September 10, 2004

1. Sundry Thoughts

A. After I finished Forster’s novel, Howards End, I saw the movie that’s based on the novel. What a disappointment! All the virtues of the novel had vanished: the humor, the style, the depth of thought, etc. I suppose I should subscribe to John Simon’s dictum: “what was envisioned and embodied as a novel or novella cannot be recast as a play or movie. Not if it is a true work of art, that is. A lesser novel might make a good movie — might even improve as one.”1

B. I spent much of July on Nantucket Island. It’s full of vacationers and retired people. One might say that it has a Leisure Class, something that has all-but-disappeared from our world. And with this Leisure Class has come what has always come with Leisure Classes: culture. There’s a steady stream of lectures, plays, concerts, etc. I felt like I was back in the world of Howards End.

C. I recently saw a documentary on how our species came to America (I believe it’s part of the series called “Scientific-American Frontiers”, hosted by Alan Alda). If you look at a map of the world, it would seem much easier to come to America from Asia than from Europe — the Bering Strait is much narrower than the Atlantic Ocean. But when man came to America, the Ice Age had not yet ended, and sheets of ice covered both approaches to America, making the approach from Europe as easy as the approach from Asia. Perhaps early man followed the edge of the ice sheet in a small boat, hunting seals and fish like Eskimos do, camping on the ice at night and during storms. If he could follow the ice sheet from Europe, why not from Asia, too? Perhaps man came to America from both sides, from Asia and from Europe.

The evidence for a European approach lies in a tool-making technique called Clovis, a technique that is found in early American settlements and in Europe, but not found in Asia. A Clovis arrowhead is designed to be detachable — the arrowhead stays in the animal, and the shaft can detach (fall to the ground), and be re-used. A Clovis hunter might carry three shafts and twenty arrowheads, while a hunter who didn’t use the Clovis technique might be limited to five shafts-with-fixed-arrowheads. Thus, a Clovis hunter would not “run out of ammunition” as quickly as another hunter would.2

D. If you’re interested in literary news, you may want to visit Arts & Letters Daily. I recently read a piece there on Solzhenitsyn, who has published a book on the history of Jews in Russia. Solzhenitsyn blames the Jews for playing a key role in bringing Russia under Marxist control, and for playing a key role in Stalin’s Gulag. Solzhenitsyn’s book has re-ignited debate about whether he’s anti-Semitic.

E. In June, I received e-mail from Dr. Joseph R. Phelan, a Phlit subscriber who worked in the Higher Education section of the Iraq administration. He sent me the last newsletter that his department released, before the administration was turned over to Iraqis. I congratulated him on his department’s achievements, among which were

  • Established three book warehouse centers in Baghdad for book donations from the United States
  • Distributed thousands of volumes — over 20 tons — of books to universities throughout the country
  • Established new procedures for the selection (and removal) of presidents and deans, underscoring the independence and autonomy of the universities
Joe has also built a website devoted to art history,; the American Library Association named this site one of the “25 Best Free Reference Sites.”

F. I recently read a review of a book by Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard professor and Shakespeare specialist. The book is called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt is a diehard Stratfordian, and dismisses the Oxford theory with contempt. His book attempts to connect the mundane facts known about the Stratford man to the genius of Shakespeare. Being an Oxfordian, I have no use for Stratfordian biographies.

I was, however, intrigued by something in the review: Greenblatt said that modern critics have avoided the author’s life, and focused on analysis of the text. As a result, their works have become “bloodless” — so dry that readers don’t read them, and publishers have decided, “we’re not going to publish any more literary criticism.” People don’t read literary criticism, they prefer literary biography, most of which is written by non-academics. Greenblatt’s study of Shakespeare attempts to take a scholarly approach to literary biography. Instead of focusing on the text, Greenblatt “uses history, sociology, and anthropology to probe the cultural milieu in which works of art were produced.”3 This approach is called “New Historicism”.

In the last issue of Phlit, I deplored the current trend of literary criticism, and predicted that “the next generation of critics will take a different tack.” Could this be happening already?

The author of the review speaks of the “professionalization of literary analysis” that occurred around 1950. Whenever culture is professionalized, the play element is lost, and the connection with life is lost. Literary criticism has become professionalized and bloodless because legions of academics feel that they must write literary criticism in order to make a living. Laymen have no interest in such criticism; only scholars read it, and they only read it because they think it’s their job.

2. The Republican Convention

The Republican Convention recently concluded in New York. From a Republican perspective, it was a big success. The Republicans were able to counter Democratic arguments, and frame the campaign in their way; Bush emerged from the convention with an 11-point lead over Kerry. It seems advantageous to have your convention after the other party’s convention, closer to election day.

