All the world’s an empire

The plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, by James Gillray, 1805

STUART MILLSON says imperialism is intrinsic

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating, 
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them, Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations... 
Walt Whitman (The Leaves of Grass)

In the heart of the unforgiving terrain of the Congolese countryside lies the town of Dolisie. The local people – now citizens of the Republic of the Congo – are French speakers, and their town is named after the French colonial official, Albert Dolisie (a Gallic version, perhaps, of imperial Britain’s Cecil Rhodes) who administered the country in the 19th century. (As yet, no campaign has been started by the outraged Congolese to tear down the station signs and rename the town.)

Dolisie is connected to the rest of the country and the outside world by a railway which was completed in the 1920s by French engineers – using the manpower of local labour, who endured, it has to be said, harsh conditions. Some 25 large diesel locomotives of possibly 40 years’ vintage, operate along the Republic’s line, hauling passenger services which, due to the rugged nature of the track-bed and the problem of conducting engineering work through jungle and rock, sometimes encounter long delays. One prestigious service – the Republic’s very own ‘Pullman’ – also runs regularly, the carriages imported from South Korea, one of our world’s thriving new economic empires. It is, perhaps, surprising that China – a power so interested in acquiring the sovereign wealth of Africa and with a large economic presence in the east of the continent – has not yet come to Congo’s ‘assistance’ with infrastructural projects or ‘goodwill’ visits by rolling-stock salesmen.

Most of the line across country is single-track, and so to proceed along its length, safely and without running into a train from the opposite direction, requires a manual system of control, which in the case of Dolisie means the driver of each service obtaining from the station, a ‘token’, which is a large, cumbersome metal loop. This is handed over in an operation which requires attentive staff, with some physical stamina – as the token is passed on as the train is (slowly) moving. This example of rail arcana (now obsolete in most of the world) can only be of interest to enthusiasts of the iron road, but what might catch the eye of the general observer is the fact that the system was manufactured by engineers in Guildford, Surrey, at the height of the steam era and of railway expansion across the globe.

However, the story of the Congo Railway and its charming points of interest which unite imperial France and the craftsmen of the English Home Counties, might offer us a small, but valuable history lesson – no longer an easy exercise, in metropolitan countries, such as Britain, consumed as they are by a toxic, febrile fear and loathing of any trace of the increasingly forbidden imperial past. This example of an African country, the way life is there – and the factors and forces that have made it – all point to a wider truth, which is that all the world is an empire; a story which stretches back to ancient hominids moving across trackless lands; of tribes turning undifferentiated terrains into regions – Mayan, Aztec, Mongol, Persian, Islamic, Greek, Chinese and Roman, Viking, Saxon – all seeking expansion, empires and memorials to their empires upon which their suns would never set.

Without the restless exploration and conquests of man – without the dispersal and chance settlement of people from one place to another – without empires – languages, geography, government, tastes and technology as we know it, this world of container ports, full supermarkets, 5G networks and smartphones would simply not exist. One thing builds upon another – and every modern country is, to a greater or lesser extent, a plantation, or a transplantation, with seeds from one or another civilisation blowing across the globe; taking with them something capable of changing us from one thing to another. Columbus sparked the genesis of what we all understand by America; Cook established what has become Australia; the Spaniards ‘made’ Latin America.

The continent of Africa, which we see purely through a politically correct prism of European imperialism, was itself a stage for pre-European empire and nation-building –the ancient ancestral kingdoms of the Kongo a testament to an authentically African form of jostling sovereignty and national rivalry. The same is true of Sudan, of Islamic North Africa, of the Zulu conquests of the south – an Africa of rulers and invaders, slavers and enslaved, long before Kitchener or the South Wales Borderers arrived. (1)

The modern West, now saturated by the comfort and wealth that its strivings from two to three centuries of worldwide growth and commerce created, needs to overcome its current crisis of confidence. The constant succession of liberal, anti-imperialist talking heads now paraded across our television screens – their words often broadcast from expensively-decorated rooms – reflect the cries of our age, yet also its hypocrisy and failure to understand all human nature. Empires, states – all are the result of the inbuilt impulse of our species; to seek more, build more, gain more, know more, steer for the deep waters… Human beings will always look beyond the horizon. In almost every case, empires of some sort have made us all.

Editor’s note

  1. Christopher Spring’s African Arms and Armour (British Museum Press, 1993) gives a good flavour of pre-colonial African conflicts

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says No Time To Die may have become too woke to live

Thrown off buildings, cliffs and dams, out of planes in their death spiral, into pools full of sharks, and once into bed with Grace Jones dressed as Satan. Assaulted by giants with steel teeth and midgets in bowler hats. James Bond has survived all this for 58 years. Yet soon, perhaps as soon as April 2021, No Time To Die, the latest Bond film, may achieve the dream of international maniacs everywhere: killing off the multi-billion dollar franchise he’s led since 1964.

The culprit will not be Netflix-age franchise fatigue nor even the larger ‘wokeness’ now infecting Hollywood, but a surprise villain in the heart of Bondage itself. You know her name. It’s charged with the phonemes of any femme fatale who’s ever shot, stabbed or drugged OO7. Rosa Klebb. Elektra King. Vesper Lynd. Faintly European, oddly evocatory, marked by stressed syllables. She is Barbara Broccoli, and she may be about to blow Bond 25, No Time To Die, sky-high.

Broccoli has been in charge of the billion-dollar Bond franchise since 1995 when her father, the famed Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, handed her control of EON (“Everything Or Nothing”) Productions which owns the entire Bond Intellectual Franchise. Broccoli’s control of IP is very nearly total (she shares ownership with her adopted half-brother Michael G. Wilson), and gives her a billion-dollar net worth that makes Auric Goldfinger look amateur. Such leverage makes her perhaps the most powerful female producer the film industry has ever seen, comments  the Guardian.

She and Wilson have been credited with saving the IP twice. Firstly, by relaunching it as a glamorous, slick Nineties actioner fronted by Pierce Brosnan with 1995’s GoldenEye and then again, when the Brosnan-era Bond staled into CGI invisible cars and diamond faces, by rebooting the franchise as a gritty, grim, shaky cam thriller fronted by her personal pick for the role, knobbly-faced, jug-eared Daniel Craig. “We got too fantastical,” commented Wilson ruefully. “We had to come back to Earth.”

As far as the accountants are concerned, the two co-producers went La Grande each time. While The World Is Not Enough (1999), Brosnan’s last 007, film made $431.9 million, the rebooted, re-Bonded Casino Royale came in at $669,789,482. Craig’s Bond film, 2012’s Skyfall scored the highest gross ($1,218,849,723) of all of them, and a profit of $910,526,981. Forbes magazine calculates that, adjusted for inflation, the Bond franchise has grossed $16,315,134,284. That makes it the fourth richest movie franchise of all time (behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and Harry Potter). Together Broccoli and Wilson have pulled off a golden grand slam.

But now it’s 2020 and, make no mistake, of the two co-producers, Broccoli calls the shots. How the ownership of EON is divided is not known but Broccoli was Cubby’s blood child while Wilson is his adopted stepson. Even if ownership is equally divided, Wilson is now 77, and press articles suggest his energy is waning while his half-sister, a remarkably well-preserved 60, is just getting into her stride. “Barbara scares the hell out of people,” Wilson told the New York Times in one joint interview only to receive what the reporter calls “an O.K.-that’s-enough look”. In another interview, Variety noted her casting “a reproachful eye at Wilson when his attempts at humour strike her as ill-considered”.

It’s just as well Broccoli now holds a firm grip on EON’s production decisions because No Time To Die is a production already estimated to cost around $250,000,000 and juggles competing distribution, marketing and merchandising responsibilities between Sony, MGM, Omega and Heineken to name a few interested parties.

No one was surprised then when, EON announced on 4 March 2020 that after “thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”, No Time To Die’s release would be postponed until 12 November 2020. This was the first major production to be delayed as Hollywood responded to the pandemic. Media commentators approved the announcement. “Sensible” said Deadline Hollywood. “Necessary” commented the Radio Times. Launching the film into a dead market might have been catastrophic. The Hollywood Reporter estimates $5 billion has been wiped off the value of cinema receipts by COVID.

Except a closer read of the EON announcement reveals some real red wine-with-fish clues that all is not well with No Time To Die.  The press release was issued before most governments, particularly in the US or UK, had issued advisories, let alone sanctions, relating to the COVID crisis. A careful second reading also reveals it doesn’t mention the pandemic at all.

Delaying a film is expensive. Shifting the release date and sacrificing the time-fixed launch events, advertising and material (all of which are pre-bought sometimes years in advance) is calculated by The Hollywood Reporter to cost EON around $50 million; the whole marketing campaign had to be scrapped just after a $4.5 million Super Bowl ad had been screened. Yet this isn’t the first time No Time To Die’s launch has been delayed. Not even the second, or the third. On 2nd October, a fourth release date was announced, of 2nd April 2021.

The first delay occurred when EON producers fell out with the first choice to direct the film, veteran Danny Boyle. Citing “creative differences”, Boyle departed, and the launch was moved from October 2019 to 2020. A February launch was on schedule until without warning the film’s composer, Dan Romer, was suddenly dropped and replaced by Hans Zimmer. Again, “creative differences”.  The launch date was then moved to July. Then November. Now April. That means a film whose principal shooting was completed in October 2019 could be delayed almost two years before it ever hits the movie theatres.

And now there is another rumour. Emanating from Midnight’s Edge, an internet movie site, and picked up by a number of national newspapers, it reveals that EON ran a number of super-secret test screenings and that

Sources have informed Midnight’s Edge that a recent test screening of No Time To Die did not go well

While skating around specifics, the site concludes bluntly:

…they are using the outbreak as cover to avoid bad publicity

So, what’s gone wrong? And who’s to blame? The answer to both questions is Broccoli.

Broccoli has been positioning No Time To Die as the culmination of a five-film arc that began with Commander Bond’s career from recruitment into the service (Casino Royale) and now ends with his retirement in No Time To Die. This coincides very nicely with Daniel Craig’s own tenancy of the role (“That’s what he’s saying. Yes, he’s saying this is his last movie as Bond. Sadly”, commented Broccoli). More significantly, it’s also the climax of Broccoli’s most radical rebooting of the brand, to make Bond ‘woke’.

