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The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, shown and discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

 

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’Cide by ’cide.

Last year in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I quoted a comment the author made years ago in an interview. The subject was suicide:

As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.

It made me think of a bit in Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches where the narrator, who often eases himself into sleep by imagining ludicrous methods of killing himself, visualizes a Rube Goldberg suicide apparatus:

If you kill yourself, you are being inconsiderate, because others must deal with the distasteful mess of your corpse. The self-filling grave solved that.

The self-filling grave involves a shotgun, a tripwire, and a “complicated system of pulleys and weights” that releases a load of earth over your corpse as you fall. This passage stuck in my memory because I’d had a similar fantasy, except with a vat of acid.

When I was twenty or so and sad and aimless and lonely, in emails to my friends back home I would occasionally crack wise about my upcoming suicide. Until one day the phone rang and it was a friend who feared I was about to hurl myself off a bridge.

I tried to explain: No, I have no intention of killing myself. I’m just saying it’s comforting to know that it’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fallback in case things get really bad. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Please can we stop talking about this. Really I’m fine.

And I learned to stop talking about it: no point freaking out my friends and family. I’m twenty years older now, and perhaps a shade wiser; less prone, anyway, to hyperdramatizing every slight and setback. But I’ve been carrying the old suicide charm around in my back pocket this whole time, and even now, every so often I’ll pull it out and give it a wistful caress.

I’ve got this buddy – let’s see; I’ve used X. and Y. already in recent months, so I guess I’ll call him Z. – who’ll fall sometimes into a state of deep apathy. He was in a highway accident years back – he calls it sheer bad luck, but I’d guess reckless driving played a part – where if his tumbling vehicle had tumbled an inch to the right or left, he would now be dead. Since then, he says, he hasn’t much cared whether he lives or dies. He’s flirted with suicide more than once: had a rope around his neck, had a gun barrel in his mouth; and in between, snarfed chemicals of uncertain provenance in the vague hope he’d be spared the trouble of waking up next morning.

When he muses about killing himself, I find myself echoing that friend who called me twenty years ago to dissuade me from jumping off the bridge: I tell Z. he’s got a lot to live for – things are gonna start looking up any minute – his friends and family would be heartbroken if he died – and so on and so forth. He just shakes his head in frustration. “You can’t understand,” he tells me. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t possibly understand.”

Maybe on these occasions it would help if I shared with Z. my own daydreams of self-obliteration. Maybe it would lend my platitudes the sheen of authority. But I’m afraid he wouldn’t take me seriously – he’d conclude that to me suicide is, so to speak, a conversation piece: an antique blunderbuss to hang above the fireplace; while to him it’s something you keep loaded and ready by the door for when the wolves get too close.

But then, maybe like me and Kurt Vonnegut (who died at age 84 of “injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan home”), Z. really has no intention of killing himself. He just likes to fantasize about it.

Much of our opinionating these days consists of declarations that you, the privileged reader, couldn’t possibly understand what I, the long-suffering author, have been through. If you’re not gay you can’t know how discouraging it is to grow up in a world where heterosexual marriage is held up as the endpoint of romantic fulfilment. If you’ve never been homeless you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel the indignant stares of middle-class people when you blemish their parks and sidewalks with your untidy existence. If you’re not a person of colour you can’t conceive how much emotional labour goes into merely standing up under the daily bombardment of racist microaggressions.

In a sense this is all very true: I can’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than myself, a straight white male middle-class Gen-Xer from the Canadian prairies. It’s certainly easier to project myself into the mind of a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. than to imagine life as a Lapp reindeer-herder, or a Sentinel Islands hunter-gatherer, or a minor party functionary in Pyongyang, or a black female multimillionaire tennis superstar.

But even being a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. doesn’t entitle me to pretend to know what my friend Z. is thinking. Even if like him I’d been in a car accident, gotten divorced, tried coke and heroin, felt the barrel of a gun in my mouth, we’d still be separated by a billion little experiences, every one of them big enough to contain a Russian novel’s worth of suffering and self-blame.

I suspect if people could read each other’s novels they’d discover that we all have more in common than we realized. We’ve all felt belittled and condescended to. We’ve all suspected we were being judged not on our personal qualities, but on our reputations, our appearance, or the company we keep. We’ve all lain awake thinking, “No-one would even miss me if I vanished off the face of the earth.”

The most universal experience of all is knowing that no-one else could possibly understand what we’ve been through.

M.

Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…

***

In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.

M.

1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.

 

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends.

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe.

Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.

“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.

***

I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.

M.

PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.

Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

M.

Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”