Archive for the 'Books' Category

International Airport Man.

In Michael Frayn’s very funny 1967 novel Towards the End of the Morning we meet newspaperman John Dyson, an early example of that archetypal contemporary figure, the Citizen of the World. He feels most at home when on the move:

The Final Departure Lounge, sealed off from gross particular Britain by passport and customs barriers, was a bright nowhere land, sterilized of nationality and all the other ties and limitations of everyday life. Here Dyson felt like International Airport Man – neat, sophisticated, compact; a wearer of lightweight suits and silky blue showercoats; moving over the surface of the earth like some free-floating spirit[.]

In current nomenclature, International Airport Man would be one of David Goodhart’s “Anywheres” – though with his middling media salary Dyson is obliged to live in a house in a working class district of London among gross particular “Somewheres” and the West Indian immigrants who are just starting to displace them. Philosophically, of course, Dyson is “entirely in favour of both the working classes and West Indians”. Yet there are certain drawbacks to living among them, such as the unknown neighbour who keeps chucking trash over the fence into his backyard:

He didn’t think it was the West Indians. He didn’t know, of course. But he didn’t want to be the sort of man who went round believing that his West Indian neighbours were throwing old beer cans into his garden. That wasn’t the sort of person he was at all. If by some chance it was the West Indians, then tact was called for. A friendly word of advice, no more – and he didn’t want to raise the matter with them at all unless he was absolutely sure.

But if it was the Coxes…! Well, by God, he wasn’t putting up with this sort of nonsense from the Coxes!

His experience “living in a multiracial community” (that is, having West Indian neighbours) gets him invited on a panel show called The Human Angle to discuss race matters. He jots down some ideas for the program:

The real problem was to avoid the obvious. He was not being paid twenty-five guineas to tell people what they could manage to think out themselves for nothing.

“T troubl is,” he tried, “tt we aren’t prej enough! Shd educ ourselves to be dply & bttrly prej – agnst prej!”

… The trouble was that they would all agree with each other. They would all sit round deploring racial prejudice and suggesting how to avoid it. Perhaps he should try to play the devil’s advocate? He noted down one or two cautiously controversial points. “Mst try to undrstnd att of man whse hse val falls. – Ind ckng delightfl bt hly fragrnt. – Mst admt I pers h diff in undrstndng nxt-dr neighbr’s Eng.”

On the big day, exhilarated by wine and proximity to fame, Dyson memorably makes an ass of himself on live TV. Luckily, no-one besides his wife and best friend is actually watching The Human Angle so his humiliation is no obstacle to him being invited, as an established expert on race issues, to appear a few weeks later on a program called New Perspectives.

M.

 

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Rye and weeds: Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson.

One afternoon not long ago, as I walked through a quiet residential neighbourhood near my home, I heard a vehicle coming up the hill behind me. It was a pickup truck which, just as I arrived at an uncontrolled intersection, made a left turn across my path.

Seeing that the pickup had plenty of room to pass in front of me, I stepped off the curb without breaking stride. Instead of continuing his turn, the driver stamped on the brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maybe he hadn’t noticed me until then, or maybe he misjudged my walking speed.

No harm done. It happens to every driver – you start a maneuver, second-guess yourself, hit the brakes, and wind up in a more awkward position than if you’d just carried through. Continuing past the front of his truck, I glanced at the man behind the wheel, prepared to exchange a good-humoured shrug. He was a young blue-collar guy with a short-trimmed beard, one elbow propped in his open window.

“You ever hear of lookin’ both ways before crossing the street?” he said.

This was very vexing, as I not only had the right of way but had seen him clearly. “Nope, that’s a new one on me,” I muttered, keeping my face blank.

“It’s called situational awareness. Look into it,” he yelled, as I reached the opposite curb. I ignored him and kept walking.

A trivial encounter. What amazed me was how agitated I became immediately afterward. I gulped for air, my heart beat faster, my throat seized up. Regretting the clumsiness of my retort, I realized to my shame that even if I’d been able to think of some withering comment to put the pickup driver in his place, I would’ve been too tongue-tied to articulate it.

