December 29, 2008

Reason in its more amiable aspects

For me, Stendhal is the embodiment of the principle of prose. I don't mean literary reality, but reason in its more amiable aspects. No doubt Stendhal will survive Flaubert, because Stendhal is a point of reference for the mature, while Flaubert is a point of reference for the artist, and perhaps for the immature. Flaubert takes possession of the immature and almost develops a sense of maturity and of competence and strength.

-- Stevens, in a letter (June 20, 1945).

... Possibly this rhymes with a phrase in a letter three years later, discussing artists not authors: "fantasy on the one hand and realism on the other: evasion and evasion."

December 22, 2008

Flies buzz about.

Another interrogation method was the stoika. It consisted of standing a prisoner against a wall on tiptoe and making him hold that position for several hours. A day or two of this was said to be enough to break almost anyone.

When there was time, the basic NKVD method for obtaining confessions and breaking the accused man was the "conveyor" -- continual interrogation by relays of police for hours and days on end. As with many phenomena of the Stalin period, it has the advantage that it could not easily be condemned by any simple principle. Clearly, it amounted to unfair pressure after a certain time and to actual physical torture later still, but when? No absolutely precise answer could ever be given.

But at any rate, after even twelve hours, it is extremely uncomfortable. After a day, it becomes very hard. And after two or three days, the victim is actually physically poisoned by fatigue. It was "as painful as any torture." In fact, we are told, though some prisoners had been known to resist torture, it was almost unheard of for the conveyor not to succeed if kept up long enough. One week is reported as enough to break almost anybody....

There is nothing new about the conveyor method. It was used on witches in Scotland. The philosopher Campanella, who withstood all other tortures in the sixteenth century, succumbed to lack of sleep. Hallucinations occur. Flies buzz about. Smoke seems to rise before the prisoner's eyes, and so on.

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

... Compare:

Sgt. Ben Allbright knows something about sleep deprivation. During the first six months of the Iraq war, his job was to guard prisoners in Al Qaim, a makeshift base near the Syrian border where U.S. troops conducted aggressive hunts for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Every day, soldiers hauled in about 20 new detainees for questioning by military interrogators or CIA operatives. To "get them out of their comfort zone" before the interrogation, Allbright told Newsweek recently, the drill was to keep the Iraqis awake for 24 hours or longer. The guards would stand the prisoners up in old shipping containers, their hands tied behind their backs and their faces blindfolded and facing the wall. "After a while you'd see their knees buckling, or you'd see one of them lean forward and put his forehead against the wall to try to sleep." When that happened, Allbright would holler into the container or bang on the metal side with a stone or a club.

... Human Rights Watch, which interviewed the lawyers of 20 detainees held in a secret [CIA] prison in Afghanistan as late as 2004, says some of them were sleep-deprived for up to two weeks, though sometimes allowed short naps. The facility, known among detainees as "the dark prison," was among the harshest run by the United States since the start of the war on terror.

-- Dan Ephron, "Singing for Your Sleep: President Bush Aimed to Clarify Interrogation Rules: So Is It Legal -- or Effective -- to Deny Prisoners Rest?", Newsweek, Oct. 30, 2006.

Divulging state secrets

There are many accounts of the NKVD insisting that anyone released (usually after 1938) should sign a guarantee not to reveal what had happened to him in jail. A Soviet newspaper recently quoted one such:

I, Sternin, N.V., pledge never and nowhere to speak of what became known to me between 11 June 1938 and 11 July 1939 about the work of the organs of the NKVD. It is known to me that on any breach of this I will be accountable under the strictest revolutionary laws, for divulging state secrets.

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

... Compare:

The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.

The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release -- even to the detainees' own attorneys -- "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.

-- Carol D. Leonnig & Eric Rich, "U.S. Seeks Silence on CIA Prisons: Court Is Asked to Bar Detainees from Talking About Interrogations," Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2006.

The Party can do anything

The exact methods by which Stalin silenced her [Krupskaya] are unknown. He is said to have once remarked that if she did not stop criticizing him, the Party would proclaim that not she, but the Old Bolshevik Elena Stasova, was Lenin's widow: "Yes," he added sternly, "the Party can do anything!"

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

December 19, 2008

Vast views

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.

-- John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson, quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History.

