Category Archives: Literature

“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it…”

How can she get away with it?” Lavender said to Matilda. “Surely the children go home and tell their mothers and fathers. I know my father would raise a terrific stink if I told him the Headmistress had grabbed me by the hair and slung me over the playground fence.”

“No he wouldn’t,” Matilda said, “and I’ll tell you why. He simply wouldn’t believe you.”

“Of course he would.”

“He wouldn’t,” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret… Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn’t. They’d call me a liar.”

[…]

“I don’t think she’s mad,” Martilda said. “But she’s very dangerous.”

- from Roal Dahl’s Matilda.

(For more information about #justiceforLB, the summary is here and all information and reaction on Twitter is channeled through @JusticeforLB.)

Banker, confectioner, tile maker

In [Gujerat], a banker who was having his house re-roofed had a quarrel with a confectioner. The confectioner came to an agreement with the tile makers who refused to provide the banker with tiles.

- E.A.H. Blunt, via Francis Fukuyama in Origins of Political Order.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

For anyone with more than a passing interest in how political institutions are created, maintained and changed (not Russell Brand, then), there is a great roll call of names and their works to be read: Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Maine, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Huntington and so on.

What I’ve always found fascinating is that, apart, essentially, from details, the fundamental components of what forms a successful political institution have been known for a (relatively) considerable period of time. It is seemingly more a case of implementation now.

Francis Fukuyama* notes this point as made by Alexandre Kojeve, who said that history had ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Fukuyama summarises Kojeve’s point as being:

Everything that had happened since 1806, including the sturm und drang of the twentieth century with its great wars and revolutions, was simply a matter of backfilling. That is the basic principles of modern government had been established by the time of the Battle of Jena; the task thereafter was not to find new principles and a higher political order but rather to implement them through larger and larger parts of the world.

What’s more, Fukuyama basically agrees with Kojeve’s assertion:

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the stat’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the endof the eighteenth century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.

The remarkable thing about Fukuyama’s book is that, by the time you reach this section (page 420 of 483), he has detailed exactly how these three components have developed and when, where, how. Furthermore, his starting point is the descent of man from primates and their exit out of Africa.

The disciplines that The Origins of Political Order brings together means it is a quite incredible book. The stuff you learn (or, at least, I learnt) about whole swathes of history and countries is remarkable. It’s a book I recommend without hesitation to anyone who has an interest in the foundations of how we’ve come to be where we currently are.

*If I may, I suggest you ignore any association between Fukuyama and the neo-cons that might linger in your mind.

“Tense present” – DFW

This marvellous (and long) essay by David Foster Wallace is, in essence, about uses of the English (or American) language.

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the “corruption” and “permissiveness” of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special “Distinguished Usage Panel … of outstanding professional speakers and writers” is an attempted compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham-populism? Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

In actual fact, though, and as the above passage demonstrates, it’s about any given topic or idea about which two groups hold their own interpretations and views.

 

 

“We can never do nothing… the status quo is action”

I knew the phrase “tragedy of the commons” but had never realised it was taken from an article published in December 1968 of that name. The article is by Garrett Hardin; though its basis is in population and demography, it is widely applicable in, well, everything.

A full, free copy of The Tragedy of the Commons is available from Science.

There are two passages from the article that particularly resonated with me.

The first is that there are some issues to which there are not “technical solutions”.

[T]here is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

This is, of course, right. As Hardin implies, some issues require change in humans themselves to take hold before any benefits from a possible solution follow.

The second is on the status quo and reform:

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. [Defenders] of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact… Automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience.

This feels to me to be an incredibly valuable insight. Even if we choose not to act, we are acting.

Do read the full article: it is well worth the investment of time.

Paulo Freire: “I am a curious being”

This is a tremendous interview with Paulo Freire:

There’s so much good stuff in there that I’m not going to highlight particular parts, but just encourage you to watch it all. (Thanks to CR for the link.)

“It was himself that he was making possible”

Having not gone as well as others with Stoner, there were still large parts I thought were excellent. I particularly enjoyed this description of how physical work / DIY has more depth to it than simply making things:

As he worked on the room, and it began slowly to take shape, he realised that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughness disappear, the grey weathering flake away to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture – as he repaired his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.

(See also this sort-of related post on repair.)

Stoner, by John Williams

He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.

The line above, from around three-fifths of the way through Stoner, is the reason why I didn’t find it as compelling as everyone else seems to have done. Being nearly a decade younger than William Stoner at that point in his life, I perhaps feel more positive about life to date and what lies ahead. Similarly, the generation difference between him and us means I found troubling, if not true for the 1930s and 1940s, the elements of the novel relating to his marriage.

It’s perfectly understandable that all those who have raved about Stoner have been moved to done so: it is well written and does hold some universal truths. But each person quoted on the book itself is a man just after middle-age, so far as I can see. I was therefore unlikely to find it “the greatest novel [I've] never read” (as per the Sunday Times on the cover). Perhaps it’s the expectation of the novel that has done for me on this occasion. (I’d love to know what any women of any age make of it, too.)

As it happens, two of the people who particularly liked Stoner are people’s whose work I much preferred: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

“Back in the sepulchral city”

I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets – there were various affairs to settle – grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons.

– from Heart of Darkness

“The horror! The horror!” – Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got.

I read Heart of Darkness for the first time during the Christmas break. I was struck by such a sense of how current it seemed that, without wishing to appear ridiculous, I think it’s a very good allegory of the current government and their approach (captured by the quote above).

At the level of the individual, the following descriptions by Marlow, Conrad’s explorer making his way up the Congo River to find a key person in a British Company’s empire-based operations, of the role of administrators within that Company put me in mind of most Ministers:

This papier-mâché Mephistopheles[;] it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.

and

‘The groans of this sick person’, he said, ‘distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical error in this climate’.

It’s not a cheery note, but I found a lot in Heart of Darkness and modestly suggest you add it to any reading you list you might have. Incidentally, it also means I shall be watching Apocalypse Now again in the near future.

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