In 1962, Sean Connery was interviewed on about his forthcoming appearance in Dr No. He presciently analysed the character that he was to make into an icon:

I see Bond as a sensualist – his senses are highly tuned and he’s awake to everything. He likes his wine, his food and his women. He’s quite amoral. I particularly like him because he thrives on conflict – a quality lacking in present-day society

In just a few words, this galumphing Glaswegian bodybuilder-turned-milkman summarised the essence of what made Bond a hero to men for the next fifty-eight years. His selfish, stylish, combative pursuit of his own appetites that the rest of us must reel in and subsume in our responsibilities to our families, to our jobs, to our assigned roles in society. This archetype is unique amongst modern fictional heroes, and it’s uniquely British. It couldn’t be American which requires an element of self-sacrifice from its modern legends. Bruce Wayne’s crusade against crime derives from his tragic bereavement. Walter White builds his drug empire to support his family after his death. Even Homer Simpson, for all his oral-compulsive slobbishness, is all about family.

For all their differences in tone and style, Connery, Moore, Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan were always true to that unique archetype. The lone warrior who does not apologise for being good at what he does and doing it for no other reason than he’s good at doing it.

Onscreen, castration is a motif introduced in Casino Royale (1953), the very first of the original books, and recurs through the films (once, in Goldfinger (1956), while strapped to a gold slab in danger of being bisected by an industrial laser, crotch-first). But since 2006, Barbara Broccoli had made some sharp and deep cuts beneath the waistband of the old fellow, and audiences have noticed.

It’s not just that Bond now prefers not vodka-martinis but Heineken beer (thanks to a product placement deal that reportedly netted the film nearly $45 million). It’s not that he now drives an Aston Martin Rapide E, an electric car (since when did the man who blew up a volcano care about his carbon footprint?). It’s not that he has less sex than any other Bond (six across five films compared to Roger Moore’s nineteen). It’s not even the bizarre plot jumps and anti-twists, Broccoli has forced into the story structure. (The villain’s big plan in Quantum of Solace? To steal all the water in Bolivia! Blofeld’s motivation for revenge in Spectre? His dad was Bond’s ski-instructor!)

No, the real reason fans are souring on Broccoli’s vision of Bond is that she has made him weepy, humourless and regretful. He shares tearful showers with his girlfriend at the awfulness of it all and he weeps buckets over the death of M in Skyfall (That said, the vision of Craig’s rubber walnut face melting with misery over Judy Dench’s upturned face is one of the funniest scenes in all Bondom). He doesn’t like his job. Bond doesn’t even want to be Bond anymore. In the new film, according to deliberately leaked information, No Time To Die Bond is retired and his OO7 status taken over by a – gasp! – black woman, Lashana Lynch. The Daily Mail reports this development like this:

A movie insider said: ‘There is a pivotal scene at the start of the film where M says ‘Come in 007’, and in walks Lashana who is black, beautiful and a woman. ‘It’s a popcorn-dropping moment. Bond is still Bond but he’s been replaced as 007 by this stunning woman’

Anthony Horowitz, the novelist and screenwriter hired by the Fleming Estate to write new James Bond books Triggor Mortis (2015) and Forever and a Day (2018), best sums up many people’s objections:

Bond is weak…He has doubts. That’s not Bond… It’s that sort of thing that made me angry

Madeline Grant of the Telegraph puts it another way:

If James Bond has gone woke, he might as well be cancelled

Why has Broccoli turned Bond into this lachrymose capon? The answer is simple. Sometime in the mid-2000s, she saw The Bourne Identity and its follow-ups. This thriller by Doug Liman starred an amnesiac American secret agent who fights shadowy governmental enemies while struggling all the time with severe emotional problems. These films intercut hyper-violent, visually incomprehensible shaky cam action sequences with scenes of Matt Damon, the star, in front of rain-streaked windows, looking out soulfully with brimming eyes into the darkness, like a basset hound finally realising he will never learn to use a doorknob. On a relatively small budget, the Bourne films turned a huge profit and wowed audiences with their ‘realistic’ take on the spy game.  One can imagine Broccoli sitting in a darkened viewing room, rising dramatically from her seat and declaiming to the world: “I’ve found my Bond!”.

The trouble is, Bourne isn’t Bond, and the world is beginning to see through the switch. It already registered its objections when the last Bond film before this one, Spectre, received ‘mixed reviews’ and grossed $879.6 million, an impressive figure until you realise it’s $200 million less than its predecessor, Skyfall (which grossed $1.111 billion).

If No Time To Dies does not match or exceed these figures, considering the vastly excessive additional costs imposed by the COVID crisis added to those of the director and crew changes, then the whole billion dollar franchise could go up like a volcano base. All across Hollywood once great and permanent franchises, from Star Wars to the DCVerse to Universal’s Dark Universe, are learning that one or more bad films can wreck previously rock-solid brands and sink the careers of once untouchable producers, like Barbara Broccoli.

Yahoo Movies recently reviewed the progress of production on the movie. It noted the delays, the sackings, the creative differences, the endless rewriting of the plot by five different writers. It quoted one

…straight-talking source [who] revealed that ‘the crew reckon they’re working on a well-polished shit show’

If true, then Bond may be looking down a gun barrel for the last time – and the finger on the trigger will be Broccoli’s.

A truly progressive rocker

Genesis in 1973 (Steve Hackett second from right)

A Genesis in my Bed, Steve Hackett, Wymer Publishing, 208 pages, £13.99

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD enjoys the modest memoirs of a guitarist who has little to be modest about

While the likes of the capital’s O2 Arena brace themselves for the invasion of the Phil Collins version of Genesis next spring, or whenever it is we’re finally released from our collective house arrest, the band’s former guitarist Steve Hackett offers something that’s mercifully not as sugary. Residual 1960s peace and love might be at the core of Hackett’s long-awaited memoir A Genesis in my Bed – the title is taken from an excited American groupie’s exclamation on finding herself closeted with the author one night in his Midwestern hotel room – but there’s also a becoming modesty and a refreshing calm to this account of the unprepossessing kid with the goggly NHS specs who graduated from the bombed-out austerity of postwar London, where joy was in as short supply as fresh food, to flying the Atlantic on Concorde and packing them in at Madison Square Garden.

Odd as it might seem to the rest of us, Hackett makes it all sound like a perfectly logical progression in life, and it’s part of his book’s considerable charm that he treats the lows and highs (and more lows) with the same stoic good cheer, keeping a lid on any unseemly emotion. Steady on, you can almost hear Hackett say in these pages, we’re British – and you remember that the author grew up at a time when the country was more drilled and regimented than in any other era of its history, where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike and kids like young Hackett sat belted and shivering at night in their identical, redbrick houses furnished just like their granny’s. “Who has not felt,” wrote the social historian James Morris in 1962,

…the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation’s shoulders?

It was against this England that the Beatles and the Stones, with the likes of Genesis a half-step behind them, were in glamorous revolt. The latter made an only tentative start. Their debut single, a Bee Gees pastiche called “The Silent Sun”, conspicuously avoided any sales, and after recording their first album – entitled From Genesis to Revelation, and marketed in the ‘Religious’ section of most British record shops – the young band members all drifted off to university, convinced that their career was over.

They later gave it a second shot, and things finally took off when lead singer Peter Gabriel wandered on the stage of a boxing stadium in Dublin one night in 1972 while attired in his wife’s red cocktail dress and a fox’s head. Fleet Street ran a front-page photo of the event and the band’s fee doubled overnight as a result. Soon Genesis went on to cut their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound, and John Lennon was calling them one of his favourite bands, which was about as close to a papal blessing as you could get in their line of work.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Hackett had joined the lineup after placing an advertisement in the “For Hire” columns of Melody Maker, instantly bringing an astutely varied guitar sound – covering the waterfront from heavy-rock riffing to an exhilarating but plangent touch of acoustic – to the mix. His solo piece Horizons on the Foxtrot LP had a lightness of melody with which Bach might not have been disappointed. Genesis were fabulously lucky to have him, and between about 1970-75 the band invented a look and a sound that was plainly modern, eclectic, virtuosic, emotionally thoughtful and lyrically witty, with a larding of dystopianism and a refreshing aversion to the demands of playlist-pleasing, box-ticking blandness. It was their fusion of rock-band swagger with some of the technical prowess of a string quintet that informed dozens of lesser groups coming up behind them.  Whether Mars Volta and the rest recognise it or not, an awful lot of what they do is streaming Genesis.

Of course that isn’t to say it was all plain sailing at the time. Hackett’s tenure in Genesis from 1970-77 may have marked the band’s creative peak, but it was matched by a relentless, budget-conscious tour schedule and at best only break-even material rewards. Beyoncé might live in a house made of Cartier jewellery and swim in a pool filled with Cristal champagne and pink ice cubes, but down at the other end of the scale, for working performers life can be tough. Not the least of this book’s charms is the author’s enjoyably deadpan account of some of the Spinal Tap-like indignities of keeping the show on the road. At one early gig at Cheltenham Ladies College, he recalls, the well-heeled young audience members sat staring open-mouthed at the shaggy musicians playing before them, as though they had just crash-landed from Mars. At least they bothered to turn up on that occasion.

On other nights the five-piece band was almost larger than the paying crowd. Hackett writes of one show at a football stadium in Italy,

where the few stragglers who showed up were completely outnumbered by the heavily sedated inmates of a psychiatric hospital bordering the pitch. Trapped behind a high metal fence, the poor souls just stared glassy-eyed at our show. We felt about as welcome as a condom at the Vatican

Even after going on to play to 15,000 ecstatic fans at the Empire Pool, Wembley, Hackett simply packed up his guitar and got a lift back to his parents’ small flat in Pimlico where he was still living. That same general air of modesty pervades the book as a whole. Hackett is too honourable to really spill the beans either on his fellow band members or any of the various perks of life as a working musician. Unlike, say, the Motley Crue story, the book doesn’t aspire to a joyful cascade of indiscretions, although at one point the author admits:

I had some pretty strange encounters [with women], from the burlesque dancer and the female wrestling champion to the girl whose fantasy was a brutal night with Vincent Price

Hackett left Genesis essentially to pursue his own career, and true to his word he’s gone on to release an astonishing 25 or so solo albums as well as collaborating with everyone from the American folk singer Richie Havens to the Hungarian jazz-rock group Djabe. There are musicians whose last record is very like their first. Having learned their trade, mastered it for once and all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. Steve Hackett is very different. He will be remembered for being fearless in his single-minded pursuit of what he thought his evolving craft required. This is a quiet, wry, unvarnished, always compellingly fluent account of 50 years of assorted ups and downs in the entertainment world, with the supremely satisfying ending of a happily married man at the peak of his creative game. You should treat yourself to a copy immediately.

