Yesterday’s Meme Today

Nick Barlow begins the necessary work of stringing together various fifth sentences on twenty-third pages. Here’s a snippet:

Now, the King’s foreign minister, the Marquis de Torcy, had informed him that not only was Law back without a passport but that ‘his intentions are not good’ and that ‘he is serving our enemies as a spy.”Look,” Rich Armitage responded, “we told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that if this happened it’s their ass.”

“All right, I tried,” I said, and fingered it out and forked it over. Aristotle’s political philosophy isn’t exactly startling, but it avoids the utopianism of Plato’s Republic.

This wise work also tells me something I didn’t know before, which is the precise difference between a zeppelin and a blimp.

Ecclesiastical Spam

Haven’t had this one before:

Become a legally ordained minister within 48 hours
As a minister, you will be authorized to perform the rites and ceremonies of the church!

Perform Weddings, Funerals, Perform Baptisms, Forgiveness of Sins
Visit Correctional Facilities

Want to start your own church?

Press here to find out how.

I’m sure there are ways of visiting correctional facilities without paying $29.95 (plus $11 for out-of-U.S. shipping). Anyway, clicking on the link asks me whether I want to marry my brother, but I don’t think this is one of those twisted incest porn sites. Could be, though. I didn’t peer too closely.

Breakfast Serial

So within minutes of posting the final instalment of “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, “Nyet to Barbie” Sarah pops up in the comments and asks what I’m going to do next, and suggests Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. (Quite a good choice: we could have one paragraph a day for the next 212 days or so: they’re all numbered.)

I’ve quite enjoyed preparing Wilde-by-instalment: the work of picking where the episode breaks come, cleaning up the rather fuzzy electronic text on which I based the serial and thinking a bit about some of the less well-known parts of the essay has had its own rewards. Some of the work has just been rather mechanical proof-reading, but I think that on balance the interesting work has outweighed the tedious stuff here.

But what I’d like to know more about is whether VS-readers have been paying attention. A couple of you have emailed to say you’ve been enjoying the Wilde in bite-sized chunks. I guess that others have scrolled rapidly past instalments to see if there’s anything original underneath. How (if at all) did you engage with the Wilde text? If I did another text, would you prefer more by way of editorial commentary, or just let whatever text it was speak for itself? Another essay in segments, or something longer but filleted? Any opinions — and further thoughts about what else, if anything, to post in this space — would be particularly welcome, either in the comments below or by private email.


Tax Day

Back in 1997 when I was teaching City of God for the first time to a bunch of American undergraduates, I remember trying to elucidate aspects of Augustine’s idea of the peregrinus by telling them that for them, as good citizens of the republic, 15 April should be the happiest day of the year, the day on which they make a significant sacrifice on behalf of the republic (res publica debet esse carissima, etc.), and, in so doing, strengthen the foundations of their lives as free citizens; whereas I, as a non-resident alien, or peregrinus, could justifiably resent having to pay taxes to the Feds.

I don’t think I persuaded them.

Wilde Serial, #22

The Finale.

Earlier Episodes: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI.

“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, Part Twenty-Two

The evolution of man is slow. The injustice of men is great. It was necessary that pain should be put forward as a mode of self-realization. Even now, in some places in the world, the message of Christ is necessary. No one who lived in modern Russia could possibly realize his perfection except by pain. A few Russian artists have realized themselves in Art, in a fiction that is medieval in character, because its dominant note is the realization of men through suffering. But for those who are not artists, and to whom there is no mode of life but the actual life of fact, pain is the only door to perfection. A Russian who lives happily under the present system of government in Russia must either believe that man has no soul, or that, if he has, it is not worth while developing. A Nihilist who rejects all authority because he knows authority to be evil, and welcomes all pain, because through that he realizes his personality, is a real Christian. To him the Christian ideal is a true thing.

And yet, Christ did not revolt against authority. He accepted the imperial authority of the Roman Empire and paid tribute. He endured the ecclesiastical authority of the Jewish Church, and would not repel its violence by any violence of his own. He had, as I said before, no scheme for the reconstruction of society. But the modern world has schemes. It proposes to do away with poverty, and the suffering that it entails. It desires to get rid of pain, and the suffering that pain entails. It trusts to Socialism and to Science as its methods. What it aims at is an Individualism expressing itself through joy. This Individualism will be larger, fuller, lovelier than any Individualism has ever been. Pain is not the ultimate mode of perfection. It is merely provisional and a protest. It has reference to wrong, unhealthy, unjust surroundings. When the wrong, and the disease, and the injustice are removed, it will have no further place. It was a great work, but it is almost over. Its sphere lessens every day.