I lead a very stress-free life. I’m rarely forced to interact with people who challenge me. When I am confronted with an unexpected rebuke – even a trivial one, like this – I find it emotionally overwhelming.

By ducking confrontation I’ve saved myself some pain over the years. But it appears that I’ve lost the protective crust that should allow me to shrug off the gibes of random strangers.

Shuffling home I found myself sympathizing with the coddled college students of right-wing lore who, when confronted with an opinion that challenges their progressive beliefs, can do nothing but curl up in their safe spaces and weep.

***

I have a friend who, measured against the extremely woke crowd she pals around with, is something of a dangerous free-thinker. When she gets tired of watching her friends polish their halos she’ll come to me to vent; and when she’s had a snootful of my melancholy detachment she goes back to her friends and, I suppose, vents about me.

Although broad-minded by 2019 standards, my friend is still pretty credulous about the narratives she imbibes via social media. For instance, on several occasions she’s brought up Jordan Peterson as an exemplar of right-wing demagoguery. In her mind, Peterson is a hate preacher who endangers the mental health of trans people by rejecting the government’s authority to legislate which pronouns we use when discussing them.

When my friend brings up stuff like this, I purse my lips in an ambiguous way, and say nothing.

I don’t know much about Peterson. I’ve read a handful of reviews and an excerpt from his book, and I’ve seen his ideas discussed in various forums, most recently in Rod Dreher’s blog. Based on this limited information, I suspect I sympathize broadly with Peterson’s views, but I’m not interested enough to buy his book or download his podcasts.

Suppose I attempted to convince my friend that Peterson is not the dangerous avatar of unreason that she seems to think he is. As I see it this argument could have two possible outcomes:

I could fail to convince her, sparking a quarrel to no useful purpose; or,

I could succeed, making my life slightly easier (I would no longer have to bite my tongue when she slandered Peterson) but making her life slightly harder (she would now have to bite her tongue whenever her progressive friends slandered Peterson).

Since my friend is at least as sharp-witted as I am, I don’t have much confidence that I would win the argument anyway; and since I place more importance on our friendship than I do on making sure she holds what I deem to be the correct opinions, I’ve opted to evade the issue.

That’s what I tell myself. But you may conclude, having just read about my encounter with the rude pickup driver, that the above rationalizations are pure eyewash, and that the real reason I keep mum whenever my friend brings up Peterson is that I’m scared of conflict.

In any case, I’m probably not doing my friend any favours. If she ever runs into someone who takes issue with one of her snide comments about Peterson, or some other belief she holds because it is accepted unquestioningly among her progressive crowd, she’ll be unequipped to defend herself.

***

I know from Slate Star Codex‘s review of his book that Jordan Peterson, like me, is prone to quoting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A big part of Peterson’s schtick is the importance of recognizing our own capacity for error; without checking, I can assert confidently that somewhere in Twelve Rules For Life is the famous line from The Gulag Archipelago about how the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. Peterson emphasizes the need to earn wisdom through adversity; Solzhenitsyn, realizing that his capacity for good had been awakened by the hardships of his time in the Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison!”

Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel The First Circle is set in the waning years of Stalin’s USSR, in a “special” prison where political prisoners with technical skills work on projects useful to state security – devising a scrambler for Stalin’s personal phone, for instance, or analyzing voice prints to identify a suspect from a wiretapped phone call.

By the brutal standards of the Gulag these prisoners are in clover. Instead of starving and swinging pickaxes in the far north, they pass their days indoors tinkering with vacuum tubes, and for supper it’s all the black bread they can eat. The book’s title derives from the not-so-bad First Circle of Hell, where Dante placed the pagan philosophers whose only sin was being ignorant of Christianity.

The First Circle doesn’t have a whole lot of plot; it’s mostly a series of interconnected vignettes set over a week or so in the prison and in nearby Moscow. The nearest thing to a central character is Gleb Nerzhin, whose philosophy and experiences roughly mirror those of the author, who was in just such a special prison after World War II, before doing harder time in a Kazakhstani mining camp.

