Trumping Fear

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 13.00.02It’s disturbing to reflect on how very easily people can be persuaded. It was the late George Carlin, I think, who reminded us to ‘never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups’. The meteoric rise of Donald Trump, with his demagoguery, political gospel of bombast, flip-flop and sound bites, “all sound and fury, signifying…” well, not a lot, has propelled him to the forefront of the Presidential race. So, could Trump win? There two stubborn facts: first, that nobody remotely like Trump has won a major-party nomination in the modern era. Second, as is always a problem in analysis of presidential campaigns, poll data is fluid and ambiguous. Many are watching his apparently unstoppable steamroller of a campaign and are quietly appalled, fearful about what it might be like to live in a world where he is one of the most powerful leaders. The interest and hostility toward Trump peaked after his remarks about temporarily banning Muslims’ entry into the USA. A correspondent in Nigeria, a nation of more than 70 million Muslims, says: “Trump was trending on social media and believe me, he was the one man on earth Nigerians hated the most. He still is.” Leaders from France, Egypt, Canada, the United Nations, and Saudi Arabia were among those to publicly criticise Trump, indeed the British Parliament debated whether he should be allowed into the country, where tempers ran high, him being variously described as a ‘dangerous fool’, ‘corrosive’ and ‘poisonous’. At the time, this suggested to me that the British had fallen for all the hot air and hadn’t given much rational thought to exactly how to handle the persistent political gadfly that is Donald John Trump.

In the US, the status acquired by making vast amounts of money is like nowhere else in the world, and the man and his policies, if they exist, are disguised in the garments of the fabulously wealthy, which sits well with American aspirationalism and underlies the ephemeral concept of ‘the American dream’. He has oratorical skills, although rather less developed than Adolf Hitler’s, and he also uses fear as a weapon – Mexicans or Muslims, it really doesn’t matter – in the same way that Hitler used antisemitism to further his political career. The ideological huddling resulting from a doctrine of fear of the unknown created the Nazi party. Hitler argued in Mein Kampf that Europe had become enfeebled by the effeminacy of the Judaeo-Christian ethic and needed a man of iron to restore it and build an empire. The parallels are all too obvious – Trump is, let it be said, no Hitler, but the tribal loyalties which have surfaced to ‘make America great’ have disturbingly familiar echoes. Furthermore, he seems to think that diplomacy is a delicate little tool for appeasement in cases where he perceives brute strength is required. He declined to appear in Fox News’ debate the other night and such was his crowd-pulling appeal that the debate viewing figures were substantially reduced by his absence. But, it may take more than this. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the beginning of a worldwide economic disaster and one of the levers that propelled Hitler to power. Pundits are predicting something similar in the not-too-distant future, where another man of iron, prepared to stampede over democratic principles to further a political agenda, has space to rise.

Momentum generated turns into energy released. If Trump generates enough, like a runaway express train, he’ll be hard to stop. However, Bob Hope was once asked why he never ran for the Presidency. He replied that his wife didn’t want to move to a smaller house. Perhaps Mrs Trump might like to make a similar suggestion.

Postscript: OK, I take it all back. Perhaps there might be one or two who ain’t as dumb as a doorknob after all. Organisation trumped enthusiasm at final call. A well-greased machine with enough people on the ground got the job done for Ted Cruz, the darling of the Evangelicals, and both anti-Washington establishment candidates pushed out the rest of the field. Cruz is also in favour of strict controls on migrants which is probably what Trump was trying to say.

New Hampshire and South Carolina next and the race is really on.

What Lies Beyond

Along with everyone else, I have watched, with mounting horror and considerable admiration, the often heroic response of the Israelis to random daily stabbings, car rammings and all the other suicidal initiatives perpetrated on them by those who consistently crave their destruction. And, lest it be forgotten, the blindly savage zealotry of the ‘price tag’ responders, the wilful murders committed in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere by the deranged and the idolatrous. It all ends with death, termination and the passage of the innocent and the guilty into a shadowy unknown. I have not written about it, because I have nothing to say. I wish I could, but I lost nobody and it is those left behind who have the words and the tears. I live far away in Paris and the nearest I have come to touching the demon’s bloody paw has been in knowing someone killed in the Bataclan attack in Paris. But, death hovers like a vulture over us all and the loss of my stepfather recently, a good but not a religious man, has caused me to review my own suppositions about death, mercy and justice. He died, full of years and sleep and those of us left behind all reach out, with trembling hands, wondering and searching for the truth of what lies beyond.