Mountain preaching

LENNART SVENSSON is best known for his biography of Ernst Jünger (Ernst Jünger: A Portrait, 2014) and his philosophy of life, Actionism (2017). He has also published novels such as Redeeming Lucifer (2017) and he’s currently working on new projects, both fact and fiction. He was born in Sweden in 1965 and still lives there. You can visit his Amazon page here

Mountain preaching

I am standing on the mountain preaching,
having the whole world in my hand.

I am the last court of appeal of truth in
the pale-arctic zone and beyond.

I am the black rider, white rider, 
red rider, pale rider –  

Seeing a world go up in flames, seeing
rivers of blood…

Seeing crystals and magnets levitate us 
to a new splendour…


I am the angel announcing good news.
I am wonderful counsellor, mighty god,
everlasting father, prince of peace.
I live in a palace of gold on the bottom
of the sea, seeing the sunrise through
the waters, praising that glaucous dawn –

Sonnet on the Philosophy of Lawn Bowls

IVAN HEAD was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1953. Participation in Speech and Drama led him to read, learn and recite poetry from an early age. He has been writing poetry for most of his adult life and regularly reviews poetry publications for Quadrant, the Australian journal founded by James McAuley in the mid-1950s. He has a PhD from Glasgow University on the interpretation of miracle stories, and was a philosophy major from the university of Western Australia. Ivan was head (Warden) of two Australian university colleges for 27 years

Sonnet on the Philosophy of Lawn Bowls

Through the club-house plate glass

I see the green-keeper on his roller, 

gliding forth and back across grass 

that seems too short to mow. 

The earlier blades were set to zero. 

As he comes and goes, he seems to print the couch

and zip the baize. I hear no sound

as if the roller floats above the ground. 

For a moment I think to dip a knee,

and send a blocking shot to lie against 

the far-end jack.  

That would express my philosophy –

to stop with Hume

all easy bias of the age.

Paris and Helen

Not much is known about MARCUS BALES except he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and his work has not appeared in Poetry or The New Yorker. His latest book is 51 Poems; reviews and information at

Paris and Helen

Perhaps the April sun shone every day

And I do not remember. Did the rain

Exclude us from our choice out-door café

While through the glass we watched it spot the Seine?

We lived in bed, and ordered in. The staff

Would chase us out to change the sheets and air

The room, and chide us with a knowing laugh

To see some of the city while we’re there.

Since we were born to work and serve, not rule

A Mycenaean city-state, we had

To leave at last to travel back to school,

And stop the pale pretence that we were mad

And bad. She married some old wealthy plod.

I get a smile and a recherché nod.

The genial and the unintelligible – George Santayana on Ezra Pound

STODDARD MARTIN traces the connections and contrasts of two utterly different Americans

George Santayana and Ezra Pound would have known of one another for decades before they ever corresponded, let alone met. Twenty-two years apart in age, they were at least a generation distant in sensibility and more than that in temperament. But Santayana was a poet at heart, if a philosopher in the world, and Pound a poet in the world, if philosopher at heart. Both were mainly products of the American northeast, though neither was born there. Both were dropouts from academia and expatriates in Europe for much of their life, principally and finally in Italy. Santayana ended in a modest room in a convent in Rome under the care of the Little Sisters of Mary, Pound in a workman’s cottage in a relative backwater of Venice under the care of the mother of his daughter Mary.

T. S. Eliot had studied under Santayana at Harvard, and Santayana’s protégé Daniel Cory attended Pound’s Ezuversity in Rapallo in the early 1930s. The former may have provided a link between Pound and Santayana in thought, the latter would in person. A general impression had formed for each of the other before association. In 1928 we find Santayana, living in Paris, writing to a young man who has sent him some sonnets:

I have just been reading hard words written by Mr Ezra Pound on the subject of the sonnets in The Dial for this month [i]

He praises the young man for aperçus shared with Homer but chastises him for “rebelling” against his chosen form’s strict tradition of ten syllables per line. The letter continues:

Unless you can say these things better than Homer and company people will prefer to read about them in them rather than in you

It concludes:

Words, words, words are the foundation of everything – in literature. If you feel the force of each word, and its penumbra of association, the rest will take care of itself, and if ever you have anything to say, it will say itself for you magnificently

It is intriguing to speculate that this judgement may have been stimulated by Pound as much as by its recipient. Santayana’s last sentence suggests respect for an imagist method, but his view of a modernist treatment of Homer is ominous. He seems to be developing a response to a modernist aesthetic akin to Pound’s at this stage; later he will be more specific. In 1935 he writes to a young woman who has sent him her collection, praising her for “freedom from religion”, a “clear view of truth” and “naturalism” [ii]. As to her free verse, he cites Pound’s Quia Pauper Amavi, which he’s been reading:

You would deceive nobody into mistaking you for a real modern. Though your restrained voice may not attract attention so scandalously [as Pound’s], I am sure that you will give more pleasure to those who do hear you, and will be more gratefully received

Ouch. The versifier of the 1890s clearly finds it hard to adjust to what a new age is up to.

In 1936 Santayana writes to another admirer about Faulkner’s Sanctuary:

Like all these recent writers, the author is too lazy and self-indulgent and throws off what comes to him in a sort of dream, expecting the devoted reader to run about after him, sniffing at all the droppings of his mind. I am not a psychological dog and require my dog biscuit to be clearly set down for me in a decent plate with proper ceremony [iii]

Two months later, half-regretting his verdict, he qualifies it to the same recipient:

What I say about ‘droppings’ would be more applicable to other people – e.g. Ezra Pound – than to [Faulkner]

Ouch again. Such a reaction would not escape the courteous Santayana’s lips when he finally met Pound in 1939; but even given their frequent correspondence during the War, he could praise yet another young person who would send him unsolicited poems for not “threatening” his readers with

…the horror, for instance, of passing in Ezra Pound, who can write good verse, into the most vulgar journalese, and the most insolent irrelevance [iv]

That first meeting took place in Venice. Pound’s biographer David Moody records how Pound had written to Santayana, “whose clarity and integrity of mind he admired”, seeking “sidelights” on his “notes to [Guido] Cavalcanti (1) and one or two Chinese texts” [v]. They met at the Hotel Danieli, where the well-off philosopher liked to plant himself for a few weeks every year. Pound arrived with his 13 years-old daughter from her mother’s modest dwelling on the far side of the Grand Canal. Santayana, Pound would write to Eliot, “failed to see the connection” between Cavalcanti, Chinese ideograms and Scotus Erigena (2). Santayana for his part felt “talked at”, Moody surmises, and at one point he retaliated with a comment from The Education of Henry Adams which Pound would remember in Canto 74: “Teach? At Harvard?/Teach? It cannot be done”. Pound’s verdict on the visit, reported by his daughter years later, was that it was “a relief to talk philosophy with someone completely honest – a nice mind”.

Here we might pause to consider the social milieu. Santayana was not only well-off but well-connected. Less than a decade before, he had given away John D. Rockefeller’s favourite granddaughter in marriage to the Marquis de Cuevas when her father, Santayana’s dear friend the philosopher Charles Strong, failed to turn up [vi]. Santayana was of an echelon of American expatriate depicted in Henry James, whose brother William had been his instructor and colleague in the philosophy department at Harvard [vii]. A lifelong bachelor, Santayana was unencumbered by practicalities such as might interfere with aesthetic or intellectual pursuits. An admired stylist in English, he was also fluent in his native Spanish and French and to large extent Italian and German. Respected by almost all with whom he came into contact, he was belittled only by a few British empiricists such as Bertrand Russell – hardly a mark against him for the increasingly Anglophobic Pound. He was, in short, a character to appeal to the poet on many bases: American, expatriate, linguistic. He was also a socially desirable mark for an Idaho-Yankee arguably less secure in pedigree and definitely less so in income.

A crucial connective would be the War, during which both writers were essentially trapped in Italy [viii]. This was not wholly a matter of hardship: both were confirmed Italophiles, and Santayana at that time was politically indifferent as between liberal democracy and fascism. But everyone in situ in Italy at the time would share in the deprivation of heat and electricity and food as it grew, and Santayana’s chronic bronchitis worsened. What he and Pound had most in common perhaps was being cut off from funds in the UK and US and from ability to communicate with publishers. Santayana’s manuscripts had to be smuggled out to Scribner’s via the Vatican and the American embassy in Madrid. During this era, Pound was much in Rome, as we know, and visited the philosopher who, we are told, was

…impressed by Pound’s unusual appearance (his mass of frizzy red hair) and manner… Some of [his] letters, like his radio broadcasts for the Mussolini government, Santayana found incomprehensible

To Cory he would write in May ’41:

Pound was here yesterday, quite mad… Complains of people’s utter ignorance of economics, and says that it is the root of all trouble. And half his speech is indecipherable to me. I wonder if he is understood when he speaks through the radio. Why does he talk that way? Is it incapacity, or inspiration? Perhaps 9/10th the one and 1/10th the other

Such a critique is scarcely surprising. Santayana’s early writing on literature had attacked a vogue for Browning and Whitman in America of Pound’s youth.

It is a mere euphemism… to call this perpetual vagrancy a development of the soul… Crude experience is [its] only end, the endless struggle [its] only ideal… self-serving subjectivity… poetry of barbarism… stepchild of German romanticism and idealism [ix]

No fan of the transcendentalists, Santayana was in favour of objectivity vs. “emotional slither” and of an authorial use of personae to disguise personal “vent”. In such principles we may see elements of his later attraction to, bemusement by, and repulsion from Pound. “Santayana was capable of sensing danger where others felt only excitement” in the revolt against “old fogeyism in the Edwardian era”. Not for this patrician poet-philosopher to inveigh against effeminacy in American letters such as the author of Patria Mia would. Yet both had fled some tendency common to their formative tradition.