Early in the book, Gleb chats with his young friend Ruska, who has absorbed the older prisoner’s cynical attitude. Gleb regrets the death of his friend’s idealism:

“This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.”

“Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?” Ruska asked angrily.

“Well, yes…damn it all!” said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. “Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give a man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.”

In a recent essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan I wondered,

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

Likewise, if I run into someone who enjoys “firm ground under his feet” thanks to his simple and annoying faith in the words of Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, or Jordan Peterson, should I hold my tongue lest I accidentally lure him, by my cynicism, into the mire of uncertainty and self-doubt?

If I were a happy person I might say, “Pick away at your convictions one by one, until you’re left with nothing solid but an awareness of your own ignorance – and you’ll be happy like me!”

But I’m pretty miserable. I suspect my misery is unrelated to what I believe – that I was simply wired for anhedonia – but nevertheless I can’t with any credibility recommend myself as a positive example to anyone.

So perhaps I ought instead to tell the believers, “Try not to think too deeply about your convictions, in case they fall apart under close examination, leaving you with nothing but your unbearable self.”

But even that might draw the believers’ attention to the possibility that their convictions are shakier than they suspect. Maybe it would be best to keep my mouth shut altogether.

***

In Twelve Rules For Living (which, to repeat, I haven’t read) Peterson identifies one incontestable, unbanishable fact, “the reality of suffering”, from which he derives his whole moral code:

Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening. . . . Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The “reality of suffering” – I guess that’s something solid to build on. But it doesn’t take long, piling your philosophy up brick by brick, before you find the structure sprawling onto unstable ground. The various functionaries of the Canadian justice and higher education systems against whom Peterson has waged rhetorical battle are convinced that by shutting down dissidents like him, they can protect trans people from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s stand-in Nerzhin struggles with such uncertainties. Later in The First Circle he befriends a fellow prisoner, a simple peasant named Spiridon, and listens in awe to his life story, an astounding sequence of misjudgements and reversals guided by no coherent principles besides his untutored sense of right and wrong. Nerzhin wonders whether Spiridon’s seemingly random choices belie “some universal system of philosophical scepticism”. He enquires gently:

“All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…” – he almost said “criterion” – “what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ‘I’ll show everybody what for’? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they think they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.”

Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on:

“Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only think I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?”

Later we will meet the prison’s Security Officer, Major Shikin, who demonstrates Nerzhin’s point about putting people right by hitting them with a stick:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

The canny old peasant Spiridon is untroubled by the paradox of well-meaning torturers like Major Shikin. To Nerzhin he cryptically sums up his philosophy:

“I can tell you,” Spiridon said, brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. “I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

“What’s that again?” Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment.

“What I said was,” Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: “the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.” [1]

M.

1. The chapter ends on Spiridon’s words. My edition of The First Circle is haphazardly footnoted, and there’s nothing to explain whether the wolf-hounds and cannibals are common symbols in Russian culture, or whether Nerzhin is as bemused as we are by this nugget of homespun wisdom.

Pictures of Apollyon.

In a story called “The Bone of Contention” from Dorothy Sayers’s 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, the amateur sleuth and bibliophile Lord Peter Wimsey, visiting a dilapidated country house, naturally accepts an invitation to tour the library. The host chatters away:

“It was always rather a depressing room,” went on Haviland. “I remember, when I was a kid, it used to overawe me rather. Martin and I used to browse about among the books, you know, but I think we were always afraid that something or someone would stalk out upon us from the dark corners. What’s that you’ve got there, Lord Peter? Oh, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Dear me! How those pictures did terrify me in the old days! And there was a Pilgrim’s Progress, with a most alarming picture of Apollyon straddling over the whole breadth of the way, which gave me many nightmares.”

For years I held onto my dad’s old copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress – a cheap paperback, un-illustrated – until, a few years ago, after one final glance at the daunting slabs of text, I conceded that it was beyond the threshold of my literary masochism, and traded it away unread.

So when I came across that reference to a nightmarish illustration of Apollyon, it wasn’t my own childish encounters with John Bunyan that came rushing back, but other people’s.

