Malan the easy repudiation of a dark and sombre past, the refusal to contemplate a self-deluding present, or the uncritical vision of a future seen through rainbow-coloured spectacles. Here we had a sharp analysis of the nation's predicament presented by a passionate and romantic contrarian. Or so, at least, it seemed to intellectual opinion in West: in South Africa, the position was more complicated, and the fact that Malan appeared to have 'betrayed' his own roots did not necessarily endear him to those who were busy digging them up: 'Those I'd left behind remained obsessed with apartheid. I became obsessed with what replaced it. They thought apartheid was the source of all South Africa's pain. I thought we were doomed unless we figured out what had gone wrong elsewhere in Africa' (p.xi).

Since the publication of 'My Traitor's Heart', though, Malan hasn't published anything of substance: in the Foreword to this book of occasional journalism, Mlan says that he feels that the only worthwhile writing he's done 'over the past two decades appeared in letters to friends in whose company' he 'could ignore the crushing taboos that govern discussions of race among civilised people' 'By the time Nelson Mandela came out of prison in 1990' writes Malan. 'intellectual opinions 'laid down on the far side of the planet by high priests of white civilisation' and 'propagated by white professors at the University of Witwatersrand rejoiced in the downfall of white supremacy. Practitioners of this doctrine saw themselves as part of, sometimes even heroes of, the uprising of the natives. They thought the wrath of the masses would fall on the bad whites responsible for apartheid, while 'good' whites merged into a smiley-faced culture of soft socialism and interracial harmony. I said bulls*** gentlemen. Africa calls for another outcome entirely. The wind of change will eventually sweep everything away - your job, your illusions, your university as presently constituted, the wires that bring light at the flick of a switch, the pipes that discreetly remove your turds, the freeways on which you drive, the high-tech chemical farms that put food on your tables, the investments that sustain your comfortable old age, and the clean, efficient hospitals in which you plan to expire. All these things are the creations of the white empire, and when it fades they will to'. But, writes Malan, while 'every day since has brought thunderous confirmation of the rectitude of' his 'prognostications. Every day has also brought irrefutable proof of the fact' that he is and was mistaken (p.xii). The reason this book is worth reading is because it's author continually takes an undeceived stand, but confesses, continually, that he has, indeed, been no less deceived than anyone else: these are not contradictions commonly to be found in those who work in socio-political and cultural journalism.

As the quoted passages show, Malan writes fluent, friendly and conversational prose; he has a keen eye, an attentive ear, and a quick mind; he is informative, analytic and appropriately acid. He tries, persistently, to tell the truth, and says that he has provoked reactions which include the charge that he is a racist - which he dismisses as an accusation 'so commonplace it's barely worth mentioning; any South African journalist who hasn't been called a racist or a self-hating house Negro is a fawning ingrate whose lips are chapped from sucking the unmentionable appendages of those in power. Among the more interesting accusations, he says, were those of 'incest, homosexual tendencies, heterosexual debauchery, incompetence, deceit, murder, sissiness, 'carbuncular' practices, a secret alliance with the diabolical President Mbeki, spying for the Zulu nationalists. drinking too much, taking drugs, and smelling bad' - several of which are very evidently true.

The title piece, (though headed 'In the Jungle)' can be taken as a fairly representative example of the general approach. Here Malan explores the circumstances in which the most famous Africa song ever created came to be conceived, exploited and done over (and over) again. Everybody knows the name of the song, can hum the melody, and sing the refrain - but hardly anyone knows the name of the man who 'wrote' it (Soloman Linda - who, in point of fact, probably didn't actually 'write' any music at all). Since it was first cut in 1939, ''Wimoweh''/"The Lion Sleeps" has made at least $15 million dollars; Linda, who died of renal failure in October 1962, probably didn't see much more than $1,000 of it, and in the 1990s, his remaining descendants, were receiving 'around $295 a quarter' - money which 'enabled his widow to feed her children and educate the two youngest... After his widow's 'death... small sums of money continued to materialise - never much, but enough to build a tin shack in their backyard, and enough even to start a little shop at the front gate. In American terms, their poverty remained appalling, but in their own estimation this was a happy ending - until I showed up and told them what might have been' (p.79).

But its typical of Maln to avoid the easy conclusion: Linda may have been a black man in south Africa, but his American contemporaries did little better: 'all musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Soloman Linda, an illiterate migrant from a wild and backward place, was totally defenceless against sophisticated predators'. He wasn't even cheated - he sold his rights for what seemed to him a good price, and what happened subsequently owed to its exploitation in ways he could never haves dreamed, imagined, or administered. So when he had followed all the leads, and unravelled the whole story, Malan sat down and wrote to George Weiss (who 're-wrote' the song) and to Larry Richmond (whose father's company acquired the copyright), 'distancing' himself 'from pious moralists who might see them as sharks and even suggesting a line of reasoning they might take. "The only thing worse than exploitation" 'he 'mused 'is not being exploited at all'. And then I enumerated all the good things old Solomon gained from making up the most famous melody that ever emerged from Africa: ten shillings, a big reputation, adulation and lionisation, several cool suits, a wind-up gramophone, a check from Pete Seeger, and a trickle of royalties that had spared his daughters from absolute penury. "All told", I concluded, "there is a case to be made against the idea that Solomon Linda was a victim of injustice". Then I sat back and waited for someone to make it.'.

If 'In the Jungle' is also the most obvious selling point for this collection, other outstanding essays deal with 'the workings' of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1998); the exposure of institutionalised criminality of the South African police force under Commissioner Selebi (formerly President of Interpol); and an analysis of the realities underlying the extravagant claims made about AIDS in the 1980s/1990s - and who benefitted from it all and at whose expense. Elsewhere, and in other contexts, Malan throws interesting and unexpected lights on the F.W.de Klerk (whose courage, realism and decency he rightly praises), Nelson Mandela (a shrewd manipulator of events and of his own image), and Thabo Mbeki (an astute opportunist whose 'betrayal' of his earlier communism 'led to a massively increased tax harvest, which, in turn, financed the creation of the welfare star, with 11 million poor now receiving subsistence grants of one kind or another'): it hardly needs to be said that very little of what Malan writes is going to find an echo in the hearts and minds of the orthodox, but I doubt whether Malan would want it any other way. With his beaten up rock star looks; his shoulder length, thinning grey hair; his leather jacket and his slouch hat; Malan seems at ease in his ingrained pose of teen-age rebel with impeccable social credentials who refuses to compromise - or to grow up. Sex'n drugs n'rock'n'roll have washed around, temporarily submerged, but never really overwhelmed this self-romanticising one man band and for all his sub-romantic posturing, Malan remains what he has always been - a white, dutch Afrikaaner running up and down stream against the line that hooks him to his folk's history.

