nemesis of faith

Christopher Hitchens – God is not Great

If religion were a necessary element of human life – a hard-wired neurological epiphenomenon that brought with it order, psychic hygiene and social cohesion, private comfort and public benefit – then perhaps we could simply accept it as such, enjoy the advantages it confers on us, and ignore its flamboyant absurdities.

The spiritually-inclined will insist that it has been for us a source of precept and succour; enables us to box the moral compass, and satisfies a need to be reassured that our sublunary flounderings aren't wholly meaningless. If we all could live peaceably in a Betjemanian fantasy of gentle rites and hymnals, a flowery harmless Anglicanism (or regional variants thereof – Sufism, on the face of it, being equally attractive), mightn't we be rid finally of poverty and cruelty? So far, so via media.

By this reckoning organized religion serves at once as psychological poultice and societal solvent: useful, perhaps indispensable. A delusion it may be – a peculiarly robust one – yet still it functions as a benign form of spiritual welfarism. “Humankind cannot bear,” T.S. Eliot whispered from the depths of his own flight from experience, “very much reality.” We aren't so configured – as limited biological entities – to grasp the immensity of the universe. Each of us is a poor, bare, forked creature impaled on our finitude. Where does grandeur reside, save in contemplation of something bigger than ourselves?

Thus runs the broadly theistic line. By such imaginative shifts humanity ennobles itself, raises itself from the weariness, the fever and the fret of being in the world. Again this seems on the face of it pretty unexceptionable: a mechanism of evolutionary psychology, if you want to be rigorously positivistic about it.

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Christopher Hitchens begs to differ. His barnstorming polemic God is not Great is written – dare I say it? - out of an apostolic fury, an upwelling of frustration at the persistence of the religious mentality (which Hitchens exposes as no more than a reflex of power-obsession). Salman Rushdie's knighthood this week re-ignited calls from the Muslim world for his execution as blasphemer and apostate. The argument initiated with such spittle-flecked rage and mob histrionics on the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989 hasn't really been won or lost in the intervening years. The murderous fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomenei has proved, further, not to have been merely some 'black swan event' (as the meme of the moment would have it). It signaled, in fact, a permanent revolution, processing slowly but steadily across the turn of the century. Religion poisons everything, Hitchens epigrammatizes the theme of his book. That's about the sum total of it. L'affaire Rushdie hasn't simply wound down and disappeared, and still provokes so chilling a response – orchestrated, largely for political ends, by the mullahs, who command congregations of thousands – that it mightn't be too much to suggest a certain timeliness in Hitchen's effort. With the disintegration of the Communist bloc, the forces of Counter-Enlightenment have retrenched and rearmed. Death cults and supremacist creeds are back on the agenda.

Not merely Voltairean anti-clericalism, then: but a root and branch rejection of the very claim of the truth of religion. Hitchens presses home the fatuity of faith; he doesn't simply rail against the fraudulence of priestcraft, for example (a soft target), but against the case for any metaphysical warrant to human activity. We can marvel that, after the labours of nineteenth century biblical scholars such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan – who settled the question once and for all of the historicity of the Bible and its time-bound, man-made nature – there are many millions of literalists who still credit the reality of the Fall. Tartuffisme remains as much a staple for today's satirists as for Moliere; and we know how venal Chaucer's Pardoner was. But Hitchens, the scourge of the credulous, seems to accept Freud's insight that religion will endure for as long as we are afraid of death. (Freud, some would suggest, was as much a juju-man as any priest; his philosophy as questionable as that of any of the Church Fathers...)

I can well imagine a believer bridling at his condescension here. A member of an educated cosmopolitan elite sneering at the lackwit naivety of those not so well-favoured by circumstance. Recall H.L. Mencken's reporting from Dayton, Tennessee, where 'they tried the infidel Scopes': “In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless efforts of consecrated men, [evangelical Christianity] is laid up with a wasting disease.” Hitchens might appropriately have attached these remarks of Mencken's to the flyleaf of God is not Great:

Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with God. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, yet failing?

This, quoted in its entirety, Mencken calls the Doubter's Reward. (A far saner, more honest counter to Pascal's wager.) Hitchens goes about elaborating on it, illustrating its rightness: a mild and reasonable disposition setting itself in contrast to the intolerance and vulgarity of the religiose. Religion is totalitarian in a sense easily overlooked by those hypnotized by its apparent benignity and specious solace; and Hitchens time and again returns to this awkward datum.

Mencken wrote his article 'The Hills of Zion' (about his sojourn among 'the Dayton illuminati' during the Scopes trial) “on a roaring hot Sunday afternoon in a Chattanooga hotel room, naked above the waist and with only a pair of BVDs below.” (Hard to visualize C.S. Lewis composing one of his stale humourless apologetics in a similar condition.) The point, I suppose, is that the Doubters and secularists, in their acceptance of our creaturely nature, seem more congenial than the bloodless ascetics – invariably repressed, frigid, humanly stunted – ever could be.