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, little Maggie Tulliver is interrogated by an older visitor about the unfeminine reading material she’s absorbed in:

“Well,” said Mr. Riley, in an admonitory patronising tone, as he patted Maggie on the head, “I advise you to put by the History of the Devil, and read some prettier book. Have you no prettier books?”

“O yes,” said Maggie, reviving a little in the desire to vindicate the variety of her reading. “I know the reading in this book isn’t pretty — but I like the pictures, and I make stories to the pictures out of my own head, you know. But I’ve got Aesop’s Fables and a book about kangaroos and things, and the Pilgrim’s Progress…”

“Ah, a beautiful book,” said Mr. Riley. “You can’t read a better.”

“Well, but there’s a great deal about the devil in that,” said Maggie, triumphantly, “and I’ll show you the picture of him in his true shape as he fought with Christian.”

Maggie ran in an instant to the corner of the room, jumped on a chair, and reached down from the small bookcase a shabby old copy of Bunyan, which opened at once, without the least trouble of search, at the picture she wanted.

But though Maggie is too tough-minded to admit to being frightened by the pictures in her books, a bit later, while wandering alone down an unfamiliar country lane, she is oppressed by “haunting images of Apollyon … and other miscellaneous dangers.”

Eleven-year-old Jude in Jude the Obscure is similarly oppressed after he absent-mindedly stays out past nightfall:

He anxiously descended the ladder, and started homewards at a run, trying not to think of giants, Herne the Hunter, Apollyon lying in wait for Christian, or of the captain with the bleeding hole in his forehead and the corpses round him that remutinied every night on board the bewitched ship.

In this case we can verify that the young hero has unluckily been burdened with one of his creator’s childhood fears. Thomas Hardy’s wife recalled how Hardy, in old age, shared his memory of one of the few times he’d been frightened walking alone in the country:

[A]s a small boy walking home from school, reading Pilgrim’s Progress, he was so alarmed by the description of Apollyon that he hastily closed his book and went on his way trembling, thinking that Apollyon was going to spring out of a tree whose dark branches overhung the road. He remembered his terror, he said, that evening, seventy-five years afterwards.

But elsewhere (in a letter whose text I can’t find online) Hardy seems to have been explicit that it was “the picture of Apollyon fighting Christian” that had so disturbed him.

In moments of isolation, the spectre of Apollyon could disturb even sober-minded adults. In one of M.R. James’s most famous ghost stories, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, from 1904, Professor Parkins has just excavated a strange relic from the ruins of a Templar church and, strolling homeward along a desolate seashore, notices a mysterious figure tailing him at a distance. Luckily, the professor is immune to primitive superstitions. However:

In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it.” [1]

Deliberately or not, James has the professor slightly misremember the passage which had had such an unsettling effect on so many generations of kids. Here’s how Bunyan describes Christian’s first glimpse of Apollyon:

But now, in this Valley of Humiliation, poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him: his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back, or to stand his ground. But he considered again, that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.

So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales, like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question with him.

In his memoir Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens recalls coming across this passage in Anthony Powell’s 1975 novel Hearing Secret Harmonies:

[H]e could never, even after he was grown-up, watch a lone figure draw nearer across a field, without thinking that this was Apollyon come to contend with him. From the moment of first hearing that passage read aloud — assisted by a lively portrayal of the fiend in an illustration, realistically depicting his goat’s horns, bat’s wings, lion’s claws, lizard’s legs — the terror of that image, bursting out from an otherwise at moments prosy narrative, had embedded itself for all time in the imagination.

The more vivid terrors of movies and comic books having displaced Apollyon from the nightmares of the young, Hitchens belonged to perhaps the last generation for whom a reference to that scene could summon a first-hand memory:

I put down [Powell’s] novel and was immediately back in the Crapstone of my Devonshire boyhood. … My younger brother Peter–aged perhaps eight–has so strongly imbibed John Bunyan’s Puritan classic as almost to have memorized it. (The “slough of despond,” “the giant Despair,” “Doubting Castle,” the fripperies of “Vanity Fair,” “Oh death, where is thy sting?” Can you remember when all these used to be part of the equipment of everybody literate in English? They are as real to my brother and to me as the shaggy, wild ponies on the nearby moors.) But, coming to the very decisive page that should show Apollyon in all his horrid magnificence, Peter finds that the publishers have bowdlerized the text, and withheld this famous illustration from the version made available to the under-tens. He is not to be allowed to look The Evil One in the face.