I had thought that it was a mistake for the Republicans to choose New York, where Bush has few friends and many enemies. But the speeches at the convention managed to “drown out” the street protests. One of the key speeches was by Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, and another was by George Pataki, governor of New York. Thus, the Republicans could claim to represent the whole nation, including New York, not just their power base in “the heartland”.

I thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger gave an excellent speech — well-written, well-delivered, passionate, sincere. He took aim at the Democratic argument that there are “two Americas”, saying that he had visited American soldiers all over the world, and they believed that there’s one America, and they’re fighting for it. The Democrats divide the country into two parts, the wealthy who “never have to worry about a thing”, and the rest of the population who do the working and the worrying. This is the old Class Warfare trick, which demagogues have used since time immemorial. It appeals to one of man’s basest impulses, his envy of those who are wealthier than himself. As long as Democrats resort to Class Warfare, and divide the country into “two Americas,” the Republicans will be the party of America, the party that represents the country as a whole, the party that aims to do what’s best for the country as a whole.

3. Socrates Café

We started a Socrates Café at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island (the same bookstore where our book group meets). I’m not the leader of the Socrates Café, I just help out. Our first meeting was well-attended, and the discussion was lively. We discussed “What is courage? Is a suicide bomber courageous?” (this was also the topic of the other Socrates Café that I participated in, and described in a previous issue).

I said that if John McCain was a model of courage, that has much to do with his upbringing (both his father and grandfather were prominent admirals). I said that courage, like all virtues, has much to do with upbringing; vices and crimes also have much to do with upbringing. We don’t make ourselves. If courage is the product of upbringing, can courage be considered a choice? If not, can it be considered a virtue?

Someone else pointed out that the Marine Corps took people from all walks of life, and all upbringings, and made them into courageous soldiers. Does this mean that a certain upbringing isn’t a prerequisite for courage? Or does it mean that the Marine Corps is a kind of second birth, second upbringing? Does this confirm the argument that courage isn’t a choice, it’s the result of upbringing/training/programming?

4. J. B. Bury

At the start of our Socrates Café, someone passed out a short piece on Socrates. It was an excerpt from J. B. Bury’s History of Greece. I had heard of J. B. Bury (John Bagnell Bury), but I had never read him. As I read the excerpt on Socrates, I realized that Bury was an elegant stylist and a deep thinker — a writer that I had neglected for too long, one of the finest historians that the Victorian era produced.

Bury’s History of Greece is perhaps the best way for us to approach the Greek world. It’s a portly tome, but that’s unavoidable; a certain amount of detail is required to narrate the history of Greece. Bury’s History of Greece has long been a standard in the field, read by generations of college students. Bury also wrote several lengthy works on the Roman Empire; he wrote about the early Empire and the later Empire, the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. He learned Russian and Hungarian in order to research the Eastern Empire, and his works on Byzantine civilization are highly regarded.

Bury did not neglect cultural history; he began his career in the 1890s with two books on Pindar’s Odes, and in his later years he wrote two volumes of intellectual history: A History of Freedom of Thought and The Idea of Progress. As the excerpt on Socrates shows, Bury’s historical works take account of intellectual and cultural matters, while also describing political and military affairs.

Bury shrewdly notes the similarity between Thucydides and Machiavelli:

If, instead of a history, Thucydides had written an analytical treatise on politics... it is probable that... he could have forestalled Machiavelli [since] the whole innuendo of the Thucydidean treatment of history agrees with the fundamental postulate of Machiavelli, the supremacy of reason of state. To maintain a state said the Florentine thinker, “a statesman is often compelled to act against faith, humanity and religion.” But the true Machiavelli, not the Machiavelli of fable, entertained an ideal: Italy for the Italians, Italy freed from the stranger: and in the service of this ideal he desired to see his speculative science of politics applied. Thucydides has no political aim in view: he was purely a historian. But it was part of the method of both alike to eliminate conventional sentiment and morality.

If you search for Bury on Amazon, you find that his most popular works today are The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians and The Life of St. Patrick. How did Bury find enough time and energy to produce such an enormous body of work?

5. “Asking For It”

A. Socrates

The death of Socrates is a classic example of people stumbling into a quarrel, and no one being willing to back down. Socrates was accused of impiety, and of corrupting youth. “The penalty proposed was death,” Bury writes, “but the accusers had no desire to inflict it; they expected that, when the charge was lodged in the archon’s office, Socrates would leave Attica, and no one would have hindered him from doing so.” But when we try to force someone to do what we want them to do, when we try to put someone in a box, they often resist, and they often find a way to assert themselves, or to strike back at us. The accusers of Socrates should have anticipated that he would be too proud to publicly retreat, too proud to publicly bow down to them. Socrates remained in Athens to face the charge, and he was condemned to death by a narrow majority.