Unreasonable expectations

All are not naturally conditioned so as to act according to the laws and rules of reason; nay, on the contrary, all men are born ignorant, and before they can learn the right way of life and acquire the habit of virtue, the greater part of their life, even if they have been well brought up, has passed away. Nevertheless, they are in the meanwhile bound to live and preserve themselves as far as they can by the unaided impulses of desire. Nature has given them no other guide, and has denied them the present power of living according to sound reason; so that they are no more bound to live by the dictates of an enlightened mind, than a cat is bound to live by the laws of the nature of a lion.

-- Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

... As he writes in the Tractatus Politicus, "men are not born fit for citizenship, but must be made so." A liberal polity that treats education as a secondary priority has doomed itself.

December 10, 2008

An understandable mistake

In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: "How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?" Dzerzhinsky scribbled, "About 1,500" and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account.

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

December 8, 2008

But we can't say that.

Steinberg, the Left SR Commissar for Justice, was another early critic of the Terror, although all his efforts to subordinate the Chekas to the courts proved to be in vain. When, in February [1918], Steinberg first saw the Decree on "The Socialist Fatherland in Danger!", with its order to shoot "on the spot" all "profiteers, hooligans and counter-revolutionaries," he immediately went to Lenin and protested: "Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all? Let's call it frankly the 'Commissariat for Social Extermination' and be done with it!" Lenin's face lit up and he replied: "Well put, that's exactly what it should be; but we can't say that."

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

... Which reminds me of Edward Crankshaw's aside in his The Shadow of the Winter Palace: "Those who think Lenin was a splendid man will know just where to read all about him."

December 4, 2008

But what about seditious misunderstanding?

In March 1872 a heavy tome of political economy, written in German, landed on the desk of the tsarist censor. Its author was well known for his socialist theories and all his previous books had been banned. The publishers had no right to expect a different fate for this new work. It was an uncompromising critique of the modern factory system and, although the censorship laws had been liberalized in 1865, there was still a clear ban on any work expounding "the harmful doctrines of socialism or communism," or rousing "enmity between one class and another."

The new laws were strict enough to ban such dangerous books as Spinoza's Ethics, Hobbes's Leviathan, Voltaire's Philosophy of History and Lecky's History of European Morals. And yet this German magnum opus -- 674 pages of dense statistical analysis -- was deemed much too difficult and abstruse to be seditious.

"It is possible to state with certainty," concluded the first of the two censors, "that very few people in Russia will read it, and even fewer will understand it." Moreover, added the second, since the author attacked the British factory system, his critique was not applicable to Russia, where the "capitalist exploitation" of which he spoke had never been experienced. Neither censor thought it necessary to prevent the publication of this "strictly scientific work."

Thus Marx's Capital was launched in Russia.

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (Reparagraphed for internet standards, though somewhat spoiling the punch line.)

... Sadly, the second censor was a better reader of Marx than were Lenin and Trotsky.

December 3, 2008

Divine beings

You are mistaken, my dear grandmama; Russia is not England. Here we do not need to earn the love of the people. The Russian people revere their Tsars as divine beings, from whom all charity and fortune derive. As far as St. Petersburg society is concerned, that is something which one may wholly disregard. The opinions of those who make up this society and their mocking have no significance whatsoever.

--The Empress Alexandra, in a letter to Queen Victoria, quoted in Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

... Grandmama had written to sympathize with Alexandra's difficulties regarding her "first duty to win [the Russians'] love and respect." Figes also notes that Alexandra kept a portrait of Marie-Antoinette above her writing desk; God only knows what she thought of when she looked at it.

November 29, 2008

God's bad days

Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?

--Henry Clarendon IV, in Raymond Chandler, Playback.

November 26, 2008

1s 6d per board

[Kitchener] drove 160,000 of [the Boers'] wives and children into the fifty concentration camps established along lines pioneered by Roberts but not, apparently, in imitation of those created in Cuba by General "Butcher" Weyler. Here 28,000 inmates, mostly children, succumbed to disease and malnutrition caused by conditions almost as bad as in the separate camps set up for Africans, where the mortality rate was probably even higher.... [W]hen British officers wore out the dance floor at the Bloemfontain Residency they sold the old floorboards for 1s 6d each to incarcerated Boer women to make coffins for their children.

--Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

November 25, 2008

It would never happen in the Commons

[T]he Whig magnate Lord Hartington, whose vigour was all the more impressive since he had raised somnolence to a political art, yawning during his maiden speech and later dreaming that he was addressing his peers, only to wake up and find that it was true.

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

... This would seem to be Spencer Cavendish, who became the eighth Duke of Devonshire in 1891.

Decline and outsourcing

Britain had invested heavily in traditional industries while rivals inevitably made the most of new techniques and inventions. Germany's chemical industry pulled so far ahead, for example, that in 1914 the British Army discovered that all the khaki dye for its uniforms came from Stuttgart.