Eight million people bought “A Brief History Of Time”. Probably a couple of hundred got further than page twenty-six and almost everybody read the last sentence…

“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

Which, of course, is the saving grace of the whole book. We all want to know the mind of God and, as Jeremiah put it ‘the plans He has for us’. This from Isaiah 40, 12-15:

  • Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
 Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?
  • Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?
  • Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
 Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

The “who” is rabbinical rhetoric, almost ironic, since the answer is enshrouded in the unknown, the “mind of God”.

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The image is from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which I visited the other day. I asked myself at the time how myth translates into reality. Does Charon push his unwilling passengers into Hell’s flaming maw, or not? What else, therefore, do we, like the citizens of Nineveh, not know as we do not know our right hand from our left? We do not know about the afterlife, the Hereafter, the journey across the Styx, the tunnels of light, the shouts of welcome on Jordan’s further bank as the processor quietly shuts down like the winking, blinking red light of the Terminator’s eye as it fades and darkens, and without power, fails to reboot. Most cultures have developed a mythology of continuance after bodily functions cease. Some suggest that it is a fear of oblivion, the darkness and the cold that causes mankind to construct elaborate fantasies, delusional states, predisposed and woven into the fabric of consciousness and reinforced by religious adherence and indoctrination. Others have a sense of transience. It is here that one waits, perhaps. Here is C S Lewis’ bus station in a forgotten, rainy, ‘grey town’, the train terminus or the airport lounge. Later, the arrival of ‘here’ is in fact somewhere else. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov’s suggestion that ‘our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’ should be stood on its head. Here is the dark, the light was before it and will be after it. I am therefore guilty of the heresy of not believing that my brain deludes itself into believing instead in the eternality of its owner.

Caesars and Popes

I had never been to Rome, an ancient pastiche of a  city of empire and High Catholicism, where the latest wearer of the shoes of the Fisherman shepherds his billion-strong flock in the hope of maintaining humility amidst magnificent opulence and ceremony. Romans seem determined to build, add to or repurpose almost all of their ancient buildings, and walking through the streets is a living tutorial in history and architecture. Even the Colosseo is being partially rebuilt.
A three or four day tour reveals the tip of one of many icebergs, but little else. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to the University monastery of San Anselmo and listening to Benedictine Vespers with a congregation of three in Capella San Anselmo was quite a delight. The hotel was a converted villa in Aventino, once a very exclusive part of town, far out of the way of the tourist scammers with a charming painting on its courtyard wall.
Our lodging was a beautiful macédoine of old and new, much like the city itself. After several nights, I still could not discern with certainty how all twelve shower nozzles could be simultaneously turned on, and the jacuzzi settings in the overly luxurious black and white marble bathroom were manifold, various and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, tea and biscuits were served free of charge at four o’clock in the peaceful, old-world lounge, a slightly wistful echo of England.

Much like Florence, the sheer weight of Roman high art quickly induces sensory overload. Every church seems to have its own private masterpiece, commissioned by a Pope, a Cardinal or a jurist and there are rather a lot of churches.
San Pietro, atop the prison-like walls surrounding the Vatican, is, of course, the hugest and most aggressively splendid beast of them all. Piercingly beautiful, exquisitely ornate, the interior gives the impression of emptiness, as if someone very rich and important once lived here but they just… left.screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-49-18-pm

I had rather expected to see squadrons of priests and battalions of nuns, but there seemed to be less that I had imagined. Yes, there were a few nuns scurrying, sombre monks, hands clasped inside their habits, with that religiously determined walk so many seemed to have. Perhaps there were more, lost in the vastness of the place or in the myriads of corridors to chapels squatting like beehives on its perimeter. The queen of them all is, of course, La Sistina, Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting young, athletic and half-naked men in Renaissance poses, body doubles for various Scriptural luminaries. There was a certain thrill to being one of the first visitors of the day, so we saw her freshly cleansed by the night. I had imagined heavy gloom and incense, but the chapel was bright, colorful and airy with a modest altar at one end. People often forget that it is a chapel not a museum, so a black-clad Nigerian priest was in constant attendance to ensure solemnity. I spoke with him on the subject of confession, and we found common ground.screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-49-43-pm
I have quite a short attention span for fine art, but tracing the sparse, erratic footsteps of Caravaggio to St Augustine’s near Piazza Navona is an exercise in humility; Roman cobblestones are not forgiving. The swaggering Caravaggio left Milan for Rome in 1592, doing a runner, it seemed, after “certain quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer. He arrived in Rome flat broke and of no fixed address. Eight years later he was the city’s most important painter, almost a Tarantino, shocking the public with grossly realistic images executed to perfection and a worthy successor to the mighty Raphael. This image does no justice to his 1604 masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the Madonna of Loreto, or Pilgrim’s Madonna.  She stands, barefoot, just as the two kneeling pilgrims are. The original shows the dirty, wrinkled feet of the pilgrims and the exquisitely worked head of the kneeling woman, old and wizened. The Carmelites, for whom it was originally painted, rejected it in disgust, not least because he had used a famous prostitute as a model for the Virgin.