A very mid-20th-century child, Peter has no patience for those who would coddle him for his own supposed psychological safety. He pressures his father, who in turn contacts the publishers to send along the adults-only edition. At last:

[T]he day came when the unabridged version arrived, and we could both solemnly turn–with parental supervision, of course, but in our minds to protect our parents from any shock or trauma–to the color plate from hell. It was one of those pull-out pages that needs to be unfolded from the volume itself, in a three-stage concertina. And it was anticlimax defined. For one thing–Powell’s summary above may have prepared you for this–it was absurdly overdone. A lizard-man or snake-man might have been represented creepily enough, but this non-artist had hugely overdone the number of possible mutations of leg, wing, and pinion and also given Apollyon a blazing furnace for a belly. The demon’s wicked and gloating expression, looked at from one angle, was merely silly and bilious.

For the elder Hitchens brother, who would go on to become one of the world’s most famous evangelists of irreligion, the disappointment reinforces his conviction that hellfire is a laughing matter.

So what did it look like, this illustration that took up permanent residence in so many overactive juvenile imaginations?

Over at Pictures in Powell, “An exploration of the visual arts as they appear in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell”, the curator provides an assortment of possible culprits. But it’s unlikely that all the above authors would have been frightened by the same picture. The most common result in a Google Image search for “Apollyon and Christian” is this one by Henry Courtney Selous:

chrstian's combat with apollyon henry courtney selous

Pg. 81 of the Cassell, Petter, and Galpin 1875 (?) edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
From the University of Florida Digital Collections.

…Who is too recent for wee Maggie Tulliver (or wee George Eliot) to have seen his work as a child. In any case, whichever illustration she saw must have been uncoloured. Carrying on the scene from The Mill on the Floss begun above:

“Here he is,” [Maggie] said, running back to Mr. Riley. “And Tom coloured him for me with his paints when he was at home last holidays — the body all black, you know, and the eyes red, like fire, because he’s all fire inside, and it shines out at his eyes.”

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, Anne Dunan-Page refers to this episode and observes that part of Bunyan’s appeal, for his younger readers, may have been “the opportunity to colour the line-drawings”. [2]

I wonder how many rare and precious editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress have had their pages marred by the artistic additions of overenthusiastic children?

M.

1. The BBC has twice adapted “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”: somewhat faithfully in 1968 and very loosely in 2010. Both versions strain to extend James’s economical tale to television length.

2. Confusingly, Henry Courtney Selous did two separate sets of illustrations for Bunyan’s work. Here’s his other version, from 1844, of Christian Combating with Apollyon. Maggie would have loved it: it looks like a page from a colouring book.

 

We may prate of toleration: Saint Joan and the Inquisition.

I’m pretty wishy-washy. I’ve changed my mind often enough that I no longer delude myself about the permanency of my opinions. Much of what I now believe I might well have second thoughts about tomorrow, or next year, or on my deathbed.

The one opinion I would regard as impregnable – the one that, for all my wishy-washiness, I doubt I’ll ever renounce – is that society and the law ought to permit the widest possible scope for freedom of thought. That the Overton Window ought to be thrown open to its maximal extent, and that those visionaries and lunatics who insist on considering possibilities beyond its frame ought to be left free to preach their aberrant ideas. That however troubling or even dangerous those ideas may be, the petty tyrants who stir up mobs to persecute deviant thinkers are much more to be despised.