Hitchens and Mencken are brothers-in-arms, both in their impassioned advocacy of secularism and in the way their prose rises to a furor loquendi when targeting the pious frauds of modern theocracy. Indeed, Hitchens retreads certain of Mencken's broadsides, as when the latter, in an article of 1924, 'The Cosmic Secretariat', demolishes in a paragraph the concept of Argument from Design, '..once the bulwark of Christian apologetics', now once more on the scene in the guise of Intelligent Design and 'irreducible complexity':

The more, indeed, the theologian seeks to prove the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by the evidences of divine incompetence and stupidity that the advance of science is constantly turning up. The world is not actually well run; it is very badly run, and no Huxley was needed to labor the obvious fact. The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it...

Mencken's impatience with 'high and ghostly matters' sounds throughout his writings on American religion; and it is an exuberant contempt that animates them; as much for the duncery of red-neck Holy Rollers of the Midwest as for those who encourage them. Hitchens tends to be rather more measured, his reasoning forensic. Yet dismantling the scholastic conceit of the Argument from Design is merely busywork for him – a demonstration that he has the intellectual acuity to meet the religious on each and every point. God is not Great becomes something altogether more powerful, something operating on another plane of regard, when Hitchens comes to reflect on the ethical deformities wrought, more often than not on the vulnerable, by the religious mindset.

To wit, religion is the cruellest instrument of tyranny devised by mankind, and every sacred text a sadist's charter. “To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment,” Hitchens says, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.” (The allusion to Jonestown echoes faintly but definitely through the book: church fetes and ritualistic suicide lie on the same continuum.) Hitchens bangs away at the point – religion and its various impedimenta, from the Book of Common Prayer to the putative bones of saints, are inarguably human inventions. Organized religion is an elaborate contrivance; an imposture set in train by those intent on acquiring and maintaining power. It embeds servility and self-hatred, enslaves people by the millions. The moreso in the 21st century. (Nazism was shot through with pagan myth; Stalinism, ostensibly expunging superstition from society, was nonetheless a political religion – complete with votaries and its god-king).

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Hitchens can barely conceal his bewilderment that it should still exert any kind of authority. Astronomy and cosmology have given us intelligible pictures of the universe of far greater magnificence than any hopespun creation myth. Yet the intellectual affront represented by religion rankles with Hitchens most steadily throughout the book: true, the scandal of female genital mutilation and the appalling waste of grindingly corrosive sectarian conflict engage him, and with total conviction; but Hitchens seems most exercised by the deep, unreflecting idiocy of it, perhaps as much as anything else.

“Above all,” Hitchens perorates, “we are in need a of renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman.” John Gray, in his Straw Dogs, dismisses the form of humanism here described by Hitchens as a 'secular inversion of Christianity'. But religion simply hasn't a monopoly on human decency. Hitchens regards past, present and future conflicts between free inquiry and religious dogma as essentially a collision between the literal and the ironic mind. In this regard he essentially proposes a syncretic lumping-together of Comtean positivism and Socratic intellectual freewheeling. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens mounts “..a defence of secular pluralism and of the right not to believe or be compelled to believe.” It is, he concludes, “..an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival.”


the mind at serious play

Clive James – Cultural Amnesia

Even a glancing, sidewise acquaintance with Clive James's earlier collections – from The Meaning of Recognition to Even as We Speak, and further back still, In the Land of Shadows and The Metropolitan Critic – won't quite prepare you for this.

The aficianado will already have sensed that James was a closet aspirant to high seriousness: the critic-at-large as snapper-up of unconsidered trifles on the one hand – or perhaps dasher-off of populist bagatelles (James, until his retirement from mainstream broadcasting a few years ago, introduced us to 'Endurance' and Margarita Pracatan) – and, on the other, the admirer of Montale and Pushkin, Grub Street's most egregious, unembarrassed polymath manning the watchtower even as the tabloidisation of British culture proceeded apace. Inevitably – yet not without a certain defensive stiffening - James insists that these distinct writerly selves do indeed finally embrace on some deeper level. “..I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car, or of treating gymnasts and high divers ... as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is.”

Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

James has always been intellectually peregrine. The excursions into TV-land - the realm of (financial) necessity – have always been offset by cautiously rationed furloughs into the kingdom of freedom – the Arts, creativity, Studia humanitatis. But he has consistently sought to allow dignity to both. In Cultural Amnesia James offers thoughtful, penetrating observations on Paul Celan and Dick Cavett, Thomas Mann and the director Michael Mann – all are accorded respect, and the overdone binarism of high versus low culture made to seem beside the point. James has written elsewhere of his admiration for The West Wing and The Sopranos, arguing that excellence needn't be dependent on the exaltedness of the medium. (Orwell, it will be remembered, was a fan of Donald McGill.) 'High-quality products of the creative impulse' sounds almost like the coinage of an advertising copywriter; but James means that we take it literally, and that even the humblest of created things contributes, in a very real sense, to moral enlargement, human flourishing and, finally, hope.

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An abecedarium of forbidding scope, Cultural Amnesia is formatted straightforwardly: from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, we have short essays arranged alphabetically by subject, each prefaced by a capsule biography. James doesn't limit himself to discussing the lives and works of these figures. In many instances they serve as a speculative wicket-gate into musings on other matters: the piece on Lichtenberg becomes an occasion for James's meditations on pornography; Sir Thomas Browne gifts him with a pretext to discuss book titles. Cultural Amnesia – with its air of summary, of being a retrospective on the growth of a critic's mind – might suggest to us an implicit relation to Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, but James nominates its principal model as Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit: “A fabulous effort of style and concentration, a prestidigitator's trick box packed with epigrammatic summaries of all the creativity in every field of art and science since the Renaissance, a prose epic raised to the level of poetry.” Hypertrophied commonplace-book or the product of a lifetime's earnest application?