Nor will man miss it. For what man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilized, more himself. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment. The new Individualism, for whose service Socialism, whether it wills it or not, is working, will be perfect harmony. It will be what the Greeks sought for, but could not, except in Thought, realize completely, because they had slaves, and fed them; it will be what the Renaissance sought for, but could not realize completely except in Art, because they had slaves, and starved them. It will be complete, and through it each man will attain to his perfection. The new Individualism is the new Hellenism.

Revisiting Berlin

British Spin suggested that I might comment on this piece on Isaiah Berlin by Hywel Williams in today’s Guardian. I was going to stick this response in Spin’s comments box, but have a memory of his comments box being one of those that chews up long comments or otherwise makes them vanish without trace. So here goes.

Spin: Yes: it’s a stupid article about Berlin. It’s not entirely stupid — I’ll come back to that in a moment — but it contains some ridiculous assertions:

(1) To say of his formulation of the distinction between -ve and +ve liberty, for example, that “On this slender and obvious insight a major self-serving academic industry was built” isn’t really good enough. It’s true that Berlin’s essay has inspired a lot of commentary, but to describe this literature as commentary on a “slender and obvious insight” is foolish, and to dismiss it in a sentence like this is philistine. (I think Williams is also wrong to characterise this distinction as the “core” to Berlin’s teaching, which I — and John Gray, a more reliable guide to Berlin’s thought than Williams — would argue is his teaching of value pluralism.)

(2) To accuse Berlin of erecting “a kind of Classic FM version of the history of ideas” is silly. Berlin’s historiography often has problems, but they aren’t Classic FM-like problems.

(3) It’s slack to refer to his “highly selective anti-totalitarianism” without saying a bit more about just what you mean by this vague claim.

I haven’t seen the new collection of letters, so can’t see how much of his critique Williams is digging out of them. But this article to me reads like a bastardised summary of a much better, much longer article, which is the piece Christopher Hitchens published on Berlin after he died, first in the pages of the London Review of Books as “Moderation or Death” (26.11.1998), then reprinted as “Goodbye to Berlin” in Unacknowledged Legislation, pp.138-164.

And that’s a classic Hitchens hit-piece. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here: I think it’s quite the best thing he’s written, with his 1989 review of Noel Annan’s Our Age in second place. Hitchens covers a great deal of ground, is fiercely, repeatedly, entertainingly critical, and he seems to me to get quite a lot of things right. (But then I never belonged to the Berlin fan club, so perhaps I would say that, wouldn’t I?) But that’s the place to go if you want to read the full charge sheet.

And yes, Berlin was quite the Cold Warrior — if not “just another Cold Warrior”, as Williams suggests. In Hitchens’s words: “In every instance given by Ignatieff [Berlin’s biographer], or known to me, from the Cold War through Algeria to Suez to Vietnam, Berlin strove to find a high ‘liberal’ justification either for the status quo or for the immediate needs of the conservative authorities…” That seems to me to be about right.

But if you want Isaiah Berlin bloggerage, you don’t go to me or to the Timberites, but straight to Josh Cherniss. He’s the Berliniac of the blogosphere, and he’s your man.

P.S. Spin: I don’t much like Vico and Herder at all, at least, not the Vico sections: if memory serves, Berlin spins a story about a Counter-Enlightenment figure, an anachronistic lone genius who’s into relativism and value pluralism, all of which which seems to me to get Vico radically, decisively, implausibly wrong. But what do I know?

Another Question

I’ve been rereading C. L. R. James’s Beyond A Boundary, and it’s just as good second time around.

It has a couple of good blurbs on the back of my paperback, which I’ll just spit out here for fun:

[1] “Great claims have been made for Beyond a Boundary since its first appearance in 1963: that it is the greatest sports book ever written; that it brings the outsider a privileged insight into West Indian culture; that it is a severe examination of the colonial condition. All are true.” [Sunday Times][2] And, my favourite: “A mental landscape triangulated by literature, socialism and cricket represents an ideal we should all aspire to, and this ennobling and beautifully written book should be read by anyone with the slightest interest in any one of the above.” [The Guardian (Matthew Engel? Or someone else?)]

But the question is a straightforward one: are there any other sports books that are remotely as good, interesting and intelligent as this one?(Note to avoid misunderstanding: the question isn’t asked because I think sportswriting tends to be bad, uninteresting and unintelligent. There are lots of good sports books. At least, I think so. The question is, whether there’s anything else quite this good among the ranks of the better ones. And if anyone has any candidates, I’d like to know what they might be. I suppose they’re most likely to turn out to be about baseball or boxing.)

Here’s a good game

[via Norm via various others]

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

The closest book to me right now is Butler & Butler’s British Political Facts 1900-2000. But p.23 doesn’t really have sentences, just a lot of data about the ministerial composition of the 1945-51 Labour Government. So I’m going to reach for the second nearest book, Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society, and I’m pleased to report that the fifth sentence on p.23 is both short and enigmatic on its own: “It is rather to determine whether such a class exists at all.”