The Emperor – and the sea-squirt

Emperor Hirohito in Japan’s Imperial Laboratory in 1936

 It was 1974 and a cloudless bright blue autumn day, and I was out sailing with a friend in her Herreshoff 12 – a beautiful gaff-rigged wooden sailboat designed in 1914 by Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff. Herreshoff designed and built other boats, including five winning America Cup yachts. Of course, the H12 we were sailing in was just 12.5 feet long, compared to the America Cup behemoths, which were ten times its size. However, the scenery surrounding us in the little sloop was just as grand and imposing as anything the Vigilant, Defender, Columbia, Reliant or Resolute encountered during their successful defenses of the trans-Atlantic trophy.

The boat owner’s house sat up on a nearby hill, which overlooked the craft’s mooring in Little Harbor, Woods Hole. It had been used over decades to house family members during the summer scientific season at the Marine Biological Laboratory. We were soon sailing past the buoy tenders of the adjacent United States Coast Guard base into Vineyard Sound, then onto a long reach, placing the Nobska Point Light on our stern and Great Harbor on our bow. To port was Martha’s Vineyard of Teddy Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick fame and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws fame, contrasting with the pristine, and more exclusive, chain of the Elizabeth Islands.
West of the Great Harbor ferry line terminal, the peninsula of Woods Hole came into view, which is often called Water Street. Water Street is a half mile long coastal road, bisected in the middle by a drawbridge, which gives pleasure craft access to the sheltered harbor of Eel Pond. On its ocean side, Water Street is lined with fishing vessels and deep-sea research vessels. Apart from a few scattered bars and eateries, science is what this town is about. From the tarmac, Water Street’s seaside view is nearly obscured by the many buildings of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

This small strip of land has big accomplishments to its name – such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic’s deep-sea submersible Alvin, which among other things, in 1966 located a nuclear bomb off the coast of Spain, mislaid by a United States B-52 bomber after a midair collision. It later discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents and the strange chemosynthesis ecosystems that surround them and, in 1985, carried out a systematic exploration of the Titanic. Then there is the National Marine Fisheries Service, enhancing, regulating and inventorying the northeast fisheries stocks since 1871. The Marine Biological Lab is less attention grabbing, and little known to the public, though it boasts no fewer than 60 Nobel Laureates.

Our trip in the Herreshoff came to an end, and soon we were at my friend’s house, for a promised dinner with her family. I cannot tell you anything about what I was served as an entrée, or what most of the conversation was about. However, I can tell you that I learned that the house had been recently passed down by my hostess’s grandfather, who had died the year before. Like so many around here, he had received a Nobel Prize, in his case for the discovery of the antibiotic properties of streptomycin. Nobel Prize aside, among his many other honours was the Star of the Rising Sun, bestowed upon him by Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Hirohito’s son, Crown Prince Akihito had even sat at the table at which I was dining.

Emperor Hirohito was a marine biologist, and had started his pursuit as a young boy. He had his own lab constructed so he could study the subject throughout his life, including the war years. Akihito was no stranger to the subject either. He had officially visited Woods Hole on three separate occasions, starting as far back as 1953 when he was presented with a rare deep-sea fish in a bottle of formaldehyde by the Woods Hole Oceanographic. I was flabbergasted. I think few Americans had any idea that Japan’s imperial family had any interest in marine biology and had such prolonged contact with this distant promontory on Cape Cod.

I had to ask my hosts what this prince was like.
“A nice fellow”, they said. “Naturally, there was a language barrier but he seemed to be a happy sort.”
“How did he look?” I asked.
“Slender, like you, and wore a blue jean jacket just like you’re wearing now.”

How could this be? I had seen many productions of the Mikado and knew that when the son of the Emperor of Japan traveled in disguise it was as a second trombone, not dressed like me – a former helmsman of the research vessel Chain, who was now working as a part-time police officer while attending Northeastern University in Boston.

***

It was October 4th, 1975, and another cloudless bright blue autumn day. I was walking up Harbor Hill, the upper section of Water Street, Woods Hole. Next to me was the Falmouth Police Department’s junior sergeant, who normally commanded the community’s midnight shift. We were heading to Woods Hole’s only coffee shop.

Most of the preliminary preparation had been done. All the cars that had been parked on either Water Street or MBL Street had been towed. Sawhorses had been erected to prohibit traffic entry, and part-time police officers ensured no one went beyond them. Rope lines had been placed at strategic spots where the motorcade would be accessible to view to authorized viewers.

A month prior, I had been called by the Falmouth Police Department’s captain of operations. He needed manpower. He was mobilizing every man he could get from his regular officers, provisional officers and auxiliary police officers for the 124th heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the longest reigning monarch of Japan. Michinomiya Hirohito was coming to town, with his wife, the Empress Nagako.

The plan was that the Emperor’s motorcade would drive down Water Street, stop at the Wood Hole Oceanographic’s Redfield Laboratory. There, he would exit his limousine, go in and discuss marine biology with some leading scientists in his field. The Oceanographic had a lab all set up for him, including a bathroom specially designed for this very occasion, nicknamed The Royal Flush. Once the science had been taken care of, the Emperor would be back in his limousine headed further down Water Street to the Marine Biological Laboratory’s (MBL) library in the Lillie Building. He would enter the library and be given a precious pickled tunicate (sea squirt) from the top brass of both research institutions.
Concomitantly, the Empress would be up in Falmouth proper, at the historic home of Katherine Lee Bates, composer of ‘America the Beautiful,’ to  be presented with some silver candle sticks carved with the MBL logo.  The silversmiths were a local couple, the Panis’s, who lived on several acres of wooded and elaborately gardened land next to the town’s colonial cemetery. On occasion, I had helped Mrs. Panis with her weeding – a very short, round, and elderly woman. The couple lived in a small white house not much bigger than a doll’s, where they kept their jewelry patterns for rings and brooches in an old tobacco tin. If the empress was to receive a gift from anyone in town, I couldn’t imagine anyone more delightful to bestow it.

Regrettably, the sergeant and I never made it to the coffee shop. As we were about to open the door, six Massachusetts State Police cruisers were let through the upper Water Street barricade. They came with their blue strobe lights flashing. This struck us as showboating, due to it being early morning and the street had been cleared of people. There was no one about to be impressed by the display but other cops. These units then parked at an oblique angle, totally ignoring the painted parking lines, in front of a local tourist bar, The Captain Kidd. In unison, the troopers exited their cruisers, formed up into two columns and began to march. When they were finished with their parade, most of them went up to their positions on various rooftops with sniper rifles.

At this point, their ranking officer noticed the sergeant and me, still by the coffee shop. He hailed us, and then came over and discussed the upcoming event. As he put it, “I don’t like guarding this son of a bitch, but my job requires that I do so. If someone offs the emperor I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
He then mentioned that three former Canadian prisoners of war, who had been held at a Japanese internment camp during World War II, had been stopped at the US border. Their plan was to be at this event and do something the trooper wasn’t going to lose any sleep over. However, he then quickly added that the men he had selected for the rooftop assignments had no fathers who fought in the Pacific theatre during World War II. I thought, “That was a bit harsh,” as the head trooper departed to attend to his other duties.   

At that time, most of Woods Hole, and the rest of the nation, were still buying the official line of the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur. His spin was that the emperors were always just puppets under the thumb of strong military generals. So, Hirohito didn’t cause the war or actively participate in any major decision making. He was just required to rubber-stamp things. MacArthur even went to the length of persuading Hirohito not to acknowledge his responsibility for the war. Having the Emperor of Japan brought before The Tokyo War Crimes Trials would have caused considerable heartburn for the American occupation forces in Japan.

Not long after the trooper’s departure, the sawhorses on the upper barricade were pulled open again. Now it was time for the school buses. A long line of yellow buses was admitted onto Water Street. The first was filled with reporters, their cameras sticking out the various windows and clicking away. The next series of buses contained ‘Save the Whale’ people. That year, Greenpeace had started its campaign to end whale hunting, but like Norway and the Soviet Union, Japan wanted nothing to do with it.

These Save the Whale folks were to be my particular problem. They had been granted space within a roped barricade in an area off Water Street that became known as Peace Park. It was one of the few strips of land on Water Street with a clear view of the ocean and the outlying Elizabeth Islands.
As the sergeant and I headed down the sidewalk to our assigned positions we passed the Woods Hole Pharmacy. There, a strange looking young man opened the door to the drug store and entered. His chin had a couple days growth, he wore a black motorcycle jacket, and most curiously, he wore a pink knitted cap replete with brim and a pompom on top. When he entered the store, I could partially see into one of his coat pockets. It was a fleeting glance, and I wasn’t really sure of what I had seen. Was it a gun? Or was that just the sheen from a package of cigarettes? I resolved to keep an eye out for him.

At this point, the sergeant went off to his station, the Redfield Building, where the emperor would first arrive, as I headed down to Peace Park. Once there, a couple of provisional officers and myself began the process of herding cats – the cats being the protestors. They really wanted to be on the street. One of them kept engaging me in a conversation about Japan’s whale killing. I kept telling him that there was nothing I could do about Japan’s maritime policies. He then began sticking his foot beyond the rope line.

“What would you do if I go out into the street?” he asked. “Would you arrest me?”

“I would arrest you,” I answered.
My assigned position was very close to the steps of the Lillie Building, where Hirohito would make his public appearance. Closer to those steps was the roped-off press area. Two fulltime officers were stationed there.

They turned to me, and admonished, “Remember, never take your eye off the crowd. When the emperor comes out refrain from looking at him. Keep your eye on the crowd.”
As I resolved to heed the experienced advice of these veteran cops, the Japanese security team made its presence known – a well-tailored group of men in dark suits, led by one man in a light-coloured suit.

The people who had been allowed to assemble up the road at the Redfield Building began clapping and cheering as the black limousines pulled in front of the building.

Down on my end, the one protestor was still pestering me with his version of the Hokey Pokey — put your right foot in, take your right foot out. Put your left foot in and shake it all about.
The Save the Whale crowd was getting agitated, but it was too early for them to raise their signs and begin chanting. I then felt the presence of someone directly behind me. As I turned, I discovered that it was the man in the light-colored suit, and he was some angry. He gestured wildly. I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying. Somehow, we had a serious problem. There were so many people he could have vented to, like those two veteran officers near me, or perhaps my sergeant, or that top ranking trooper, but he for some reason latched onto me, the person with the least authority in the entire bunch.

Following his lead, I left my post and hurried with him to the backend of MBL Street. There was a sawhorse there with some sort of Falmouth Police officer stationed next to it. I’d never seen this guy before. He was far too old to still be in uniform, and his uniform looked even older. I asked him who he was, and he told me that he was the father of one of the regular officers. Not sure how he got the barricade job – perhaps sworn in just for the occasion? You only needed a week’s training and passing a state exam to be a provisional. Even the town hall janitor had once flashed a badge at me. So, I guessed it was all legit. I dare say that the chief of Japan’s security had better qualifications, and his beef was that this fellow was allowing anyone who wanted to see the emperor to go beyond the official police sawhorse. They were lining up near the steps of the Lillie Building – the best seats in the house if you wanted to see the emperor. I told the well-meaning officer to knock it off, then went back to sort out the unwanted gawkers.
When I made it back to my post, I saw him…the man in the black leather coat with the pink pompom knit hat. He was right amongst my Save the Whale people. I asked two other provisionals who were working with me to follow me into the crowd. As I sidled behind the fellow with the outlandish pink hat, I got a good look into that suspicious pocket of his. There was a gun. Immediately I commanded him to put his hands into the air as I lifted my revolver from its holster.
“I’m a trooper!” he said in sort of a loud, but hushed style voice, as though no one would notice he was now surrounded by cops.
“Oh, yeah? Well if you are a trooper why wasn’t I told you were in my crowd?”
“It was to be kept a secret.”

I sent one of the other provisionals to go get the head trooper while the rest of us kept this guy’s hands up.

Yep. He was a trooper. His boss came down, nodded his head, and then walked back up Water Street.

“Why are you dressed in such an outlandish getup?” I asked him in amazement.

“I was told that Woods Hole is filled with Hippies. I thought I’d blend in with the Save the Whale people.”

His cover blown, I left him as an oddity amongst the Save the Whale people, and returned to my spot in front of the protestors.

Shortly after came the roar of more cheering up the street. I glanced towards the Redfield building and saw that the scientific discussion had apparently ended. The limousines were coming down to the Lillie Building.
Everything was now happening behind me. I could hear car doors opening and closing. People were applauding and some were booing. The planned speech under the portico of the Lillie Building was now taking place.