This collection begins with an essay about the last trek of white Africans into a generations old fantasy of a land of milk and honey where what might seem to have proved a futile attempt to escape into the heart of Africa ends in a strange situation which is both the betrayal of tradition and the assertion of the deeper yearnings that inspired it. It ends with the story of wild colonial boys brought up as white Zulus and the improbable expression of an unlikely hope that honey-coloured mestizos might yet play an integrated part in the future of this huge, dynamic and hopelessly corrupt sub-continent. Two thousand years ago Pliny the Elder famously observed that 'there was always something new from Africa' - a saying that he refers to as old even when he said it, and 'common among the Greeks' - than whom we have no earlier Western observers: time and time again, Malan's essays demonstrate that, at least in this respect, nothing in the relationship between Europe and Africa has really changed.


Death of a Hero (Penguin Classics)
Death of a Hero (Penguin Classics)
by Richard Aldington
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Formation of a Fascist, 5 Feb 2014
Now that the current trend in popular academic history is for neo-whiggish exploration of such topics as racism, feminism, and the irresistible rise of everyman, I sometimes feel that fiction offers a more humane impression of the 'wie es eigentlich war' - at least to those who prefer a humanist style of historical writing. Such fiction sometimes concentrates the general experience of a period through the lens of a single gifted witness who serves to present the reader with a brilliant spectrum of ideas. So it is with 'The Death of a Hero', Richard Aldington's mordant analysis of the generation that came of age in time to live through the First World War.

For all that, it cannot be denied that'The Death of a Hero' is a bit of a mess aesthetically: this doesn't appear to have troubled its author who described it in the introduction as a 'jazz novel' and 'not the work of a professional novelist.' For Aldington, 'the excuse for a novel is that one can do any d... thing one pleases' without being governed by 'method' or 'convention'.

The book is based closely on Aldington's own childhood, boyhood and youth, but was written about 10 years after the last of the events which it describes. The author is therefore in a position to write about his younger, semi-fictional self through the person of an older narrator, who appears to know far more than even the most intrusive of narrators could possibly have discovered about his subject, but whose presence allows Aldington to deliver himself of an incisive commentary and a set secular sermons which his characters are too narrowly drawn to present convincingly for themselves. Aldington is, in any case, more interested in general social and cultural ideas than in the detailed creation and interraction of his characters and the world they inhabit, and there are very few novels that survive the dismissal of that particular 'convention', however 'jazzy' they may be.

All the same, The 'Death of a Hero' is a fascinating and rewarding read. Often described as a 'war novel', the book is actually concerned with much wider issues. It is divided into three parts of more or less equal length and it is only the third of theses that deals directly with the War. On the other hand, that War, and the attitudes taken to it both at home, and on the front-line, are to be interpreted in the light of the analyses in the preceding two parts.

The first part presents the reader with specimens of the victorian middle-class generation born in the late 1860s or early 1870s - a pre-modern, narrow, materialist, and philistine petty-bourgeois society of which Aldington writes with withering contempt, seeing it as the social incarnation of cant, cowardice, and cruelty. The second part is set in the bohemia of pre-war London, and explores the social, sexual, and cultural experiments of the war generation - or at least, a tiny and priveleged part of it. The tone adopted here is equally excoriating, but the essence of the complaint has less to do with the social and cultural trappings so violently ripped apart in the preceding section, but more to do with the fact that Aldington finds the underlying human realities no more attractive than what previously concealed them. There is, instead, a seething, misanthropic - not to mention misogynistic - hatred, and a priveleging of the psycho-sexual ego that is highly reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence - a writer whom Aldington much admired - and about whom he wrote a biography amusinglyly entiled 'The Portrait of a Genius, But...'. The third part of the book, which is set chiefly in France between 1916 and 1918, is much the most powerful part of the book. Aldington's powers of description, and the terse drive of his prose are impressive, and his portrayal of an individual gradually being eroded by the unremitting strain of modern warfare against a background of complacent incomprehension and inconsequentiality at home is brilliantly done, and carries utter conviction.

What strikes one again and again about this book is how contemporary it is in feel. The author's anger, his impatience, and his curious vulnerability are peculiarly reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence. But, though less gifted than Lawrence as a writer, Aldington is completely without Lawrence's absurd psycho-sexual mysticism and sentimentality. Furthermore, his view of the society of middle class England before the Great War is much more interesting than Lawrence's egocentric individualism. Aldington would have snorted derisively at the upper middle-class myth of 'the golden summer's afternoon of pre-War England, and was to be much vilified for a biography of T.E.Lawrence in which he stripped the varnish from the legend which had been created around 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Some of Aldington's observations and judgments are accute - as, for instance, where he writes (in 1929) that 'marriage is a primitive institution bound to succumb before the joint attack of contraceptives and the economic independence of women.' The analysis of feminism presented in the book suggests that Aldington thought that whereas victorian women had been complicit in their own subjection, the 'new women' of his own generation were simply driven by instinct towards selfish and self-gratifying forms of possessiveness without any higher or broader aim - an interesting view, which will no doubt cause some feminists to reply 'and why on earth not?'.

But it is interesting to reflect that Aldington, whose own intimate experience was complex and varied, should have seen men as the victims of women, and women as the victims of themselves.

In the conflicts between a hard-headed materialism and depth of aesthetic feeling; in his hatred for religion, for the nation, for the empire, for the old school, and for all elites - whether political, social or literary; in his contempt for can't; in his loathing for the middle-class; in his war-engendered respect for exclusively male, and unintellectual comradeship, and in his bitter misanthropy which frankly confesses to a contempt for a very large number of his fellow men and an inability to see any real point in their existence at all, one sees in Aldington the set of attitudes which made fascism a serious intellectual option for those who went through, and survived the blast-furnace of the Great War.

