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Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Review: Elisabeth Geblesco, Un Amour de Transfert

When Jacques Lacan died  in 1981, a critical commentary in Le Monde  accused  him of perverting psychoanalytic practice, using among other things seduction and manipulation of the transference. This book could be produced as Exhibit A, despite the fact that the author wrote a letter of protest to Le Monde which it did not publish; it is included here at pages 268-70.

Consider the following, from early on in these notebooks:

Now, without the transference, one can’t act (page 92) 

Monday, 10 May 1976
I look at my watch as I ring the bell: 17h 43. Gloria opens the door and tells me to go into the library. I go there, meet the Master who tells me to go in [to his consulting room]. I come out at 17h 45, two minutes later. It’s very good for my transference because that pulverises it. Thus am I stripped clean. Two hundred francs a minute! .( p 93)
 11 May 1976
Before Lacan’s Seminar, Lacan says to her ….. Come and find me straightaway, when it’s over. My neighbours are agitated and ask me, Was that addressed to you? … Yes, to me. I feel like she to whom the Sultan has tossed the handkerchief   (p 95)

And so it continues for some two hundred and fifty pages: He love me, He loves me not.

I read this book for a personal reason: I met Elisabeth (Sanda) Geblesco and her sister Nicole in 1971 and kept up a friendship with them until about 1978 when we lost contact. We  first met on a train: they were sitting facing me and introduced themselves by professing curiosity to know who was this person reading a cheap French paperback of The Logic of Port Royal (Arnauld et Nicole, La Logique ou l’art de Penser 1662). Elisabeth died in 2002; Google gives me no information about Nicole later than 2017.

Un Amour de Transfert was published in 2008 and transcribes in two hundred and fifty pages the notebooks in which Geblesco kept a session-by-session record of her supervisory (contrôle) meetings with Jacques Lacan in the period 1974-1981:  Lacan died in September of 1981, aged 80. The notebooks were kept private and not shared with anyone, not even her sister with whom she lived; they were a secret diary. The meetings took place in Lacan’s consulting rooms (5 rue de Lille, Paris) and Sanda travelled to them from her home in Monaco where she had lived for most of her life, since the late 1930s in fact. I never knew her age, which seemed indeterminate, and the introduction to this book does not give her date of birth - curious in relation to a culture where necrology is taken seriously and birth dates are always given along with death dates. My guess is that she was born between 1930 and 1935. There is no English translation of this book (it exists in Italian and Spanish and would merit an English version), and translations below are my own.

I have left this rather cumbersome review in note form, taking each notebook in turn:

Notebook 1 (pages 21 - 54) covers the period October 1974 - May 1975 and caused me a great deal of amusement. Here Sanda discovers what it means to travel up from Monaco and pay 400 Francs (cash in hand) to be supervised by Lacan: sometimes you get 8 minutes before he gets up and looks for you to hand over the money (p 25); sometimes 3 minutes ( p 26), another time 10 - 12 minutes (p 28 - with the additional comment that she got longer than any of the others who had gone in for their appointment before her; one got 2 minutes). On the other hand, there is also a session of 45 minutes and this is equally notable (p 26). But the coup de théâtre has to be when Lacan is bored, stops listening, and turns his attention to something else: he has opened the drawer of his table and is counting his money … I have never seen so much at one time, real money, except in the banks or shops (pp 39-40). From this passage I conclude that during their meetings, Lacan sat at his desk and she to one side, not opposite [ see further discussion below]. By page 47, Geblesco is expressing fury (The whole thing having lasted five minutes, I’m furious) and calls what is happening a comedy. But she keeps going back for more …

By the end of the first notebook, one begins to see the other side: the tragedy and first of all not Lacan’s but Geblesco’s. In the course of their meeting on 27 May 1975, Lacan compliments her on her work with a client whose case she has been presenting:

I am delighted and leave feeling much better. He must have realised that it wasn’t working anymore and was as warm as in the first trimester. Still, it’s marvellous to hear it said by LACAN, the being who I admire most among the living, that one is a good analyst!! I said to him that I was very happy and I had the courage to thank him. He called me “mon petit” and that greatly calmed me [me repose beaucoup]. It’s him [ i.e, for once it’s him - TP ], miracle, who has forgotten that I must pay him (p 54).

Lacan is seventy four; Geblesco is forty or forty five. She was one of the two daughters of a Romanian diplomat. Before 1939, Bucharest was the Paris of eastern Europe, French the language of its upper classes in the way it had once been in Tsarist Russia. So it may not have been at all strange for this diplomat to marry Berthe Guillemin, direct descendant of the Bonapartist Marshall of the Empire, Jean Lannes (1769 - 1809), first Duke of Montebello. And when the parents divorced, it perhaps indicated something of Berthe’s social status that she took her daughters to live in Monaco on the Boulevard du Jardin Exotique where Sanda and Nicole shared an apartment for the rest of their lives.

But Monaco was also close to French home territory: the Guillemins were of the south of France, not Paris, and Sanda was in contact with that extended family - one of her cousins was married to the Duc d’Orléans, the person who would have the right to claim the French throne if it was on offer.