There I was, my back turned to one of the most significant people in the history of the 20th century, and I wasn’t allowed to look at him. I was just to keep my eyes on the protestors and the fake hippie trooper. Even after the conclusion of World War II many Japanese still considered Hirohito to be of divine origin. For much of his life his subjects averted their eyes in his presence. Here I was probably the only person left on the planet still doing so. I had to take a glance. Just for a second. Capture the moment. You know, “Yes, I saw the emperor of Japan.”
As I turned my head to see what was happening behind me, I saw that the two veteran officers, who warned me about doing what I was doing now, had left their posts in front of the news media people, and had sauntered up to the foot of the stairs leading up to the portico. They were totally engrossed with the ceremony, arms folded over their chests, listening to every word being spoken.

Hirohito at Woods Hole. Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Well, the emperor was handed the precious pickled tunicate. The show was over. In a few weeks Hirohito would be down in Orlando, Florida being escorted through Disney World by Mickey Mouse. The emperor would live on for fourteen more years. In 1989, Akihito would ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

As is tradition with Japanese emperors, Michinomiya Hirohito was given a posthumous name after his death. It would be Showa. His reign would be titled the Showa Era, which translates into “Bright Peace” – which is a bit odd if you consider that the wars Hirohito engaged in cost an estimated loss of life somewhere between three million and ten million people.

Irony seems to be the nature of human history. In 1964, the Japanese government awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun to Air Force General “Bombs Away Le May” Curtis Lemay. They did so even though he was responsible for the strategic bombing of Japan, specifically the firebombing of the paper houses in Tokyo. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people died there, with another estimate of half a million deaths for the entire bombing operation.

Then there is also the case of General Minoru Genda, who was the military architect for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Twenty years after the attack, he was awarded the Legion of Merit by the United States Air Force. By the way, the Legion of Merit is one step above the Distinguished Flying Cross, and is meant to be awarded for exceptional meritorious conduct.
So, all in all, I think things worked out. I mean, Hirohito’s actions had the highest body count, so he only got a sea squirt pickled in a jar of formaldehyde.    

How The Napoleon of Notting Hill can educate us

In an 1874 letter to members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, who founded the congregation in 19th century France, spoke about the “radical denial of the rights of God” in the post-revolutionary period. Society then – as now – did not understand the order of things and did “not want the truth to serve as its bedrock.” And he observed that “ever since society ceased to rest on this doctrinal foundation, we can see…the resulting turmoil.”

Like other thinkers and figures of the time, d’Alzon recognized that the disenchantment of the world caused profound disorder. His solution to this was to “proclaim everywhere in the world the rights of God, of Jesus Christ and of his Church.” To do this, the Assumptionists had to focus on education in all its forms. Elsewhere, d’Alzon had written that “humanity needs to be taught, but first we need to give humanity a heart of flesh, as Scripture says, to replace the one becoming like stone in its chest.”

I open with d’Alzon for two reasons. First, I am indebted to the Assumptionists and d’Alzonian thinking; I was educated by the Assumptionists at Assumption College in Massachusetts, now Assumption University, and briefly considered a vocation to the congregation. Secondly, I believe his observations on the turmoil of the modern period have much to teach both intellectuals and artists.

D’Alzon can help us approach art because art, good and bad, has an educative dimension to it, particularly a moral one. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take a moment to compare him to T.S. Eliot. In Religion and Literature, Eliot observes that modern literature seems to express “no higher ideal to set before us than [absolute liberty].” It has been “corrupted by…Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” If we are exposed to this and do not think seriously about what we are reading, then, Eliot says, we will receive an improper formation, one that puts us at odds with the Truth. Emmanuel d’Alzon would likely agree with Eliot and has, in fact, used artistic language to talk about the seriousness of human formation. He has noted that the soul is “like a block of marble” that like the sculptor’s block can be chipped away meticulously until it becomes a work of art.

A good example of a novel that can shape the reader and demonstrate where we moderns have become unmoored is G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In the aforementioned essay, Eliot identifies Chesterton as a propagandist, used in its original sense to mean propagation of the faith. But despite its rather overt sensibility, the novel works quite well for my purposes.

It’s apt to describe The Napoleon of Notting Hill as a story about education and ideas – in particular, the Christian idea.

Before the novel – which is set 80 years after its publication date – begins in earnest, Chesterton’s introductory note runs through a litany of modern “prophets,” each of whom has offered a particular vision of what the future might look like – from H.G. Wells saying “science would take charge of the future” to Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do.” These are all attempts at what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the Eschaton.”  [Editor’s Note: From A New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin, 1952: “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” The term “immanentizing the Eschaton” would become a satirical way of describing utopian thinking.]  

That so many people would strive for utopian solutions makes sense, because, like d’Alzon, Chesterton would have encountered similar disordered thinking. Ideas take root and spread. All these “prophets,” having jettisoned God, still needed to find ultimate meaning, in the form of capital-s Science or something else. But the order of things cannot be separated from God, and human life cannot be reduced to a series of predictions and numbers. Reality is deeper than ideological fads, and life is not a series of “cold mechanic happenings,” to quote from Chesterton’s poem he includes as an epigraph. Instead, it’s all bound by joy.

The novel opens in a London “almost exactly like what it is now.” Chesterton’s third-person narrator tells us that the people of this time have “absolutely lost faith in revolutions” and instead have accepted “Evolution,” in the sense that any changes must be done “slowly and safely,” as in nature. This flattening of the human spirit had resulted in the death of democracy, because “no one minded the governing class governing.” England, seemingly a world-bestriding colossus, because it seems to have conquered Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicaragua, was “now practically a despotism, but not a hereditary one.” The narrator tells us that “someone in the official class was made king.” The passive voice there suggests the passivity of the population, and indeed, in the next sentence, the narrator says that “no one cared how; no one cared who.” We then learn that, unsurprisingly, “everything…had become mechanical.”

Into this comes Auberon Quin, a comic figure whom the narrator describes as godson of “the King of the Fairies.” Apparatchiks of the regime arrive at Quin’s house and, to the shock of the people present, announce that he has been named king. Later that day, King Auberon makes a humorous speech in which he announces his desire to save “from extinction a few old English customs.” He suggests a form of local patriotism, in which each borough of London “shall immediately build a city wall with gates to be closed at sunset.” These places will be “armed to the teeth” and will “have a banner, a coat of arms, and, if convenient, a gathering cry.” Intellectuals turn “purple with laughter,” while others are “purple with indignation.” Most have their “minds a blank.” But not one Adam Wayne, who is there watching with “burning blue eyes.” He takes Quin very seriously.

It makes sense that Wayne would take Quin seriously. A mechanized, flat world is an inhuman world. People float through it like seaweed in the deep, because they have been given nothing to believe in. This is a world that isn’t foreign to us, but nor was it foreign to Chesterton or d’Alzon. The latter, in discussing his vocation to the priesthood – he founded the Assumptionists and became a religious later – observed that France had become a “decrepit machine.” Because it was “dangerous to try to repair,” he reasoned that the best approach would be to become a priest and press on the culture “with all the weight of the rights it had no authority to give.”

For d’Alzon, humanity is “deeply wounded” by “indifference and ignorance,” both of which “imply a total lack of faith.” His solution to this, as was mentioned, was to provide a serious education, one that would “penetrate” the world with “the Christian idea.” It would otherwise be in danger of collapsing. D’Alzon’s description of France and of his vocation should remind us of what Chesterton says about England in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are striking similarities of language: machine, indifference, a loss of faith.

Another point of comparison: the reactions to d’Alzon’s decision to become a priest mirrored the reactions to Quin’s speech. He was from an aristocratic family. People were shocked that, as they saw it, he would renounce his inheritance to become a priest. In an 1830 letter, D’Alzon had chided a friend for not wanting “at all to be reasonable,” going as far to say, “I scare you in a priest’s robe.” In the same letter, he offers his thoughts on the state of France. In addition to describing France as a “decrepit machine,” he observed that “sovereignty did not exist any more in the Palais Bourbon than at the Tuileries.” This was a “society that was so sick, one could have influence only in separating oneself completely.”

The England of the novel is also a sick society and one that truly lacks sovereignty. In effect,  Quin is providing a kind of education. The fact that he views things as a joke fits his character as a “Fairy.” But fairy tales themselves – and Chesterton wants to link The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the fairy tale tradition – discuss very serious things. In his essay “Fairy Tales,” [Editor’s Note: Included in his 1908 book, All Things Considered], Chesterton points out that “if you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.” He closes the essay by observing that fairy tales find “the great mystical basis for all Commandments.”

Quin’s speech, then, awoke something in Adam Wayne. To use d’Alzonian and scriptural language, you could say that Quin replaced Wayne’s heart of stone with one of flesh. And because his kingship sets off the events of The Napoleon of Notting Hill –Wayne decides to lead a rebellion, and this inspires others – we might say that Quin has effectively brought about a re-enchantment of the world. Indeed, Wayne says as much, both at the beginning of the novel and at its end. He says Quin has given him a desire to “fight for something greater,” noting that “this leadership and liberty of Notting Hill is a gift from your Majesty.” Wayne has been reminded that the purpose of human life is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has noted,” is one of “greatness.” And he thus sees that there is a “mystical basis for all Commandments.” Now fully awakened, he believes these things are worth fighting for.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, this was the exact purpose of an education, which he called a “great and magnificent work.” Through this, “we refashion the being of our students.” D’Alzon hoped the world would “receive [the Christian idea] by individuals who will be taken up with it.”

Adam Wayne was taken up by this idea of Quin’s, and it reshaped the world as it is. He brings it from a mechanized, empty flatness to “fairyland” and “elfland.” It leads to a re-enchantment and, à la d’Alzon, reorders the being of the world.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that both Wayne and Quin function as a dual symbol of “fairyland,” which, as Chesterton observes in “Fairy Tales,” is “a world at once of wonder and of war.” Wayne remarks that he and Quin “are not two men but one man.” He continues, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

It is not merely that you, the humorist, have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic, have had to grope without humour. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing. We are the father and mother of the Charter of the Cities.

In effect, he is saying that the complete picture of the created order is a place “of wonder and war.” This is the full picture of human life. Quin and Wayne broke the mechanized imposter that, demiurge-like, was posing as the created order and made things real again.

How, then, does The Napoleon of Notting Hill educate the reader, both then and in the present? Chesterton deliberately sets the novel in a London not far removed from the one of 1904 and peppers it with real places, in addition to references to real people. The reader from 1904 would then be able to recognize his world in the text. Then, if he is attentive, he would start to ask questions: are things detached and mechanized? Where do we find meaning today? What is the cause and purpose of my life? Am I ordering my life toward good and appropriate things? And so on. We do have a real-life example of this. According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, was inspired by the novel to seek Irish independence.

But despite its references to early 20th century things, this is not a novel that is time-locked. We can read it and still be edified; the problems discussed by d’Alzon, Eliot, and Chesterton have persisted.

Consider Quin’s reflection during Adam Wayne’s initial audience with him at the beginning of the novel. He says that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” This madness consists of being obsessive about politics, caring for money, and thinking yourself right. These of course are perennial human concerns, but then Quin gets specific. He accuses people of trying to “spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, by becoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and more bustling and rational.” This joke-spoiling and bullying has of course accelerated greatly since Chesterton’s time – leading to confusion and unhappiness, and eventually maybe even destruction.

As the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, “in the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.” She continues: “It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

We can objectively call this true. The 20th century was one of theories, each of which, like Chesterton’s prophets, attempted to bring about utopia, but instead led to millions and millions of deaths. But this confusion has persisted. As Walker Percy observed inhis posthumously-published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, ours is a “deranged age…because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

In 2017, in an essay for Crux on both d’Alzon and education, I pointed out that the Department of Education lists its purpose as “foster[ing] student achievement” and “preparation for global competitiveness.” I observed that we tend to see education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Seven years on, the US Department of Education still lists its purpose as “preparation for global competitiveness.” Then, as now, these are buzzwords, but they also tell us something about how we view education:  a mere means to an end, a way to place people into a culture with only the basest of aspirations. When we are taught that there are no higher things, we will be led to believe that life is a mechanized existence, as described by both Chesterton and d’Alzon.

In a way, it’s all more of the same. Various techno-utopians have proposed that the solution to the human condition is to place us in a “metaverse,” where we’d live our lives in virtual reality. In City Journal, Jacob Howland has detailed the “destruction” of the University of Tulsa, where he holds emeritus status. Entire programs were eliminated or consolidated into minors: Greek, Latin, philosophy, religion. This, he pointed out, will result in students who are “credentialed, but…not…educated.” Sadly, his university is not unique.

But what are the results of this? A profound sense of malaise, particularly among the young.