I have at least the normal human complement of cowardice and muddleheadedness, but I do try and apply these principles consistently. To take a couple recent examples from the archives of Spectator columnist Dominic Green, I agree with him that the British far-right ex-thug Tommy Robinson ought to be free to speak to any audience willing to listen, but disagree that a Boston College “queer theorist” ought to be smeared as a pedophile based on his turgid ruminations on Henry James and “the erotic child”. [1]

I don’t dispute that Robinson’s and the professor’s ideas are potentially harmful. In my view the benefit of being free to consider those ideas – all ideas – outweighs the real risk of harm. I would believe this even if I hadn’t noticed that the people we appoint to police our dangerous ideas eventually and unfailingly end up policing our songs, jokes, and poems.

However: in the spirit of wishy-washiness, which is also the spirit of engaging with uncomfortable ideas, let me consider the possibility that my one impregnable opinion is dangerous, and ought to be suppressed.

***

One of the problems I’ve been grappling with over the last few years, during the rise of what I’ll non-judgementally call Social Justice ideology, is at what point a person of conservative temperament is obliged to defer to the incoming set of taboos.

(When I speak of a “conservative temperament” I’m referring not to a set of political opinions, but to an outlook we might call Burkean, or Chestertonian: an attitude of modest deference to long-established traditions, on the grounds that, however silly they might appear, they must have some social utility in order to have been adopted in the first place, and passed down through the generations.)

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

This is quite apart from the question of whether it’s physically safe for me to violate those taboos: I would obviously prefer, in accordance with my belief in maximal toleration, that believers of whatever faith deal gently with taboo-breakers, non-violently ejecting them from the holy precincts but otherwise ignoring their provocations. But I’m not concerned here about the responsibilities of believers: I’m about as likely to embrace Social Justice as I am to convert to Hinduism. The question I’m asking is, how much deference do I, as a resident non-believer, owe to the majority religious community? – particularly when it’s not clear whether that community is in the majority, or whether it’s a religion at all?

***

It was with the above questions in mind that I found myself reading George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan, which depicts the brief military career, trial for heresy, and posthumous rehabilitation of Joan of Arc.

As Shaw explains in the Preface, the play was written to correct the audience-flattering mythologies that had gained currency in the intervening centuries – namely, that Joan had been done in by a conspiracy of villainous and superstitious buffoons of the type that we, in our sophistication, would see through today. In Shaw’s view, the Inquisition was no more inhumane in stamping out Medieval blasphemies than an English court would be in stamping out their 20th Century equivalents. Shaw shows the prosecutors extending every opportunity for Joan to save herself by denying that the voices which had guided her were divinely inspired; which she finally does, to their relief. But when she discovers that this petty lie won’t gain her her freedom, merely save her from the bonfire, she recants her recantation, and chooses martyrdom.

As Shaw tells it, Joan was tried fairly, and found guilty “strictly according to law”. Her prosecutors, however we might scoff at their certainty that the Catholic church was alone capable of interpreting God’s will on earth, were correct enough in their estimation of where heresies such as Joan’s might lead: first to Protestantism – the dissolution of Western Christendom into a jumble of warring sects – and then to Nationalism – the collapse of the feudal political order – and the diminution of religion to a minor handmaiden of the state.

Before Joan’s trial begins, the Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech – two and a half pages of solid text, in my Penguin edition – imploring the members of the court to “cast out” both anger and pity, while bearing in mind the unseen consequences of their verdict:

God forbid that I should tell you to harden your hearts; for her punishment if we condemn her will be so cruel that we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts. But if you hate cruelty – and if any man here does not hate it I command him on his soul’s salvation to quit this holy court – I say, if you hate cruelty, remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.

Nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy: a sentiment that any modern Inquisitor, of whatever ideological stripe, could get behind. If a demagogue like Tommy Robinson is permitted to say mean things about Islam, it will lead to discrimination and violence against Muslims. If a professor is left free to muse about the ethics of sex with minors, it will lead to the sexual abuse of real-life children.

Of course, dire real-world outcomes can be imagined for any controversial opinion. A famous playwright helps sway a generation of idealistic intellectuals into sympathy with Stalinism and millions of unlucky Third Worlders wind up living under Communist regimes. A group of disaffected ex-leftists cobble a new political philosophy out of their reading of an esoteric classics professor and tens of thousands wind up dying in futile Middle Eastern wars. A minor YouTube celebrity, to annoy his girlfriend, uploads a video of her pet pug dog giving the Hitler salute and – well, who knows what genocidal consequences might follow?