What brought them together was almost certainly one-sided: Pound’s desire for a grand old man’s imprimatur, as Moody implies. In an attempt to provide a pointer for the poet’s elusive paradiso, Santayana lent Pound a copy of his Realms of Spirit, fourth and most recently finished part of his magnum opus on religious impulses and much else. Evidently sceptical that Pound might actually read the book, Santayana writes in afterthought,

Please keep in mind that I don’t believe anything existent can be defined, only indicated; so that all sorts of different figures or words pointed at are better than any one name… Spirit is not an independent substance or centre with a persistent individuality: only a spark of light [x]

He goes on to report that he has been perusing a volume by the historian Brooks Adams, Henry’s racially biased brother, which Pound had apparently recommended to him, and states that he is disappointed by its “lack of philosophy”. Such flickers of incompatible mindset may be reflected in a paragraph Pound would insert a year later into one of his Rome Broadcasts, about Marx and materialism [xi]:

George Santayana calls himself a materialist. It rather shocked old William James. Ole William told young George, he was younger at that stage of world history, that his, Santayana’s philosophy was organized rottenness. I cannot agree with fuzzy old James. It appears to me that George Santayana rather agrees with Thomas Aquinas. I mean the materialist Santayana ends up by writin’ a book called The Realm of Spirit [sic]. I occasionally plunge into the work to calm my heated mind. I mean when I am not up to Confucius and Mencius. And Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that the soul is the first ACT of an organic body. Well, I ask George Santayana what THAT means. And he says entelechy, which seems to me to be dodgin’ behind a Greek word. But anyhow, a materialist definition of the soul seems to be that it is the first act, or first action, or first condition of an organic body. Don’t ASK me. I am merely trying to show how far the word or idea materialist can be stretched by people who play with abstractions

Santayana’s copy of Realms of Spirit, apparently his sole one, was never returned [xii] – lost in Pound’s flight following the fall of Rome, we assume, or during his later incarceration for treason. There is no clarity about how much Pound read of it or of Santayana’s earlier work, such as Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), which might have contained much to Pound’s taste. Communication between the two broke off until May ’46, by which time Santayana was back in funds and being fêted for a novel and a fragment of autobiography which had become bestsellers in the United States as he shivered through to the War’s end. To Pound, now shut in but not shut up in a ward for the insane at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., he writes: “I am glad to hear directly from you” [xiii]. He goes on to discuss Pound’s Ballad of the Goodly Fere, which he caricatures as a picture of “Christ qua gangster [that] only makes me laugh”. This leads him to speculate that his own recent work on “the idea of Christ as pure spirit in the flesh… would perhaps turn your stomach.” Good-natured badinage, but not without spike. Shortly afterwards, Santayana asks his publisher to send Pound a copy of his book The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, which Pound has requested in a letter written “partly in Chinese characters” [xiv].

An individual of Santayana’s courtesy could not fail to respond to a fellow writer, especially one in trouble, but often it was not easy. A month after the preceding, we find him writing to Dorothy Pound thanking her for posting Ezra’s “letter telling me that p. 6 of my book had reconciled him to the frivolity of the rest.”[xv] “I have also received his new canto,” Santayana reports, “and should have written to him about it if a ray of light from it had been able to pierce my thick skull. But really I can’t catch the drift of his allusions.” He adds that Pound’s “subjectivity” resembles his own in his autobiographical People and Places, if at a distance. This remark seems motivated in part, if not all, by politesse. To his publisher, Cory and others he vents.

From Ezra Pound I continue to receive communications: the last was stark mad: a few scattered unintelligible abbreviations on a large sheet of paper, and nothing else. Yet the address, although fantastically scrawled, was quite correct and intelligible. His madness may be spasmodic only [xvi]

At around this time Santayana’s attention was drawn to Robert Lowell among young American poets, and he struck up a correspondence with him rivalling that with Cory. One of their first exchanges is about Pound. “I have received a letter of his”, Santayana tells Lowell,

…with a Chinese character in the middle of the page, and below, in ‘traditional’ English the maxim: ‘Respect the intelligence of a cherry that can make cherries.’ I am touched by his remembering me, as I have not answered one or two earlier letters that were wholly unintelligible [xvii]

In a subsequent letter he asks Lowell why Pound favours Propertius (3); this is in prelude to observing,

It is a pity that he prints so many mistakes in his foreign languages, even in the Greek alphabet. I thought some passages in these ‘Cantos’ [the Pisan] very good; but why so much trash? I must write to him [ xviii]

This about sums it up. Pound has a soupçon of recognisable quality for Santayana but is shoddy and unintelligible, and he would really prefer for the poet to take a hint and stop pestering him with missives, but then rather repents a lack of grace in the sentiment.

For one of Santayana’s fastidiousness, it boils down to taste. “I don’t agree in taste at all with Ezra Pound,” he remarks to another correspondent,

…whom Eliot (once a pupil of mine) thought the ‘best of workmen’, quoting Dante about the most artificially laboured of Provençal poets… Matters of taste are matters of sympathy [xix]

Rowing back again towards repentance, he adds that differences in taste are “not a sin”. To another correspondent in 1950 he complains of an article in The TLS alleging that “the chief benefit of Browning for our times” is that he “inspired the early poems of Pound” [xx]. “He, who was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare!” Santayana fumes in defence of a bard whom, as we have seen, he attacked roundly when an aspiring young poet. In a letter to his publisher about his own Christ book, Santayana varies the complaint, deploring that the work of Browning, which provides “a better (because more cheerful) moral guide than the Sermon on the Mount” should “survive only as a contributor to the poetry of Ezra Pound!” [xxi]

Santayana’s ill-temper may have been exacerbated by a concurrent episode with the poet Peter Russell, an acolyte of Pound’s who turned up at his door soliciting a passage for his journal NINE from the old man’s translation of Tibullus.[xxii] Russell went on to publish an article about the visit, “An Afternoon with George Santayana”, which Santayana found “a surprising travesty of what I said to him, especially about Mr T. S. Eliot and Mr Ezra Pound.”[xxiii] What in fact had he said about the two poets? In an exchange with Lowell about Racine, Santayana would chide that, whereas Racine’s work had plot, Lowell’s was like Pound’s: in danger of “furnish[ing] landscape splendidly, but leav[ing] us confused about your plot and characters.”[xxiv] Later when Cory reports that Lowell has called Pound “a great man”, Santayana responds crossly.[xxv] Later still, in a letter to an old Oxford acquaintance, he sheds some light on emotions lurking beneath these reactions:

I have recently become deeply interested in the new American poets. I have long known Ezra Pound, and I saw him often here during the war, but was never reconciled to his ways in speech or in writing. But Robert Lowell from the first attracted me for various paradoxes that I found realised in him; and his rugged personality now that I have seen him, has not frightened me away [xxvi]

The response is fundamentally based on aesthetics. Pound was antipathetic to Santayana in a way that Lowell was not. A streak of homoeroticism may lurk in it, also an affinity for the echt-New England patrician Lowell’s reaction against the Puritanism of his background in favour of an older Catholic tradition.[xxvii] Despite the Europhilia of his expatriation, Pound would rarely strain for a quietude or “Ewig weibliche” (4) (Mariolatry) intrinsic to this and congenial to Santayana. That said, it is worth noting that Santayana’s last effort veered like much of errant Ezra’s towards this world and its politics. A year before his death, Santayana wrote to his publisher, then preparing his book Dominations and Powers:

I have received a comparatively clear letter from Ezra Pound in which he writes ‘What about this book of yours? Are your publishers trying to suppress your indecorous opinions? Or is it merely the usual American tempo – molasses flowing uphill below zero?’… To disperse his morbid fears, will you please add his name and send him a copy… with my compliments? [xxviii]

A month later he reports to Lowell:

Pound has written me quite intelligibly and in a placid mood, on receiving my book. I am very glad I sent it to him [xxix]

After Santayana’s death in 1952, it was left to Cory to collate his papers and publish what of them appeared not to deserve oblivion. There was sufficient money and academic interest to provide annotated editions; Cory in 1963 also published a memoir based on the vast bulk of letters the philosopher had written to him since their first meeting in 1927. From these one cannot fail to see that Santayana never stopped struggling to come to terms with the expatriate moderns who dominated poetry in his later years. His friend Logan Pearsall Smith had warned Cory when a young man in London not to “go slumming with such an eccentric fraud [as Eliot]”[xxx]; Santayana would repeat this in various housebroken guises:

Eliot is entangled in his own coils. How can he publish such an indecent article as that of Ezra Pound in this number of The Criterion? [xxxi]

He deprecates Eliot for finding Pound “magnificent” and questions the value of his judgement overall. The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism he judges damningly “English” –

I don’t think Englishmen are inclined to think, unless there is something wrong with them [xxxii]

After Strange Gods, he would find more impressive, but remarks with faint praise: “Eliot is honest and brave, but limited.”[xxxiii] Murder in the Cathedral elicits the quip,

England is becoming stranger and stranger to me, and less and less appealing. I once loved it so much that this is rather a tragedy [xxxiv]

Eliot, it seems, could feel the vibrations. Cory prodded him into publishing an essay on Santayana’s later philosophy but reported his impression that Eliot was reluctant to revive interest in the Hispano-American for an English audience.[xxxv] No doubt aware of the antipathy of Russell & Co. – “nothing original in Santayana: all Plato and Leibniz” [xxxvi] – the politic Eliot may have felt it rash to sail against a prevailing wind. Reception and response of this kind in England might suggest a growing similarity between Santayana and Pound, but if so, it did not lead to solidarity. Cory, in Santayana’s pocket, refused Eliot’s request to review Pound’s Guide to Kulchur; and Santayana would scold Cory for encouraging Pound to send him the book, saying that he would return it at once as he was only an admirer of “putrid Petrarch” or “miserable Milton” [xxxvii]. Politic himself, Cory did manage to cajole Eliot into letting him review Realms of Truth for The Criterion [xxxviii], so perhaps Eliot’s view of Santayana was in fact more favourable than it appeared, or improved over time: after he closed The Criterion, he would join Pound in inviting the philosopher to help them launch a journal about education; Santayana declined the honour, and the idea was dropped.[xxxix]

Disillusionment with England and its bien-pensant certainly grew in Santayana during the War and after. He would express qualified regard for works by Cyril Connolly, Karl Popper, Arnold Toynbee and others [xl], but Russell would continue to annoy him, prompting the remark, “I feel how inhuman these high-principled self-righteous people are” [xli]. He recalls with contempt a “personal shamming involved” in mixing with such English folk, citing not only Russell but Lady Ottoline Morrell [xlii]. Reading Osbert Sitwell moves him to inveigh, “This aristocracy deserve[s] to disappear more than the French” [xliii]; and C. S. Lewis earns his disdain for a “cheap way of summing things up in two words and announcing that all else is effete”. [xliv] The scars of war, as for Pound, may have added intensity to these reactions; but there is substance in them as well. The “error of British empiricism”, Santayana would muse, “is that it reduces ideas from essences to perceptions” [xlv] – a crucial distinction, leading him to reflect, “That traditional British philosophers dislike me is perfectly natural”.[xlvi] In his view Russell et al had “missed the bus… for all [their] talent and omnipotence.”[xlvii] In the end “science is only a side development” to religion; “the bulk of human experience is incorrigibly poetical”; and “the important thing [is] to retain a sense of piety”.[xlviii]

The extent to which a half-broken and aged Ezra Pound would come to similar attitudes is debatable. As Santayana in later years laboured to understand more of the method of his two “great” American expatriate successors [xlix], so perhaps Pound came to aspire to a touch of a grace he could not have failed to glimpse in their grand predecessor. Perhaps this is part of why, when the foremost disciple of Santayana visited him in Venice in 1966, Pound chose the moment to remark that he had

…botched it… I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them in a bag. But that’s not the way to make… a work of art [l]

This verdict, reported by Cory, has disarmed or qualified formidable criticism for many, as would the equally famous aside reported by Allen Ginsberg not long after about “that stupid suburban prejudice [which] spoiled the whole thing”. But how much an otherwise substantially laconic old man genuinely meant these apparent repentances is anyone’s guess. It is plausible that, as is probable at his first meeting an eminent, well-heeled philosopher three decades before, Pound may in part have been trying simply to charm his interlocutor with a becoming humility and/or imitative courtesy.