It is to be hoped that Penguin's opportunistic reissue of virtually every piece of English fiction dealing with the one of the few areas of English history still taught in schools may help to restore the reputation of this persistently unfashionable and neglected writer. In a generation which flattered itself on taking the anti-authoritarian view, his work was ignored because it sat as uneasily with the unexamined assumptions of left wing ideology as it did with the settled prejudices of conservative opinion - but it seems's to me that Aldington's view of things is fresher, more compelling and more convincing than the easy and convenient mythologies projected by the political establishment and that it gives the true victims of the war their own unique and not undignified voice. Perhaps his day, and the day of Henry Williamson, has finally come.


Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799 v. 1
Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799 v. 1
by Philip Dwyer
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Hero to Zero?, 23 Jan 2014
On November 15, 1796, the French Army under it's young and ambitious commander, General Bonaparte, found itself confronting an Austrian army which had taken up a strong position between the village of Arcola and the bridge over the river Alpone. The banks of this tributary were confined by high levees, dropping some 20 to 30 feet to the level of the fields below. The British poet and historian, Hilaire Belloc, who knew the place well. described the bridge in 1932 as 'standing high above the deep trench of the waterway, only 50 yards long from bank to bank, but narrow so that two carts can hardly pass, with a thin iron rail on either side and standing not on arches but on beams. On the farther side a couple of guns trained on the narrow way swept it clean, and the infantry which stood to defend the pass were the best of the Austrian contingents - Slavs of Croatia: most excellent fighters'. Belloc then goes on to describe a first attack across the bridge, which he says was repulsed 'thrown back, and destroyed. The bridge' he writes' was a mass of dead and dying men. The second attempt was suffering the same fate when Bonaparte himself, all aflame, came up the steep way to the summit of the levee with the colours in his own hand and led the charge across, shouting to the men to to do the thing which meant victory; if it were not done the whole campaign would fail. His figure, so leading, stands out in history. the episode made a legend as great and perhaps greater than that of Lodi' - another head on attack of which Belloc writes that the 'carnage of young men (their losses at least as great as those of the enemy shouting for the Republic as they went forward might have even spared so far as the chess moves of war were concerned - but the legend was worthwhile.'

It is with the events at Arcola, and the legend that they inspired, that Philip Dwyer deals in the Prologue to the first volume of his biography of Napoleon. During the course of it, Mr.Dwyer briefly describes and then skilfully deconstructs events to show how a minor, reckless and unsuccessful attempt to storm a bridge taken two days later by a more circumspect strategy of encirclement was re-shaped by Bonaparte himself to create precisely the kind of impression which Belloc so evocatively conveys. Relying heavily on the contemporary account of Bonaparte's aide, Joseph Sulkowski (published in 1946), Mr Dwyer shows how the limelight was originally focussed not on Bonaparte, but on his subordinate, General Augereau; how Bonaparte's calculated attempt to mimic Augereau's spontaneous impulse misfired when his men declined to follow him; and how, in the end, the would-be hero was hustled away by his staff and barely escaped drowning after being jostled from the bridge and falling into the muddy river below. From these events was constructed the legend, reported in 'Le Moniteur' for 2 December 1796, in which the real events, in all their undignified chaos, were reshaped so as to proritise Napoleon over Augereau; to expunge any record of cowardice shown by the French; and to make the implicit suggestion that the personal role of Bonaparte had been the decisive for taking the bridge and achieving the victory. In his final sentence, Mr Dwyer declares that his book will be 'about understanding how Napoleon went about constructing his life, and how he constructed his own legend'.

The fundamental argument of Mr Dwyer's book, therefore, is that Bonaparte's persistent manipulation of fact in the service of propaganda was absolutely key to creating a public image which came to hypnotise a France that had long since become weary of the vicious in-fighting between the various factions thrown up by Revolutionary politics, but which retained, nevertheless, a seemingly insatiable appetite for the grandiose heroics which were the stock in trade of the classical writers in whom the newly empowered middle class had been educated. This argument is sustained by detailed analysis of the sources, apposite quotation, reference not simply to contemporary newspapers, such as 'Le Courrier de l'armée d'Italie' and 'La France vue de l'armée d'Italie' (each owned by Bonaparte and carefully written to engage two completely different sections of public opinion), but also to the cheap prints and lithographs which presented the young conqueror in the heroic guise in which he wanted to be seen and over which he exercised an increasing degree of control. It is an argument which we, with our experience of the manipulation of public opinion by the printed media, are perhaps readier to accept than would have been the liberal historians of the last century for whom Napoleon continued to represent a peculiarly middle class compromise between anarchy and progress.

What, then, is the portrait of Napoleon that emerges when the grease and grime have been stripped from his self-fashioned icon? Well, the broad outline is clear enough. Born into a minor, but ambitious Corsican family which had opportunistically associated itself in island politics with the French interest, Bonaparte's father took advantage of his French connections to have his boy educated by the state at the military academy of Brienne. Here Bonaparte found himself mocked and put down for his poverty, his accent and his self-defensive arrogance. He reacted by identifying himself strongly as a Corsican patriot, but in Corsica itself he was to find that his family's history of collaboration with the occupying French excluded him from the career in local politics when the nationalists rose to power in the period of anarchy that followed the collapse of the 'ancient regime'. In France, however, his Corsican connections were to give a significant impetus to his re-directed career. Mr Dwyer argues persuasively that the event that 'made' Bonaparte was not Toulon, but the fact that he there met Paul Barras, and was the only convenient pair of hands available to that opportunist and fixer in the Directory coup of October 1795 (after which the Corsican parvenu of negligible military experience became widely referred to as 'General Vendemiaire'). Despised, initially, as a man who'd been over-promoted for political reasons, with no genuine experience of command, and sent to Italy with little confidence that he would add anything more than another corpse to that graveyard of reputations, Bonaparte rapidly exceeded expectations, and it may reasonably be said that it was success in Italy which was to serve not simply to justify his own, insecurely based, feelings of natural superiority, but to cement a similar conviction in French public opinion as a whole.