Your opinion possibly depends on whether you take James at his own estimation. He reaches for the modesty topos often enough to prompt a suspicion that only the most considerable of egotists could even have conceived of this book. It could so easily have been 'Western Civ for Dummies', a Cook's tour for the professional too hard pressed to do the cerebral grunt work: the essential dinner party bluffer's guide. It's to James's credit, then – no mean thing – that in each of these hundred-plus essays he doesn't stint on the hard thinking, assuming on his reader's part at least the barest stirrings of intellectual curiosity.

In his poem 'Egon Friedell's Heroic Death' James reflects, as so often he does in Cultural Amnesia, on the murderous collision between political tyranny and those 'enchanted spirits' who set the tone of an intellectual era:

The civilized are most so as they die.
He called a warning even as he fell
In case his body hit a passer-by
As innocent as was Egon Friedell.

The Audenesque quatrains, with their clipped jog-trot, conceal an almost unbearable anguish, and an ethical crux. “Would you have had the nerve to do the same?” James asks of Friedell's suicide; and this question appears to have bitten James to the marrow. He worries at it more in the essay on Friedell here collected. “[A] triumph for the human mind,' he reckons, perhaps glibly, in the poem. A 'wisely chosen suicide', he describes it in Cultural Amnesia; and in three words we have, like an impacted tooth, ultimacies of heartbreak and (for James) regret, and prescience (Friedell knew what the Anschluss would bring): if suicide for this gentle, dignified, scholarly man were the best available option, he must have had a shrewd, terrifying idea of what the alternative was to be. European cafe society entre deux guerres clearly emblematizes for James a world of the mind set free. (“In a city stiff with polymaths,' James admiringly notes, “he [Friedell] was the polymath's polymath.”) The Nazis set about turning it all to ash, and James would have us remember that so many of the alumni of the public sphere that Habermas chronicled were exterminated as much for their intellectual Freiheit as for their ethnicity. Impatient as James is with ideologies of whichever hue, he thus feels compelled to set up as a potent counter-instance the vibrant talk of the coffee-house habitues, in all its fleet-footed nimbleness, its gaiety and severity. In contrast to the sanguinary flensing of language performed by the demagogues, these men made it dance.

Friedell 'looms large in this book' – little known and little read, he shared a similar fate with another figure from the cultural life of twentieth-century Europe, one feted today yet perhaps more often read than understood.

Unexpectedly James gives short shrift to Walter Benjamin, type of the tragic Luftmensch and displaced intellectual. It takes a moment to grasp, when we finish the essay, just how extraordinary James's dismissal of Benjamin actually is. Academic theorists have been almost wholly uncritical of Benjamin's work. Its canonicity has gone unchallenged. Commentators have trembled in reverential awe before its 'multiplex cultural scope'; and if we were to single out a sacred text in our postmodern era, Illuminations would be it. Benjamin's Kabbalo-Marxism excites us with its world-historical sweep and the audacity of its formulations. Here is the real thing, the critic-as-sage, a visionary among the clerks. Of Benjamin's end James – with a hint of impatient snarkery – observes: “ He had devoted his career to pieces of paper with writing on them, but he didn't have the right one.” - the visa with which he might have escaped from Nazi territory. James takes issue with Benjamin's obscurantism: the 'velvet fog' of his prose. Reading between the lines it seems evident that James's problem with Benjamin is only tangentially related to the philosophy.

Benjamin enjoys a posthumous fame denied to others who, in James's view, were significantly more deserving. Egon Friedell, for one. James clearly agonizes over why he can impart the bays to Friedell, yet deny them to Benjamin. Both men were caught in the gearwork of homicidal history; both committed suicide when the only other course available to them was unimaginable. Both were steeped in the habitus (in Pierre Bourdieu's phrase) of a cosmopolitan, free-thinking Mitteleuropa that was the confirmed antitype of the totalitarian project: humanism as a precondition of survival.

One clue lies in James's stated contempt for the system-builders; and Benjamin was a systematizer, with too great a fondness for the programmatic. His work, as James has it, is a 'synopticon', simplifying, falsifying whatever is the case in the service of a theory. James responds to the whiff of fraudulence that hangs around Benjamin by arguing that there isn't 'a progressivist, humanitarian license for talking through a high hat.' Benjamin's perceptions may or may not have borne the stamp of authentic genius, but his prolixity and his instinct for over-elaboration succeeded only in robbing them of their point and specific density. In this regard James prefers the direct address of those, like Alfred Polgar, who wrote for a broader readership. Critics have been too readily beguiled by Benjamin's story. “As a critic devoted to the real, however,” James says, “Benjamin deserves the courtesy of not being treated as a hero in a melodrama.”