In the words of Will Durant[li], whose vastly popular writings on philosophy Pound would have known of more than a decade before that meeting, Santayana had

…the soul of a Spanish grandee grafted upon the stock of the gentle Emerson; a refined mixture of Mediterranean aristocracy with New England individualism… the accent of some pagan scholar come from ancient Alexandria… resolved to subject all ‘the phases of human progress’, all the pageant of man’s interests and history, to the scrutiny of reason

Santayana recognised that “the poetry of [myth] helps men to bear the prose of life”; that “to love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal”; and that “the great evil of the state is its tendency to become an engine of war… [for] no people has ever won a war”. He despised the waste of capitalism, which destroys self-realisation, yet abjured collectivist doctrines of innate equality. Ultimately he valued the importance of detached judgement and “wisdom [that] comes by disillusionment”.

All this, Durant sums up, “[wrote] itself down quietly, in statuesque and classic prose [with] an undertone of sweet regret for a vanished world”. It is hard not to see in it a marked resemblance to conditions of being and thought that an often agitated, unruly and tormented Ezra Pound yearned after in his own manner.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Guido Cavalcanti, c. 1255-1300, a major Florentine poet who wrote love lyrics in the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”)
  2. John Scotus Erigena, 810- c. 877, Irish philosopher whose translations helped promote Greek patristic writings
  3. Sextus Propertius, 55-43 BC-after 16 BC, author of four books of poetic elegies, most famously Cynthia 
  4. Ewig weibliche – “eternal feminine”, a concept popularised by Goethe in Faust

Author’s Notes

[i] 10 July 1928 to (Unidentified) Rubin. The Works of George Santayana, volume v, book 4 (1928-32), edited by William Holzberger et al (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003)

[ii] 19 January 1935 to Sylvia Bliss. The Letters of George Santayana, edited and with introduction and commentary by Daniel Cory (London: Constable, 1955), 290

[iii] 22 June and 3 September 1936 to Robert Shaw Barlow. Ibid,312, 314

[iv] 8 December 1949 to Cornel Lengyel. Ibid, 387

[v] Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work, volume III ‘The Tragic Years, 1939-72’, A. David Moody (Oxford University Press, 2015), quoting Pound to Santayana, 8 December 1939, and to Eliot, 18 January 1940, as well as Mary de Rachewiltz in Discretions (1971), 127-8

[vi] See Santayana: the Later Years: a portrait in letters, Daniel Cory (New York: Braziller, 1963), 26-7

[vii] He disliked James and an atmosphere of intense masculinism encountered at Harvard. Ibid., 41

[viii] See Works vol. v, book 7 (1941-47), Preface

[ix] See Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), edited by William Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp Jr (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1990), Introduction by Joel Porte, xix-xxi

[x] Works, v, 7. Letter of 29 June 1942

[xi] Radio Broadcast #102, 26 June 1943

[xii] See Works, v, 7. Letter to John Hall Wheelock of 23 January 1947

[xiii] Ibid., Letter of 19 June 1946

[xiv] Ibid., to Wheelock, 6 October 1946

[xv] Ibid., Letter of 24 November 1946

[xvi] Ibid., See letter to Wheelock, 16 January 1947

[xvii] Works, v, book 8 (1948-52), letter of 1 March 1948

[xviii] Ibid., letter of 29-30 December 1949

[xix] Ibid., letter to Bysshe Stein of 1 September 1949

[xx] Ibid., letter to Cyril Coniston Clemens of 10 January 1950

[xxi] Ibid., to Wheelock, 3 January 1950

[xxii] Ibid., see letters to Russell and Cory of 15 August and 25 October 1949

[xxiii] Ibid., see letter to Stefan Shimanski, 8 December 1949. The article had appeared in World Review (London: xii ’49), 45-7

[xxiv] Ibid., letter of 25 December 1950

[xxv] Ibid., letter of 1 March 1951

[xxvi] Ibid., to John Brett Langstaff, 13 June 1951

[xxvii] Alluded to in the letter to Lowell mentioned in note 25 above

[xxviii] Works, v, 8, letter to Wheelock of 25 March 1951

[xxix] Ibid., letter of 25 April 1951

[xxx] Later Years, 27

[xxxi] Ibid., 120. Pound’s essay was about Housman

[xxxii] Ibid., 128

[xxxiii] Ibid., 130

[xxxiv] Ibid., 155

[xxxv] Ibid., 142-43

[xxxvi] Ibid., 268

[xxxvii] Ibid., 188

[xxxviii] Ibid., 192

[xxxix] See ‘“It doesn’t . . . matter where you begin”: Pound and Santayana on Education’, by Martin Coleman, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, volume 44, number 4 (Winter 2010), 1-17. Coleman finds Pound ‘genuinely fond’ of Santayana and that the two had enough in common for such a collaboration to make sense. Among other things, he cites the apprehension both had that pressure of social life, money and the ‘business of the universities’ could prelude proper thought and creativity and encouraged young teachers to write and lecture on subjects which they had not yet properly mastered. He also sees similarity between the two in the foundational principle of what Santayana labelled ‘animal faith’

[xl] See Later Years, 257, 262 and passim

[xli] Ibid., 264

[xlii] Ibid., 267

[xliii] Ibid., 264

[xliv] Ibid., 281

[xlv] Ibid., 272

[xlvi] Ibid., 285

[xlvii] Ibid., 292

[xlviii] Ibid., 312, 315 and 330

[xlix] He reports to Cory, for example, that reading Eliot on Pound in Fiera Letteraria ‘really throw[s] some light on the mystery of their kind of poetry.’ Ibid., 266

[l] On these late utterances of Pound’s, see, for example, Moody, 799-802

[li] See The Story of Philosophy: the lives and opinions of the world’s greatest philosophers, Will Durant (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926; The Pocket Library, 1954), 488-508

Forget coronavirus – the true global existential threat

ROBERT HENDERSON warns of the unprecedented challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence

The attention of the world is currently fixed on coronavirus, but there is another far more serious danger hurtling towards us, in the shape of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Both are advancing rapidly. Probably within the lifetime of most people now living – quite possibly in the next 15 years – there will be general purpose robots (GPRs) capable of doing the vast majority of the work now undertaken by humans. When that happens, international free trade and free market economics will become untenable. The real “final crisis” of capitalism will be the development of technology so advanced that it makes capitalism in the long run impossible, as machines make humans redundant across vast swathes of the economy.

Before the advent of digital technology, technological advance created new work. It may have had very painful consequences for individuals whose livelihoods disappeared – the British hand-loom weavers of the early Industrial Revolution are a classic example – but new opportunities for employment have always appeared as an economy becomes more sophisticated and variegated. The hand-loom weaver found work in the new factories – the redundant Western factory worker of today in a call centre. At worst they might only get a MacJob, but at least it was a job.

But if the GPRs can do the MacJobs as well as the more demanding work, then there will not be many new jobs for humans – not even much supervisory work because GPRs will need little supervising, and less and less of that as they become ever more sophisticated. Hence, this technological advance will be like no other; GPRs will not only take away existing jobs, they will devour any new work – the easier work first, then the more complex.

‘It’ll never happen’

The normal human response to such ideas is not reasonable scepticism, but rejection based on a refusal to accept the reality of change, a rejection expressed with ridicule along the lines of the Victorians’ response to the car: ‘It will never replace the horse’. Mention robots, and people commonly scoff ‘science fiction’ to get rid of the matter without further debate.

This type of response is natural enough because human beings, apart from disliking change, do not like to think of themselves as dispensable or redundant. Moreover, incessant propagandising by Western elites has made it received opinion that work is becoming ever more demanding and requires an increasingly educated and knowledgeable workforce – which seems to most humans to make them uniquely capable of doing the jobs of the future. By implication, this excludes mechanisation (and robots) from the majority of future human employments.

The hard truth is that most modern work requires less knowledge and skill than was required in the past. A peasant 400 years ago had to know about his soil, his plants and animals, the seasons, the weather, where natural water was, and to be able to do 101 practical things such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting, making and repairing of fences and ditches, using tools and turning out cheese and cream and dried meat and vegetables. How many jobs today require a tenth of that volume of knowledge?

Nor did more demanding work stop at peasants. A 17th century craftsman would have served a long apprenticeship. Jobs which did not require an apprenticeship would have probably required some manual skill. Those who aspired to intellectual employment had to laboriously write and amend their works rather than enjoying the immense convenience of a word processor. That, and the cost of writing materials, forced them to become precise in a way that virtually no one is today. Perhaps most importantly, modern division of labour with one person doing a repetitive job was not king. A person making something four centuries ago would probably make the entire item, and quite often a variety of other items; a 17th century blacksmith would not merely shoe horses but make a wide range of iron goods. GPRs today could take over a great deal of employment in Western economies and much of the industrialised parts of the developing world, especially China, because there are so many simple jobs which would be within the capabilities of very basic GPRs.

But that is only half of the story. If most jobs are not demanding of much by way of learned skills and even less of intellect, they do need diligence. Human beings are generally more than a little reluctant to put themselves out in work which has no intrinsic interest for them, or which is not very highly paid. So what will an employer do when he can employ a robot instead? He will go and get himself some GPRs which will do what they are told, keep working all the time without being watched, do not make regular mistakes and require no wages, or social security taxes, or holidays, or sick leave. And it will not be able to sue you for being a bad employer.

What will an employer do when he can employ a robot instead? He will go and get himself some GPRs which will do what they are told, keep working all the time without being watched, do not make regular mistakes and require no wages, or social security taxes, or holidays, or sick leave. And it will not be able to sue you for being a bad employer

In the beginning at least, there will still be a sizeable chunk of jobs which GPRs will not be able to do. These will be the jobs which cannot be reduced to quantifiable tasks – jobs which cannot be done by following an algorithm, jobs which require judgement motivation to achieve a complex end which is not obvious from the units of means which are required to achieve it.  But that work is only a minority of jobs, probably a small minority, perhaps 20% of the total. If the earliest GPRs could only undertake 50% of the jobs which humans do that would be catastrophic.