This is history with a strongly narrative basis, and in so far as it is analytic, it concentrates principally on the social and political evolution of Bonaparte's career. For Mr Dwyer,the military acumen which Bonaparte almost immediately evinced in Italy is of no particular interest, and those who seek to discover what it was in Bonaparte's grasp of tactics and strategy that made him in any way exceptional will not find the answer here. In fact, the reverse is somewhat the case, and Mr. Dwyer points repeatedly to examples of over-optimism, misjudgment and failings in planning which may cause some of his readers to wonder whether any part of Bonaparte's reputation for military genius was reasonably deserved. The account of the Expedition to Egypt in particular is described in terms of lamentable failure in planning, intelligence and administration. Mr Dwyer is ready to accept that Bonaparte's expedition was in part inspired by a sense of romance and curiosity, but he subordinates all that to Bonaparte's political ambitions which led the latter to present himself to the world in precisely the terms which so many subsequent historians wrongly accepted as being intrinsic to the character of his genius. If he surrounded himself with scientists and 'philosophes'; if he took what appeared to be pride in his election to the National Institute; and if he preferred to wear the uniform of the Institute in his public appearances, it is, for Mr.Dwyer, simply evidence of a political sophistication which rapidly grasped that the middle class, whilst looking for a strong man, were nervous, and to some degree, contemptuous of the military.

In his private person, Mr Dwyer's Bonaparte evolves through early idealisms and ill-defined ambitions, into an ego dedicated entirely to self-aggrandisement. There is nothing particularly judgmental in this portrayal. Mr Dwyer clearly considers that once Bonaparte was committed to a career in French national politics, his freedom of choice was limited as much as anything else by the dictates of survival: treachery, deceit, fraud, embezzlement, extortion, slander and lies were the currency in which the politicians of the day did business, and reputations were bought and paid for with the careers, and, not infrequently, the lives of other less fortunate or determined men. Ruthless savagery in Italy, Egypt and Syria whether in the way he drove his own men, or in the way he treated those who opposed his will, is seen as little different in kind or degree from the way in which other French commanders and other French armies behaved in other spheres of campaign. For Mr Dwyer what distinguished Bonaparte from other generals was less his military success, than his willingness to exploit it to the absolute maximum political effect so as to create for himself a unique position in the life of the nation. And yet even as a politician, Bonaparte was capable of making all too human errors: Mr Dwyer's account of his failure of nerve and his temporary prostration on the second day of the coup of Brumaire replaces the stuff of legend, as he himself says, with the stuff of farce.

This is an interesting, unsentimental account of the young Napoleon's life and times and it is quite clearly shaped by a number of modern pre-occupations, particularly those that revolve around the role of the media in shaping image and perception. If it has a weakness, I think it lies in some uncertainty of touch and lack of depth. The fact is that for all his opportunism, manipulation and fallibility, the man who did more than anything else to shape the course of the currents unleashed by the events of 1789 evolved a depth and flexibility of intellect that is a source of constant fascination to those who are acquainted with the Memoirs of the period. It seems to me that this is a side of Bonaparte that Mr Dwyer rather misses, and one ends up with suspicion that he is less interested in character, than he is in image. One notes this particularly in his dealing with subsidiary figures: Talleyrand, for example, is introduced on p.133 as a 'renegade bishop', and Sieyes,on p.316 as 'a deputy... later to play an important part in Bonaparte's accession to power'. There is little sense, here, of the significant role played by both these men in the period as a whole, and especially of the subtleties of Talleyrand's intellect which make some of the observations and judgments quoted here seem more pregnant (and funny) than Mr Dwyer seems to be aware. But there is a similar uncertainty of touch in dealing with Napoleon himself - and it is a dismal moment when, at p.160, Mr Dwyer calls on Dr.Freud of Vienna for a suggestion that Bonaparte may have had a 'Joseph Fantasy' thereby accounting for his closeness to his elder brother (with 'whom, it is asserted, Napoleon was 'forced to compete... for his mother's affection.., transformed' as he grew older, into love' which is why, the egregious doctor claims, Bonaparte 'was attracted to Josephine, and why he went to Egypt - 'to loom large in his brother's eyes').

In fact, it might be more pertinent, in the context, to attribute the pull exercised by Egypt, to the fact that both Alexander the Great and Caesar had played colourful roles there, and it is, perhaps, a further weakness of his book, that Mr Dwyer is not on easy terms of familiarity with the classical world which so dominated the imagination of the period. Among a number of ancient historians, Mr Dwyer lists at p.517, a mysterious 'Cornelius', although of the two 'Cornellii' he is more likely to be writing of the one known in English as 'Nepos' than of the better known Cornelius Tacitus. And at p.236, Mr Dwyer refers to a 'manuscript by Virgil that had belonged to Petrarch' where the word 'by' should have been replaced by the word 'of', for no manuscript work by Vergil, or by any other ancient poet has come down to us from the antique world. The defect is more important than it appears - there is, for example, a comic irony in the fact that, at Brumaire, Bonaparte as latter day Caesar, should have invoked an assassination attempt to persuade a wavering guard to suppress constitutional government, and this would not have been lost on contemporaries, for whom the name of Brutus had, in the earlier part of the Revolutionary period, been positively talismanic. What is, in some ways, most interesting about Napoleon is the fact that he seems to have combined the military genius of Caesar with the political acumen of Augustus - who also got off to a somewhat unsteady start but displayed thereafter a more steadily burning judgment - and died firmly in place and in power,

Whatever the cavils, this is a work that I found well worth reading. The publisher, Bloomsbury, has a reputation for high productions standards, and this volume lives up to them. It has been well bound, uses decent thick paper, and the print is set in Linotype Stempel Garamond of a point size which is easy is on the eye. The maps are adequate to their somewhat limited purposes, but a reader might wish to supplement them, and the accounts of Napoleon's battles, with a work like David Chandler's ''The Campaigns of Napoleon.' (Macmillan, 1966). There is only one colour plate, but that is the magnificent and programmatic painting of 'Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcola' by Antoine-Jean Gros. There are numerous black and white images printed directly onto the pages of text: these are more successful when they are of prints, than when they are of oils, and they often require the use of a magnifying glass if their significance id to be properly grasped. The indexing is excellent, the critical apparatus thorough, and the bibliography impressive.


The Quickening
The Quickening
by Julie Myerson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 6.99

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Quick and the Dead, 17 May 2013
This review is from: The Quickening (Hardcover)
This is a short novella written in association with 'Hammer Horror' - a cinema stable that, in the 1960s and 1970s, produced a string of budget horror films in a style which might be well described as 'suburban baroque'. An afternote records that Ms.Myerson 'began watching Friday night Hammer Horror movies as a teenager in the 70s, but has never been keen on the blood and vampire ones, much preferring the stories where a perfectly normal couple move to a remote cottage in the countryside and wonder why their daughter is talking about a non-existent room and the shopkeeper keeps giving them odd looks.' The novella represents an unusual, but by no means unsuccessful transfer of this formula to the setting of a luxurious resort in the Caribbean. In a second afternote, Hammer inform the reader that Ms.Myerson's book is part of a series intended to 'revive' Hammer's 'literary legacy' featuring 'original novellas which will span the literary and the mass market, the esoteric and the commercial, by some of today's most celebrated authors'. A moment's thought about the implications of these two notices will give the reader canny enough to find them before purchasing the book a very fair idea of what to expect.

