The sheer humanity of Oliver Sacks

August 31, 2015 at 10:52 am (good people, humanism, Jim D, literature, mental health, philosophy, science)

In this 2007 photo provided by the BBC, Neurologist Oliver Sacks poses at a piano while holding a model of a brain at the Chemistry Auditorium, University College London in London.  Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP

The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.

What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

I urge you to read the whole thing, here.

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Conquest’s filthy limericks

August 5, 2015 at 1:37 am (Jim D, literature, poetry, stalinism, terror, USSR)

 Above: Robert Conquest with Aretha Franklin and Alan Greenspan

I’ve just heard the news of the death of Robert Conquest, historian, entertaining right-winger, debunker of liberal pro-Stalinist mythology, and master limerikician. I shall write more, in due course, about Conquest’s politics and his role as a historian. But, for now, let’s just enjoy his limericks …

… all of which brings me on to the true limerick – lewd, obscene and offensive – and the widely-acknowledged master of the genre, Robert Conquest. To the best of my knowledge, Conquest’s limericks have never been published in a proper collected edition, though several have appeared in his friend Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs and Collected Letters.

Here are some of the best:

A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite.

Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.

There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.

That snobbish surrealist, Garsall,
Once did himself up in a parcel;
He addressed it ‘Lord Garsall,
The Keep, Garsall Castle’
And mailed it first-class up his arsehole.

There was old Scot named McTavish
Who went for an anthropoid ravish
But the object of rape was the wrong sex of ape
So the anthropoid ravished McTavish

Possibly my favourite, entitled AT THE ZOO:

There was plenty of good-natured chaff
When I popped in to fuck the giraffe,
And the PRZS
Could hardly suppress
A dry professorial laugh.

Kingsley Amis wrote a follow-up:

When I came back to roger the gnu
I was scarcely delayed coming through,
and the staff – most polite –
cried, “please stay overnight”,
it’s a priviledge granted to few.

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Rushdie slams “pussies” who won’t defend free speech

April 27, 2015 at 6:28 pm (apologists and collaborators, democracy, Free Speech, intellectuals, islamism, Jim D, literature, satire)

The world is turned upside down: Amnesty’s conference recently voted against condemning anti-Semitism, and now PEN members refuse to defend free speech:

Salman Rushdie slams the “pussies”, some of whom are (or were) friends of his:

“If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name,” Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

This speech is simply superb:

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Günter Grass on Israel: what Norm said at the time

April 13, 2015 at 8:09 pm (anti-semitism, blogosphere, censorship, From the archives, history, intellectuals, iraq, israel, literature, poetry, posted by JD)

The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.

What Must Be Said

by Günter Grass

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

wil not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.


Wisdom from Norm on the  Günter Grass row:

Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:

There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.

Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:

To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.

I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.

Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:

OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.

This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.

A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.

On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.

Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.

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Terry Pratchett: ‘Shaking Hands With Death’

March 12, 2015 at 6:41 pm (BBC, Disability, funny, good people, humanism, literature, posted by JD, RIP)

Below: an extract from Terry Pratchett’s Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands With Death, February 2010:

When I was a young boy, playing on the floor of my grandmother’s front room, I glanced up at the television and saw Death, talking to a knight. I didn’t know much about death at that point. It was the thing that happened to ­budgerigars and hamsters. But it was Death, with a scythe and an amiable manner. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I had just watched a clip from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, wherein the knight engages in protracted dialogue, and of course the ­famous chess game, with the Grim Reaper who, it seemed to me, did not seem so terribly grim.

The image has remained with me ever since and Death as a character ­appeared in the first of my Discworld novels. He has evolved in the series to be one of its most popular characters; implacable, because that is his job, he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.

I have no clear recollection of the death of my grandparents, but my ­paternal grandfather died in the ambulance on the way to hospital after just having cooked and eaten his own dinner at the age of 96. He had felt very odd, got a neighbour to ring for the doctor and stepped tidily into the ambulance and out of the world. A good death if ever there was one. Except that, ­according to my father, he did ­complain to the ambulance men that he hadn’t had time to finish his pudding. I am not at all sure about the truth of this, because my father had a finely tuned sense of humour that he was good enough to bequeath to me, presumably to make up for the weak bladder, short stature and male pattern baldness which regrettably came with the package.

My father’s own death was more protracted. He had a year’s warning. It was pancreatic cancer. Technology kept him alive, at home and in a state of reasonable comfort and cheerfulness, for that year, during which we had those conversations that you have with a dying parent. Perhaps it is when you truly get to know them, when you ­realise that it is now you marching ­towards the sound of the guns and you are ready to listen to the advice and reminiscences that life was too crowded for up to that point. He ­unloaded all the anecdotes that I had heard before, about his time in India during the war, and came up with a few more that I had never heard. Then, at one point, he suddenly looked up and said, “I can feel the sun of India on my face”, and his face did light up rather magically, brighter and happier than I had seen it at any time in the previous year, and if there had been any justice or even narrative sensibility in the ­universe, he would have died there and then, shading his eyes from the sun of Karachi.