Perhaps reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill – and having a good teacher discuss the novel with students – might provide a way forward for students who are feeling stifled by our deranged age. It would show them that the ideas that undergird our modern culture are ones that flatten the human spirit. They would not have to become revolutionaries or leaders of statelet neighborhoods, like Michael Collins or Adam Wayne, but perhaps they could be awakened to the idea that there is something profound about human existence. This is the purpose of good art and literature–to show people that there is a higher ideal than Eliot’s “absolute liberty” – because absolute liberty is  little more than nihilism.

I can speak to this. I felt a sense of aimlessness when I’d finished high school, with vague ideas about becoming a doctor or a politician, but then, while at Assumption, I received two gifts, which cannot be separated:  the Catholic faith, which I reverted to as a student, and liberal education. My professors – although not trickers or jokesters! – were my Quins. They awakened something in me and gave my life a telos. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberal education is often deemed a kind of lunacy. Quin and Wayne were seen as lunatics, but Auberon Quin notes that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” I am thankful that I pursued this “madness,” and was given access to the truth.

An education that featured books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill would send readers and students on a search, resulting in a deeper engagement with tradition, and helping settle the turmoil of our age. It might help sweep away the sadness and hopelessness that plague so many people today, by reminding us that the world is enchanted, and guiding us along “the starry streets that point to God.”

Keystone State – Pennsylvania’s place in old and new America

Image: Derek Turner

The widely-travelled American author Bayard Taylor wrote in 1866 about his native region:

The country life of our part of Pennsylvania retains more elements of its English origin than that of New England or Virginia. Until within a few years, the conservative influence of the Quakers was so powerful that it continued to shape the habits even of communities whose religious sentiment it failed to reach. [i]

In my boyhood years of the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent a lot of time in a rural section of Taylor’s Chester County, where my Quaker ancestors settled over 300 years ago, and where some close family members were still living. The farms there seemed well-ordered and prosperous, life moved at a slower pace, and there was a quiet, gentle, modest quality in many of the people whom I encountered. The rolling fields, haunted woods, and centuries-old homes always drew my attention. These landscapes were sometimes lush, and at other times they showed a stark beauty. Andrew Wyeth piercingly portrayed that latter quality in the adjoining Chadd’s Ford region, in “Pennsylvania Landscape, 1941,” and depictions of the Kuerner Farm.

During my teen years, I noticed that the east-coast Megalopolis was encroaching on this area. New housing developments, shopping strips, and busier roads presented glaring, distracting contrasts, but didn’t completely break the spell yet. I learned that utopia means “no place,” and is not a reasonable expectation where any humans go to and fro, but still there had been something special here, independent of but intertwined with my own nostalgia.

One day, around the year 2000, I was driving along an old, sunken Chester County road, a canopy of overarching trees above. I slowed to a stop when I saw a few horses walking across the way ahead. The riders, proceeding to or from a fox hunt, were dressed immaculately in scarlet coats, and they all politely doffed their caps at me as I waited for them to cross. Not a sight that one expects in most of today’s America.

Living a few hours away, in a congested, grimy, industrial city, I still had to remind myself that this rural spot wasn’t a utopia. Sorrow, conflict, poverty – these things, of course, are to be expected everywhere. But there was that pleasing blend of qualities that kept drawing me back to Chester County as an adult, long after my close relatives there had died. Along with the beautiful landscapes and the pleasant old architecture, there was an embattled, intangible something which had lingered on here and there. Compared with other places I had lived, there had been a balance and proportion – order along with freedom, well-preserved nature amid agriculture, and some communities that stayed within a smaller, more humane scale. Was it the same quality that Bayard Taylor had described?

William Penn in 1666

Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn probably wouldn’t have approved of fox-hunting, but he revered the fundamental liberties and rule of law—sometimes violated, sometimes renewed—which Englishmen had inherited since the days of Magna Carta and before. Penn had been a studious, reflective boy, and he acquired an appreciation for history and the classics. He was convinced that substantial elements of liberty, and law based upon consent, stretched back to the Anglo-Saxons, and then further back to some of the Britons who met Julius Caesar. He praised the English who had been “as resolute to keep, as their Ancestors had been careful to make those excellent Laws.”[ii] While urging the protection of that English constitution, along with his concept of “liberty of conscience,” Penn insisted that limits must also be established to preserve peace, civil order, and virtue. According to Penn biographer Andrew Murphy,

Penn’s radical argument for liberty of conscience always sat alongside a conventional, even austere, notion of personal morality. Denunciations of sin and vice went hand in hand with calls for the toleration of conscientious dissent, and the two campaigns mutually reinforced each other.[iii]

Penn’s liberty of conscience meant that English citizens should be allowed to freely seek, worship and meet their own obligations to God, as long as they were not acting treasonably. He worked tenaciously for many years on behalf of his ideals, getting arrested several times in the process. In an England with an established church, following decades of severe religious conflict, liberty of conscience seemed radical and threatening to some, but Penn was no revolutionary. He believed that while all were equal before God, society was naturally hierarchical due to human variation. Along with other Quakers of his day, he valued private property, family, and of course those English liberties. Although Whiggish, and hoping for a more meritocratic society rather than ranks based upon birth, he was loyal to Charles II, and developed a close, friendly, working relationship with Charles’ brother and successor James.

The young Penn had been groomed by his father to rise in the lofty circles of Charles’ court, but he disappointed his parents when he converted to Quakerism as a young man. Quakers were looked upon with suspicion by many Anglicans, and were among the religious dissenters in England who continued to be severely persecuted by Parliament, Anglican authorities, and some magistrates after the Restoration, although Charles and James favored toleration.

Along with that persecution, Penn was troubled by the licentiousness which came out in the open, after moral standards had loosened following Charles’s Restoration. During the social and political unrest which erupted against Catholics and other dissenters in 1678, he wrote to fellow Quakers in England that he feared God would punish the nation for rampant immorality. He also hoped that the virtues of his comrades and other “conscientious and well-inclined people” would “shine unto others, in these uneven and rough times that are come, and coming,” and that God would therefore show mercy. Like the Puritan John Winthrop, who had earlier led the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Penn believed that he and his fellow Friends “must show ourselves to be that Little City and Hill of God.” He urged them to resist worldly temptations, and act as good examples:

Let us be careful not to mingle with the crowd, lest their spirit enter us instead of our spirit entering them…. Yet can we not be unsensible of their infirmities, as well as we shall not be free from some of their sufferings; we must make their case as our own, and travel alike in spirit for them as for ourselves.[iv]

Within a few years, Penn had an opportunity to try to make those dreams a reality on a large scale, by forming the new colony of Pennsylvania.

In 1681, as Penn was devising Pennsylvania’s initial constitution and laws, he wrote to settlers already in the colony that, “whatever sober and free men can reasonably desire for the security and improvement of their own happiness I shall heartily comply with.”[v] “Reasonably” was key, and his government would have a significant role to play in buttressing morality. In his Preface to the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, Penn stated, “Liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.” His first set of laws for Pennsylvania stated that “offenses against God…, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and unreligion, shall be respectively discouraged and severely punished.” Such offenses included foul language, drunkenness, fornication, gambling and other activities, as well as crimes such as assault, murder and treason. Clearly, government was to have a punitive role, as well as positively encouraging virtue, yet everything hinged on the nature of the people. Penn also wrote in his Preface, “Let men be good and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill they will change it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.” This was echoed years later by the American founder John Adams, who wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[vi]

Penn elaborated on why government should circumscribe human behavior: “There can be no pretense of conscience to be drunk, to whore, to be voluptuous, to game, to swear, curse, blaspheme, and profane,” since such behaviors “lay the ax to the root of humane society, and are the common enemies of mankind.”[vii] Not all of us with a traditional bent will agree that all forms of gaming contribute to the undermining of a society, but many of us would agree that Penn’s general principle is sound.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, there were “comparatively few crimes against morality or order” in Pennsylvania and Quaker New Jersey before 1755:

At the same time that the laws of the Quaker colonies were comparatively mild as regards capital punishment, they punished very harshly acts of disorder in which one citizen intruded upon the peace of another In Pennsylvania, penalties for crimes of sexual violence against women were exceptionally severe. The lash was used abundantly… Something of this Quaker testimony of peace and order entered permanently into the cultural fabric of the Delaware Valley…. Rates of violent crime remained comparatively low. [viii]

English Quakers were not the only inhabitants of early Pennsylvania. Before Penn’s proprietorship, along with Indians, there were Dutch, Finns, Swedes and English Anglicans present. Germans, Welsh and Irish soon arrived. Penn was beleaguered by political discord that arose in his new colony, even within the Quaker communities. His own sometimes combative and disorganized nature didn’t always help matters, nor did his need to spend much time away in England, defending his proprietorship and handling other concerns. Factions formed, ethnic and religious strife occurred, and conflict with neighboring colonies flared and continued for several years.

Is it a stretch to say that Penn’s principles, along with those of his fellow Quakers, helped encourage and maintain that “arcadian” quality that I witnessed? The ethnic and religious troubles in early Pennsylvania subsided eventually, as the English and Protestant culture took root and maintained its predominance for a long while, with that special Quaker influence that Taylor emphasized. In the American colonies, cultural variations among discrete groups of English colonists such as Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Borderers clearly resulted in regional differences, which continued long after the American Revolution.[ix] The distinctive cultural aspects of the Society of Friends shaped, and were shaped by, Penn’s thought and actions. An important element of the liberty which Quakers offered, and with which they differed from others such as the Puritans, was what Fischer called “reciprocal liberty,” meaning that “every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.”[x] Penn’s liberty of conscience was one example of this general principle. And along with Quaker political and religious tenets, so many of their social characteristics continued, from their early years in England on into the 20th century. Penn’s appreciation for independent farmers, and a Quaker concern for the responsible use of one’s property, had an impact on the landscape of rural southeastern Pennsylvania. As I studied the Quakers of the 16th and 17th centuries, I was struck by how profoundly they had influenced my parents’ and grandparents’ ways and manners, as well as my own beliefs and preferences ranging from taste in dress to thoughts on social rank to yearnings for quiet, for social peace, and for order.

Historian Bruce Catton remarked that America has long had a significant “rowdy strain” in its population.[xi] This seems true, but from America’s early years onwards there were also those many quieter colonists, who made their own long-lasting cultural impact.

Today, in the counties first established under Penn’s proprietorship, other, rowdier cultural influences sometimes shout down the quiet, modest ideals of the Society of Friends, and the ordered liberty inherited from England. Yet not all the land is covered by concrete. And not all the words of William Penn have been thrown down the memory hole, at least not yet. In 2023, government bureaucrats tried to get rid of a statue of William Penn in a Philadelphia park. A public outcry ensued, which pressured politicians to stop this cultural vandalism for the time being. And although Bayard Taylor’s hometown of Kennett Square has changed substantially, his beautiful home, Cedarcroft, still stands.

Until a few years ago, I sometimes visited a grand, old oak tree on the grounds of the London Grove Meeting House, where Quakers had gathered since 1714. The tree was standing when William Penn was in North America, and I was saddened when I learned that it toppled in 2023. It was partly the loss of a beautiful, stately, historic, and gracious old tree that tugged at me. But was this also an omen, to be considered along with the rampant cultural destruction of recent decades? Then I learned that over the years, many people had collected acorns which that old oak had sired. And after its fall, more people traveled to the meeting-house grounds to collect more acorns, from this tree which had already nourished so many spirits.


i Taylor, Bayard, The Story of Kennett, 1866, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8680/pg8680-images.html#link2HCH0024

[ii] Penn, William, England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People, 1675, The Political Writings of William Penn, introduction and annotations by Andrew R. Murphy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/murphy-the-political-writings-of-william-penn

ii Murphy, Andrew, William Penn: A Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018: p. 133

[iv] Penn, William, To the children of light in this generation, called of God to be partakers of eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, and Light of the World, 1678, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11856.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[v] Penn, William, “To the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” April 8, 1681, The Papers of William Penn, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 84

[vi] Adams, John, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” Oct. 11, 1798, https://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/john-adams-religion-constitution

[vii] Penn, William, An address to protestants upon the present conjuncture in II parts, London, 1679, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A54098.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext

[viii] Fischer, David Hackett, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 586, 589

[ix] See Fischer for a very interesting, thorough examination of this

[x] Fischer, p. 603

[xi] Catton, Bruce, This Hallowed Ground, New York: Vintage Books, 2012

On Dante’s politics

Reconstruction of Dante’s face, at the Anfiteatro de Villa in Costa Rica. Wikimedia Commons

Many Catholics have come to reject liberalism. They see the ruins of postmodern culture – its atomization, its rejection of the transcendent, its radical individualism – and identify liberalism as its cause. They argue our cultural decay is too great, and it requires radical solutions, and so they say we will be unable to reverse secularization unless we overthrow liberalism. Their solution to this is to put the Church in charge of the temporal order, a solution often referred to as “integralist.”