There will be two further advantages enjoyed by GPRs over humans. In principle there are no limits to increases in the capabilities of GPRs; there is no such human potential in the present state of knowledge. For the foreseeable future, there is nothing to suggest that human capacity can be raised dramatically through education and training, not least because attempts to raise IQ substantially and permanently through enhanced environments have a record of unadulterated failure over the past 50 years or more.

The second advantage is that GPRs will come with a guarantee of performance. An employer gets what it says on the tin. Moreover, the performance will be consistent. Humans beings do not carry such a guarantee. The individual’s qualities only become apparent once on the job and are subject to variation according to the physical and mental wellbeing of the person. This makes them a gamble for anyone who employs them. A faulty or rogue GPR could be repaired or replaced without moral qualms; sacking a human being raises all sorts of ethical questions and matters of sentiment.

What could governments do?

When the first GPRs appear, those in political authority will probably try to say everything will be all right. It might be thought it would be pretty obvious that a GPR which could do everything the average human could do and then some would spell trouble for the human race. But it never does to underestimate the power of custom, ideology and the sheer unwillingness of human beings to face troubles which are not immediately upon them. The tired, old and worthless comparison with technological change in the past will doubtless be made, namely, that new jobs for humans will be generated by the GPRs. But that will not last long, because the reality of the situation will very rapidly force elites to accept entirely new circumstances.

There will be a dilemma for the makers and distributors of goods and services. At first it might seem attractive to use GPRs, but as humans lose their employment and the purchasing power derived from it the question for private business would be who are we producing for? Fewer and fewer people, would be the answer. For politicians, the question would be how can we finance government, including public services, when our tax base has collapsed? The answer is we cannot as things stand.

As GPRs threaten to destroy the world’s economy, politicians will be faced with an excruciating dilemma. If GPRs are allowed free rein by governments, the consequence will be a catastrophic collapse in demand as humans lose their employment en masse – highlighting the inability of the state as presently constituted to provide welfare to those put out of work or even to maintain the essential services of the minimalist state, such as the police and army.

The situation will be pressing no matter how supposedly rich a country is, because the majority of people even in the developed world are actually poor – only a few pay packets away from destitution. Even those who own their own home will not be able to sell the property because who will there be to buy it?

To begin with, attempts will probably be made to control the crisis bureaucratically by instigating rationing and price controls. But how to sustain an economy in which most people are not working? In the end, politicians will be faced with two choices: ban or at least seriously curb, the use of GPRs, or adopt a largely non-market economy. Banning GPRs completely would create a particular problem because some countries would continue to use them and this could lead not merely to cheaper goods and services but technological leaps which exceeded anything humans could do. A country which relied only on humans would be at a hopeless disadvantage.

The widespread banning of the use of GPRs in national territories would severely shrink international trade, because not all countries would stop using GPRs to produce items for export. Any country using GPRs could undercut any country which banned them. Protectionist barriers against countries using GPRs freely would have to be erected, although human nature being what it is, this would doubtless result in GPR products being supplied through a third country which had ostensibly banned GPR-produced goods and services. The likely outcome of such a situation would be for protectionism to grow beyond the banning of GPR products to the banning of products simply because they were suspected to be GPR-produced. This would also be a convenient excuse for simply banning imports.

The alternative to a protected economy in which GPRs are banned or severely restricted is a society in which the market is largely defunct. A perfectly rational and workable society could be created in which human beings stopped thinking they had to work to live, and simply lived off the products and services the GPRs produced. The GPRs would do the large majority of the work and the goods and services they provide would be given free to everyone whether or not they had formal employment. No GPRs would be allowed in private hands. Such a situation would mean the market would not make the choice of which goods and services were provided. Rather, the choice would be made by the consumer through an expression of what was needed or wanted before products were developed or supplied.  This could be done through elected representatives to online voting by any member of a community for which goods and services should be supplied. For example, all available items could be voted from by the general population and those which were least popular dropped. The provision of proposed new lines or inventions could be similarly decided.

As for allocating who could have what in such a world, money could be issued equally to everyone in lieu of wages (a form of the social wage). Alternatively, in a more controlled society, vouchers or ration cards could be issued equally to everyone for specific classes of goods. Greater flexibility could be built into the system by allowing the vouchers to be swopped between individuals, for example, a voucher for footwear swapped for food vouchers.

In such societies there would be scope for a limited use of private enterprise. People could provide personal services, for example, entertainment, and produce goods just using human labour (‘human-made’ would gain the cachet ‘handmade’ has now). There would also need to be some greater reward for those who occupied those jobs which still required a human to do them such as political representation, management and administration. The reward could either be material or public approbation. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that in a society where necessary work was at a premium quite a few would take on such positions for the kudos. There could also be some legal requirement to undertake work when required.

It might be thought that the people best placed to survive would have been those in the least industrially developed states because they would be less dependent on machines. But there is scarcely a part of the world which has not been tied into the global economy. Even countries that do not manufacture products or offer services on a large scale probably export food and raw materials. One could even include the recipients of foreign aid, for that flow of money, goods, expertise and manpower is dependent on the aid-giving countries remaining economically robust.

The rate at which robotics evolves will play a large part in how the story unfolds.  The speed with which GPRs replace human beings could be truly bewildering. Digital technology to date suggests that the stretch from a primitive GPR doing simple work which can be broken down into physical actions, to a GPR with some sort of consciousness or a facsimile of what humans think of as consciousness, will not be massive.

Such development could well be speeded up by GPRs assisting with development as they attain more and more sophisticated abilities. The faster the development of really sophisticated GPRs, the more chaos there is likely to be, because there will be little time to plan and implement changes or for people to accommodate themselves psychologically and sociologically.

It is reasonable to assume technology will develop until GPRs are showing behaviour which suggests consciousness. They will make decisions such as what would be the best way of achieving ends which are loosely defined, for example, an instruction to design a city redevelopment in a way which would have the greatest utility for human beings. At that point the GPRs would be effectively making value judgements.

This is a real danger with potentially catastrophic world-wide consequences. The problem is getting people in power to address the subject seriously. There needs to be discussion and planning now about how far GPRs, or indeed robots or any type, should be allowed to displace human beings in the functioning of human societies. Nor should we assume humans will happily tolerate GPRs for reasons other than economic. Robots which are too like humans make humans uncomfortable, probably because it is difficult to view a machine which looks like a human and acts like a human simply as a machine. 

But the loss of jobs and incomes is only part of the problem which comes with intelligent machines. The general consequence of our ever growing reliance on digital technology is that we are increasingly being controlled by the needs of the technology, rather than using technology to serve us. It is very difficult to escape such control. A person in work will almost certainly have to use it; if in education, they definitely will. Even if a person does not encounter digital technology in their work or education, they find it increasingly difficult to avoid it in their private lives even if they refuse to use a computer or a mobile phone, because businesses and governments increasingly require those dealing with them do so by computer. People are being driven to own and use computers to avoid feeling isolated and excluded.

Despite all these pressures, there are still a large number of people in Britain who have remained distant from the digital world. According to a 2019 Office for National Statistics report, millions of  British adults have never been online. It  is unreasonable in a civilised society to simply hang the computer-ignorant or the intellectually-underpowered out to dry as digital technology looms ever larger. Yet that is precisely what is happening.

There is one thing the government of any advanced country should do – create circumstances in which those who cannot come to terms with digital technology can live in an ever more computer-controlled world. They can do this by maintaining non-computer access to state-funded organisations and forcing through legislation larger businesses and not-for-profit organisations to do the same. Worryingly, there is little evidence that UK politicians are taking this problem seriously. There have been rather half hearted attempts to ensure that cash point machines are provided so that  no one has to travel more than a few miles to draw cash, but that is wholly inadequate because many people, especially the old, cannot readily travel several miles.

At the same time the UK government is dragging its feet over making access to cash a legal right. Failure to do so could all too easily allow the UK to sleepwalk into a cashless society, a state of affairs which would not only potentially give the government immense opportunity to intrude on private lives, but be a constant worry even for those accustomed to digital technology.

Someone living in Britain between 1815 and 1914 saw more radical technological change than any generation before. But that change was the difference between living in a still largely pre-industrial society (in 1815) and an industrial society in its early middle age (in 1914). Moreover, the change did not require the vast majority of the population to master complicated machines at their work, let alone in their own homes. In 1914 the most complicated machine most people would have had to operate was probably the telephone, and vast swathes of the population would not even have had to go that far into the world of technology. 

In the past 30 years, all this has changed hugely. We are now in a world in which computers are absolutely integral to business and public administration, and are the norm rather than the exception in homes. For most people, it is literally impossible to escape them. Worse, they have become ever more complex and demanding to use, and invade ever more of our lives, as microprocessors are inserted into the most unlikely things, such as clothes. All machines are becoming more and more demanding. We desperately need politicians who will act to avert the looming disaster this unique situation threatens to bring. Don’t hold your breath waiting.

Robert Heinlein across space and time

Starship Troopers

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn, Unbound, 2019, hardback £20

CHRISTOPHER G. NUTTALL reviews an unusually fair appraisal of a sci-fi pioneer

“Over a period of twenty years, Heinlein’s attitudes had shifted noticeably. Were one to include the twenty years previous to that, the word would be ‘dramatically’. This was not always (from my 1980s feminist point of view) a good shift, but it was there, and I was fascinated. Here was a person sometimes ahead of his time, sometimes crosswise, and, towards the end, in retrenchment. As a historian how could I not be entranced?” (Farah Mendlesohn, introduction)

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is one of the founding fathers of modern science-fiction, responsible for such hugely popular and influential works as Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and Starship Troopers. It is therefore curious that his works been so rarely been given substantial analysis. Instead, many modern-day critics have judged Heinlein by 21st century standards and declared him to be sexist, racist and bigoted – while others have been completely uncritical of the man and his works. Indeed, to sci-fi devotees like me, attacking him can feel a little like treason. Farah Mendelsohn seeks to separate the man from monster or myth.

After a brief assessment of Heinlein’s life and career, Mendlesohn starts to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works. One key theme is family. Although he is often branded an individualist, Heinlein talks often about the need for social support structures – familial, rather than governmental. Heinlein’s heroes are never true loners, but have support from their families and friends. Heinlein was very focused on the family, but the family one chooses rather than the family one has. This spans a range between the happy – and very 50s-typical – Stone Family (The Rolling Stones) to the family Lazarus Long built for himself in Time Enough for Love, which came out towards the end of Heinlein’s career. As Heinlein grew older, he grew more cynical; the Stones are an ideal family, in many ways, but the Farnhams (Farnham’s Freehold) are an utter disgrace.