According to Athenian law, a condemned man had the right to propose a lighter punishment than his accusers had proposed, and then the judges would choose one of the two punishments. Here again, Socrates was too proud to bargain for his life, too proud to bargain with his enemies. Instead of proposing a punishment that was significant, but less than death, Socrates proposed a trivial fine. By a wide majority, the judges voted to inflict the death penalty.

When a mother asks her son “why did you punch your little brother in the nose?” the response is often “he was asking for it.” If one of the judges in the trial of Socrates was asked, “why did you execute Socrates?” the judge might respond, “he was asking for it.”

In my younger days, I hunted fish, using a spear-gun. This was illegal, and I knew it was illegal, but I did it anyway. When I was about 16, however, I read some Plato, and I heard how Socrates had died out of obedience to the law, out of loyalty to the legal system that he had lived under. Moved by Plato’s eloquence, and by Socrates’ lofty feelings, I vowed to obey the law, and to stop hunting fish. (I kept this vow for several months.)

Now I have more experience of human nature than I had at 16, and now I think Plato’s description is implausible; I can’t believe that Socrates died out of obedience to the law. It seems to me that Socrates wanted to spite his enemies, that Socrates was too proud to publicly bow down to his enemies, that Socrates may have felt that his execution would make his enemies look bad. As we get older, we gain experience, and we understand many books that we couldn’t understand in our younger days; our quarrels and conflicts educate us. Is it possible that Plato, when he conversed with Socrates, was too young to understand Socrates’ motives? If so, did Plato have a better understanding of Socrates’ motives when he grew older?

How does J. B. Bury explain the fact that Socrates didn’t try to save his life? “Socrates was full of days — he had reached the age of seventy — and life spent otherwise than in conversing in the streets of Athens would have been worthless to him.” Perhaps there is some truth in this, though Sophocles said (if I remember correctly) that no one enjoys life more than an old man, and Socrates’ friends would probably have found him a comfortable home outside Athens. In my view, Socrates stayed in Athens precisely because his enemies wanted him to leave; Bury doesn’t consider this possibility.

How does Nietzsche explain the fact that Socrates didn’t try to save his life? “The two greatest judicial murders in world history [that is, those of Socrates and Jesus] are, not to mince words, disguised and well disguised suicides. In both cases the victim wanted to die.”4 This is partly true; many people have a weak attachment to life, many people have suicidal impulses, everyone has a death-instinct that shares power with a life-instinct. But if Socrates wanted to die, why did he choose this particular moment? People who want to die, consciously or unconsciously, can find a way to do so (sickness, accident, suicide, etc.). Why did Socrates wait until this particular moment to act on his suicidal impulses? Like Bury, Nietzsche doesn’t consider the possibility that Socrates chose to stay in Athens because his enemies wanted him to leave, because he wanted to spite his enemies, because he didn’t want to bow down to them. My interpretation of Socrates’ death strikes me as obvious, self-evident, yet it isn’t found in Bury or in Nietzsche. Surely I’m not the first person to interpret Socrates’ death in this way — or am I?

Nietzsche says that the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus are both disguised suicides. Perhaps it’s true that both men could have avoided death, that both men walked right into death. I believe, however, that there’s a difference in the two cases: personal animosity was a factor in the case of Socrates, but not in the case of Jesus. If the death of Socrates is a suicide, it should be compared with the many cases in which someone commits suicide in order to strike a blow at another person — suicide from spite. But if the death of Jesus is a suicide, it wasn’t suicide from spite.

B. Oscar Wilde

There are some parallels between the demise of Socrates and the demise of Oscar Wilde. In Wilde’s case, however, self-destructive impulses are stronger. Socrates would not have said (as Wilde did), “Why is it that one runs to one’s ruin? Why has destruction such a fascination?”5 Wilde sued his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for libel, thus beginning the chain of events that led to his own destruction. Socrates, however, did not take the first step; Socrates was the accused, not the accuser. Personal animosity was surely one of Wilde’s motives in suing the Marquess of Queensberry. If Socrates had any such animosity, he didn’t let it prompt him to “take the offensive,” it is only apparent in his stiff defensive posture.

When Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, Queensberry presented evidence that Wilde was indeed the “sodomite” that Queensberry had accused him of being, and that therefore Queensberry’s accusations weren’t libelous. So Wilde’s suit had to be dropped. Then Wilde faced the danger of prosecution for sodomy, and his friends urged him to leave England. Wilde stayed, however, just as Socrates stayed in Athens. Wilde was arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

We might say of Wilde, as of Socrates, “he was asking for it.” But while Socrates’ conduct can be described as steadfast and heroic, few would describe Wilde’s conduct in those terms.

C. Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard lived in Copenhagen. There was a satirical newspaper in Copenhagen, The Corsair, which appealed to vulgar taste by satirizing the leading men of the city. When The Corsair praised one of Kierkegaard’s books, Kierkegaard wrote to The Corsair, and said that it was more of an honor to be satirized by such a newspaper than praised. So The Corsair began to satirize Kierkegaard, and continued until the whole nation seemed to be pointing at Kierkegaard and laughing. “This proved to be such a profitable line,” writes Kierkegaard’s biographer, “that other papers took it up.... What chiefly delighted the populace was the constantly recurring reference to his thin legs and the unequal length of his trouser-legs. Sometimes they were both represented as too short.”6 Kierkegaard could scarcely leave his house without being laughed at. He could have avoided this ridicule by traveling, but he chose to “stay put,” as Socrates and Wilde did.

Since Kierkegaard invited The Corsair to ridicule him, one might say that he was “asking for it,” that he had a self-destructive impulse.

D. Solzhenitsyn

It is well-known that Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag for many years, and that the cause of his imprisonment was a letter that he wrote to an old friend, a letter that was critical of Stalin. Didn’t Solzhenitsyn know that Stalin’s secret police opened letters, and that criticizing Stalin could land one in prison? Could Solzhenitsyn’s letter have been prompted by a self-destructive impulse? Perhaps Solzhenitsyn was too proud to suppress his thoughts, just as Socrates was too proud to bargain with his enemies. Was Solzhenitsyn “asking for it”?

E. Faulkner and Frevel

In Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, one finds the concept of “asking for it”, but Faulkner uses a different phrase: “trying yourself”. When Luster is taking care of Benjy (the retarded man), Dilsey blames Luster for mistreating Benjy. Dilsey tells Luster: “I’m going to get Versh to take a stick to you when he comes home. You just trying yourself. You been doing it all day.”7 Another English phrase that means roughly the same thing is “looking for trouble.”

Does every language contain such phrases? I asked my wife if Chinese contains such a phrase and she said yes, “???? (zi4 zhao3 ma2 fan, looking for trouble for yourself).” Man doesn’t always seek what’s useful and enjoyable, man has a strong self-destructive tendency, a strong tendency to “look for trouble”, to “ask for it.” Hence there must be similar expressions in many languages.

Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung, says that one of the surest ways to “get possessed and fall into evil” is to have “infantile daring.” In her study of evil, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, von Franz writes,

In many stories all over the world there is this kind of infantile daring which is not courage. It looks like it, but it isn’t. This pseudo-courage, which is infantile daring out of unawareness or lack of respect, is a common feature through which man steps suddenly into the area of the archetype of evil. In our mountain sagas this infantile daring is generally called Frevel.8

Frevel is related to the word “frivolous”. In earlier times, frevel meant blasphemy — spitting in church, for example. In even earlier times (primitive times), frevel meant “going beyond a respectful attitude towards the numinous powers.”9 Von Franz insists that frevel, infantile daring, is still a common road to evil:

The one moment when I feel really bad in analysis is when I see in one of my analysands that infantile, daring curiosity about evil. An analysand may say, “Oh I like going to a place where there are murderers!” Or, “I like to experiment with this woman, I know she is an evil woman, but I must have some experience of life and I shall try out sleeping with her, I must explore that!” ....When you act out of a kind of frivolous attitude, or just out of intellectual curiosity, just to find out about it and with a lack of respect toward the infection and destructiveness of the phenomena, then one feels very uneasy.10

I was once invited to a party at the home of people I had never met. We were in the kitchen, and the hostess was putting platters of hors d’oeuvres on the counter; on one platter was a bunch of grapes. I took a grape, and popped it in my mouth. The hostess looked at me with some surprise, and perhaps some annoyance, and she said, “Have a grape.” What she meant was “you should have waited until I said, ‘Have a grape.’” Right then, she seemed to decide that I was a freveler, I had the sort of infantile daring that can get people into trouble. Later that evening, I had a pleasant conversation with her, but doubtless her original view remained unchanged: this person is a freveler, a trouble-maker. And later events showed that view to be all too true.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. See Howards End, Norton Critical Edition, p. 462 back
2. In an earlier issue of Phlit, I discussed genetic research on early man. Genetic research may be able to throw light on the question, “how did our species come to America?” So far, it seems to point to Asia as the source of early Americans. back
3. Harvard Magazine, September-October 2004, “The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare” back
4. Assorted Opinions and Maxims, #94. Nietzsche makes the same point in Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem of Socrates,” #12 back
5. Oscar Wilde, by R. Ellman, ch. 22 back
6. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, IV, 2 back
7. “April Seventh, 1928”. Later Luster accuses Benjy of doing the same thing: “‘I kept telling you to hush,’ Luster said. ‘What’s the matter now,’ Jason said. ‘He just trying hisself,’ Luster said. ‘That the way he been going on all day.’” back
8. Part II, ch. 2, “Possession By Evil”, p. 142 back
9. ibid, p. 143 back
10. ibid, p. 145 back