He did not. Read the rest of this entry »

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A message to Lady Jenkin from George Orwell

December 10, 2014 at 1:05 am (food, Jim D, literature, Orwell, Tory scum, truth, welfare)

Above: Orwell enjoying a nice cup of tea

Baroness Anne Jenkin, the Tory peer who has advised the poor to eat porridge instead of “sugary cereals” and to learn to cook, would do well to read some Orwell and learn some humanity – and humility:

“The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the PAC level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread”  – from The Road To Wigan Pier, 1937

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Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

November 11, 2014 at 8:49 am (imperialism, Jim D, literature, poetry, tragedy, war)

The most famous World War One poets – Sassoon, Brook, Owen, Blunden and Binyon – were officers from the British middle and upper classes. Isaac Rosenberg (above) was different: he was from a working class background and, as his name suggests, was Jewish. He served in the ranks and turned down the opportunity to become a lance corporal.

Also unlike most of the better-known 1914-18 poets, he was critical of the war from the start, but enlisted in 1915 because he needed employment to support his mother.

He was killed on the Somme on 1 April 1918.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

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“Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets”

October 27, 2014 at 8:29 am (booze, literature, poetry, posted by JD, wild man)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

Dylan Thomas was born 100 years ago today, and the centennial is causing much excitement in Wales and, indeed, across the world. A lot of the coverage suggests that Thomas was not just the author of (occasionally) beguiling and attractive poetry, but was also a beguiling and attractive human being.

This gives me another opportunity to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:


I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

Instead of this we had an exchange of limericks. For this sort of thing to be fun, the limericks have to be good, ingenious, original and especially in mixed company, which this was, not scatological or distasteful (containing references to vomiting, for instance). These conditions were met only fitfully on this occasion. The time to be getting along to the meeting came none too soon. Thomas jumped up and bought a number of bottles of beer, two of which he stuffed into his coat pockets. He gave the others to J.O. Thomas to carry. ‘No need to worry, boy,’ the latter kept saying. ‘Plenty of time afterwards.’

‘I’ve been caught like that before.’

I realise now that this tenacious sticking to beer when spirits would obviously have been more portable confirms in a small way the view that Thomas was a natural beer-drinker, like many. But with a smaller capacity than many, perhaps the only defect in himself he seems to have noticed: there is a note of mortification in his remark to ‘Dai’ below. Anyway, he was finished off by all the bourbon they gave him in America, culminating in the famous eighteen straight whiskeys just before his death; but that was a good two and a half years later.

The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)

His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.

Of his own I remember ‘Fern Hill’ the best, a fine performance given the kind of poem it is, but for the most part he read the work of other poets: Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’, Plomer’s ‘The Flying Bum’ (the Bookmen got a little glassy-eyed over that one) and Yeats’s ‘Lapus Lazuli’. His voice was magnificent, and his belief in what he read seemed absolute, yet there was something vaguely disconcerting about it too, not only to me. This feeling was crystallised when he came to the end of the Yeats. He went normally enough, if rather slowly, as far as:

‘Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes …’

and then fell silent for a full ten seconds. This, as can readily be checked, is a very long time, and since that baleful glare at his audience did not flicker, nor his frame move a hair’s breath, it certainly bore its full value on this occasion. Eventually his mouth dropped slowly and widely open, his lips crinkled like a child’s who is going to cry, and he said in a tremulous half-whisper:

‘… are gay.’ 

He held it for another ten seconds or so, still staring and immobile, his mouth still open and crinkled. It was magnificent and the silence in the room was absolute, but … (so 1957. Actually of course it was bloody awful, a piece of naked showing-off and an insult to Yeats and to poetry.)

I will cut the account short at that point. There was a return to the pub but still no pub performance. Perhaps he thought we were not worth it. Who cares? One has to record that many and varied people found him delightful company. That man is not all bad who said of his wife and the state she had been in earlier that day, as he did to Peter Quennell, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint passed out on the bathroom floor.’

Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets. At the start he boozed a lot because it fitted his image as a poet, rather than out of any real thirst or need: Mary Morgan — I have never seen this anecdote reprinted — found an old local drinking-companion to whom he had confessed as much: ‘I wish I knew where you put it Dai; I can’t keep up with you.’ But for the last eight years or more of his short life he had something to drink about. That famous description of himself as ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ is sad and awful more than funny. He knew Rimbaud had stopped writing poetry fro good at the age of nineteen. Nearly all Thomas’s best work was written or drafted by the same age. He had a final burst of energy about 1944 but nothing after. And he was too sharp not to see it.


Amis’s 1957 conclusion: 

Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.

‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’

‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’

We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.