There is no doubt that Ms. Myerson qualifies as one of today's more celebrated (English) authors, though her work is more obviously esoteric than commercial, and more easily shelved in the literary than in the commercial market. This novella does, nevertheless, represent something of a crossover between the two different precincts . It is written with deceptive simplicity; it moves swiftly, and it is well-managed. Ms.Myerson may owe these gifts to her mother who, she says 'had a knack for clocking the eerie, the ambiguous and unexplained - and telling it in a way that at the time seemed ordinary' but which Ms.Myerson 'now realises was a gift', and although she gives a nod Henry James there is nothing very complex in the way of character, theme or ideas. The dialogue is undemanding - these characters are indeed 'perfectly normal', and, if anything, rather horribly so, since, like those of most people thrown together by chance on foreign holidays, their relations are superficial, voyeuristic and occasionally speculative. More generally, their culture and expectations conform to rational, material and sceptical - not to say, cynical - assumptions: they live in a comfortable kind of hell in which anything other than eating, drinking, taking vigorous exercise, watching television and having sex seems unnecessarily risky. Relationships, even within marriage. exist within very narrowly defined limits and soon break down where the conventions which have come to govern them cease to be honoured. Where Ms. Myerson excels is in portraying these characters and relationships in a way that interests the reader: she is very good at registering changes of mood, and in illustrating the way in which these moods are controlled, disguised and discharged in the course of daily life. Bizarre behaviour is endlessly rationalised, and where it can't be rationalised, it is simply denied - much of our sympathy for other people is based on the simple assumption that they think and feel much in the way that we do and in the face of evidence that they do not, the reaction is usually one of irritated boredom.

Admirers of Ms.Myerson's more literary work will recognise her skill in conveying the way that female psychology moves seamlessly between reason, emotion, and fantasy: the internal is externalised, the external is internalised, and there are times when neither the reader nor the remarkably opportunistic 'lead' character knows exactly where they are. In 'The Quickening', where the privileged voice is that of her typical female protagonist, moods which swing between love and hate, attraction and repulsion, affection and dislike, trust and suspicion, fear and aggression, and paranioa and infantile dependence are as deftly handled as in Myerson's more complex, 'literary' work. The transfers of the reader's sympathies from one character to another and back again are achieved with extraordinary deftness of touch and were, for this reader, the most remarkable aspect of a well-made and understated piece of work. For most of its course, the story reads as a accomplished psychodrama that can be entirely rationalised in material terms - and, of course, the events are so rationalised by virtually everyone in the story, that being the overwhelming preference of the culture in which we live, even among those who enjoy a a fictional outing to the world of the paranormal. But Ms. Myerson , like Henry James, includes elements that are quite inexplicable in every day terms terms, and these supernatural elements require for their explanation a recourse to the paranormal.

Ms Myerson tells us in the first afterword that she 'has only ever once seen a ghost herself on a freezing winter's night in 1984' when 'a small, sad, whitefaced boy walked into the bedroom of the house where she was staying' Apparently, the author 'screamed, spent the rest of the night with the light on, and never told the owners. But the boy crept into her first novel 'Sleepwalking; and was she hopes, laid to rest on its pages'. I am not sure that Hammer Horror has ever believed in ghosts, but it will be nice if they manage to make a succesful film of a book which is so eminently suited to be made into one - and thereby make themselves, and Ms.Myerson, an awful lot of money.


A Biblical Defence of Catholicism
A Biblical Defence of Catholicism
by Dave Armstrong
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.91

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?, 6 Mar 2013
One of the most troubling features of today's Euro-American Catholic Laity is that while many are prepared to offer their opinions about 'what the Catholic Church should do', and why, they find it difficult, when asked, to relate their ideas to any understanding of its essential doctrines. The reason for their embarrassment is, on the whole, an inadequate religious education both at home and in schools, and that inadequacy itself derives from a reaction against the dogmatic style of instruction which operated on the basis that faith could be reduced to a series of premises, which, if logically followed, led to a set of unarguable conclusions. This approach had its origins in mediaeval scholasticism and was intensified by the Church's combative response to the Reformation, but by the middle of the last century, many lay people, and much of the junior clergy. were coming to believe, firstly, that it was unhelpfully defensive; secondly, that it put too much emphasis on 'the law'; and, thirdly, that it had the undesirable effect of perpetuating division. Meanwhile, the spread of attitudes based on higher biblical criticism made people more inclined to question the Church's key contention - namely that the faith derived directly from the teaching of Jesus Christ, transmitted by the Apostles, elaborated by the fathers, and rendered conclusive in the formulations of the Ecumenical Councils. Furthermore. the authoritarian style was unattractive to an age in which conformity to the prescriptions of any institution could be regarded as the endorsement of an unwarrantable interference in the rights of individuals to make choices, to fashion lifestyles, and to follow conscience. Many in the Church were sympathetic to this increasingly popular movement and there developed a widespread belief that it was preferable to abandon the strictly catechetical method: the study of dogma was to be replaced by an emphasis on mission; the focus shifted from the letter to the spirit; and there was a concentration on general, non-specific, beliefs that were perceived to be conducive to reconciliation - not the perpetuation of division.