Fakery and charlatanism stand in this book as the incubi against which James directs his scorn. They squat over the Benjamin piece, and over, too, the brief essay on Jean-Paul Sartre: there, James's uncharacteristic contempt for Sartre's dissimulations and posturing takes fire. Sartre continued to vaunt the Soviet regime, even in the face of evidence that it annihilated dissenters by the million. Once more James chides one of his subjects for the 'blethery bathos' (as Gerard Manley Hopkins described the poetry of Swinburne) of his public pronouncements, the meaningless rhetorical blazon, gesture politics of the crassest kind. Sartre, in order to have fully realized his gifts, needed a reality check. Instead he brought the mandragora of popular celebrity to his lips and deadened his capacity to think ethically, to think honestly. Nor does James spare Robert Brasillach – a minor journalistic talent who prostituted himself to Nazi power, a craven anti-Semitic hack who, with Celine, connived in mass murder with his pen. All such figures, James insists, ought to have been beset – at least dimly, naggingly – by a bad conscience: none of them, on the face of it, did. Their reputations have been condignly marred.

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In The Meaning of Recognition James was anxious to stress the distinction between unearned celebrity and genuine accomplishment. Or – if not stress it, to hammer it emphatically home, to make it plain. The “..mass-psychotic passion for celebrity .. is one of the luxurious diseases that Western liberal democracy will have to find a cure for in the long run...” James favours the obscure, and the obscurely heroic: and in a significant regard Cultural Amnesia is an act of retrieval, in which the vanished reputations of certain paladins of civilization – Gianfranco Contini, Marcel Reich-Ranicki – are granted a deserved reprieve from the dark backward and abysm of Time. Others – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sophie Scholl – bore courageous witness to totalitarian nightmares. Might it be fair to suspect that James rather envies these people? Envies the scholarly brilliance and virtuosity of some, of course; but envies also the destinies of those exterminated by the regimes? Perhaps not. But their suffering lends a kind of legitimacy to their work, James implies, setting the seal on whatever moral authority they might lay claim to.

The book's sheer heft encourages slow reading. But its format makes for dippability. Nothing of its import would be lost were you to read it in haphazard order: if you were feeling a tad unresponsive to exquisitely refined aperçus on Proust, you'd still have the book in your hands in any case – glance over the essay on W.C. Fields instead. Themes shimmy centripetally; alarming yet plausible connections leap across time and context. For, in the final analysis, James is proposing no less than a cultural Unified Field Theory; and it must be common humanity and the 'rule of decency' that sustain us in our advance through our benighted times.

Fear not, though: the homme d'esprit of old still flits through these pages – James has the nous, when the mood calls for it, to forego the rise, the roll, the carol, the creation in favour of the snap, crackle and pop of the coolest wit in town. (He nails the longeurs of Gibbon's prose style thus: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards; and you have to carry your horse.” A balm in the Gilead of any failed attempt to yomp through Gibbon's epic.) James occupies a niche somewhere between Jacques Barzun and Peter Ustinov (Or maybe Jakob Burckhardt and Charles Lamb?). The high and low stylistic registers delightfully tangle: T.S. Eliot, after all, wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marks.


the philosopher of human possibility

A.D. Nuttall – Shakespeare the Thinker

Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee. - Ben Jonson

Shakespeare the thinker? Better say, Shakespeare the Bandersnatch. Nuttall's title is mischievous – Puckish, if you will – but lodged within it is a profound, unexpected idea. No suggestion that Shakespeare was a 'thinker' in the sense that Francis Bacon was a thinker, or Sir Thomas More. Root around for a systematic programme of 'thought' in the plays and you'll return empty-handed: this much is a truism. Rather, the late A.D. Nuttall, in this, his last study of the playwright, contends that the Shakespearean corpus can be read as an extended essay on the essential peculiarity of our being in the world.

Ted Hughes believed that the plays formed a coherent, mythopoeic whole: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being – gloriously crackpot, unacademic, a rattle bag of unorthodox insight – unlocked the psycholinguistic genome buried within the poetry and plays, the Tragic Equation (as Hughes termed it) out of which the work sprang. Shakespeare's drama feels at times so inexhaustibly various, so prodigal, that it seems a natural response to want to codify and contain it. (Coleridge spoke of Shakespeare's 'myriad-mindedness'.) For Hughes, in spite of the boundlessness of Shakespeare's creative resources, a single unitary impulse was at work in them. The plays could be read as one poem, one narrative, ramifying endlessly from a kind of internalised creation myth. A.D. Nuttall would quite possibly have objected to this reductionism, for much the reason that he objected to the reductive procedures of the New Historicism. He stresses the thought-in-motion aspect of the plays: like Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's work – play by play, scene by scene, line by line - is the time-lapse record of a thinking mind, in all its exploratory fluidity and dynamic restlessness. He might not have set down a final, definitive summa of his ideas on art, politics, history – as had Ben Jonson in his 'Timber: or Discoveries' and the 'Conversations with William Drummond' - but Shakespeare can be caught thinking, consistently and subtly, throughout. “His thought,” Nuttall puts it, “is never still.”

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Poignantly – he died in January of this year – Nuttall relates a chat with an acquaintance, met in the street, in the preface to Shakespeare the Thinker: “I said, 'I'm writing an unforgivably long book on Shakespeare,' and then added, 'You know how there's a tradition whereby formerly lively minds produce in old age unduly mellow books on Shakespeare.' This was his cue to say, 'Oh, yours won't be like that.' Instead, he looked gravely at me and said, 'When you find yourself writing about his essential Englishness, you must stop.'” Frank Kermode likewise produced an 'unduly mellow book' in his Shakespeare's Language: with no axes to grind, no tenure to negotiate, no one to impress and nothing to prove, Kermode gave us one of the most uncomplicatedly valuable books of Shakespearean criticism we yet have. How does Nuttall fare?

