January 5, 2009

Another version of the "end of history"

... What was going on in Peking in Caesar's time, or in Zambesi in Napoleon's, was going on on another planet. But melodic history is no longer possible. All political themes are entangled and every event that takes place immediately assumes a multitude of simultaneous and inseparable meanings.

The politics of a Richelieu or a Bismarck are lost and lose their meaning in this new environment. The ideas that they made use of in their schemes, the aims that they could advance to satisfy the ambitions of their people, the forces which figured in their calculations, all become of no import....

With effects so rapidly becoming independent of their causes, and even antagonistic to their causes, perhaps it will now be considered puerile, dangerous and insane to seek out events -- a habit essentially due to history and sustained by it. It is not that, in the meanwhile, there will no longer be events and monumental moments; there will be prodigious ones! But those whose function it is to await them, or prepare them, or to ward them off, will of necessity learn more and more to beware of their results. It will no longer suffice to combine the will with the ability in order to undertake some enterprise. Nothing has been more destroyed by the last war than the pretension to foresight.

-- Valéry, "Extraneous Remarks" (1927).

... Israel's assault on Gaza is only the most recent example that the world's politicians have been very slow learners.

Anyway underfed Bengalis

Altogether malnutrition and diseases stemming from it killed some three million people [in the Bengal famine of 1943].... Despite pleas from [Leo] Amery, the Prime Minister refused to divert scarce shipping to Calcutta and little was done to bring relief when it was most needed, though American aid came later. Churchill regarded the dispatch of food to India as an appeasement of Congress and he believed that "the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious [than that of] sturdy Greeks." He added that despite the famine Indians would go on breeding "like rabbits."

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

... Churchill and Stalin could've gotten a decent conversation out of comparing notes; Stalin didn't beat Churchill by much ... if at all.

A sound banker

A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.

-- Hyman Minsky

January 4, 2009

I wouldn't know, sir

Among the international dignitaries present [at Ghana's independence ceremonies] were two Americans of very different persuasions, Martin Luther King Jr. and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon.... Echoing the euphoria of his Ghanian hosts, Nixon slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. "I wouldn't know, Sir," came the memorable reply. "I'm from Alabama."

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1987.

January 2, 2009

A series of defeats

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

-- Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali."

Today verse would not be invented

Poetry is a survival.

Poetry, in a period of language simplification, of changing forms and insensibility in regard to them, of specialization -- is a thing preserved. I mean that today verse would not be invented. Nor, indeed, rites of any kind.

-- Valéry, "Literature" (tr. Louise Varèse).