No, it wasn’t just about art, or food, Caesars (despots, not salads) or Popes. We both enjoyed the sense of ‘otherness’, the ubiquitous old Latin and Roman numerals, even the drain covers have SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Roman Senate and People – stamped on them.


Sweet and Sour

I haven’t commented – much less reviewed – movies in a while. Not because I haven’t seen very many, I have. But, perhaps because too much blockbuster type stuff has had its share of ten-cent reviewers like me and people go to see things because they happen to fit with their other, more pressing schedules. Also, there has been a quite wearyingly predictable newsround in recent times and I am not going to remark on the similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, North and South, right and left, chalk and cheese, sweet and sour.

In reference to polar opposites, I wondered if an iTunes rental of “Still Alice” was going to disappoint if the trailer and plot spoilers were to be believed, but, not so. Being, er, over sixty, thus eligible for certain privileges like a guaranteed seat on the Métro, tends to cast a long shadow sometimes, in particular, the possible, if not imminent threat of some debilitating disease or other. People of my age occasionally give passing thought to being introduced to the grim reaper. Julianne Moore, in the role of a lifetime, plays a successful professor of linguistics, who finds herself initially unable to capture a word, as if it is just out of reach, and she is subsequently diagnosed with a rare familial form of Alzheimer’s disease. I found myself trying to remember how many times I had been caught without the right word, as if it had slipped between the cracks in my memory – a quite normal ‘senior moment’ I suppose we all get from time to time. The story revolves around the inexorable progress of the disease as she tries with less and less ability to hold on to her identity and the reactions of her immediate family. More and more, thoughts drop out of her head, which is both sad and almost unexpected. So, we are led into a solitude of twilight paths we’d prefer not to have to face with a bittersweet, perfectly timed ending.By contrast – brutal contrast, as it happens – Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” was also showing at the cinema this week. Echoing “True Grit” with broad, snowy Wyoming landscapes and a frontier mindset of careless bloodshed, this would have almost worked as a stage play – Tarantino moves his pieces around virtually a single set as if under stage direction. Again, the intimidating Samuel L Jackson, with improbably perfect dentition, incidentally, provides masterfully adroit manoeuvres around an incendiary and sadistic script, a company of perverse men betrayed by money and false causes. Tarantino imbues each of his characters with a distinct and complex personality, interweaving a plotline of feral brutality and post-Civil War distrust with considerable final trademark blood-letting. As it turns out, this, together with some of the more gratuitously anti-racist themes, is what doesn’t quite work – a flabby ending with dead or dying; the only nice people having a brief candle of a moment before being remorselessly snuffed out.

Two very different takes on departing this life. Both not very reassuring but one much gentler than the other. Your choice.

Skeletal Prose

A week late, but, you get the idea

It’s so well-intentioned of people to resolve to do things differently
Me, I don’t make resolutions for New Year. Mostly. Except, perhaps, one. Polonius’ remark to Hamlet’s parents, is brief, and to the point. ‘…brevity is the soul of wit…your noble son is mad….’ Little room for doubt or misunderstanding, then.
William Strunk. Once heard, a name not easily forgotten. He was a professor of English at Cornell, and had a student, one E B White who enlarged his 1918 magnum opus ‘The Elements of Style’ into almost a set text for authors. If White’s name sounds familiar, he wrote ‘Stuart Little ‘ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’. I haven’t read Dr Strunk. But, if I had, I expect he would have taught me the necessity of brevity. He wrote, somewhat caustically: ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’ Riveting stuff. Keeps you awake till the wee small hours.

Skeletal prose, so beloved of the well-paid writer, not counting James Joyce. Here’s a fifty-dollar word, a free gift*, if you like. Pleonasms* are a redundant excess of words, the authors’ revenge on people who pay by the character who’d like them to write less of them. Literature overflows with people who didn’t follow this doubtlessly sound advice. Shakespeare again, this time from the third act of “Julius Caesar”: ‘This was the most unkindest cut of all.’ Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”: ‘Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs.’ And finally, Samuel Beckett: ‘Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil…’ (Molloy).
The law, well known for ponderous prose, has its own little stylistic vices, using little pleonasms like “null and void”, “terms and conditions”, “each and every” – two-for-one words which say the same thing.

So, therefore, and so forth and so on. This year will see a paring, a slenderizing of the prosaic moi. No more flowers, no more multiply-verbed sentences in close proximity, (ha!) no burbling descent into doggerel. Instead, the crispy meme, the mot juste. Or whatever.