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

... Alas, mauve was not substituted.

November 22, 2008

Throwing kittens

The Governor-General [Warren Hastings] was particularly indulgent towards his acquisitive and much-loved second wife Marian, who dressed like "an Indian princess," braided her auburn ringlets with gems, and amused herself by throwing kittens into a bowl full of enormous pearls which slid under their paws when they tried to stand up.

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

November 21, 2008

"The big issue" ... ya think?

The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it.

-- Prof. George Church, on the possibility of mapping the Neanderthal genome and altering chimpanzee DNA to ultimately match the Neanderthal. A similar, though less potentially controversial, method is envisioned for using elephant DNA to recreate wooly mammoths.

November 19, 2008

Shackled to a not-quite-dead corpse

When one state is completely dependent on another, it is the weaker which can call the tune: it can threaten to collapse unless supported, and its protector has no answering threat in return.

-- A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918.

... Iraq being only the most recent example.

The pattern that Taylor describes is similar to that in the more famous Taylorism from The Origins of the Second World War: "The negotiations between Germany and the Allies became a competition in blackmail, sensational episodes in a gangster film. The Allies, or some of them, threatened to choke Germany to death; the Germans threatened to die."

November 18, 2008

Except the Italians

Though they carried on the mysteries of secret diplomacy, there were few real secrets in the diplomatic world, and all diplomatists were honest, according to their moral code.*

* It becomes wearisome to add "except the Italians" to every generalization. Henceforth it may be assumed.

-- A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918.

Myth, or man, or god, it does not matter

Some weeks ago a Catholic reader of Tribune wrote to protest against a review by Mr Charles Hamblett. * * * It also appears from my correspondent's letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don't have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn't matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed. "The figure of Christ (myth, or man, or god, it does not matter) so transcends all the rest that I only wish that everyone would look, before rejecting that version of life." Christ, therefore, may be a myth, or he may have been merely a human being, or the account given of him in the Creeds may be true. So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumerable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

-- Orwell, "As I Please" # 14.

... Not especially interesting on its own merits, but relevant today. Can America survive an objectively pro-Arian president?

Objectively pro-Coulter

Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the good will of common men, and yet that good will is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up. Any government which refused to use violence in its own defense would cease almost immediately to exist, because it could be overthrown by any body of men, or even any individual, that was less scrupulous. Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal and vice versa. In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the U.S.S.R. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

-- Orwell, "No, Not One."

... For the time being at least, this must be my nominee for the worst thing Orwell ever wrote (which is why I feel obliged out of fairness to give the final sentence its context). I would like to think that he would recant, or at least qualify, his statement if he could peruse the Google listings. The best I can say is that 1941 was a rather tense time for an Englishman.

The ostensible object of his ire in that review essay, btw, was a dreary pacifist novel by Alex Comfort, whose future as the author of The Joy of Sex would not have surprised Orwell in the least.

Or a blog, for that matter

One way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary.

-- Orwell, "As I Please" # 3.

... He goes on to note that he has been "not so wrong as the Military Experts," who (1943) have been wrong about most things, and goes on to ask:

Where now are the men who told us those things? Still on the job, drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military Expert.

They are stil afloat today.

Anagnorisis, almost

The house seemed unnaturally still. Carrying his empty beer can, he went downstairs to see what Milly was doing, and he was halfway across the living room before he realized that he had four sons.

-- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road.

November 13, 2008

Dirty jokes

A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage.

-- Orwell, "The Art of Donald McGill."

November 11, 2008

A god(lessness)-intoxicated man?

I could wish your friend had not denominated me an infidel writer, on account of ten or twelve pages which seem to him to have that tendency: while I have wrote so many volumes on history, literature, politics, trade, morals, which, in that particular at least, are entirely inoffensive. Is a man to be called a drunkard, because he has been seen fuddled once in his lifetime?

-- Hume, in a letter (circa 1761); reprinted in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Millican.

... We may notice that the force of the argument is the same inadequacy of reasoning from a limited effect to a more general cause, which Hume typically deployed against religious dogma. The irony must have amused him.

November 10, 2008

What prevails is truth

It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call "true" whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.

-- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (emphasis his).

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.

-- O'Brien, in Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

... Rorty's devoting a chapter of his book to Orwell and O'Brien does not change the fact that there is not much daylight between Rorty's position and O'Brien's. We get the limiting effect of words vs. deeds, persuasion vs. force; but there are all kinds of words and persuasion.