Shunning the Grand Narrative gambit so favoured by the New Historicists, Nuttall primes the critical pump with a series of lightsome readings of the earlier plays – lightsome, but not superficial. He possessed the deepest acquaintance with the work. He understood, too, that Shakespeare was learning his craft on the hoof. Examining the progression from Shakespeare's apprentice work – the early chronicle plays are a kind of point d'appui, because they show the playwright to be trying to balance formal with imaginative claims most simply – Nuttall traces filaments of growth binding the first suite of plays together, and nudges us towards a notion that, even in the first flush of creativity, they 'speak' to one another. Themes that will preoccupy Shakespeare through his career begin to emerge, fold around one another and fade. Nuttall is also very good on what he describes as the 'scandal.. of Shakespeare's disorderly plenitude.' Yet Shakespeare's intellectual substance remains elusive. Nuttall starts off – with seeming arbitrariness – by looking at a critical moment in a critical scene: 1 Henry IV, II-iv, the rose-choice in the Temple Garden. Nuttall demonstrates an extraordinary degree of political sophistication in the tyro playwright. Shakespeare “...makes reality succeed and transcend any formal description of that reality.” Of a piece with Nuttall's rejection of the manifold -isms whose proponents have hijacked Shakespeare, this unfashionable stance seems borne out by the depthless variability of human motive presented through the work. “Shakespeare, the supreme dramatist, is strong both on what would happen and on what could happen. He is the philosopher of human possibility.” Implicitly, one question posed by the body of work, with gentle insistence, is that of the nature of self: not merely the subjecthood of the dramatis personae, but of Shakespeare himself, of any and all of us. The impulse to locate and isolate a core of being in the plays somehow chimes with our natural predisposition to regard the self as a closed system, internally consistent and intelligible. Shakespeare teaches us that much of what governs our worldly existence is obscure, unavailable even to the deepest introspection. Human agency is an inexhaustible paradox. Being is improvisatory, ad hoc, flawed; more properly described as an endlessly postponed coming-to-being: for Nuttall, Shakespeare's intelligence hinges on this insight, and, by extension, his supremacy.

John Berryman, in one of his astonishing Shakespearean lectures, observes:

...not unnaturally Shakespeare is hard to believe in, either as an author or as a man ... Our incredulity, to tell you the truth, does us small credit. It savours of what Kierkegaard called “playing the game of marvelling at world history.” It betokens inexperience, and perhaps it is a little unmanly.... [b]efore not only the grand mass of this creation but before some detailed triumph of imaginative design within the play, we do reasonably pause with astonishment. Sometimes, without warning, in a short speech, the soul of a man seems indeed to surface, for an instant, before it returns forever to the depths. Sometimes a series of this poet's phrases will drag at our profoundest thought as if, truly, we overheard the soul of the world murmuring truths to herself.

After a lifetime studying Shakespeare, reckoning with Shakespeare, A.D. Nuttall would restore the numinous to these plays, reminding us of their singularity, and that, in spite of our ingrained scepticism, our unfoolable knowingness, something of a miracle can be found in Shakespeare. There are still mysteries.



"Choice word and measured phrase above the reach/Of ordinary men." - Wordsworth, 'Resolution and Independence'.


vulture complacencies

Craig Raine - T.S. Eliot

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In his fierce, extraordinary, essentially wrong-headed study T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (CUP, 1995), Anthony Julius considers a fourfold 'aesthetic speculation', the second element of which

...is the conviction that art has an ethical dimension. One aspect of this conviction is the belief that the poet is a superior human being because, by the fruits of his creativity, he enhances freely the quality of human life. The writing of poetry is an act of supererogatory goodness for which the poet should be honoured.

Over ten years have passed since the publication of his book, and Julius's attainder of the poet T.S. Eliot still bites, and still the scandal of Eliot's evident unwillingness to subscribe to such a redemptive ethic – principally in his earlier work – gibes and scolds critics into asking questions about what literary criticism is for. The Pope of Russell Square was perhaps ripe for de-throning: Eliot was a reactionary with suspect political leanings, he urged an extinction of personality when egoism and unfettered self-expression have become our chief psychological mechanisms, he championed, in his prose, royalism, Catholicism and tradition – very much the kind of concepts to make liberal academics foam at the mouth. Critics who make a thing of attempting 'adversarial' readings of canonical authors probably do so from many motives. (While I don't wish to question Julius's integrity or the depth of feeling involved – T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form began life as a PhD thesis - it's fair to say that a dissertation on floral imagery in the verse of William Collins wouldn't have had quite the same career-forging impact...)

