Reading Toynbee A Study of History

A society is a group whose members have shared problems.

“There is no such thing as society” would be true if there were no shared problems, if each individual had only his or her own problems to worry about.

“There is no such thing as society” is clearly false, since there are a great number of problems that human beings currently share. Destruction of the planet through global warming is one of these problems.

Arnold J Toynbee thought that “Western Christendom” was a society, distinct from “Orthodox Christian”, “Islamic”, “Hindu” and “Far Eastern” societies. This is because they each had their own distinct set of problems to contend with.

But he saw that beyond the “cultural plane” of Western Christendom were also “economic” and “political” planes. These latter planes extend further that Western Society, to encompass just about the whole world –– so, existing on these planes, we belong to a global society beyond our local one. There are problems that we share with the whole of humanity. Today this is especially apparent, with the threats of global warming and nuclear extermination.

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Spengler and Destiny

I’ve been reading Oswald Spengler again, and what he writes about destiny. If you’re going to discover your destiny – the destiny of your culture, of your family, or your own personal destiny – you need to get out of the habit of thinking about cause and effect. This seemed absurd the first time I read Spengler, but I think I understand it now.

If you think that everything is grounded in cause and effect, then you’ll make the ostensibly logical step from “x caused y” to “if x hadn’t happened, then y wouldn’t have happened.” This is often a mistake, especially when dealing with human life. Human life has a destiny, which in short means: if not by this cause, then by another.

Spengler gives Napoleon as an example. Paradoxically, Napoleon’s role in history was to allow for the dominance of the British spirit, which led to the expansion of the British Empire. Spengler tells us that in Napoleon’s time there were only two powers with really the same level of imperial ambition: Britain and France. The stage was set, and the creation of an empire “on which the sun never sets” was inevitable. Determinism is false, and events can go one way or another – Napoleon might have been victorious, and never met his Waterloo – but destiny is certain, and whatever the events certain trends are inevitable. If Napoleon had been victorious then it would have been the French who would have had the greatest Empire in the 19th century. But he was defeated and, since the time for empire was ripe, his downfall meant the dominance of the British Empire.

This is important: it wasn’t Britain’s destiny that was realised in the British Empire, but the destiny of the West, which means the destiny of West European and North American Civilisation. Even as Britain and France fought, they were working together to bring about the next step in the decline of the West . . .

Strange to call it a decline, of course, when you’re talking about the success of Empire building. But Empire building is always a sign of the death of a culture. There is nothing new to be created, and so the civilisation just expands, sharing the relics of its past, spreading its already dated ideas of freedom, technology, ambition . . .

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Burroughs and the Bad Cop

Recently I read The Manhunter by John Pascucci. I bought a copy because it’s one of the last books William Burroughs read before he died. Burroughs notes in Last Words that he liked a phrase of Pascucci’s: “the plot sickened.” It’s got a few whimsical phrases in it like that. But it also really is a sickening book in places: the “astounding” and “true” story of a police officer who searches for the worst criminals of all – Nazis and child-killers – but in the process realises he’s willing to do some pretty evil things himself to get the job done.

The dialogue in this book feels pretty fake: like Pascucci wanted to go down in history not just as a deep and troubled but kick-ass cop but also as something out of a Hollywood film, all cool and ready with the one-liners. But the struggle feels real, and the book is gripping, and you start to care about the main character – even in the places where the evil in him bubbles to the surface. But he justifies this with a philosophy: “utilitarianism”, the belief that it’s about the greatest good of the greatest number, and so sometimes the ends justify some pretty nasty means. If the stories in this book are true, if things really went down this way, then Pascucci is right to say that evil acts really can save lives, and sometimes it’s necessary to do evil for the sake of the greater good. But the fake sound of so much of this makes me wonder: like when he impales a man on a spike to get the location of the bomb just in time. It all seems too convenient, like satisfying Hollywood fare. And one thing Pascucci tells us over and over is that the “real world” is a mess, and nothing works out the way it does in the movies.

Another thing Pascucci tells us: that a criminal never has a philosophy. I agree that a Nazi’s “philosophy” is nothing but a rationalisation for carrying out acts of violence. But if Pascucci has done half the things he claims he has in this book, then he himself is a criminal, and his utilitarian justifications for the things he did start to sound pretty weak.

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Inhuman Indifference

When Kenneth Rexroth heard Dylan Thomas had died, he wrote a poem. He wrote about who he blamed for the poet’s death: and he finds fault with us, with society. He uses “You” in the poem, addressing all of us. Are there any exceptions? Is anyone innocent? Is Rexroth excluding himself with this “You”?

“You drowned him in your cocktail brain. / He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.”