What many people did not perceive was that the abandonment of dogmatic instruction and the fostering of a more comparative and ecumenical style would expose the Church to pressures and arguments which an understanding of Church history and doctrine would previously have made pretty well unthinkable. The decline of religious faith, particularly in the established churches of Protestant Europe and of North America, has not in any way lessened the cultural presuppositions which their populations inherited from more committed generations and the insistence on an absolute right to personal judgment in all matters involving conscience led to an unsurprising growth in relativistic, pragmatic, individualism which soon presumes not only to justify the individual's personal conduct but even to determine doctrine in accordance with popular sentiment. Where this assertion of the right to personal judgment is coupled to a lack of interest in, or downright hostility to, the authority of doctrine - especially in matters involving sexual choice - the effect is to create a body of popular opinion which, while thinking of itself as 'christian', has little understanding of, or sympathy with, those parts of traditional christian teaching which conflict with its increasingly secular presuppositions. Where they are subservient to the state, the Protestant churches have been all but overwhelmed by the opinions that have come to shape the social and political culture in which they exist, whilst non-scriptural 'developments' in doctrine and practice make the prospect of Church unity more remote than ever. Euro-American Catholics now find themselves divided between those who would like to see the Church evolve in accordance with the demands of its immediate cultural environment (thus furthering the desirable evolution towards ecumenical unity) and those who are convinced that there can be no accommodation with forces that are, knowingly or unknowingly, opposed to scripture, as interpreted by tradition and established by conciliar authority.

In trying to deal with these comparatively recent social and political developments, the Church finds itself painfully embarrassed by the consequences of the very instructional policies which it was previously anxious to espouse. it is appreciated that there is an urgent need for religious instruction that goes beyond a state-sponsored curriculum of a religious 'education' dictated more by social and political considerations than by genuine commitment to promoting belief, but there is also an appreciation that there can be no return to authoritative religious 'instruction' without the kind of exposition, explanation and justification which is so necessary to the modern temperament. On the other hand, the Church has, since the Reformation, entertained a deep and justified suspicion of taking Scripture alone ('sola scriptura') as the determinant of dogma. Instead, it has insisted on a vision which sees the the Church travelling through the ages as the repository of the Faith committed by the Saviour to the Apostles, interpreted by the Fathers, given authority by the ruling of the Ecumenical Councils, and received with trust, respect and humility by the Community of the Faithful. This doctrine, which is fundamental to the Church, and which all Christian men accepted until 1517, now seems strange, and even absurd to men who see themselves in their most intimate moments not as members of a community, but as autonomous individuals - droplets that rejoice as they catch the light, and that tremble at the thought of being subsumed in a dark and undifferentiated sea of Faith.

In the 8 years of his papacy, Benedict XVI, who had a keen insight into the problems posed for the Faith by the competing forces of tradition and modernity, sought to resolve them by emphasising the significance that recourse to Scripture should have in the spiritual lives of Catholics. Again and again, the Pope emphasised the connection between what Our Lord said and did, and the scriptural context in which He said and did it, for this, according to the Pope, was the best guide to understanding who our Lord was and how He intended Himself to be understood. It was within this spirit of renewed, scriptural evangelism that Dave Armstrong had already produced 'A Biblical Defense of Catholicism' - a book which he clearly intended to be something of a 'vade mecum' for Catholics confronted by Evangelical claims that their core beliefs are contrary to Scripture. Mr.Armstrong, came well-equipped for the task, for he was, until 1991, a Protestant 'campus missionary', who, while 'actively and sincerely engaged in a lengthy historical and biblical critique of catholicism' intended to convert catholic partners in an ecumenical discussion group of their errors found, instead, that he became the one to change his 'mind.

Mr.Armstrong's book accordingly serves as something of a Primer of Catholic doctrine, showing not just what Catholics believe, but why they believe what they do. Taking as his chapter headings such topics as Tradition, Justification, the Mass, the Eucharist, Penance, Purgatory, the Communion of Saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, he Papacy and Infallibility, Mr.Armstrong first sets out the doctrine which the Church affirms (usually by quoting the Councils on the subject). Next, he considers the Scriptural basis for the affirmation, and, finally, sets out the alternative view, and, inevitably, its deficiencies, demonstrating in the course of debate, that these deficiencies usually arise from a misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) of what the Church actually teaches, and from misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Scripture itself. In fact, the list of topics itself provides the clearest indication of the essential differences between the two outlooks, for they centre on the relationship between God and Man, between Authority and Conscience, and the between Sin and Salvation. In each of the areas covered, we see that what is at stake is the rejection of the idea that Man can 'rely' on any form of mediation, but relies instead wholly on the intervention in his life of God's saving grace: no amount of works, no amount of observance, no amount of prayer, no amount of intercession, no amount of purgation, whether in this life, or in the hereafter, can have salvific effect - only the direct intervention in God in the life of the individual is of any salvific effect, but once we are the subject of God's intervention, everything else becomes not only unnecessary, but an actual stumbling block, for it becomes, in the eyes of the elect of God,no more than trickery, trumpery and an enslavement to the world.

It is interesting to ask oneself what it was that came first in the mind of the Reformers - whether it was a sense of the intolerable weight of sin; the yearning for an unmediated relationship with God; a justifiable rejection of clerical abuses and a despair at the corruptibility of Man; or the electrifying effect of sudden accessibility of the printed Word - but what is clear is that, in a historical context where there could be no effective challenge to Church teaching from within, and where the mere assertion of personal conviction was as nothing against the accumulated doctrine of the centuries, any challenge to authority had to be based on what was presented as the the only authority as to what had been the 'true' 'original' and 'uncorrupted' teaching of the Saviour in the very words of Scripture. Reinterpretation of Scripture therefore became the key to the proper understanding of God's will on all masters in practical dispute, and its original interpretation could be justifiably discarded. The question as to what Scripture actually said about the issues which were uppermost in the minds of the Reformers and of the Reaction became absolutely central, and have, in a sense remained so. All that has happened recently is that the so-called 'higher criticism', growing out of the German protestant tradition, has undermined the authority of Scripture as a source of historical and dogmatic truth, so that 'progressive' christians of all stripes are ready to reinterpret their beliefs on the premises that see the Gospels themselves as the production of a specific cultural and social milieu, full of the presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions of their time, and therefore of little real weight in interpreting the contemporary operations of the Spirit in the Modern World

On one level then, the debates on which Mr.Armstrong focusses may seem to be academic - what, it may be asked, is the relevance of a set of doctrines worked out in one context, rejected (for what may be perceived to be perfectly good reasons) in another, and wholly 'irrelevant' to the issues being debated by a third? Well - the answer to that lies partly in the fact that these debates are still manifestly relevant to a very large section of the world's population outside Northern Europe and America; partly in the fact that the argument between the claims of authority and personal judgment are a recurrent issue in nearly all thought, so that their manifestations are interesting in nearly all disciplines; and partly because the religious experience of Christianity is so fundamental to Western culture that, even where that culture rejects it, the attitudes to which it gave rise remain instinct to the continuing enterprise, and it helps in understanding that enterprise, to trace its intellectual, emotional and cultural roots. But for those who are ready to take the claims of Christianity seriously - by which I mean the system of beliefs that hold that God created man, participated in his creation through the incarnation, taught a gospel of salvation, suffered, died, was buried and rose again form the dead - the real evidence for what He taught and what He wished us to understand by what He taught becomes absolutely crucial.