Mendlesohn is quite adept at recognising the concealed racial markers encoded into Heinlein’s text (for example, an otherwise undescribed naval officer likes watermelons and other black-coded traits).  But it should be remembered that Heinlein was often quite limited in what he could come out and say, in the climate of his times. It is possible that Heinlein’s early books would have been rejected, outright, if he’d featured openly black heroes or black men in positions of power. But he gave himself enough room to deny it, if necessary. One may argue that this was contemptible, but it was a fact of life. Later, Heinlein made it clear that he had created a series of multiracial worlds. But most of his coloured heroes were still, culturally speaking, Americans. Heinlein’s heroes might have been multiracial, but not multicultural. One might accuse Heinlein of a lack of cultural diversity, particularly in the juveniles, but it should be noted that different cultures are not always better, and it can be hard to empathise with someone from a culture so different to our own that their actions make no sense to us or even come across as evil. Heinlein’s early heroes are Americans because Heinlein saw the American ethos as being the best.

Mendlesohn also raises interesting points regarding Heinlein’s female characters, both lead characters (Podkayne of Podkayne of Mars, and Maureen Smith of To Sail Beyond The Sunset) and secondary characters (Betsy of The Star Beast, Wyoming of Moon). Some of them – Maureen and Betsy – start their careers as second fiddles, held back directly or indirectly by social conventions – and other women. They grow and develop as their stories develop; for example, Maureen couldn’t go back to motherhood, when her estranged children re-entered her life. She had outgrown the parental urge. Podkayne, by contrast, was the victim of failed parenting. Her parents were unable to give her the tools she needed for adulthood; nor, for that matter, was she surrounded by women who would aid her. (Duke Farnham was a similar victim.)

In some ways, however, Mendlesohn is guilty of “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective” (a term infamously devised by Anne Rice).  Heinlein’s juveniles were written, first and foremost, for teenage boys – and teenage boys, by and large, are not interested in ‘feminine’ issues. Heinlein glossed over them because his audience would find it a turn-off. Successful female heroes – women, written by women – who appeal to men, do it, in a sense, by turning away from traditional femininity. They are either surrounded by men (Hermione Granger) or exist in male-shaped universes (like Elizabeth Moon’s heroine, Paksenarrion). They are rarely involved with female social groups; the only real exception, as far as I can tell, is Mildred Hubble (Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series). But her books are written in a manner that allows boys to pretend that she isn’t classically feminine. Heinlein did not set out to be all things to all readers – a good thing too, as it is impossible.

This explains, I think, some of the weaker moments in his earlier juveniles. The main character of Red Planet (1949)shows signs of sexism, as Mendlesohn points out, but his sentiments would not be out of place for a teenage boy (particularly one of Heinlein’s generation). Heinlein clearly evolved, as similar sentiments expressed within Tunnel in the Sky (1955)lead to an embarrassing case of foot-in-mouth syndrome when the hero badmouths girls, only to discover that his friend ‘Jack’ is in fact ‘Jackie’. Indeed, Heinlein would intentionally start writing his juveniles for girls as well as boys, but he kept boys as the core audience – a wise move, as girls will often read boy-books but not vice versa.

This has other effects on his writing. Mendlesohn points to problematic moments within the text – the failure of a father to admit, for example, that his daughter is more than just his daughter – but this is caused by the male mindset. Maureen argues, at one point, that men assume that a woman is subordinate until she proves otherwise. It would be more accurate to say that people (men as well as women) are pigeonholed very quickly and, once pigeonholed, have the greatest difficulty in climbing out of the pigeonhole. The male mindset leads to the same problems as female intuition; when it’s right, it cannot explain why it is right, when it’s wrong, it finds it hard to truly believe it’s wrong. Heinlein depicted this process quite accurately – and, in other books, argued that the only true way to counter it is to give the wrong person room to retreat. This does, of course, require a sensitivity that few people develop.

Mendelsohn’s comments on racism in Heinlein’s works, notably Sixth Column (in which the United States is invaded by “Pan-Asians”) and Farnham’s Freehold, are interesting.  Heinlein did not depict the Pan-Asians of Sixth Column very kindly, it is true, but the atrocities they committed are pitiful shadows of the atrocities committed by real-life Imperial Japan. To challenge Heinlein on this requires a certain willingness to ignore real-life atrocities, and Mendlesohn, to her credit, largely avoids it. She does point out that the ‘killing rays’ of the Sixth Column kill Asian-Americans as well as Pan-Asians, but this is an unfortunate – and logical – effect. The ray could not tell the difference between two different groups of Asians.

Farnham’s Freehold is one of Heinlein’s most controversial works, and perhaps his most sadly topical, in the light of recent bitter politics (see my 2018 Amazing Stories review here).  It centres around Hugh Farnham – a very atypical hero for Heinlein, being something of a failure at life – and his family; his drunkard wife, his resentful son, his carefree daughter and her best friend and his African-American houseboy Joe.  Following a nuclear war, Hugh and his family are pitched into the far future … a truth they only discover when they come face to face with the black masters of the future world, a world where whites are slaves.  The remainder of the story follows their attempts to come to terms with the new situation.

Mendlesohn describes Farnham’s Freehold as an ‘if this goes on …’ book, and concludes that the book is, indeed, racist.  To me, it is more of a ‘flipping’ book – an exercise in switching perspectives, and seeing things from another angle. Hugh Farnham and his family are slave-traders, starting in a position of ‘white supremacy’. Following revolutionary upheaval, they then go through a short period of ‘equality,’ followed by ‘black supremacy’ and ending with the ‘aftermath.’ In so doing, they are shown, time and time again, what it is like to be on the opposite end of the scale.

There is room for an entire essay here, but I’ll content myself with a handful of points. Heinlein, throughout his work, identified two different kinds of slaveowner – the thug, who treats his slaves as mere possessions, and the paternalist who tells himself that slavery is for the slave’s own good. When Farnham’s Freehold opens, it becomes clear that Hugh is a paternalist-type, while Duke – his son – is a thug. Their roles are so embedded within their personalities that neither of them really adapts to the period of equality. Worse, when they enter the period of black supremacy, they find themselves at the mercy of another paternalist-thug duo. They are to be denied everything, from freedom itself to the slight comfort of getting away with a little defiance. They may even be eaten alive – the slaveholders of Dixie did not practice cannibalism, as far as I know, but the slaves were certainly metaphorically cannibalised. By the end, Hugh has come to realise – perhaps – just what it is like to have a taste of his own medicine. He had all the answers … he could argue and browbeat his son into submission … but so could his ‘master.’ Farnham’s Freehold raised points that needed (and perhaps still need) to be raised. Mendlesohn judges that it was an overall failure, but it came as close as it could for a book of its time.

Mendlesohn’s assessment of Heinlein’s male and female characters may be pushing things a little too far. She notes that many of Heinlein’s main characters are less interesting than their supporting characters, although – again – this isn’t always a bad thing. Max Jones and John Thomas are bland, compared to Sam and Betsy (Starman Jones, The Star Beast) but that doesn’t mean they’re not heroes. Indeed, their simplicity may be part of the lesson. Max surpasses Sam and comes to safe harbour, at least in part, because he’s honest enough to admit to the deception they’ve pulled; John Thomas defends a friend because it’s the right thing to do, while Betsy, who over-thinks everything, makes things more complicated (and eventually worse). There is little to quibble with here.

Robert Heinlein

Her assessment of the underlying social structures Heinlein depicts is quite accurate – and, unlike some others, she refrains from blaming Heinlein for depicting them. Podkayne’s lack of support from other women has already been noted; Maureen’s financial dependency on her husband, in addition, was quite serious in a world where men controlled money. She also assesses the interaction between the public’ and ‘private’ lives of his characters, noting how they interact (and how things can go wrong.) She does, however, overlook a handful of contextual points. In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus buys and manumits two slaves – a brother-sister pair named Joe and Estrellita.  Finding himself responsible for them, he tries to turn them into free people … a difficult task, as they have been raised to be slaves and dependent on their masters to tell them what to do.

Mendlesohn notes that Lazarus treats Estrellita as property, denying her agency, but one can reasonably argue that this was for Estrellita’s (and Joe’s) own good.  He regards them both as children in adult bodies – a dangerous combination. Of course, this is also the argument that slaveholders made (as Mendlesohn notes) and, even though it is reasonably justified in this case it does leave a bad taste.

Mendlesohn demonstrates that Heinlein seems to have grown and evolved as he grew more confident, ranging from seemingly-trite adventures to pieces of literary merit. This may have been due to the influence of his second wife, who was a screenwriter and editor. She also makes it clear that Heinlein was very ‘woke’ for his era – he detested slavery, regarded rape as a great evil, created coloured and female characters in an era when no one would have noticed if he hadn’t. And she raises some interesting points about Heinlein’s relationship with guns, although I don’t agree with all of her conclusions. Unlike some modern authors, Heinlein did not fetishise guns, but regarded them as tools, to be used if necessary.

The author’s assessment of how Heinlein was influenced – and later, uninfluenced – by his life is also very good. Mendlesohn draws connections between his naval service and his wartime work and shows how it might have influenced his writing; Heinlein put female characters forward, at least in part, because he worked closely with women during the war. (He wasn’t blind, either, to the issues raised by women entering a formerly masculine sphere.) The influence of both his second and third wives on his career are also discussed, raising the issue of just how many of his issues Heinlein was working out on paper. She also notes that, in his later years, Heinlein lost (at least some) touch with the world around him. It is hard to know how seriously to take this, but it is an interesting point.

The Pleasant Profession is essentially an academic text, but it is well-written, and avoids many of the boredom-inducing pitfalls common to textbooks. But it does have weaknesses. It does not focus on each of the books, separately; it is easy to see how Heinlein evolved, but harder to place his words in context. In this, it is very like Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension; it runs the risk of assuming that his characters speak for him, rather than accepting that Heinlein preferred to show us their weaknesses rather than beat us over the head with them. It also notes Heinlein’s weaknesses – the moments we would call ‘problematic’ – without always acknowledging that most of these would not have seemed problematic to Heinlein.

Heinlein was famously not fond of critics, but nevertheless he might have liked this book.  Heinlein fans will not agree with everything Mendelsohn says, but in the end she does what few other critics do, and treats the great creator of deeply alien universes as essentially human.