Dante Aligheri, author of The Divine Comedy, would likely take issue with this, because he was able to see first-hand how bad the Church was at governing. Dante was not just a great poet, but also a statesman and political philosopher, notably having written Monarchia, a text in which he discussed the nature of religious and political authority. Dante was also deeply involved in the affairs of the Republic of Florence, particularly with the clash between the White Guelphs, who favored less papal involvement and tended to welcome the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the opposite. Dante allied with the White Guelphs, which ultimately led to his exile.

In short, Dante was unlike a lot of twenty-first century writers and poets who tend to have beautiful prose and lines but quixotic politics. Instead, Dante was a nimble and interesting political thinker who, through his belief that the medieval Church was too involved in temporal affairs and that the political and spiritual should inform each other, seemed to anticipate such twentieth century Catholic political thinkers as the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Dante, by Adolfo de Carolis, 1920s

We can get a sense of Dante’s view of politics by doing a close reading of The Divine Comedy, a poem he intended to be viewed as a work of political philosophy. We’ll examine three sections of the poem: Dante’s colloquy with Boniface – Dante the poet (I’m phrasing it this way to distinguish the author from the character) and his presentation of the lowest circle of hell – and Dante’s argument in the Purgatorio that men behave badly when they are governed badly.

But before I begin in earnest, I’d like to turn to Ernest Fortin, A.A.’s seminal study of Dante’s politics, Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, in which he presents readers with not only Dante’s thought but also a history of medieval political and religious thinking. Fortin argues that Dante’s chief political project was to understand how both Church and state relate to one another. He says:

Dante has no more pressing concern than to show that the emperor receives his authority directly from God and that consequently he exercises it by his own sovereign right and not in the name of the Church. His argument begins from the principle that man has two ends: one natural and the other supernatural. The knowledge required for him to attain them comes to him through two bodies endowed for this purpose by divine wisdom: the imperial authority and the Church. The first leads to happiness in this world through philosophical instruction, the second to eternal happiness through spiritual teaching.

Fortin, p82

In the Middle Ages, though, there was no clear-cut definition of Church and state, the Church claimed a significant amount of power for itself. Consider, for instance, the Papal States. And Dante’s contemporary, Pope Boniface VII, in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, argued instead “for the total submission of princes to the sovereign pontiff.” Fortin says the question of the “two powers” of authority “absorbed Dante’s attention in great part.” (p81) And because Boniface VII, through his papal bull, essentially merged these authorities, Dante viewed him with scorn. He referred to him as “the prince of the new Pharisees” and a “usurper.” (p89)

Fortin suggests Dante believed that the Church, essentially, was too focused on the temporal. But there is also clear historical evidence of this. Fortin reminds us that Rome had “a habit of forging political alliances for its own aggrandizement” which had “the double effect of giving a bad example to its own followers and of neutralizing any effort which the temporal power could make to moderate its subjects’ worldly ambitions.” (p88) In fact, according to Fortin, Dante sought to depict the medieval Church, particularly the papacy, as “Geryon, the fabulous beast on whose shoulders Dante and Virgil pass from the seventh to the eighth circle of hell.” Fortin says:

The monster is invested with the most extraordinary features: he crosses mountains, pierces the thickest walls, destroys powerful armies, and afflicts the whole world. What does he represent? Fraud perhaps, as the text suggests in speaking of him as a “filthy effigy of fraud.” Sins of fraud are in fact punished in the infamous Malebolge the two travelers are about to enter. But the author seems to have something else in mind. If there is any institution in the Middle Ages whose power penetrates everywhere, shatters weapons and fortresses, and makes itself felt beyond mountains, it is the Church. Could it be that in the monster’s features Dante sought to depict the abomination that the medieval papacy had become for him?

Fortin, p89

The answer, of course, is yes. Fortin writes that, in Dante’s description of Geryon, “there is no mistaking the description of the animal’s body, which recalls very nicely the papal vestments of the time, the sleeves of which were covered with ermine and the sides decorated with knotted strips and medallions.” (p90)

Dante’s view of both Boniface and the medieval institutional Church—and, consequently, what happens when the Church becomes too interested in temporal affairs—becomes clear in Canto XIX of the Inferno, where we meet the aforementioned pope. Boniface is in one of the lowest circles of hell, in a space reserved for the simoniacal. The character of Dante denounces him, saying that his “avarice afflicts the world” and that it “tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” (p140) This is essentially an inversion of what we would normally read in the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” What Dante is saying here is that a Church that has become too focused on the here and now, a Church that has made itself “a god of gold and silver” (p140), is a Church that has diluted and even perverted its mission and so has become too interested in power qua power. 

Perhaps this is why Dante places Brutus, Cassius, and Judas at the lowest circle of hell, chewed by Satan. Brutus and Cassius, of course, betrayed Julius Caesar, leading to his assassination. And Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities, leading to his arrest and crucifixion. We might posit that this is Dante’s ultimate warning to the medieval Church—it has become like what it once stood against. Becoming too focused on political intrigue and power for the sake of power leads you to betray friends and confidants. It can even lead you to betray God himself. Ultimately, it all leads to damnation.

But this is something Dante too had to learn, since his involvement in the clash between the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs eventually led to his exile. Dante likely spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of things, and perhaps he authored The Divine Comedy as a means of sharing his reflections and to correct certain errors he had perceived. In Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Fortin says that Dante intended The Divine Comedy to be a work of political philosophy, his “aim” being

…none other than to teach men how they are to live or how they might leave the state of misery in which they languish for a better and happier state, or, as the Comedy states, how one goes from slavery to freedom, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity. Moreover, Dante was convinced that of all the senses to be found in his work, none was more useful than its moral sense.

Fortin, pps59-60

Dante, then, seems to have come to believe that the various disorders of the period were due to bad governance, which had handicapped human flourishing. And therein lies the paradox of the medieval Church, against which Dante had directed so much ire, in an attempt to get it to do better: the institution that should lead to human flourishing, since it was created by God Himself, in the form of Christ, was preventing it, because it had developed a horizontal gaze. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, Marco Lombardo says as much, telling Dante:

Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be malevolent; your nature is not corrupt, not prey to any fatal astral force. For Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns; and they made visible two paths – the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s. One has eclipsed the other; now the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together must of necessity result in evil

Purgatorio, XV1, lines 103-111

So Dante the author is saying that the various pathologies we can see in public life are not due to fate or to ‘the gods,’ but instead due to the misrule of the Church. It had “confounded two powers in itself,” which “must of necessity [have resulted] in evil.” (Fortin, p291)

Dante’s solution to this is to ask the Church, clerics and lay, to do better and to forget about its entanglements in political and worldly affairs. (Again, we can imagine that this is also self-directed, since Dante’s political projects brought him to his exile.) In the Paradiso, we observe that Beatrice counsels Christians to “proceed with greater gravity: do not be like a feather at each wind, nor think that all immersions wash you clean. You have both Testaments, the Old and New, you have the shepherd of the Church to guide you; you need no more than this for your salvation.” (p400) She warns Christians to not heed the summons of “evil greed” and to not be “like sheep gone mad.” (p400) And later in the Paradiso, in Canto IX, Cunizza da Romano says that “the pope and cardinals are intent. Their thoughts are never bent on Nazareth.” (p422) But she suggests things will change, noting that “the hill of Vatican as well…will soon be freed from priests’ adultery.” (p422)

Ultimately, it seems Dante wants the Church to be the Church and leave the governing to the nations – they can work together, but the Church had absorbed too much authority, becoming, as Fortin observed in his reading of Dante, a monstrous distortion of what it was and is supposed to be. In this way, Dante is not unlike John Courtney Murray, who had argued that the religious liberty of the United States was not a threat to the Church but would rather help it, in that it would allow people to pursue the good life properly, without coercion from an authority such as the Papal States.

Placing states in the hands of the Church means bad governance, which Dante demonstrates both in The Divine Comedy and other texts. Rather than bring about a kind of quasi-perfect state, wherein citizens would be totally directed toward God, who is Goodness, the power of governing would corrupt the Church, making it too interested in worldly affairs and thereby corrupt the people, who would become afflicted by all sorts of pathologies. So advocates of integralism might consider revisiting Dante Aligheri and his Divine Comedy. There they can see the results of their political-theological project. And then, rather than attempt to turn the Church into an empire, they might encourage it – its clerics, its religious, and its lay – to do and be better, so that they could go out and bring the peace and joy of the Gospel to the world yet again.

Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.

Anthony Burgess – The Professional

BENJAMIN AFER outlines an extraordinarily prolific and versatile author

Some weeks ago, I was offered a small commission by a respectable new journal to contribute a few thousand words on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but reluctantly deferred owing to considerable concern that a short essay composed under the duress of manic end-of-year busyness would result an inadequate treatment of such a monumental work. But when I was offered some column inches in this journal on the subject of Anthony Burgess, I accepted without hesitation. After all, Burgess has long been one of my most-admired authors, and I have more than a casual familiarity with his work, having read and re-read a good deal of his fiction many times over.

This cheerful attitude quickly fell into a tense anxiety when I realised, sitting down to write, that the great scope of Burgess’s œuvre would make this a more complicated and technically demanding matter than any essay on Proust. For even if Marcel still has Anthony pipped on word-count (and that’s not entirely certain), the latter’s ability to write masterful works in so many genres, in so many different styles, on endlessly varying subjects, in both fiction, non-fiction, symphonic music and poetry means that there is ample material for several lifetimes worth of Burgess-study. Both authors can be poked in the ribs, so to speak, with that infamous jibe given by a member of the royal family upon the presentation of yet another volume of Decline and Fall – “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Even Burgess’s socially mobile origin story is so uniquely mid-century that it requires hefty contextual explanation, and the subsequent biographical aspects seem to go on twisting and turning forever. We have Burgess the precocious Catholic schoolboy, Burgess the soldier, Burgess the lover, Burgess the adulterous scoundrel, Burgess the schoolmaster, Burgess the august television intellectual, Burgess the tax-dodging expatriate, Burgess the linguist, Burgess the Joyce expert, Burgess the librettist, Burgess the avant-garde composer, satirist and poet. At least Proust remained mercifully confined to his bed, doing little else but huffing Escouflaire [Ed. Anti-asthmatic medicines] and “scribble, scribble scribble.”

Indeed, this systematic under-appreciation of Anthony Burgess seems to be less a consequence of any mediocrity on his part and more a consequence of sheer befuddlement on the part of lazy critics, academics, and other taste-making ne’er-do-wells. There is no adjectival hole into which the man or his work can be easily pigeoned. As G.K. Chesterton said of the Christian ideal, Burgess has not been tried and found wanting. He has been found difficult, and left untried.

John Burgess Wilson (later confirmed into the Catholic Church with the middle name Anthony) was born in Manchester, in February 1917. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, died less than two years later of the Spanish Flu, and his father Joseph took up with Margaret Dwyer, the landlady of the pub in which he played the piano as an evening job. Though Joseph Wilson was by trade a shopkeeper dealing mainly in tobacco and alcohol (which kept the family out of poverty during the long depression years – “the poor always found money to drink”) Burgess always recalled his father as a frustrated composer, skilled enough to play all the favourite pub tunes and provide spontaneous accompaniment to silent films in the local picture house, but otherwise an archetypical mute inglorious. His self-description was always that of a composer who wrote books rather than a writer who dabbled in music.

Despite his father’s apparent gifts, Burgess remained ignorant to music as a whole until hearing a prelude by Debussy on his home-built radio. The attitude among lower-middle class Mancunians of the interwar years, both at home and at the Xaverian College to which the bookish young man had earned a scholarship, held against teaching music to young people – there was no realistic prospect of any money in it – so, undeterred and with characteristic bullheadedness, Burgess taught himself to play the piano at the age of 14.

Moreso than the solitariness of his schoolyears and the often-warlike relationship between himself and his stepmother (later given brilliantly repulsive illustration in the Enderby novels), Burgess was always quick to recall the Catholic, and particularly Irish, aspect of his background. At least one journalist joked that to hear Burgess talk of his home city, one would suppose that Manchester was a suburb of Dublin. With echoes of the late-century “Troubles literature” that familiarised many British and American readers with the largely self-generated Cagot-apartheid between denominations in Northern Ireland, Burgess recalled in print and on television interviews the automatic jeering and separation between “Cat-licks” and “Proddy-dogs” in Jazz Age Manchester, long before the children on either side of the dispute had any rational grounds to do so. Burgess’s father often took him aside and cautioned “Son, don’t give allegiance to any Hanoverian Protestant monarch. Your last monarch was James II.” It was taken both as a sort of nostalgic joke and as a deadly serious reminder of where the lines lay in the Britain of that era.

Once again hobbled in his ambitions to become a composer when the music department at Victoria University [Ed. Now part of the University of Manchester] turned down his application, he was instead taken in by the literature department in 1937, and a female economics student called Llewela “Lynne” Isherwood. Burgess was able to finish his degree before the inevitable call-up for National Service.