What the two positions indubitably share is that in neither of them does truth inhere "in the individual mind." From the position of the individual, it is not much more reassuring to know that truth exists only in the mind of the Liberal Society than that it exists only in the mind of the Party.

All men being created equal

An Amazon reviewer complains about John Gray's little book on Liberalism:

Finally, I think Gray could have mentioned (at least once?) that women, and slaves in the US and European colonies, were initially excluded almost entirely from the liberal project.

My passing, perhaps bloggable, thought is that this "initial exclusion" tends to be treated as an oversight. All we do is redefine "all men are created equal" to include, first, all men, and then those other, female "men" as well. Nothing fundamental here, just shaking the scales from our eyes.

The more interesting possibility, of course, would be if this oversight were more than just an oversight; if there were something about liberalism that actually explained why it was so slow to catch onto the implications of its own program.

Another book by Gray may indirectly suggest an answer. (Note that, thanks to modern technology, we no longer need to read books; we can just read about them on Amazon. Something similar, n.b., happened with Kant's "reading" of Hume, as well as Kant's hypothesis that the Milky Way is our own galaxy.)

In any event, the other book by Gray simply reminds us of a familiar divagation in liberalism, judging by its (back) cover:

... John Gray argues that liberal thought has always contained two incompatible philosophies. In one, liberalism is a theory of a universal rational consensus, which enables the achievement of the best way of life for all humankind. In the other, liberalism is the project of seeking terms for peaceful coexistence between different regimes and ways of life.

How much of the bias in liberalism is due to the uneasy suspicion of the "universally rational" that a single way of life wouldn't work so well outside the sphere of white European (bourgeois) men? If you're defining your project in terms of universal consensus, and some groups seem to have goals that are incompatible with your own, then the temptation is to label those troublemakers as "irrational." Which is pretty much how it went.

We are now somewhat more prepared to admit that women, blacks, etc. might be "rational" after all ... not without some disparagement of "reason" in the first place that itself may have a whiff of sour grapes about it. But the modus-vivendi school of liberalism seems potentially more inclusive.

November 9, 2008

Space heaters needed

The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from television or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit drafty on cold winter nights.

-- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope.

The drift of life

Easy to sense the trend in the drift of life,
Hard to compel one creature out of its course.

-- Tu Fu, "The Autumn Wastes," tr. A.C. Graham, Poems of the Late T'ang.

November 8, 2008

Peel's prescience

The Reform Bill has made a change in the position of parties and in the practical working of public affairs, which the authors of it did not anticipate. There is a perfectly new element of political power -- namely, the registration of voters, a more powerful one than either the Sovereign or the House of Commons. That party is the strongest in the point of fact which has the existing registration in its favour ... We shall soon have, I have no doubt, a regular systematic organisation of it. Where this is to end I know not, but substantial powers will be in the Registry Courts and there the contest will be determined.

-- Robert Peel, in a letter to Arbuthnot, 1839 (emphasis added); quoted in Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846.

... Hilton goes on to observe: "In 1843, accordingly, Conservatives sought to disenfranchise certain Dissenters on technical grounds, while Anti-Corn Law League officials tried to create bogus freeholds in the counties."

Evidently, little has changed.

November 5, 2008


[I]f his straining after effect is often irritating it can also produce phrases ("the chill, footless years," "the mackerel-crowded seas") which suddenly overwhelm one like a girl's face seen across a room.

-- Orwell, "Review of The Development of William Butler Yeats by V.K. Narayana Menon" (in Collected Essays, Everyman ed.).

The Zen of the ancient Greeks

Many people are afraid to empty their minds lest they may plunge into the void. They do not know that their own mind is the void. The ignorant eschew phenomena but not thought; the wise eschew thought but not phenomena.

-- The Chun Chou Record of the Zen Master Huang Po, tr. John Blofeld.

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial -- out of profundity.

-- Nietzsche, The Gay Science, preface to the 2d edition, tr. Walter Kaufmann.

Two different humors

In the body of every republic there are two different humors -- that of the people and that of the nobles -- and all the laws that are passed in favor of liberty arise from their discord.

--Machiavelli, Discourses 1.4, tr. Peter Constantine, Essential Writings of Machiavelli.

Odious but intelligible

Do not you think that the tone of England -- of that great compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs, which is called public opinion -- is more liberal -- to use an odious but intelligible phrase -- than the policy of the Government? Do you not think that there is a feeling in favour of some undefined change in the mode of governing the country?

-- Robert Peel, in a letter, 1820; in Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846.