The soundest of replies to Julius's work, it seems to me, comes from the critic James Wood in a review reprinted in The Broken Estate: “His book is tendentious, misleading, and unremittingly hostile. He has written an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.” Wood argues that Eliot's anti-semitism is, in fact, dogmatic Christianity's anti-semitism; and stems more from doctrinal conflict between the two traditions than from private psychopathology. He also takes Julius to task as a critic 'inattentive to language ... [who] will not seem trustworthy,' and for the 'bullied readings' that strew the work. Julius invests so much in his thesis that the poetry itself must be 'evidence', and evidence contaminated not only by the putative anti-semitism but, at another remove, by the will-to-indict that grimly animates the book. Wood suggests that the poems most compromised – those most often cited as proof of Eliot's anti-Semitism: 'Gerontion', 'Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar' – are minor works, maimed by their moral ugliness. Light verse, then, pitched by the emigré Eliot at what he imagined were the standard attitudes of his cultured English readership: Eliot's adoption of a fashionable salon anti-semitism is of a piece with his chameleonic mimicry, as a displaced American incomer on the make. By comparison with his masterpieces – and Wood singles out The Waste Land as chief among them – these lesser poems are excrescences, and to a certain extent, irrelevances. As for the poetry 'enhanc[ing] freely the quality of human life', Wood has this to say, of what can be found in Eliot's finest, most searching work: “It is the knowledge that far from the public rooms, far from the forms of life ('not to be found in our obituaries'), far from society itself with its cruelties, is a loneliness whose brutality is stronger than our powers, and which enforces on us gentleness, sympathy, and control... Give. Sympathize. Control. Eliot's anti-Semitic verse obeys only the last command of that austere triad.” Broadly correct, Wood's argument appears as much a call for clear-headedness and some degree of perspective as anything else. Notwithstanding Tom Paulin's aggressively denunciatory take on Eliot's thinking, Notes towards a Definition of Culture is by no manner of means The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In her 1988 centenary essay, Cynthia Ozick describes, for a young, Jewish admirer of Eliot in the Forties and Fifties, the sublimity of the poetry's effect :

What was Eliot to me? He was not the crack about 'Money in furs,' or 'Spawned in some estaminet in Antwerp.' No, Eliot was “The Lady is withdrawn/In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown” and “Then spoke the thunder/DA/Datta: what have we given?” and “Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose”; he was incantation, mournfulness, elegance; he was liquescence, he was staccato, he was quickstep and oar, the hushed moan and the sudden clap. He was lyric shudder and roseburst. He was, in brief, poetry incarnate; and poetry was what one lived for.

Poetry as a kind of mana, perhaps. But this is Ozick's account of her younger self and the germinal encounter with Eliot's work. She adds the rider - “..it is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.”

Literary Modernism itself nowadays stands revealed as a thoroughly unpalatable tissue of elitism, right-wing intolerance and fascist-fancying; and, whereas the philo-semitic, cosmopolitan Joyce currently enjoys heroic status among the academic Left, his contemporaries, from Virginia Woolf to Lawrence to Pound and Eliot, are all in bad odour. With the likes of Tom Paulin on the case, who shall 'scape whipping? The 'supererogatory goodness' Julius instances seems incompatible with the ill-humoured, petit bourgois snobbery of the Bloomsbury set. Its critics meanwhile plume themselves as virtuous souls; while failing singularly to appraise the work in toto. This is a tributary to Craig Raine's oft-stated frustration at the “desire to arraign artists on exclusively moral grounds, the desire to annihilate rather than administer complicated justice, the desire to consider only the faults and ignore the virtues and the achievements.” The impulse clearly is political, and with their hullooing cry of 'ecrasez l'infâme!', the proponents of this school of criticism risk throwing the poetry out with the bathwater.

In a review of Peter Ackroyd's 'benign life' of Eliot, Christopher Ricks refers to the 'malignity visited on Eliot,' adding, “Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book.” No inconsiderable thing. Ricks offers a delicate caveat in the conclusion of his remarks on Eliot's anti-semitism in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice: “It is unimaginable that anyone could ever judge these matters exactly right, or speak of them without a single failure of tone, or be alive fully to justice and mercy. The minefield stretches on all sides, and being innocent – or not particularly guilty – will not save any commentator (and certainly not any commentator on T.S. Eliot) from being blown up.” Raine would say, in the final analysis, we simply do not know. There are the marred poems, quoted to rags, there are the passages in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, there are anecdotes and personal witness; innuendo about Eliot's first marriage, dark grousings about the sexual content of unpublished juvenilia (the King Bolo poems). The matter has been thoroughly canvassed.

At a guess, I'd hazard that Raine's new monograph on Eliot was to some degree inspired, provoked by a need to retrieve Eliot from the slanderers and scholarly Dogberries, and restore the best poetry – beautiful, enigmatic – to a kind of critical justice. Those who thrive on eye-catching ad hominem slights (Larkin has come in for much the same treatment in recent years), equally slight the poetry. Indifferent to the thematic core of the work – Raine attempts to identify it as 'the buried life' – and their judgement skewed by a distaste for its essential religiosity, Eliot's high-minded detractors have lost sight of the fact that a lifetime intervenes between Prufrock and other Observations and Four Quartets. Those with the great good fortune always to enjoy sunny mental health, to espouse impeccably liberal opinions, who adore their wives and have never behaved spitefully – even-handed and magnanimous in their dealings with everyone they've ever known – might well find the psychic writhings set forth in Eliot's satires distasteful. An early prose-poem like 'Hysteria' will indeed get hackles rising: “As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill... lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat...” Misogyny! Sexual disgust! From the crooked timber of humanity, baby, nothing straight was ever made..