It is not for me to attempt to summarise or re-present the illuminating analysis that Mr.Armstrong conducts: he lets the texts speak largely for themselves in the manner, and according to the system which I have already described. For me, the chief value of the book lay in its minute exposition of scripture, and the way in which Mr.Armstrong related it to the doctrinal points under discussion - the analysis, claims the blurb, 'relies on hundreds of Bible passages (including verses from 229 of the 260 chapters of the New Testament), shedding light on the meaning of those passages as well as on the meaning and truth of the doctrine in question'. Whilst I am in no position to vouch for the accuracy of the number of verses said to be quoted, I can confirm that the advertisement accurately summarises the technique and that it formed, for me, the chief value of the book. Those who are comparatively unfamiliar with Scripture often find the habit of reference to passages drawn from it tedious, if not intimidating, but Mr.Armstrong usually quotes a clear, modern version of the whole verse, attractively spaced and in decently sized print. The book contains a thorough and helpful reading list to enable the reader to take any particular interest forward, and the only defect is the lack of an index - though this matters rather less than it might have done had the subject of each chapter not been so clearly indicated by its title.

Anyone reading this book will end it feeling fully informed as to the interpretative issues which have traditionally arisen between the protestant and the catholic traditions. These have been debated many times, and in many different ways in the last 500 years, but Mr.Armstrong's exposition is particularly attractive for its reasoned, uncontentious, and courteous style: he choses as his epigraph, a verse from the First Epistle of St.Peter in which the saint instructs the faithful to 'Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence' (1 Peter 3:15). and he seems to me to practice what St.Peter teaches. There are also moments in which his scholarship provides illumination that goes well beyond the immediate issue on which he is seeking to cast light. So, in his discussion of the Mother of God, Mr.Armstrong notes that the language of the Annunciation at Luke 1:35, and particularly the use of the Greek word επισκιαζω (which is used also in the context of the Transfiguration), invokes instances of the 'shekinah' or 'the manifestation of the 'glory of God' which is so compelling a feature of the Old Testament description of the impression produced on witnesses when that glory condescended to 'occupy' the Ark (Ex:40;34-35) and the Temple of Solomon (i Kings 8:4-11, esp. 8:10-11). The words uttered by David on seeing the Ark find their parallel in the words uttered by Elizabeth at the Visitation (2 Sam 6:9 Luke 1:43), the shouts for joy uttered to greet the Ark, with that uttered by Elizabeth (2 Sam 6:!4-16; Luke 1:42): David's 'leaping for joy' before the Ark with the Baptist's 'leaping in the womb' (2 Sam.6:14-16; Luke 1:44), and 3 month residence of the Ark of the Old Covenant in the hill country of Judaea finding its complement in the residence of Mary (the Ark of the New), in the house of Elizabeth (2 Sam 6:10-12; Luke 1:39-45, 56) - and all point to the quite extraordinary reverence in which the gospel writer held both the Mother of God, and the unique and sanctified relation in which she stood to the Saviour.

On completing this book, my chief reflections centred on the inadequacy of so much of our response to God, and particularly to the Word made Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems that we moderns have little conception of the demands made by any rational, let alone imaginative, understanding of what true and sincere belief in Divinity actually involves. We are comfortable with the idea of a God made Man who healed the sick, spoke up for the poor, and set himself against the cruel working of the world. We see Him, above all, as a compassionate God, a forgiving God, a God who who could not, and would not, consign us to damnation for our pitiable, and not so pitiable, failings. The difficulty is setting this conception of the divine against the clear, logical and unequivocal implications of a doctrine which teaches that only the pure and the holy can, or will, enjoy the final vision of a pure and holy God: this teaching carries with it certain inevitable and painful consequences as regards compromising with the world, adopting its values, and consenting to its practices. If we reject the idea that God simply 'elects' those who are to be considered pure and holy in his sight, whilst rejecting his rest of human creation for eternity, we might conclude that the world in which we live is indeed, a testing ground, and that we need all the help and assistance we can get from the Sacrifice and Intercession of Our Saviour, His Blessed Mother, the Communion of Saints, and that the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, Penance, together with progress through Purgatory are not only necessary but merciful dispensations of a loving God. Such a system, too, carries with it the not unreasonable conclusion that the individual's disposition towards God is quite as significant as God's disposition towards the individual - a conclusion that might follow from the two great commandments - namely, that we should 'love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our might' and that we should 'love our neighbours as ourselves' - what follows on mortal life can then be regarded not as a 'reward' or a 'punishment' for what we do, but as the inevitable consequence of what, through our choices, we have come to be.


Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense
Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense
by Francis Spufford
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Imagine, 16 Oct 2012
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Concluding an essay on Rousseau, Lytton Strachey wrote that 'as we see him now, Rousseau was not a wicked man; he was an unfortunate, a distracted, a deeply sensitive, a strangely complex, creature; and above all he possessed one quality which cut him off from his contemporaries; which set an immense gulf between him and them: he was modern. Among those quick, strong, fiery people of the eighteenth century, he belonged to another world - to the new world of self-consciousness, and doubt, and hesitation, of mysterious melancholy and quite intimate delights, of long reflexions amid the solitudes of nature, of infinite introspections among the solitudes of the heart.' Strachey might, with less sympathy, but as much truth, have added that part of Rousseau's modernity was embodied in his craving for notoriety, his delight in showing off, his extravagant sentimentality, and his bottomless capacity for self pity. Voltaire, who cordially detested him, said that Rousseau would have been happy to see himself hanged, provided that his name was prominently displayed on the gibbet. And although many modernists would like to see themselves as begotten of the Enlightenment, they are, in truth, its illegitimate children out of Rousseau. Christianity, on the other hand, has been a rational project from the moment at which it sought to systematise itself in a manner that made it not just consistent with, but a triumph of, reason, and it was precisely its success in performing that task which rendered it vulnerable to the emotional irrationalism of its modern critics.