Rexroth is describing a cruel indifference towards artists. Even where a poet’s work is loved the man himself is a non-entity. Even where there is fascination with the “tortured artist”, this isn’t an interest in the person, but in the type, the romantic ideal. The interest is inhuman. (This interest comes and goes, articles about the artist are written and forgotten, TV shows watched in half-interest and repeated for eternity on obscure channels.)

Indifference kills. There is no respite for artists on these shifting sands. No place to make a home, no place of peace and comfort for sleep and dreams, rooms of light for drink and laughter . . . Self-expression is such a personal thing, such a human and natural thing . . . and the poem once created becomes an object, detached now from the human depths out of which it emerged. So that it can seem it came out of nowhere. The artist is forgotten.

Oswald Spengler: “Sleep, too, liberates –– ‘Death and his brother Sleep.’ And holy wine, intoxication, breaks the rigour of the spirit’s tension, and dancing, the Dionysus art, and every other form of stupefaction and ecstasy. These are modes of slipping out of awareness by the aid of being, the cosmic, the ‘it,’ the escape out of space into time.”

Art is expression of being, a reckoning with time, with the cosmic, by means of intoxication and dance. To express yourself you need to slip into your own being, your real being –– which means dreams and dance and forgotten memories that now bubble to the surface as you follow the flow. You’ve slipped into being, and doing so you slip beyond space and into time, into the eternal. Out of awareness. The writer writes his being, and slips out of awareness. And we let him go, since he has entered an invisible realm –– of time, being, the unconscious –– and is becoming himself invisible to us. We can’t make him out, he’s fading further and further. We see less and less of him, or what we once took him to be, and what’s left is incomprehensible to us, a hopeless mess, an artist, and we become indifferent as we become oblivious to his existence now that he has made for himself his own territory, a realm of living being.

“Was their end noble and tragic . . . ?”

It’s not a noble end. Let’s not romanticise the lonely existence of the artist, or the ways they died in this loneliness, through suicide, alcohol, violence . . . What is the artist’s existence really? The artist does not choose to suffer. It’s necessary given the situation we placed him in. We would not give him a home, and so he made one. We do not recognise the realm that he inhabits now, in his suffering –– the realm of time and being, versus our own ordinary realm of space and conformity, which is non-being.

“They stopped their ears.”

The artist utters what cannot be heard. What the others are not yet ready to hear. For me, the first sign that I am looking at a great work of art is the discomfort it makes me feel. I’m confused. I’m offended. And then I’m transformed. And so I’ll keep my ears unstopped for the new and strange sounds of poetry.

(I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which I found in The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. Also, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson.)

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Impressions of Barnaby Rudge

Barnaby Rudge stamps and shouts and waves the candle above his head. Gabriel tries to keep him quiet: “Softly – gently” he says, and backs away a step from the whirling flame.

Barnaby is raving about his dreams, though he doesn’t call them dreams: “There have been great faces coming and going – close to my face, and then a mile away . . .” In his excitement he continues to whisk the candlestick around, its fire blazing in the air about him as he waves his arms haphazardly. Images in Gabriel’s mind of the flame leaping to set the furniture on fire, or the heavy candlestick itself brought down on his head in Barnaby’s reckless excitement.

Finally, to Gabriel’s great relief, Barnaby ceases to hop and chatter, and turns to guide him quietly up the stairs and up to the room of Edward, the man they found injured the night before, now convalescing in this house. Entering the room, Barnaby puts the candle down, stirs the fire in the hearth with a heavy metal poker, and flings the poker down beside the fire with a crash. He’s now sitting quietly by the fireplace, pulling some string from his pocket that he proceeds to wind around his fingers.

Gabriel approaches Edward: “Speak low, if you please. Barnaby means no harm, but I have watched him oftener than you, and I know, little as you would think it, that he’s listening now.” How can Gabriel be so sure that Barnaby means no harm? That no dark intention lurks in that “benighted” soul? Certainly, as Edward peers past Gabriel to watch Barnaby, seemingly absorbed with his string game, we detect a look of consternation in the man, at the news that one apparently so innocent could in fact be so devious. And while Gabriel believes that Barnaby could mean no harm, yet he might do harm, if he were to speak some secret at the wrong time, or forget himself as he whirled some dangerous object in his hand, a heavy candlestick or the poker he so carelessly flung down.

Turning back to Gabriel, Edward begins to talk. But Gabriel soon interrupts, as the conversation turns to a particular man: “Don’t mention his name, sir . . .” This unsettles Edward again. He must be cautious, speaking softly enough that he can’t be heard over the crackle of the fireplace that stands between them and Barnaby. The almost-silence stifles Edward for a moment, afraid to utter a word, certain that Barnaby will hear. His eyes are fixed for a moment on the poker on the ground at Barnaby’s feet, and then up at Barnaby himself, seemingly so indifferent to their conversation. Finally, he turns back to Gabriel as he begins to speak again in a low whisper. No sound from Barnaby. The only sound for a while the murmurs of the two men and the soft crackling of the fire.