Leaving New York

Lake George, by John William Casilear, 1857

MARK BRENNAN’s move to the Hudson Valley helped him come to terms with Covid – and much else

My wife and I rounded up our two dogs on March 13th and, in a mild panic, abandoned Manhattan for our house in New York’s Hudson Valley. I shouted a quick goodbye to our cat Sofia, who was deep in sleep on the radiator. We then dashed out the door, certain we would be gone at most three weeks, once the corona virus had blown over. Sofia had only left the apartment twice in her ten years, both times for vaccinations at the veterinarian. I arranged for our trusted housekeeper Laura to feed her and clean her litter box daily. We saw no good reason to put Sofia through the stress of a one-hour car ride, let alone the adjustment to a new living space, since cats hate strange surroundings. Plus, who would keep the pigeons off the apartment’s window ledges and eat the scary, yet thankfully rare, water bugs lurking in our kitchen?

Two weeks later my wife and I jumped back in the car, with the same sense of urgency now in reverse, to rescue Sofia from New York City. In just 14 days, the city had become America’s Covid-19 epicentre. Laura had called us every morning to report on Sofia. But each day I became increasingly concerned as she fretted over her husband Daniel’s sleepless nights coughing up phlegm and gasping for air. Laura, her two daughters, and her brother Pablo, took Daniel to the hospital twice that first week. Both times he tested negative for Covid-19. Finally, after one especially rough night, Daniel returned to the hospital where he was immediately whisked into the intensive care unit. New York’s hastily enacted executive order to prevent the contagion’s spread now prohibited Laura, due to her exposure to Daniel, from entering my apartment building to care for Sofia. I worried that similar troubles might befall Sofia’s backup caretaker. So, despite my dogs’ protestations, we brought Sofia upstate to live out her remaining eight lives.

With two happy dogs, one disoriented cat, a preoccupied wife, three online-classes full of confused students, and a loyal housekeeper whose husband teetered on death, I locked down in quarantine for the pandemic’s duration. Even though the virus destroyed human lives all around us during March and April, my dogs kept me sane as they remained obliviously upbeat. Then one of them died.

Samantha’s demise was as sudden as it was saddening, and all the more dispiriting as it brought the reality of widespread death right into our home. Samantha’s brother Ivan sank into depression after losing his lifelong playmate. Sofia, on the other hand, luxuriated on her sunny country window perch. Instead of hissing at filthy pigeons through grimy urban windows, she now spent her few waking hours watching turkey vultures, red hawks, and bald eagles swoop through the pine trees enveloping our house. She stared, transfixed, not blinking once, when woodpeckers drilled into towering hemlocks. The mood reversals – a happy cat and a sad dog – added to the confusion about the efficacy of masks, the prospects for a vaccine, and the virulence of the virus blaring from my television.

My wife’s anxiety thankfully eased as the financial markets found new equilibrium levels. I adjusted to my new routine as my online classes plodded along. They provided a respite from my solitary habits of reading and writing, even though I felt guilty for shortchanging my students who pretended to learn while I pretended to teach. Laura’s husband spent seven harrowing weeks on a ventilator. Her daily calls in distress to update us on Daniel’s weeks-long ordeal showed me just how rough Covid-19’s unlucky victims had it during the pandemic. Sofia’s new Hudson Valley country life of watching the region’s most spectacular birds of prey energized her. By contrast, my lockdown life with my surviving dog, my harried wife, my disgruntled students, and my distraught housekeeper pretty much sucked, and all the more so after Samantha’s unexpected death.

A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), New Hampshire, by Thomas Cole, 1839

But then I called the cops on my pity party. Lockdown life didn’t suck. I just entered the second year of my battle against stage 4 throat cancer. Pandemic-induced boredom looks like fun compared to chemo’s paralyzing nausea and radiation’s second degree burns. Luckily, fentanyl eased my pain for those three agonizing months. But it also left me in a haze that prevented me from reading or writing, or even watching television. Students, friends, neighbours, and relatives visited as I stared into space unaware of their presence or the time of day. I don’t remember my conversations with any of them. Even worse, when they now remind me of our chats I have to confess that I have no recollection of our encounters. At the low point of my cancer treatments, I spent my conscious hours in search of empty barf bags when I wasn’t consumed by a fear of imminent death.

Then, as the lockdown dragged on, I oddly found it hard to suppress my glee. New Yorkers have had to force themselves to put on insincere happy faces during the pandemic’s worst moments lest they commit the most unforgivable American sin – pessimism. No fake smiles for me. Freed from the delirium produced by fentanyl, cisplatin, and gabapentin, I can now focus on a book or follow a movie plot for more than two minutes. So I attacked the unread texts that piled up during my year-long hiatus from thinking. I wrote more. And then I remembered my premonitions of death during my treatments. When my doctor told me I had a 50% chance of survival, my first thought was that I would never get to all the books in my unread pile. If pressed, I probably could have thought up some other regrets I might have had based on my premature coin flip of a death sentence. But I didn’t bother with such speculation. Now with Samantha’s death, Daniel’s near death, and the pandemic’s ever-present threat of death as my prod, I resolved to tackle important life goals before cancer tackles me, again.

My 1908 house and its 19 fireplaces, far too large for just two humans, a dog, and a cat, also came with 12 bucolic acres and an overgrown garden. Ivan would spend each morning fruitlessly searching the property for Samantha in the weeks since her death, while I followed him around, trying not to cry. He would sniff, run, sniff again, then jerk his head around toward me as if to say, “I give up. Please tell me where she is.” My outdoor security cameras capture coyotes, foxes, bears, opossums, raccoons, deer, and bobcats traipsing across my property at night along with Amazon and UPS trucks delivering essentials by day. The wild animals’ olfactory feast distracted Ivan temporarily from his sister’s mysterious disappearance. Squirrels and chipmunks tantalize him as they dash across the lawn at daybreak. Turkeys spread their fantails to scare him away. It works. It scares me too when accompanied by their guttural gobbles. And while Ivan asserted canine domain over our little fief, the unkempt garden screamed for my attention.

A fellow professor, Jeff, checked in with me in mid-May just before grades were due. When he mentioned he had been gardening during quarantine I immediately thought of my verdant mess. I asked Jeff if I had missed planting season and how much work it would require to resurrect my garden. Jeff’s thoroughness and attention to detail, his most admirable traits from my perspective as one whose career depends on his organizational skills, kicked into high gear. In addition to answering every one of my questions he even sent me links to the Department of Agriculture’s website so I could determine my village’s temporal growing region. He included pictures from his earliest harvest. With Jeff’s gentle prodding, I took the next step and asked my Portuguese groundskeeper Humberto when he could till my plot so I could start planting. Humberto answered,

I can do it whenever you want Mr. Brennan. But I’ve got to tell you, the groundhogs have eaten everything I planted this year and I’m losing my mind.

Despite Jeff’s enthusiasm, Humberto had provided my first out. I wanted to have a bounty of vegetables like those in Jeff’s photos. But thanks to Humberto’s complaint, I started to imagine excuses to drop the whole gardening idea. Getting dirty hasn’t been my thing since I hung up my football cleats in 1985. My dogs run around the property only to return with ticks and, weeks later, the inevitable Lyme disease diagnosis. My oncologists think my cancer probably came from the 9/11 World Trade Center dust, my preexisting skin cancers, or a combination of the two. With coyotes howling after dark, I didn’t think gardening at night would be safe even if the darkness protected me from the sun. I felt an urge to email Jeff to confess I was a quitter before I even started. Then I remembered how desperately I missed the outdoors when I was stuck indoors during my cancer treatments. So I didn’t email Jeff.

The next morning Ivan and I patrolled the property while my wife made our coffee. In addition to my usual morning duty of overseeing Ivan’s first daily romp, I now had a mission: I pretended to survey the garden’s prospects while in truth searching for more reasons to dismiss the idea. I checked the sprinkler system. The recent heat waves had turned my lawn into the world’s largest bolt of tan corduroy. But the garden looked like a plot of Brazilian rainforest had dropped from the sky right into my yard. I had originally figured I would tell Jeff that, in my reduced physical state, I would not be able to carry water buckets all the way from the house to the garden. My functioning irrigation system cut off that escape hatch. As I wondered which other feeble excuse I could fob off on Jeff, my wife came storming out of the house calling for Ivan. She yelled that the coffee was starting to get cold before demanding to know why I was rooting around the garden. Drawing on what little enthusiasm I had left, I told her of my rapidly faltering plans to provide us with unlimited vegetables for the next few months.

My wife grew up in Indiana. Her father became a gentleman farmer after he tired of the corporate rat race. According to my wife, the children of gentlemen farmers should be known as “involuntary labourers”. My father-in-law’s hobby became my wife and her brother’s childhood nightmare. While her teenage girlfriends hung out at the mall or chatted on the phone, my wife weeded asparagus patches and tied tomato plants to supports. Over the years she has had flashbacks that evidence her long-simmering resentment. If I praised her corn soufflé one night at dinner, she might snap back, “You ought to see how much fun I had when mosquitos ate me alive as I picked my father’s corn”. With each passing day I spent concocting feeble excuses for Jeff, I lost another day of seasonal growth. So I tried to sell my plan to my wife. She exploded:

Great. Don’t ask me to help. I did enough of that as a kid. And I don’t want Humberto out there working 40 hours per week so we can eat a $3,000 zucchini.

The next day I formally dropped the garden idea. I hired a Latin tutor to keep me busy instead. There will be no 2020 fall harvest chez Brennan. But I prefer to focus on the positive. Without gardening I won’t restart the sunburn to skin cancer to throat cancer cycle. Coyotes won’t attack me during my nocturnal weeding sessions. Cancer has provided me with enough laughs so the ticks will have to find someone else to infect with Lyme disease. Thanks to the sprinklers, my garden will still be the lushest 100 square metres on my property. Humberto will have to busy himself with my other 11.9 acres. My wife can sauté a $0.79 zucchini as she reminds me how much her back always hurt while bent over picking green beans. And Ivan has stopped looking for Samantha since his new brother, eight-week old Tony, arrived in September.

And I can now thank my Latin tutor for teaching me the English word “velleity,” which comes from the Latin infinitive velle, meaning to will, wish, desire, or intend. Jeff’s infectious passion, gardening, has become just my latest quarantine velleity: a wish or desire not strong enough to prompt one to action. Lucky for me and my personal dignity I won’t have to face Jeff in person this fall; we will both be teaching online. Our physical distance will minimize my red-faced shame. But my shame won’t go away. My newest velleity has prevented me from writing him an email to thank him for his suggestions and encouragement.