Francis Spufford has now written a polemic which reverses the earlier polarities, and seeks to persuade modern man of the case for religion by employing modernism's own language of emotion - against itself. Here we have all the scorn, the contempt, and the dismissiveness which we are accustomed to hear from the mouths of religion's enlightened despisers - but employed in its defence; all the sentimentality, sarcasm and grand-standing with which are so familiar to us from their empurpled prose -but used to convince a popular readership of the opposite case. So, instead of writing about 'sin', and being put aside with a yawn, Mr.Spufford prefers to write about what he calls the 'Human Propensity to F*** things Up (or 'HPtFtU' for short); instead of writing about 'prayer', Mr.Spufford takes us on a mind-blowing tour of the infinite which reminded me of the last 15 minutes of '2001'; instead, of a Jesus with a halo, shampoo'd hair, combed beard and flowing robes of spotless white, we have 'Yeshua' - a 'male Jew in first century Palestine... probably bearded, a bit smelly by modern standards, and quite short' -possibly 'with bad or missing teeth', a sort of ' holy fool' with a talent for annoying the authorities, scandalising the establishment and embarrassing his own family, but who, on has something of 'the other' about him: a healing hand, a dumb compassion, and profound understanding of HPtFtU - which 'he's here to mend'.

Without involving us in the details of his personal life, Mr Spufford leaves us in no doubt that his religious drive is essentially emotional, that its motor is some unspecified personal unhappiness, and that it is of the kind that has little or no time for tradition or authority, but refers all things to personal judgment - which is essentially Luther via Rousseau.

So, when it comes to writing about the difficulties of the presence of cruelty and pain in a supposedly God-created world, Mr Spufford takes the usual answers, simplifies them, holds the up to the light and says 'Nah!' It's a bad business, and he can't explain it, but the reader should trust him - these problems aren't really central. In looking at the Churches, Mr.Spufford explains the idiocies and the scandals as collective 'HPtFtU' and therefore no surprise. When it gets doctrinally difficult, Mr.Spufford tends to the intellectual equivalent of 'Whatever': 'This is my body... This is my blood... Do this when you remember me. It's one of those likeness things again - but the friends don't think too hard about what he means, because they're bursting out with anxiety at the finality of the way he's talking.' Not much difference between this and the 'What's the buzz... tell me what's-a-happenin'' theology of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. Similarly, with human sexuality: 'Except to make it clear that it falls under the umbrella of his perfectionism, he [Yeshua] has hardly has anything to say about it... he appears to be opposed to divorce on the pro-feminist grounds that it cuts women off without economic support;' and as for Hell, 'the whole contrivance, besides being repellently sadistic in itself, is blatantly incompatible with the primary thing that Christianity believes about God, and must be... another vengeful projection of the HPtFtU of christian humans, rather than part of the furniture of God's universe.' And as for the dear old Church of England, well, its a complete muddle and f*** up but awfully, awfully English - 'For the church, relating to power one way or another is a necessary consequence of operating in the world, or rather of trying to straddle two worlds: of trying to witness to an unconditional love while also doing what is necessary to go on existing in a world of condition' - so bye-bye Benedict XVI, and hello Rowan Williams, or whoever is unfortunate enough to have next to occupy the seat of St.Augustine.

But looking too closely at some of the premises of its arguments rather defeats the point: this is a book contrived for people who are 'modernist' in outlook, inclined to a relativistic view of life, and confused by, and/or impatient of, debates within the Churches that to them seem hopelessly irrelevant, stuffy and out of date. It is well-written, passionate, and often very funny. Those who are impatient with the callousness, the the stupidity, and the strutting vanity of evangelical of atheism, may find what they object to well-articulated here. Mr.Spufford is as witty as the best of his fashionable targets, and like them, he takes no prisoners. He coins some entertaining phrases about the 'hobbyists of unbelief', 'the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion.. or to rent a set of recreational objections from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens'. And he expresses a perfectly reasonable irritation that any of those idiot savants should presume to tell him what he believes, and why he believes it, and that he is wrong, stupid, and possibly even criminal in doing so. After all, how do they know, any more than he does, whether God exists or not? And 'It would be nice,' says Mr. Spufford, if people weren't quite so rude. It would be nice if they didn't brandish crude cartoon of nineteenth century thought as the very latest thing in philosophy, and expect you to reel back, dazzled. It would be nice not to be patronised by nitwits. It would be nice if people were to understand that science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and that, powerful though it is, it doesn't function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can't be perceived except through metaphor.'

Mr. Spufford has a lot of fun with the tin-pan gods of the new establishment, especially John Lennon, an icon whose shampoo'd hair, combed beard and spotless white 3 piece always reminds me of exactly the image of Jesus which its critics associate with 'pious fraud' - alright, forget the round-eyed rimless spectacles, which is Lennon's own contributipn to the saccharine. So it cracked me up when Mr. Spufford described 'Imagine' as 'the My Little Pony of philosophical statements', and went on to write about 'John and Yoko all in white, John at the white piano, John drifting through the white rooms of a white mansion...' and how 'Imagine' looks like one part 'A Matter of Life and Death to one part 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'. Only sillier.' And how he skewers idiocy when he writes: 'Imagine there's no heaven. Imagine there's no hell. Imagine all the people living life in - hello? Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture and everybody starts living life in peace? I don't know about you, but in my experience, peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the the size of Joey and Chandler's is.... Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests... Peace within people is made difficult... by the way we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering around and around.'

Yet as I finished this spirited, emotional, but somewhat tiring book, I couldn't help thinking of Nicholas Herman - 'a lowly and unlearned man, who, after having been a footman and a soldier, was admitted as a Lay Brother among the barefooted Carmelites at Paris in 1666, and was afterwards known as 'Brother Lawrence'. His conversion, which took place when he was about 18 years old, was the result, under God, of the mere sight in midwinter, of a dry and leafless tree, and of the reflections it stirred respecting the change the coming spring would bring. From that time he grew eminently in the love and knowledge of God, endeavouring constantly to walk 'as in his presence.' No wilderness wanderings seem to have intervened between the Red Sea and the Jordan of his experience. A wholly consecrated man, he lived his christian life through as a pilgrim - as a steward and not as an owner, and died at the age of 80, leaving a name which has been as 'ointment poured forth.' But he never wrote a book, and if he'd had his way, nothing would ever have been heard of 'Brother Lawrence' at all.


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