Shaw writes in the Preface to Saint Joan:

We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers. We must persecute, even to the death; and all we can do to mitigate the danger of persecution is, first, to be very careful what we persecute, and second, to bear in mind that unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence.

This is the pragmatic argument for toleration: it’s not that we should leave people free to speak their own minds because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we clamp down too tight, the reaction may lead to anarchy and societal collapse.

But it’s no easy thing, calibrating the level of toleration; and reckless thinkers like me, smuggling our arguments for unfettered speech under the cover of “temperamental conservatism”, should be properly wary that we might, by sanctioning the miscalibration of the social machinery, accidentally bring about the end of civilization.

M.

1. The essay characterized as pedophilic by Dominic Green was subsequently extended by its author to book length: I attempted to read the section on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw but found it impenetrable.

Surprisingly, it seems I haven’t mentioned G.B. Shaw on this blog before. An anecdote I shared in 2010 about the farcical fact-finding mission of a “great Humanist” author to a Soviet work camp in the Arctic could have involved Shaw, who was similarly duped on his visit to the USSR; but that anecdote actually concerned Maxim Gorky. In my discussion last year of John Updike’s The Coup I lamented that “the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities” was increasingly neglected, and a couple months back I took issue with William Hazlitt’s attack on wishy-washy writers.

Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?’”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

Tonypandy.

For grumps like me, one of the pleasures of reading Josephine Tey is her tart little asides about the woolly-headed intellectual fads of her era…which, as often as not, are the fads of our own. In Brat Farrar a progressive boarding school is described:

“No one is forced to learn anything at Clare. Not even the multiplication table. The theory is that one day you’ll feel the need of the multiplication table and be seized with a mad desire to acquire the nine-times. Of course, it doesn’t work out like that at all.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Of course not. No one who could get out of the nine-times would ever dream of acquiring it voluntarily.”

In The Singing Sands a grievance-mongering Scottish nationalist is presented for ridicule:

“So you’ve met Archie Brown, have you?” Tommy said, clapping the top half on his hot scone, and licking the honey that oozed from it.

“Is that his name?”

“It used to be. Since he elected himself the champion of Gaeldom he calls himself Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn. He’s frightfully unpopular at hotels.”

“Why?”

“How would you like to page someone called Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn?”

And in Tey’s most famous work, 1951’s The Daughter of Time, she introduces a term that these days, amid contending accusations of newsfakery, seems ripe for revival:

“If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!”

The speaker is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. Confined to a hospital bed after sustaining an injury on the job, to kill time he buries himself in historical research, attempting to absolve Richard III of the charge of having murdered the Princes in the Tower – a charge, he concludes, as baseless as the widely believed story about Tonypandy.

The facts of that riot, or massacre, or what-have-you – as a visit to the relevant Wikipedia page will confirm – are still far from settled. But in Inspector Grant’s version, Churchill was so sensitive to the danger of inflaming the Welsh strikers that he dispatched only a body of unarmed police, and “[t]he only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two.” This sordid scuffle was exaggerated for purely political purposes:

“The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.”

Elsewhere Inspector Grant applies the term to the retrospective elevation of the Covenanters – vicious terrorists in his telling – to Scottish national martyrs.

To summarize, Tonypandy in the Josephine Tey sense refers not to politically motivated propaganda, but to the falsified version of history that, thanks to propaganda or lazy reporting or romantic oversimplification, supplants the facts in the public consciousness. Once established, Tonypandy can be very hard to displace:

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset.

Though sorely tempted, I won’t unsettle the reader by providing modern examples of Tonypandy. I’m sure whatever your political sympathies you can think of a few…which would be guaranteed to upset your political foes.

M.

Back in April I observed that newsworthy events are, by definition, out of the ordinary, so that the news inevitably gives us a distorted picture of the world. Last year I discussed the related concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia and pondered the insoluble problem of truthfulness in fiction.