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“In the end,” Raine writes, “we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader... It is for [the] verbal gifts that we read Eliot's poetry. This is the light, the radiance cast by the poetry itself.” Elsewhere he makes scratch-notes for an aesthetic: “Good writing is criticism of life: it describes, selects, contemplates defining features, beauties, flaws; it puts reality on pause; it searches the freeze-frame; it is an act of measured consideration, of accurate re-presentation.” Raine always insisted that Poetry would be radically impoverished if only those parts of experience that are somehow edifying – that we find positive and affirming - were included. (Anthony Julius – 'the ferret of all forms of prejudice', as James Wood calls him - has a chapter titled 'The Aesthetics of Ugliness', and you can well imagine Raine using the phrase to quite contrary ends. For Raine, 'ugliness' – banality, the grubby, the deformed – has as great a claim to poetic legitimacy as Apollonian perfection.) Raine's critical practice encourages a retreat from the biographical, from the historical – the words on the page should be our first consideration; the penumbra of ideological associations set aside. Two earlier collections of prose – Haydn and the Valve Trumpet and In Defense of T.S. Eliot – show Raine to be most comfortable with the short range essay-review. As a poet, Raine is a miniaturist, and conjures into language the bristling particularity of the phenomenal world, Nabokovian transparent things. As a critic, he reserves his most unqualified praise for those poets who do much the same, abolishing the gulf between word and thing.

T.S. Eliot, by comparison with studies by Ricks, David Moody, Denis Donoghue inter alia, suffers an interpretative thinness; as a critical performance, it feels weary and perfunctory, an academic commission written with the left hand. Conceivably so flimsy because it scants the deeper issues manifest in Eliot's work, Raine's book appears to have been intended as a 'reader's guide', for undergraduate consumption, sketchily gesturing towards the possibility of large contentious themes while withdrawing – albeit suavely – from them. It's rather touching that Raine – affected by the 'vulture complacencies' – believes that Eliot's achievement can be raised from the muddy plimsoll-line of his ill-wishers' assaults, that we can return, after the labours of Julius, to a state of readerly innocence. My best self wishes it were so...


the invention of pain

Martin Amis – House of Meetings

Might Amis have been stung by the criticisms of his Koba the Dread into writing this book? Johann Hari suggested that “the only human response is to pity poor, preposterous Martin Amis”, for Koba is a 'chilling book', in which its author has 'revealed his own deformed personality'. Hari writes out of a fury at Amis's egoism; at the complacent subordination of suffering (most dubiously, the suffering of other people) to style and literary dazzlement. The shaping impulse, the writerly instinct to cast attractive verbal toys from the stuff of experience – this seems fairly unexceptionable; yet Amis stands charged with doing so without due regard for the magnitude of sorrow, he is guilty of so much posturing, and, damningly, of having conducted no original research of his own. The fate of the twenty million is a pretext for paronomasia. By this account Koba the Dread arises from an almost bottomless self-regard, a work wrong-headed and misconceived in every way. Tibor Fischer's infamous attack on Yellow Dog seems pretty mild by comparison.

But what exactly is the burden of the complaint? The historians weighed in, predictably – Orlando Figes found Amis's effort inexcusable in its amateurism; as if, when Amis turns his gaze on the topic, he undoes the Gordian knot: “The true subject of his book,” Figes concludes his Telegraph review, “is not Stalin, nor even his victims, but Amis the would-be historian, Amis brooding on the suffering of the world from the safety of his home.” Koba is in one respect an hommage to the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, its dedicatee – and Amis makes explicit his debt to his fathers's friend. But reviewers were scandalized more by the autobiographical insertions than by the bad history: the two letters, one to Kingsley Amis, the other to Christopher Hitchens; but the critics' patience expired the moment when Amis bestowed the nickname 'Butyrki' on his distressed daughter: “'The sounds she was making,' I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, 'would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror...'” Unsmilingly – something trivially high-minded about it, its earnestness and the weirdness of the association.. The confessional mode so exhaustively mined in Amis's memoir Experience leaks into this book, and we look back on the earlier work hospitable to suspicion. Koba the Dread, its critics insist, is a book disfigured by Amis's superbia – like any egotist, he takes history personally, not least because it happened without his involvement.

In House of Meetings, then, Amis returns to the scene of the crime. His prose has undergone a fair degree of streamlining, the manner become more disciplined, cleaner. The epileptoid metaphorizing of Yellow Dog gives place here to a chill exactitude of phrasing. There are fewer false quantities in this writing; it no longer feels hamstrung by its unmoored, unchecked inventiveness. The Information and Yellow Dog felt more like style-sheets than fully realized fiction – their language, superabundantly aerobic as it was, somehow masked a void. Progression d'effet tended more to be governed by spasms of virtuosity than by fidelity to felt experience. Amis allowed his art to become fattened on facility. The Comic Spirit, as George Meredith described it, morphed into a flailing, diabolic Urizen. House of Meetings marks a new sobriety, a reckoning with larger responsibilities.