To put it plainly, the army did not suit him. He was constantly being arraigned for disciplinary offences and, most commonly, for overstaying his married leave. Despite his best efforts, the army promoted him to sergeant and found a place for him in the Educational Corps. Burgess’s flair for language earned him a posting in Gibraltar, working as a debriefer on behalf of stranded Dutch and French expatriates. A brief lock-up on the other side of Spanish border following an ill-advised tirade on the diminutive height and not-so-diminutive portliness of General Franco would be given its vicious counterpoint in an incident made famous by a disturbing quasi-literation in A Clockwork Orange: Lynne, still back in England and pregnant with the Burgess’s first child, was beaten and raped by a gang of marauding American deserters under the cover of the blackout, losing the baby as a consequence. Burgess, for reasons unknown, was denied home leave to see her. The horrifying inability to protect his wife or even comprehend the reasons for such an act seems to have given succour to Burgess’s mystical-Catholic belief in the existence of a pure evil that stalks out potential in every human being. Try to find any trace of rational-choice doctrine or liberal social-excuse theory in the following passage:

All right, Dim,’ I said. ‘Now for the other veshch, Bog help us all.’ So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up. Then after me it was right old Dim should have his turn, which he did in a beasty snorty howly sort of a way with his Peebee Shelley maskie taking no notice, while I held on to her. Then there was a changeover, Dim and me grabbing the slobbering writer veck who was past struggling really, only just coming out with slack sort of slovos like he was in the land in a milk plus bar, and Pete and Georgie had theirs.

These are not horrors to be explained away by some bunk about absentee fathers or inadequate youth-group opportunities. The bucking refutation of modern sociological ideas in A Clockwork Orange is, in my view, the true cause of the furore later kicked up around the hitherto modestly known book when the Stanley Kubrick film appeared. As Burgess himself noted, the Russell-esque socially liberal literati, who normally kept their safe, snobbish distance from those poor working-class underdogs whom they supposedly championed, took great personal offence at the character of Alex – an obviously intelligent, strategically minded-young man with two loving parents and an orgasmic appreciation for “lovely Ludwig van.” They were forced to see, not as they usually did a violent, irrational sub-species in need of a good Pygmalion-job, but instead a character they themselves identified with.

A Clockwork Orange takes the territory explored by Dostoyevsky via Raskolnikov to a logical end by removing even the pretence of a reason for what Alex does. Unlike the would-be Übermensch Raskolnikov, there are no delusions of grandeur to Alex. His material needs are well-satisfied, and he delights in the pleasure of violence itself rather than violence as a means to an end like robbery or survival. He indulges in evil acts more or less for their own sake. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but simply fails to consider why such a contrast should impede him. More chillingly to the modern progressive mind, Burgess takes a firm stand on the human necessity that Alex be able to choose to live in such a way. A further insult is levelled at the intelligentsia by the way in which their “Ludovico Treatment” gives us a stronger feeling of nausea and repulsion than any of the crimes committed by young Alex, because the former is a hideous restriction on any moral choice that renders the victim an eponymous clockwork orange – only superficially organic and alive. By contrast, the ultra-violence and juvenile thuggery of the Droogs is all-too-human. Their lives are an expression of forces that cannot be created or destroyed; merely redirected; a fact so wonderfully illustrated by Burgess when a wretched, suffering, “reformed” Alex is torturously worked over by two policemen, whom he suddenly recognises as former members of his gang.  

Although A Clockwork Orange is the title most people will conjure in their minds when they hear the author’s name, for Burgess, the success and media frenzy around the book became a case-study in the ancient artist’s headache: the inability to choose which of your works becomes a public ‘favourite.’ Though the creation of Alex’s “Nadsat” argot is a deservedly acclaimed feat, Burgess was always quick to point out that he considered the work a minor one of his own canon, a jeu d’esprit knocked off in a couple of weeks. From the release of the film to his last days, he was continually badgered by obnoxious phone calls from tabloid papers and crusading members of the public asking if he felt personally responsible for that week’s nondescript heinous act of violence, particularly if the act in question involved sexual extremism. 

But Burgess, ever our dogged professional, was never one to pass up the opportunity to turn a unique life experience into fine prose. Picture a corpulent, dyspeptic middle-aged English poet-cum-lecturer staggering around a New York apartment borrowed from some ten-a-penny feminist academic on sabbatical. He’s naked. He’s staggering towards a telephone which, when answered, usually delivers a barrage of ranting phone calls from angry citizens who are eager to denounce him for what began as a film adaption of Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, which has evolved to become a salacious piece of exploitation. The poor chap did not produce, write, or contribute to the project in any meaningful sense, but nevertheless his name has appeared all over the credits. A talk show has phoned asking him for an appearance that night:

[…] Some boys have been attacking some nuns. In Manhattanville. I’m shocked you didn’t know. I assumed–

“Nuns are always being attacked. Their purity is an affront to the dirty world.”

“Remember that. Remember to say that. But the point is that they said they wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t seen the movie. That’s why we’re—”

I see. I see. Always blame art, eh? Not original sin but art. I’ll have my say, never fear.”

“You have the address?”

“You ignore art as so much unnecessary garbage or you blame it for your own crimes. That’s the way of it. I’ll get the bastards, all of them. I’m not having this sort of nonsense, do you hear?” There was silence at the other end. “You never take art for what it is – beauty, ultimate meaning, form for its own sake, self-subsisting, oh no. It’s always got to be either sneered at or attacked as evil. I’ll have my bloody say. What’s the name of the show again?” But she had rung off, silly bitch.

Enderby went snorting back to his poem. The stupid bastards.

Enter Francis Xavier Enderby. On the back cover of my copy of the excellent Vintage Classics edition of ‘The Complete Enderby,’ is a snippet of praise from Gore Vidal, who pronounces the Enderby series to be “even finer comedies than those by Evelyn Waugh.” I cannot really disagree with this, devotee of Messrs Pennyfeather and Boot though I am, but my first point of comparison would not be to anything by Waugh, but rather to the borborygmically-challenged elephantine Catholic Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

The Enderby novels (Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament and Enderby’s Dark Lady) belong to that august class of comedic books which can be called, without hyperbole or cliche, achingly funny. Concerning the declines and falls of a minor poet who writes in his filthy lavatory and lives off a small annuity left him by his detested stepmother (Burgess leaves little speculation room for biographical critics), Enderby appears to us as a kind of innocent shrew of self-supported masculinity, unsociable and fragile as he may be. His livings, though squalid, are secure, and his muse is to be reliably found in the WC whenever he wishes to call upon her. Any aspiring writer or artist will know what a screamingly enviable position this is to be in.

But alas, the forces of polite society, modernity, Ludovico-toting medical-establishment quacks and (shudder) females and marriage all conspire to destroy what precious little Enderby has in life. Like any master of the picaresque, Burgess knew that the plot is wholly superficial; what keeps the humour alive and glowing is the flavour of each situation the protagonist finds themselves in, and how they go about the inevitable extrication into the next one. Enderby’s numerous literary and menial vocations, alternate personalities, disconcerting love interests, expatriate nationalities and endless personal problems are navigated deftly enough by Burgess, though with a little slowing and self-indulgence at various points. 

It feels a little wrong to reserve so little space for the “serious” masterpieces. Like everything Burgess wrote other than A Clockwork Orange, the major novels remain ignored and little-read. Napoleon Symphony is a controversial, rather Freudian portrait of l’Empereur composed along the lines of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which in itself might be the only work of art famous for who it isn’t dedicated to. Earthly Powers deserves its own treatment entirely, but suffice to say it is a heroic send-up of a man Burgess fervently envied for his wealth and literary celebrity – the repressed homosexual author, intelligence agent and fellow Riviera-expatriate W Somerset Maugham. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that the novel’s famous first line (“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”) is such savagely accurate parody because it is so much better than anything “poor old Willie” ever wrote in his life.

There is so much more to Burgess than can be covered in a small essay such as this. He began his career, for example, with the superb Malayan trilogy, concocted when he was a colonial civil servant in the 1950s with a terminal diagnosis (obviously proved to be wrong) and a moody, alcoholic wife to support as best he could. The switch from “John Burgess Wilson” to “Anthony Burgess” was to accommodate the fact that in those days, it simply wasn’t on for respectable government men to write funny novels.  But Burgess knew which career beckoned most.

What I admire most about him was the sheer professionalism he brought to the craft of writing. There is nothing bohemian or “artsy” or, God forbid, “Bloomsbury” about his character or life. This is borne out in his habits – come rain, come shine, come hangover, he would swing his way to the writing room at nine o’clock each morning to set down his 2,000 words. Other writers chided him for this (“written your weekly novel yet, Burgess?”) but this was so obviously spurred by shame and jealously. There really never is any excuse for the loose manner in which so many scribblers comport themselves; writing is not some gentlemanly pastime but a profession, with all the great and grim caveats that label entails. When encouraged by his publishers to try a word processor, Burgess rejected it not for any romantic attachment to typewriters or pen-and-ink, but because the keys could be pressed all to easily – “the slam of key against platen is like the hammer to the anvil, you can hear that work is being done.” Ite, missa est, Mr Burgess.

Village lights: Huck Finn’s world, and ours

WILLIAM MARKLEY feels Twain’s great novel has much to say to our age

The ticking of a clock on a mantelpiece – the joy of eating corn pone after a hard day – lights of a hillside village, seen from a raft on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn powerfully evokes the atmosphere of a long-ago America. Along with the details and flavours of everyday life, Twain looks at social problems, habits and moral quandaries that were significant before the American Civil War: slavery, mob violence, feuding families, hospitality to strangers, loyalties pulled in different directions. Some readers today will immediately assume how they would respond to such issues if they found themselves transported back to the 1840s. Yet Huckleberry Finn is concerned with timeless questions and inner struggles which aren’t as easily resolved as we might think. These loom large for the narrator Huckleberry, or Huck as he is known to his friends.

I befriended Huck Finn late in life. Although the book was long considered one of the greatest of American novels, it wasn’t among my schools’ required readings. I was a bookworm as a boy, but I avoided stories with children as principal characters. I wanted to read only about adults and their adventures. Little did I know how Mark Twain offered a narrative and a power of description that would grab a reader’s attention. Huck faces his inner dilemmas as he proceeds on an eventful trip along the Mississippi valley – and Twain weaves several unforgettable characters into the story—especially the runaway slave Jim.

I’m very fortunate to have an early-19th century clock. When I hear it ticking and chiming, I marvel at hearing the same sounds which meant something to people in Huck’s day, and which aren’t commonplace anymore. We still have many of the same yearnings, fears, and joys that people had when my clock was made. And yet, as the English novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”[1] Americans in the first half of the 19th century had serious worries and troubles I don’t have: cholera, Indian attacks, how the crops would fare, and how many children in the family would survive the winter. All of us today make decisions about right and wrong, but I haven’t had to face the predicaments caused by slavery which plagued northerners and southerners.

Back to the book. Soon after Huck flees downriver to escape his abusive father, he encounters Jim, and the two develop a deep affection and appreciation for each other. Yet Huck grew up in a slaveholding society which stamped its values on him. His white family was destitute, without any slaves, but in this society everyone was expected to consider some people as the legal, legitimate property of others. Slaveholders’ rights were held sacred. At times, Huck is remorseful for going against the law and the feelings of Jim’s owner. Conscience for him isn’t the simple matter that it might seem to be, to one raised in a society that preaches egalitarianism or ‘equity.’ On the other hand, his torments resemble what we sometimes experience today when confronted with very different social matters. Ultimately, Huck decides that his loyalty to Jim and his commitment to help Jim find freedom override what society insists that he should do. Agonizing over this, he believes his conscience tells him that he’ll go to hell for this decision. His unsophisticated yet eloquent ruminations are memorable.

Such struggles might have rung true to thoughtful Southerners in the 19th century. Some of the most devoted soldiers of the Confederacy had principles regarding slavery which today’s readers might find surprising. General A. P. Hill was firmly against the institution, and he did not own slaves. “Stonewall” Jackson was very kind to his slaves, and, against the local laws, he devotedly taught them to read and write as part of a special “Sunday School” which he created for them. Some leaders, such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, believed that they offered their slaves better lives than would be available otherwise. Immediate emancipation might place former slaves in more dangerous conditions than they had lived under previously. Not all slaveowners considered these factors, but it’s undeniable that people of good will in the South found themselves in a situation without simple, easy answers. And over 600,000 men died trying to settle the issue.

While the West made tremendous, praiseworthy efforts in the 19th century to eradicate slavery, it still hasn’t gone away in the world. Various forms of human-trafficking are thriving, as the recent movie Sound of Freedom highlights. Most of us have been insulated from these all-too-hidden crimes, and yet the victims suffer as horribly as any slaves did in earlier eras.