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Radio 4 gives Gramsci a (reasonably) fair hearing

September 2, 2014 at 4:49 pm (AWL, BBC, capitalism, class, democracy, Disability, history, intellectuals, Italy, Jim D, literature, Marxism, modernism, socialism)

It’s not often that the bourgeois media gives an anti-Stalinist communist leader and thinker a fair hearing – or, at least, allows that person’s thought and record to be presented in a balanced and objective manner.

But today’s ‘Great Lives’ on BBC Radio 4, introduced by the former Tory MP Matthew Parris (a good broadcaster, despite his politics) gave the life and thought of Antonio Gramsci affair hearing.

Dr Tom Shakespeare, a disability activist and former Euro-Communist, supported by Professor Anne Sassoon (‘expert witness’) presented a sympathetic and generally fair profile of Gramsci that is well worth listening to, here.

Naturally, I don’t agree with the Euro-Communist slant of the presentation, but that doesn’t detract (much) from the quality of the case put forward by Shakespeare and Sassoon, which will, hopefully, introduce a lot of new people to the ideas of this heroic figure and giant socialist intellect.

Once you’ve listened, you could do a lot worse than move on to this…

Antonio Gramsci

A collection of articles discussing the life and ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci

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A fable of antisemitism: Howard Jacobson’s J

August 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm (anti-semitism, literature)

The cover of Howard Jacobson's latest novel

Guest post from Pink Prosecco

Like most fictions of the near future, J invites the reader to piece together the missing bits of the puzzle, trace the path which has turned our world into the novel’s world. We learn early on that this isn’t going to be an easy task. “It was a good job that history books were hard to come by, that diaries were hidden or destroyed and that libraries put gentle obstacles in the way of research.” (Kindle edition: 2%). But we soon receive hints of some cataclysmic event (referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED) as well as clues about the society which has developed in its aftermath.

Although the novel’s biggest question is WHAT HAPPENED? I found myself puzzling over another question:- what kind of science fiction novel is this exactly? Are we meant to read it as a believable dystopia, a society which could be extrapolated from current trends? Satirical and whimsical notes (such as the universal adoption of Jewish surnames by Britons) might suggest not. But what about the central premise, the implication that in ten years or so there might be a pogrom of British Jews?

By chance, just after writing the previous sentence, I flicked over to Twitter and noticed something which captured very well my uncertain response to this question. “Do Jews have future in #EU? If #Holocaust is bench mark: they do. If fear of wearing in public kipa or Star of David: they have not!”  If Jacobson was aiming for realism, then a future Britain in which pretty much all observant Jews (and some secular ones too) have quietly moved somewhere else might have been nearer the mark. By contrast, even though he’s a wingnut Eurabian fantasist, Dan Simmons’ sf novel Flashback, which presents a future world in which Israel has been wiped out by a nuclear strike from Iran, is actually a little (I hope just a little) more plausible than Jacobson’s dystopia.

But of course a dystopia doesn’t have to be realistic in order to work and have something important to say. The Handmaid’s Tale is as implausible as J, and so is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Perhaps J, like Atwood’s novel, should be read as a fable, a comment on our society’s apparent refusal to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, let alone the earlier history of antisemitism. Many elements in the novel’s hint suggestively at the relationship between antisemitism, on the one hand, and its apparent opposite – philosemitism, or simply a horrified avoidance of antisemitism. Towards the beginning of the novel a character speaks of looking for what is ‘left over’ (10%) and refers to ‘business dangerously unfinished’  but it is not at this point fully clear whether Jews are his target or those who might kill them. The pattern of confusion over this issue, the elision between guilt, horror and relief in society’s responses to WHAT HAPPENED seems to reflect the way the Holocaust is weaponised by some bigots against Jews today. The horror of the past is acknowledged, but only in order to create a new vector for antisemitism. This observation seems aimed at Jews, but could just as easily be aimed at the clever mutations and masks traceable in antisemitic discourse. ‘Too many of society’s ills were the result of the wrong sort of people with the wrong sort of beliefs finding ways of recycling themselves, no matter how much effort went into their disposal.’ (34%)

Indeed the novel seems to offer a whole series of oblique reflections on antisemitism. When Kevern is convinced someone has searched his house, Ailinn’s friend Ez is quick to offer soothing reassurances that imply he is being hypersensitive. The context (ostensibly) has nothing to do with antisemitism, but the anxiety/scepticism dynamic can be mapped onto the contrasting ways in which people respond to manifestations of antisemitism at a time when people seem increasingly emboldened to express their warped views. See for example this recent statement from a South African trade unionist, or the calmly chilling pronouncements from these Gaza protestors.  But, for some, almost any expression of anxiety is read as paranoid overreaction or a dishonest move, aimed at protecting Israel from criticism. I approached this novel with some reluctance because I found The Finkler Question overrated and politically crude. But science fiction proves a good medium for Jacobson’s message, and J, although still perhaps too obviously polemical in places, is a subtler and more unsettling exploration of antisemitism.

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