And then, Edward starts violently as he’s interrupted by a rushing sound from the other end of the room, followed by a dull solid thud in front of him. Gabriel is suddenly wide eyed, stunned, and a loud voice starts up behind him:

“Halloa, halloa, halloa! Bow wow wow. What’s the matter here! Hal-loa!”

It’s Grip the raven, swooping into the room, and landing heavily on the chair as it opens its beak to speak, startling Gabriel as if a ghost had appeared. Barnaby had remained absorbed by the fire with his piece of string until the moment the bird shrieked. And now the time for tales is over, with Barnaby and the bird flapping around the room, laughing and squawking, and the door swung open and Mrs Rudge enters the room with a look of terror still on her face . . .

(I’ve been reading Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. These are my notes on Chapter 6.)

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Mitya’s Certainty (Karamazov pp. 438-9)

“She may be there . . .”

Mitya is jealous. He hides in the bushes in the dark outside the window, wondering whether his beloved is inside with the old man. He’s already peeked in through the window. He can’t see her. She could be there behind the screen, out of sight.

“. . . she’s not there.”

But he doesn’t think so. He knows she couldn’t be. Yet still he doubts. Reassuring himself as he walks away he says to himself:

“He’s alone, he’s alone!”

The old man is alone. She is somewhere else. (Where?) He ought to feel relieved. (But where is she?) And still he doubts.

“Strange to say, a queer, irrational vexation rose up in his heart that she was not here. ‘It’s not that she’s not here,’ he explained to himself, immediately. ‘but that I can’t tell for certain whether she is or not.’”

He knows and doesn’t know she’s not there. He knows but doesn’t know for certain, which can seem like not knowing. Sometimes you know something, and it is only afterward when you entertain doubt and demand certainty that suddenly you feel you don’t know it –– even though you do. Certainty is not necessary for knowing something.

“Is she here or not?”

There’s only one way to be sure. He creeps back up to the window to give the secret knock. An agreed sign between the old man and his servant, to announce her arrival. Mitya can see immediately that the old man is excited, and he quickly dashes away as the old man comes to the window. And opens the window and looks out, calling her name.

“‘He’s alone,’ Mitya decided.”

It’s clear, beyond doubt. Now he can leave . . . but he’s waited too long. Now he’s spotted and chased across the grounds by an old servant, he reaches for the instrument in his pocket as the servant catches him climbing the wall –– Mitya strikes, and the man collapses to the ground. Dead? If only Mitya had trusted himself, been sure of what he had known, the tragedy would have been avoided . . . (Dostoevsky has already said that Othello trusted too much, which is why, persuaded that Desdemona has been treacherous, he is lost –– “his ideal was destroyed.” Mitya has the opposite problem: he doesn’t trust anyone enough, not even himself, and this leads to the accident –– a tragedy, if the old servant dies, and a senseless one . . .)

(I’ve been reading The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, published by Wordsworth Classics in 2010.)

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Where Cows Are More Real Than Policemen

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about a dog. This dog is a “real realist,” which means he looks up and down and smells with his nose and asks questions and doesn’t have any smart answers.

“Dog” is a poem about what it means to live in a world. There are things that matter to the dog, and things that don’t. “The things he sees / are his reality / Drunks in doorways / Moons on trees.” The things that matter to you make up your world, the things that don’t are beyond you. “He doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them.” A dog sees a man, but never a policeman. “He would rather eat a tender cow / than a tough policeman,” so the “dead cows hung up whole” at the meat market are real, while the police fade into the background, ghosts of a doubtful reality.

He sees the “moons on trees,” but he doesn’t see a moon that moves in the sky. Each moon is bright and each sits upon one of the tall trees that line the pavement, dazzling doggy eyes and lighting the way. No depth to his vision: he doesn’t imagine a solar system up there in the night sky. No concept even of sky to hang his moon upon. Just a bright bowl of light on a tree as he “trots freely” underneath. Does he see the stars? The bright things of the night rest upon the trees, or on the edges of rooftops, or even on the tip of his nose. The world is endless, not deep, no end to the things he encounters, to bring him joy.

Sometimes “what he hears is very discouraging / very depressing,” especially when he hears about politics. “But he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle,” and goes around in “his own free world,” however un-American others might think it. When you have your own world, bright and rich and clear and full of delight, you won’t spend very much time thinking about these spectres, these Doyles and McCarthys.

So Ferlinghetti’s dog doesn’t have much to say about politics. But he does have “something to say / about ontology / something to say / about reality.” He knows that “the things he smells / smell something like himself,” he knows his own doggy being. He knows how to listen and look, when “with his head cocked sideways . . . like a living question mark” he gives his limitless attention to the world. He knows how to evaluate, how to respond, when to trot along, and when to stop.

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