Apart from slavery, there are other prominent moral issues which beg for our attention. We allow schools and other institutions to influence and indoctrinate our children in ways that earlier Americans would rightly find shocking, outrageous and deeply immoral, and we bow down meekly to governmental and corporate forces which our ancestors would have rejected with contempt.

C. S. Lewis aptly warned about the “chronological snobbery” of people who feel superior to those of the past. A prominent feature of ‘wokeness’ is a vicious form of this – an overwhelming disdain for our ancestors, based on historical ignorance and rampant self-regard. The destruction of monuments, memory-holing of politically incorrect writings, and transformation of public schools and colleges into indoctrination centers are among the manifestations – and of course there is the “cancelling” of individuals.

Huckleberry and other characters use coarse language, especially regarding race, which publishers and HR staff would now find shriek-worthy. Yet Mark Twain shows much more compassion, understanding, moral clarity and nuance about race, character and moral dilemma than many modern people will offer. And despite uttering words which would immediately get him cancelled today, Huckleberry clearly shows in his actions, and in his other words, that he loves others, no matter their race. Jim does the same, and is presented by Twain in a rounded way, rather than as an unblemished victim. Like Huck, he admits that he has acted in ways which he deeply regrets. Both characters are curious observers who sometimes think critically, yet sometimes succumb to superstition, as many of us still do. As T. S. Eliot says, Huck and Jim “are equal in dignity.”[2]

One unforgettable episode, while Jim is absent for a time, is a tragic feud between two families. After Huck is nearly killed in a mishap on the river, he is cared for by a cultured family, the Grangerfords. The intriguing Colonel Grangerford is a sympathetic, strong character, but he and several members of his family are urged on by dire imperatives imposed by their clannish local society. In some regions of America, where law wasn’t as firmly established as elsewhere, family and tribal ties and obligations were much tighter than we see today. This could result in feuds lasting for generations, with later participants not even understanding the origins of the violence. In the case of the Grangerfords and their opponents, Eliot noted that Twain allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections.”[3] My own reaction is that while the feud is undoubtedly a terrible folly, some of the Grangerfords show admirable loyalty to their own kin. Today, maybe we have strayed too far from such loyalty. Somewhere there’s a balance that should be sought.

For the most part, America has traveled far away from the kind of clannishness shown by the Grangerfords. We now have widespread rootlessness, and a separation from family and community. Many grandparents, parents and children live in different states, and social media doesn’t offer enough to make up for the distance. Neighbours rarely interact with each other compared with earlier times, when families frequently invited neighbors and even strangers over for a meal. This atomization has obviously grown more extreme with the growth of digital technology, and the influence of mass popular culture. In Huck’s day, the frontier encouraged some similar centrifugal tendencies, while it also offered opportunities to people who needed a fresh start. Mutual-assistance organizations strengthened community ties, even in frontier areas. These have almost completely vanished. A close-knit community can descend into a mob, as shown in Huckleberry Finn, yet something has clearly been lost.

Grimness isn’t the only mood of the book – far from it. And Twain has a way with describing the world of the Mississippi:

“Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”

As much as I like the book and find it thought-provoking, a few parts of it are unappealing to me. Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer makes a welcome appearance at first, yet his elaborate schemes for pushing Huck and Jim into 19th-century romantic adventure-novel scenarios become tiresome. Nevertheless, the lyrical passages, adventure narrative, well-drawn characters and realistic, perceptive portrayals of moral questions and resolutions more than make up for any weakness. People act kindly, cruelly and with mixed motives, and in some cases this is all demonstrated by a single character. Like most boys, Huck can be callous, and also kind and generous. In his thoughts he contradicts himself, as most of us do. Along the river he meets murderers, frauds and other unpleasant characters, along with people who are models of charity, and although he and his creator wouldn’t want themselves to be pigeonholed into any particular church or creed, Huck develops a very Christian ability to love his neighbors.

Twain had seen a lot of the world and of people by the time he wrote this book. Born in 1835, he grew up in small Missouri towns, worked a variety of jobs including riverboat pilot, spent time in the American far west, and settled down in the more established east. He knew too much to present simplistic characters and an overly sentimental story. And yet, as critic Fred Pattee wrote, Twain “was a knightly soul, sensitive and serious, a nineteenth-century soul who would protect the weak of the whole world and right their wrongs.”[4] With Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows us a lost world, but he also helps us understand ourselves, if we’re willing to put our smartphones down for a while.


[1] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953

[2] T. S. Eliot, “An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn”, in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Huck Finn, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004, p. 20

[3] Ibid, p. 19

[4] Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: The Century Co., 1915, p. 61

Three poems by Ian C. Smith

IAN C. SMITH’s work has been published in Across the Margin, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Southword, Stand, & The Stony Thursday Book. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

Prologue

‘And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet, Wm. Shakespeare.

At the Spithead a young midshipman rows through November’s dark ripple to meet his brother, Charles Christian, a ship’s surgeon. He rows, rhythmic, action immanent, peat smoke’s earthy scent of ancient moss airborne from the inn where he shall greet Charles in his familiar mocking tone buttressed by self-belief when they embrace. Charles’s journey recently completed, Fletcher’s is held up. They burn the candle quaffing ale, swapping news.

Charles, edgy, exudes relief recounting a tale of mutiny at sea on his East India Company vessel. He grips Fletcher’s arm, that pulsing strength, confessing his implication in the crisis, describes vile abuse, blows, loaded pistols, a terrible captain. Fletcher allays his concern with sentimental gossip about Cockermouth, mimics his own ill-mannered martinet he sailed with previously, raging in a fool’s accent about departure delays. In their cups, their bond infrangible, they laugh until it hurts.

Reassured, Charles leaves at first light, ships indistinct in mist. He turns, sees his brother’s face for what he can’t know is one last time, wishes him safe voyage, vowing to remember him in prayer, their fond farewells lost forever like all words uttered then. Fletcher, always exhibiting confidence, tells him not to worry. Bounty anchored in the roadstead’s silence, a sleeping soul cries out, dream as premonition.

Limp sails sigh in the Doldrums, belt of calms before sudden squalls; ahead, zero latitude, imaginary line between polar extremes beyond which their known world shall turn arse-around, where jacks might be kings, captains knaves. Harsh baptisms await the wary, but of a different kind.

South Seas palm trees in his mind’s eye, skylarking on deck to Michael Byrne’s sizzling fiddle, taking the piss out of Nipcheese Bligh’s parsimony, reeling to his specific orders, sweat flying, swarthy Fletcher anticipates the line ceremony: the tarring, the shaving, the acting, ducking-stool slowly swinging from the yardarm.

But this is not to be. Too brutal, Bligh, swearing no oath to Neptune’s courtiers, informs his log that is to become one of the most perused books from its time. He plans to quell the lads’ grumbling, their innate yahoo urges, by paying the initiates’ fines, topped with a generous issue of grog, so pleasing to the recorder of data.

Luau Love

Bligh responds to a roar, pounding on deck.  Fletcher jumps from one barrel into another, a standing spring, no hands.  The company, not Bligh observing bleakly, applauds this athletic gentleman, a lock of his black hair damp with sweat fallen loose.  Flicking it back, he grins, bows.  Now he claps with force, taps his foot in time with the dancing, the beat of his urgent heart.  Upper lip glistening, he radiates irony.

The only black in Bligh’s hair is the ribbon keeping it intact against his nape, though his rages be black blisters.  In the great cabin shared with 750 potted plants he suffers a megrim.  Chaperoned by chlorophyll’s calming influence, he polishes his sextant with a coat sleeve, reaches for a quill, his log always shipshape.  Hearing the sirens calling them he knows his vulgar jack tars will be ashore again tonight.  There are no suppurating gums, swollen faces, due to the fresh food and water.  Their grumbling in hiatus, he commandeers most of the provisions brought aboard, more tidy profit.

His cock seeing no action these days, he considers the pox, its consequences.  Ah, consequences.  Staring through a valance of leaves, not breadfruit for once, concealed from yet another ruckus of feast preparation, he is as hard as the nails these heathens covet so much.  He, also, could commit a sin watching the handsome six-foot woman the buggers call Mainmast kneeling, a devotee before her idol, hands, mouth, loving her Titreano, his skin, dark like hers, muscular shoulders, slim tattooed buttocks, clenching.  In this brief interlude of history, after Bligh’s encouragement of Fletcher on a previous voyage, he witnesses his bete noire, who mocks him receive tenderness from kleptomaniac savages who practise human sacrifice.

Dolorous memory flashes visit Bligh; hard bright light beating back from an endless ocean, England’s foggy harbours, cartography, sacrilege, as smoke sails across the verdant mountainscape, tang of bacon wafting.  He breathes faster, tries to divert thoughts towards a decent life again but a drumbeat crescendos, banjaxing his better intentions.  For privileged Fletcher, sated now, private torment awaits, a brooding time when the devils of melancholia shall steal upon his hours.

Pitcairn Scuttle

Carved images face distant Easter Island, eroded remnants of much earlier events on this micro-society’s incorrectly charted island perfect for pirates’ buried treasure rather than buried pasts, or worse; bodies. Women who shall survive watch from high above a cutter being loaded before hurriedly leaving an anchored ship, itself high – on a wanted list. The unravelling swell shirring leeside water peels back, baring this coast’s rocky hips. At first, nobody misses Matthew Quintal, nimble arsonist below, defying Fletcher Christian to secure his safety.

Those in the boat hear snapping and hissing as a shaft of fire engulfs the stern like a pyre. Charcoal flecks swirl, disappear into the air like angry words. Glow worms of minor eruptions backlight the much-flogged, mind-flawed Cornishman clambering back down to sea level, expression rapt now their identifier is doomed. They pull on the oars, away from radiant heat, feathering clear of the turbulent entrance’s white wash that guards their isolation boiling below the women watching from The Hill of Difficulty. These unified women expected another load of Bounty’s salvageable material, not this.

Flames, burning ash, shoot ever skywards, seabirds arcing the heat current while the women keen. Christian, whose initial exhilaration when he discovered Pitcairn uninhabited, its fertility, its water, though both scarce, most of its two square miles rocky slopes, some steep, understands the limits of human endurance. Distilling spirits from ti shall bring out the bestiality in the worst of them. His assumed authority eroded yet again, grief tugs at his heart, personal strain that remains mostly unexplained.

After suffering inhuman treatment from these Europeans the Pacific Islander men stage their own mutiny, first murdering John Williams, the armourer from Guernsey, Fletcher’s blacksmith, builder of their forge. Trapped gardening, startled, he cries out, swearing in French. When they confront Fletcher, also tilling his patch, perhaps saving him the ritual of a more ignominious end, through pain, his terrible ache for home, his last words are, Oh dear! Soft rain cleanses his wounds, his sins. He leaves Mauatua, who curates his skull for sacred reasons, their three offspring, the patois of English language she has learned, and an engrossing tale of memory and myth to pass on. He is gone. Oh dear, indeed.

Thomas Malory’s civilisation-shaping chivalry

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LIAM GUILAR revisits the too little-read Le Morte Darthur

According to the blurb for one Audible version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur:

Comparing Batman, Superman, and Captain America to Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Galahad isn’t a huge leap of the imagination. Perhaps, for the 15th century reader, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were the equivalent of our modern day Justice League or Avengers.[i]

This is an excellent example of ‘dumbing down a book’.

At the end of Malory’s book, Arthur tells his one surviving knight, ‘In me there is no trust to trust in.’ The Arthurian experiment fails because the best of those involved in it may have perfected their craft, but as humans they still have to negotiate the problems inherent in being alive in their world. They are not superheroes, they do not have super powers[ii], and Malory was writing as an adult, for adults. Modern readers may have lost the ability to hold contradictions open to create a space for reflection; Malory’s text assumes this is exactly what the reader wants to do.  

When I was in primary school, memorising carols for the inevitable Christmas concert, I was convinced that ‘The first Noel the angels did say/was to certain poor shepherds’ meant that the doubtful shepherds were being ‘certained’. The purpose of so much modern writing, whether fictional or not, in film or print, seems to be ‘to certain’ the audience. Comparing Sir Lancelot to Batman might certain a prospective reader, suggesting they will encounter nothing unusual or unfamiliar, nothing requiring thought or effort, but it’s a gross misreading of the book.  

The book most people refer to as ‘Malory’ or ‘The Mort(e)’ was written by Sir Thomas Malory, and published by William Caxton in 1485. It is the last great work of medieval English literature and the first great work of modern English prose. It’s also the high point of the European medieval Arthurian tradition[iii]. It is a book that refuses to certain anyone.  

Malory took the sprawling mass of Arthurian tales which had been circulating in Europe for over five hundred years and translating them mostly from French sources, shaped them into a single narrative.