Amis's literary coordinates are freely declared: Conrad, Dostoyevsky. But his narrator's cultural tastes show him up as an Anglophile, radically Westernized – he is more apt to quote Coleridge than Pushkin or Lermontov. Indeed the effect is stereophonic, with the narrative voice proceeding in the coolest of mandarin styles to speak of eye-watering scenes of human degradation: “..telling my story in English, and in old-style English English, what's more. My story would be even worse in Russian. For it is truly a tale of gutturals and whistling sibilants.” (Remember that Nabokov's White Russian exiles and renegadoes were impeccably articulate, too.) Amis seems to be trying for a kind of inverted ostranenye. Decorum announces itself in this proposed stylistic asepsis; and it must be through a formidably controlled language that – in a phrase Amis mints in Koba – the 'beginnings of the search for decorum' can be found. What does Amis himself understand by this? The English literary tradition has always been read as the vehicle for a liberal humanism that was at once unemphatic and benign, decent and tolerant. The catastrophes of the twentieth century - the 'carnival of bestiality', in George Steiner's phrase – dealt a blow to such pretensions; and, as the class origins of the Novel were exposed, the moral cleanliness came further to be corroded. Any claim to universality on behalf of the tradition has equally been cast to the winds. Amis's own fiction dramatizes the absurdities of our fallenness – the grotesque amoral acquisitiveness of the Thatcher era, the 'moronic inferno' hothousing beneath the nuclear umbrella. With Time's Arrow he deployed techniques loosely borrowed from magic realism (although inspired more directly by the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse Five) to take us into territory that even the most industrious of Holocaust historians would find inaccessible. Amis has long understood that realism can only carry you so far – that the culture, the world itself will always outstrip it; and certain modes of being, certain experiences can only be caught expressionistically: in the sense that Otto Dix shows us Weimar with a lethal authenticity quite beyond the powers of journalism or historical record.

Amis has remarked that, in House of Meetings, tragedy is the dominant chord. Much of his work to date has been a scabrous comédie humaine, brimful of modernity's by-blows and bogeymen. He seemed at his most agitatedly assured when setting in motion the squads of hopeless monsters – the Keith Talents, the Clint Smokers – who garrison the chapters of London Fields and Yellow Dog. This was James Wood's hysterical realism in a cyclotron, a snarling fusion of Hogarth and Ballard. Yet for all the gravity of Amis's stated themes – male violence, millenial terror - his characters always felt thinly realized, more allegorical figures from the baroque Trauerspiel than flesh-and-blood selves.


Daniel Soar's bitterly tendentious piece in the London Review of Books – in which the essentially uninteresting business of reading House of Meetings is disposed of in a couple of paragraphs – excuses itself from the side issue of critical appraisal and quickly slides into an attack on Amis's recent stance on the War on Terror and Islamism. Amis's long essay 'The Age of Horrorism' has been taken as a significant public statement: drawing heavily on the thesis propounded in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, it seeks to pathologize Islamist motivation, and suggests, among other things, that from unresolved psychosexual aberration arise the doctrines of modern radical Islamism's ideologues. Berman carefully examines the career and thought of Sayyid al-Qutb: Amis glosses Berman's text, imparts to it a novelist's finesse and imaginative license. (It forms the basis of an aborted short story.) The LRB write-up finds in House of Meetings the occasion for a bit of timely Amis bashing; Soar might well identify hatred as a governing principle in Amis's work, but Soar's own contempt for a reading of the contemporary scene at odds with his own (and the liberal elites who form the LRB's natural constituency) blazes through. In a similar spirit Ziauddin Sardar recently coined the term 'Blitcon' to identify and arraign Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie for their apparent apostasy: throwing in their lots with America – and so with neoconservatism and the New Imperialism – each of these writers have so decisively chosen to ally themselves with the meretricious glamour of power, silently condoning acts of imperialist aggression, that they've passed on any claim to moral authority. They've become state-sponsored hirelings, the Southey and Wordsworth de nos jours. Aside from its paranoia and exaggeration, Sardar's was a fairly redundant polemical sally; not least because the politics of the trio is actually more nuanced and ambiguous – shot through with self-doubt – than Sardar seems prepared to admit. If Amis is so exercised by Islamic theocracy, it's rather because he recognizes it as a threat – not just to the civitas of literary art – but to the hallowed covenant between artist and humanity as a whole, to liberty of conscience and free agency. Soar's rhetorical jugglery, with Amis is portrayed as spoilt haut bourgeois with a distempered ego, and the delightful al-Qutb a noble figure sinisterly traduced by his enemies, takes question-begging to another level. (It also seems the merest silliness to complain of Rushdie's attitude to Islamism when for a decade he was at the sticky end of one of its representative's murderous bans.)

The liberal left distrust Amis. They distrust him for his unpredictability, his literary fideism – the spooky art, as Norman Mailer calls it, won't let itself be suborned by any political programme. His work refuses the saving pieties that survive as the long tail of the radical tradition. Sardar and others balk at his willingness to take America seriously (as does Rushdie); and they find distasteful his ready acceptance of the master narrative entrained since 9/11 – the Manichean struggle between the forces of enlightenment and the myrmidons of reaction; and yet wouldn't it be proper to interpret House of Meetings parabolically, as a work engaged with the eternal recurrence that would warn us against reenacting the miseries and tyrannies of the twentieth century? Its narrator sourly, impotently observes as the Beslan massacre unfolds: the pitiless slaughter of innocents in a national liberation struggle, underwritten by Muslim humiliation and nihilism. (The very 'necessary murder' predicated by Frantz Fanon's programme of violent decolonization.)

in their deathtime

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