He wasn’t the first English writer to tell the whole story of King Arthur between one set of covers. But running from Arthur’s conception, to his death at the Battle of Camlan, Malory’s book contains everything you probably think you know about Arthur and his Knights – the magical conception at Tintagel, the round table, the sword in the stone, Merlin, the Lady in the Lake, Morgan le Fey, the love stories of  Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Gwenyvere; Tennyson’s Lady of Shallotte, Mordred, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the suggestion that Arthur doesn’t die and will return to save Britain.[iv]

We don’t know a great deal about Sir Thomas Malory, despite the strenuous efforts of scholars to track him through the surviving records. Given medieval assumptions about authorship, what we do know can’t add much to an understanding of his work. He’s not much more than his book and a trace in some legal documents. But when he lived his life is possibly more important than how he lived it.

He belongs to the last generation that could take the Romance version of Arthur and Camelot as historical fact. Caxton claims he printed the book only after he had been convinced that Arthur was real.[v]

The knight errant, the central figure of these stories, the young man who dons his armour, gets on his horse and rides out to fight for truth, justice and the Arthurian way, had been a popular figure in medieval storytelling since at least the 12th century. It’s an attractive idea and in many ways explains the popularity of the stories: leave the mess of your daily life behind and go seek adventures.

But it is an adolescent’s fantasy. All the knight’s problems can be reduced to a single enemy who can be defeated physically. He gets the gold, the glory, and often the bride, in a finite world utterly different from the mess and tedium of real life. It’s a world where problems are simple, figured as dragons and giants and evil lords dressed in black armour. In the hands of the best storytellers, it was more than that, but it was a world that never existed.

Malory enjoyed the fantasy. His book is full of knights who are free to roam the countryside looking for adventures. But his version of the fantasy is shaped by the times in which he was writing. He had participated in the Wars of the Roses. Men had swapped sides, sometimes in the middle of a battle. Primitive artillery was making an appearance on the battle field. Malory did not live to hear of Richard III’s failed charge at Bosworth. The last massed charge by mounted knights in a major battle on British soil happened in the year his book was published. The knight, who had dominated the battlefields of Europe for four hundred years, was finished as a military force.

Authors who live through ugly times don’t always avoid the temptation to escape into fantasy, but he did. He knew the reality of rich men with their castles and their private armies of armed retainers – a reality made all too visible in the civil and social disruption they caused, and at battles like Towton (1461), where anything up to thirty thousand men died hacking at each other in a snow storm[vi].

So what makes Malory worth reading, and what makes him more grown up than the majority of writers, was his understanding that while the landscape might have giants and dragons and witches and warlocks, the real challenges people face are always personal and rarely straightforward.

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His book begins and ends with a betrayal. ‘The Sword in the Stone’, Disney’s cute version of T. H. White’s retelling, obscures the darkness that permeates the early books. Born as the result of a trick, Arthur is a strange, impetuous figure, who unwittingly commits incest with his half-sister then orders all the boys born on one day murdered. Merlin warns him that the woman he intends to marry will be unfaithful with his greatest knight, and Arthur blithely ignores him.

To offset the darkness, Malory presents the great Arthurian experiment. The newly formed Round Table Fellowship swear an oath,

never to do outerage nothir mourthir; and always to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy… and always to do ladyes, damsels and jantilwomen and wydowes soccour, strenghte hem in hir ryghtes and never to enforse them upon payne of dethe. Also that no man take no batyles in a wrongfull quarrel for no love ne for no worldly goods.

It’s a radiant ideal: the people who would benefit most from anarchy; armoured knights, lords with castles, are promising to fight against it. The people who could most easily exploit the weak are promising to protect them. And the best of them do all those things most of the time.

But balanced against this idealism, is the picture of a court stained with jealousy, resentments and memories of old wrongs.

Perhaps the most adult of Malory’s perceptions is that the world is not divided into heroes and villains, into ‘good’ people and their polar opposites. There are caricatures littering the edges of some of the tales, giants and renegade knights and wielders of magic, who are little more than plot devices, but they are the gaudy inheritance of the genre. The challenges facing Malory’s characters are moral and personal as they attempt to negotiate different and often contradictory codes of behaviour. People do things, often with good intentions, but with unintended, unforeseeable, disastrous consequences.  

This is presented most succinctly in ‘The Knight of the Two Swords’, the second section of the first book[vii]. It’s a mini tragedy which feels Greek in its inexorable movement towards catastrophe. It turns the adolescent fantasy of the knight errant into a nightmare.

In a story that turns on the problems of recognition, everything Balyn, the Knight of the Two Swords, does, he does with the best of intentions. But he leaves a trail of misery and destruction in his wake as he heads towards a fatal duel. He kills, and is killed by, his twin brother and they recognise each other only after they have dealt the killing blows. It’s the darkest of the stories and it sets the tone for what follows.

If the Round Table is the best humans can manage, the quest for the Holy Grail shows that measured against the highest of ideals, it’s not good enough. But the lesson of the Grail, characteristically for Malory, works two ways. That so many knights fail is a critique of the value of the Grail ideology as much as it as a critique of the Knights. Galahad is the least likeable of Malory’s heroes. He is born to succeed in the Quest, and it never feels as though he won’t. When he achieves the Grail, he is transported on a beam of light to Heaven. To be human, to live in the world, is to try and find a way home through the forest, and the attempt to overcome greed and lust and ego is what characterises the best of humans. Perfection offers no way of living in the world.

The greatest of the Round Table Knights, Lancelot, is also the greatest contradiction. When he dies Ector speaks his threnody over his body:

And thou were the curtest [most courteous] knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover of a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godlyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes. And thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.

But Lancelot is an adulterer. In the moral framework of the time this means he’s going straight to an eternity of terrifying punishment in hell. In medieval terms, adultery with the queen is treason and the punishment for that was terrifying enough before he even got to hell.

And he fails. He fails in the quest for the Holy Grail because he can’t stop thinking about Gwenyvere. He unintentionally kills his friend, Gareth, who worships him ‘this side idiolatry’. And this greatest of knights arrives with an army that would have saved Arthur, but only after the final battle is over and lost. By simplified modern standards of heroism, Lancelot is a loser.

The idea of the ‘flawed hero’ is common enough. But it’s a simplistic way of reading, or writing: ‘Identify the tragic flaw in Hamlet’s character’. Ten points and a pat on the back if you answer ‘indecision’. No points if you try to argue that a character who only has one ‘flaw’ is less than human or that to argue there is a ‘flaw’ suggests there is a perfect personality which is not only attainable but identifiable. It’s symptomatic of a binary, all-or –nothing argument.

Sir Thomas Malory, knight, prisoner, is excluded by name from two general pardons issued by the Yorkist King. Even P. J. C. Field’s exhaustive study of the documents doesn’t bring to light who he had annoyed, and why. But he had annoyed someone with the power to keep him in prison and manipulate the judicial process, so he never came to trial. When scholars first discovered that a Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had been accused of various misdemeanours, including breaking into Coombe Abbey, cattle stealing, roughing up the locals, and raping the same woman on two separate occasions, there was a reaction against this identification. Surely this couldn’t be the man who wrote the Pentecostal oath.

But it could be and if Field is right, it probably is. Malory probably died in prison. We should qualify ‘prison’: not the kind of dungeon you can visit in a medieval castle. Wherever he was he had access to an impressive library, and time to write and stay focussed on his story. The temptation to escape into his fantasy must have been very powerful. And he obviously enjoyed whiling away the hours imagining two armoured knights bashing away at each other, a delight it is hard to share as a modern reader. But the ending of his book suggests that Sir Thomas Malory, Knight prisoner, had a very clear headed view of human nature.

The ending of the Morte is one of the great adult endings in English Literature. Malory’s best fictional creation is the relationship between Lancelot and Gwenyvere. They have grown older together, and they bicker like a fond old married couple. It’s difficult not to speculate: if Lancelot is Malory, then who was the Queen? And why did Malory resist the very human desire to allow his main characters to live happily ever after?

When Lancelot arrives from France too late to save Arthur, England is anarchic. It’s not clear who, if anyone is in control. He sets out on one last quest to find Gwenyvere. Traitor he may have been, adulterer he certainly was, but as Ector says, he was true to his lady.

He finds the Queen hiding in a convent. They have risked so much to be together. He tells her that now they can go to his lands in France and live without fear or guilt.

And she says no. She intends to spend the rest of her life praying for forgiveness. She knows that they have been instrumental in the destruction of their world. A lesser man might see this as a betrayal. But he accepts her decision and says he will follow her example and spend the rest of his life in prayer. Before he leaves, he asks her for one last kiss. And she says no.

This is the bare outline of the scene. It does no justice to the dialogue. He found this ending in his sources, and there are many ways he could have written it, but he stays true to the characters he had developed and the dialogue is his. If there was any doubt, at this point, Gwenyvere’s final refusal, you realise Malory didn’t flinch.

The Morte has been my desert island choice since the 1970s. It’s a book that rewards many readings. But it does belong to a lost world. It can hold contradictions in balance, admire what is admirable and leave judgements to the reader. It will not certain anyone.

Reading the Morte – a suggestion

If you’re interested in reading Malory, I would suggest using a version that hasn’t been modernised. Malory’s prose isn’t that unfamiliar, it takes a little getting used to but it’s worth remembering he probably spelt words as he pronounced them.

Hit befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of al Englond and so regned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the Duke of Tyntagil.  

At times his vocabulary does show the influence of the French he was translating, so there are words that are no longer in use, but the trick is to commit to reading a number of pages, and allow the rhythm of the prose to carry you over the occasional phrase that’s unfamiliar.

His world is still medieval, with its casual acceptance of both brutality, cruelty and indifference: “Then he raced of his helme and smote off his head. Then they went into souper.” (p.517)

If you’re the type of reader who only reads what makes you feel comfortable, or you insist on your heroes being squeaky clean, don’t bother with this book.

If you just want to sample Malory, I’d suggest reading the final book. I think he learnt to write as he went on, and by the end he had mastered his craft.

Eugene Vinaver staked his critical reputation on his belief that Malory didn’t write one coherent book but eight ‘tales’. Whether he’s right or not can be left to the purists, but it does give you the freedom to pick what interests you in no definite order.

If you want to begin at the start and keep going you will need a relaxed attitude to Malory’s eagerness to describe, at length, every combat between individual knights, groups of knights, or armies, and his knights’ habit of levelling their spears and charging into each other at every possible opportunity.

First time through, you might skip the tale of the Emperor Lucius, which is where Malory dumped the Middle English alliterative Mort[viii], and perhaps the two long books of Sir Tristam, where Malory seems to have been dragged off course by his sources.


[i] This is from the publisher’s summary for the Audible audio book version of Le Morte D’Arthur read by Chris MacDonnell and published by Spoken realms. 

[ii] Gawain’s strength waxes with the sun’s rise towards midday, and wanes as it moves through the afternoon, but that’s it.

[iii] Until the 1940s, editions based on Caxton’s version of the text were the only ones available. In 1934 a manuscript was discovered in Winchester (these things do happen) which is one step closer to what Malory wrote than Caxton’s printed text. Detailed analysis shows it had been in Caxton’s workshop. The Winchester Manuscript was edited by Eugene Vinaver as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. This became the scholarly standard.  Vinaver was convinced Malory wrote eight tales rather than a single book. The best single volume edition currently available is P.J.C. Field’s. (Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. 2017, D.S. Brewer Cambridge.) Claiming to be ‘the definitive original text’, this also contains a summary of Field’s extensive research into Malory’s life. Page references are to this edition. There is a two-volume edition, also edited by Field, in hard back. Translations and modernisations are unnecessary evils and are best avoided.

[iv] Not everything, the poem Gawain and the Green Knight, recently brutalised in the cinema, is missing and was probably not in his sources. Nor does Malory seem to have known the early Welsh story Culuwch and Olwen, in which Arthur’s retainers do have ‘super powers’.

[v] He notes in his preface that he had originally decided against doing so because ‘dyvers men holde oppynion that there was no suche Arhtur and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables’ however, having listened to the counter argument, he affirms: ‘Thenne, al these thynges considered there can no man reasonably gaynsaye but there was a king of thys lande named Arthur’.

[vi] How many fought, and how many died, at Towton is ‘a matter for scholarly debate’. The traditional figure of thirty thousand dead might be an exaggeration, but it is still the deadliest battle fought in England and a lot of the scepticism about the figure seems driven by an unwillingness to believe more died at Towton than on the first day of The Somme in 1916.

[vii] ‘Balyn le Sauvage’ in Field (pps. 47-75).

[viii]It would be a pity to shipwreck as a reader on the language of this section, since the language of the alliterative poem was probably old fashioned when Malory was transcribing it.

Polanski at (nearly) 90

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CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD looks back at an astonishing and controversial career

Temporal landmarks may be purely arbitrary and exist only in our heads, as Einstein and his crew tell us, but it surely still comes down to a case of tempus fugit in the matter of the Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski. Turning 90 on 18 August 2023, he’s seemingly gone from being cinema’s perpetual enfant terrible to its grand old man, albeit with some significant growth pains along the way.

As often noted, Polanski’s own life has the makings of a Hollywood drama, if one with some distinctly noirish twists. His mother Bula, four months’ pregnant, was killed in the Holocaust, and his father Ryszard survived nearly three years in a German death camp. Polanski himself escaped the Nazis, but then spent the rest of his early life under Stalin’s jackboot. He eventually made it to freedom in the West, only for his wife Sharon Tate, also pregnant, to be brutally murdered in the couple’s Los Angeles home in 1969 by members of the so-called Manson family.

That might seem quite enough shadow for one life, but more was to come. In March 1977, Polanski, who was then 43, took a 13-year-old girl to a house in the Hollywood Hills to take photos of her for a magazine. Once there, he gave her champagne and tranquilizers, had sex with her, drove her home, and the following week was arrested. Polanski absconded from court on the eve of his being sentenced a year later, apparently in the belief that he was about to be locked up for life. As a dual Franco-Polish citizen, he was able to settle in Paris, where he remains at liberty to this day.

Before moving on, just a brief note on the judicial proceedings against Polanski in re. his statutory rape of a minor, which these days is increasingly portrayed – not least by Polanski himself – in almost Kafkaesque terms, and more particularly as a case of a vindictive and senile judge – one Laurence J. Rittenband, then aged 72, who presided over the Superior Court in Santa Monica, California – seeking to make an example of the ferret-faced, foreign-born sex predator standing before him in the dock.

Rittenband, it should be noted in this context, already had a long and not undistinguished legal career spanning some fifty years at the time Polanski first entered his courtroom. Of a modest background in Brooklyn, New York, he’s agreed to have been knowledgeable and personally unassuming – in one account, ‘not one of those judges who always thinks he’s in the movies’ (although by the same token, also not above keeping his own press cuttings file). In his memoirs, Polanski implies that Rittenband was star-struck by the 1977 proceedings, and, after initially exercising due judicial restraint (setting the defendant’s bail at a modest $2,500, and even allowing him to travel outside the country ‘should he so wish’), was ‘clearly over-enjoying his first excursion into the limelight.’

This account is not quite fair. In fact by the time he met Polanski, Rittenband had already presided over a host of high-profile Hollywood cases, including Elvis Presley’s divorce, Marlon Brando’s child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant. Nor could it be concluded from these proceedings that the judge was in any way prejudiced against his celebrity defendants. In the case of Grant, for instance, Rittenband had made the eminently sensible suggestion that both the actor and the alleged mother of his child submit to a blood test, ‘after which we will determine what to do.’ When the woman in question had failed to appear for her scheduled test, and for two subsequent appointments, Rittenband curtly dismissed her suit. As well as being a stickler both for the letter and the spirit of the law, regularly advising plaintiffs and defendants alike of the need to be ‘decorous’ and punctual in his court, the judge was impressively well read in a variety of fields, which enabled him to make pertinent and original connections in his rulings. Regarding Elvis, for example, he quoted Jonathan Swift, observing to the charismatic but modestly educated ‘Hound Dog’ singer that ‘Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.’ Looking back on the Polanski case years later, Rittenband puckishly told the press, ‘It reminds me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan: “I’ve got him on my list.”’

Three final things need to be said about the morals rap that has effectively defined the second half of Polanski’s life.

First, there was – and in some quarters, remains – a certain amount of doubt as to whether the then-widowed director had been fully aware of his victim’s age at the time he had sex with her. It’s true to say both that the child in question, Samantha Gailey, looked significantly older than thirteen, and also that she wasn’t perhaps the naïf widely portrayed by her defenders. In her own Grand Jury testimony on the matter, Gailey noted that she had had sex twice in the year before she met Polanski, that she had been drunk, and that “yeah, once I was under the influence of [drugs] when I was real little.”

However, it should also clearly be noted Gailey was still then a seventh-grade schoolgirl who “had a Spider Man poster on the wall and kept pet mice,” as she recalled in a magazine interview. Born on 31 March 1963, she was fully four years under the age of consent then required by the state of California. Polanski was later asked by the prosecuting attorney in the case how old he had believed his victim to be when he met her. “She was 13,” he said.

Next there’s the salient point of whether Polanski had in fact raped the child, or, conversely, whether, as he later insisted, she had been a ‘not unresponsive’ partner in the act. This is what Gailey had to say on the matter when questioned at the time in front of the Grand Jury:

Q: After Polanski first kissed you did he say anything?
A: No.

Q: Did you say anything?
A: No, besides I was just going, ‘No. Come on, let’s go home.’

Q: What was said after you indicated that you wanted to go home when you were sitting together on the couch?

A: He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’

Q: Then what happened?
A: Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.

Q: What does that mean?
A: It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.

Gailey was asked whether either party had said anything following that point.

‘No.’

‘Did you resist?’

‘A little, but not really because … ’

‘Because what?’

‘Because I was afraid of him.’

Finally, there’s the belief, still widely in vogue today, that Polanski had been railroaded by a corrupt and/or incompetent judge who was apparently about to renege on a formal commitment not to send the defendant to prison following the completion of a mandatory 90-day diagnostic evaluation sentence. Those who insist the director was somehow misled into believing that his plea bargain in front of Rittenband would preclude the threat of further jail time may be interested in the previously sealed transcript of the critical August 1977 hearing at which Polanski pleaded guilty to a single reduced count of unlawful sex with a minor. As part of the process, the defendant was required to answer 62 separate questions posed by the district attorney in the case, among them the following exchange:

Q: Mr. Polanski, who do you believe will decide what your ultimate sentence will be in this matter?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will decide whether or not you will get probation?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will determine whether the sentence will be a felony or a misdemeanor?
A: The judge.

Q: Do you understand that at this time the court has not made any decision as to what sentence you will receive?

A: Yes.

Now turning from the criminal, or depredatory, to the small matter of whether Polanski’s films are actually any good. The director’s first full-length feature Knife in the Water (1962) is a beautifully crafted, if at times noticeably budget-conscious, thriller that offers the classic Polanskian brew of claustrophobia, latent menace, voyeurism, class antagonisms and sexual tension, in this case set aboard a small yacht. Seen today, it still seems as fresh as the moment it was released more than sixty years ago. Among other charms, Knife has some of the most convincing examples of the kind of pure and honest personal hatred that can pass for conversation in a marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All cult black and white Polish films should be shot on a shoestring, in an increasingly mutinous atmosphere among their cast and crew – that way they might be half as good as this one. Perhaps the best sign of the film’s artistic merits came when its distributors arranged a special showing for members of the Polish cabinet in Warsaw, and the state’s hardline communist party boss Wladyslaw Gomulka expressed his reservations about it by hurling an ashtray at the screen.

Following that there was a wonderfully twisted thriller named Repulsion, shot in London, which charts the mental disintegration of a young woman who lives with her sister on the top floor of a seedy South Kensington mansion block. As with Knife, the film occasionally betrays its budget-related shortcomings, but still shows an originality and a lightness of touch well beyond the stock Hammer-horror genre that its producers, a faintly comic-opera pair of East End entrepreneurs named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, had in mind. The gradual crack-up of what Polanski calls ‘an angelic-looking girl with a soiled halo’, bereft of any of the sort of state emotional-welfare apparatus we might expect today, is what seems most shocking to modern viewers: both pitiable and ugly.

Repulsion was perhaps the logical curtain-raiser to Polanski’s first significant, and commercially successful, venture, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially, it’s the tale of a young woman whose world, like that of the heroine in Repulsion, spirals into a living hell once she becomes pregnant – inseminated by Beelzebub himself, apparently – with her first child. Things soon take a downward turn. At first the neighbours in the woman’s New York apartment building show an unusual interest in her welfare, and in time weird chanting can be heard through the walls at night. Then another neighbour commits suicide by jumping out of a window. When the new mother finally gives birth, she’s at first told that her child has died on delivery. Hearing its cries from the next room, she locates her infant son, who it appears has highly unusual eyes, causing Rosemary to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. It’s all just a touch extreme, and the veteran actress Ruth Gordon, playing one of Rosemary’s neighbours, appears to have inadvertently wandered in from the set of a knockabout comedy, but set against this the direction itself is crisp, unpretentious and rarely stoops to cliché. The film brought Polanski both fame and fortune, but perhaps more importantly saddled him with the faintly unsavoury reputation he arguably still enjoys today. To some, it was as though the director himself had sold his soul to the devil, as some real-life equivalent of the Faustian pact seemingly entered into by Rosemary’s neighbours and tormentors. One widely-seen press headline of the time, parodying the advertising for Rosemary’s Baby, ran ‘Pray for Roman Polanski’.

After that came a notably sanguinary Macbeth, which most critics took as a cathartic exercise by Polanski, whose wife had been murdered the previous year, followed by Chinatown, a hard-boiled but gently paced saga of big-city corruption, peopled by Raymond Chandler-style wiseguys and featuring a memorable cameo by the director himself as a knife-wielding thug.

We can perhaps draw a discreet veil over the years from around 1975 to 2002, although the visually sumptuous Tess (1979) – like Macbeth, inviting numerous Freudian, if not overtly autobiographical interpretations, with its central plot of a young girl sexually violated by an older man – had both its admirers and detractors. Perhaps it’s enough to say that Polanski brought a distinct vision to bear in almost all his films, good or bad, and that this included a technical expertise (he remains an acknowledged master of matters such as camera lenses and stage-dressing) not as common in even the most prominent directors as one might think, as well as a tendency to explore the darker side of the human condition: the idea that we’re essentially adrift in a hostile world, the butt of some cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty. ‘My characters’ destinies [are] the result of apparently meaningless coincidence,’ Polanski once said, which would appear to apply to much of his own career. One of the most pronounced themes, rarely far from the surface in his scripts, is the subject of betrayal, and, by extension, death – of compelling interest to the man whose mother, wife and unborn son were all murdered – and the inevitable survivor’s guilt. When asked about the violence in his films, muted as it may seem by modern standards, Polanski inevitably notes that he does no more than show the world around him, and whatever else he’s surely one of the few directors, living or dead, to have experienced quite as many of the twentieth century’s homicidal monsters at first hand. ‘People talk about the autobiographical aspect of Roman’s work,’ the critic and Polanski collaborator Ken Tynan once observed. ‘But his life’s much more interesting than that. The cliffhangers end with real falls.’

This somehow leads irresistibly to 2002’s The Pianist, the affecting Holocaust drama for which Polanski won his first and as yet only Academy Award. Surely one of the film’s many attractions is that it dares to underplay the obvious horror of the subject matter, never pandering to the audience with the sort of pity-of-it-all approach taken by other directors treating broadly the same material. In Polanski’s world there are no soaring choirs to mark the moments of redemption, and no Jaws-like thudding to signal the perils. The film’s climactic confrontation, when a leather-clad SS officer asks the eponymous musician Wladyslaw Szpilman to prove he can play the piano, the stark implication being that he’ll be shot if he can’t, stands as an exquisite example of the power of understatement. Where another director might have given us close-ups of squinting eyes and sweaty palms, Polanski lets the scene unfold quietly, with just the right balance of tension and release. Instead of the panoramic sweep of a Schindler’s List, The Pianist confines itself to a more modest and specific set of events. In scaling down the action to a single, not invariably heroic figure, it invites the audience members to put themselves in Szpilman’s shoes, and so achieves an impact that Spielberg’s worthy but heavy-going epic had somehow lacked. Taken as a whole, the film remains Polanski’s masterpiece, one that surprises through its understated and irresistible power to move.

It remains only to note that when Polanski won his Oscar for The Pianist, he wisely elected not to personally attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Had he done so, he would presumably have been met not by the traditional Academy limousine but by an armed police detail, which would have executed the outstanding warrant for his arrest and transported him to the nearest jail. Polanski’s friend Harrison Ford collected the trophy on his behalf, and was later able to fly to Paris and present it to him in person. The Oscar ceremony itself took place on 23 March 2003. By a morbid coincidence, it was sixty years to the day since Polanski’s father Ryszard had been marched off to the Mauthausen concentration camp, thus exposing his son to the full horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. On at least one level, the whole ordeal now finally seemed to have been brought full circle. ‘I am deeply moved to be rewarded for The Pianist. It relates to the events so close to my own life, the events that led me to comprehend that art can transform pain,’ Polanski said in a statement from his Paris exile.

It is not a bad epitaph on his career as a whole.