In World War Two, the diplomat Geblesco was consul in Geneva; whether he had any contact with his daughters, I do not know [ but see my summary of notebook 4].  The war would have made it difficult but not impossible. But, on balance, I suspect not. And I also suspect that he was born around the same year as Jacques Lacan. And as a third suspicion: that Lacan did not know the family history of the person who was paying him 400 francs to meet him for a few minutes a couple of times each month. So when he called her mon petit it was a piece of guesswork, though perhaps not entirely without calculation. (Why not ma petite? That is not common; the generic is normally used - it abbreviates mon petit enfant). 

And did Sanda Geblesco realise that when she started keeping her secret notebooks, they might one day be read as a young girl’s diary? Such inferences and questions are the obvious ones, though maybe more obvious if you have read The Purloined Letter (to which Geblesco refers page 44).

I was a little in awe of the Geblesco sisters. They did not fit easily into any of the English categories I had available to me at the age of twenty four. They could be imagined as blue stockings from their dress, the intensity of their intellectual interests, the uncertainty of their age. But they were also grandes dames - a couple of times Geblesco refers dismissively to Lacan as a  (mere) bourgeois.Yet they did things which blue stocking don’t do - when Bob Dylan performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, they made the trip. And grandes dames don’t usually work for child welfare services, Sanda’s background before she became an analyst. Both sisters gave support to the Irish Republican cause, and when Sanda died Republican Sinn Fein was represented at the funeral; the Sinn Fein obituary notes her religious faith. (The editorial footnotes to this book are fairly minimal and could easily be expanded to incorporate such information).

Notebook 2 (pages 57 - 95) gives us more information about Lacan’s waiting room. Since sessions do not last for a fixed period of time, one arrives at an approximate hour and waits to be called. You look at the others who are also waiting and you time how long those who go in before you stay in the consulting room before they exit. Lacan’s secretary Gloria is also introduced and one suspects a little jealousy (page 90). [ Much later, Gloria is caught listening at the keyhole (p 206) ]. Geblesco's loyalties are expressed without being demanded: there’s no need to go to see Hélène Cixous’s play because it will be bad (page 86).

But Geblesco is not simply a patsy; she turns the situation to her own advantage and gets value for her money in other ways. She is building up her career in Nice and she does the necessary negotiations for a lecture visit Lacan will make. She asks Lacan to support her application for membership of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris (EFP), his organisation. He authorises use of his name and when she makes the necessary moves, she finds herself promptly admitted and publicly listed as a practising analyst without so much as a CV submitted (p 71). [ Much later, when it seems that her meetings with Lacan are coming to an end, she worries about its impact on her professional standing in Nice (p 214) ].

Meanwhile, Lacan’s degree of interest in the supervision can be gauged by whether or not he is counting his money: Lacan stops counting his money … and takes a lively interest …. Lacan starts counting his money again. I continue… (page 74).

There was a thought which occurred to me which I will not try to elaborate. On a couple of occasions, Geblesco presents dream material attributed to a client; I felt it could have been her own. Of course, it is a hazard of (rather amateurish?) supervision that the person supervised brings along a thumbnail sketch of an analytic conversation, inevitably re-shaped by their own preoccupations.  Geblesco and Lacan are not sitting down together to listen to an extract from a tape recording of an analysis which might reveal a different tale. In supervision, the analyst tells the analysand’s tale, and in this case tells it to Lacan who has very definite ideas about what he wants to hear.

Notebook 3 (pages 99 - 137). I drafted the two previous sections after finishing the notebooks to which they relate. Now I feel I am more or less obliged to leave them as they stand. Notebook 3 begins with a dozen quite extraordinary pages covering just May and June 1976. It then re-starts at the end of October. In France, nothing is allowed to disturb les sacreés vacances, not even madness. (Holidays in France have the same religious status as the NHS in England). 

But the long break may have functioned rather like the clock ticking away in the traditional analysis: the patient saves the important things until the last five minutes. Geblesco treats June 1976 in the same way. On the 24 May, Geblesco tries to develop her own ideas about female paranoia in relation to castration, the ideas linked to the scandalous Japanese film Empire of the Senses (Ai No Corrida). Lacan turns his back on her (p 99). At the next meeting on 15 June, she launches her attack; the extraordinary narrative takes up eight pages (pp 100 - 112) and the editor rightly illustrates part of the text in its original holograph form. Geblesco wants to distinguish the transference which forms part of every analysis from what goes on (or should go on) in a supervision. She acknowledges but attacks her own transference - her fixation (she doesn’t use that word) - on Lacan. She says it’s ridiculous (p 101). She’s had a dream (she doesn’t tell Lacan but inserts the narrative at this point) in which her jealousy towards Gloria is obvious. In the dream the psychoanalyst Leclaire (who she does not know) appears as a jealous scoundrel who tells her Lacan is dead. And so on. Then she moves on to develop an interesting argument (to which Lacan gives his full attention) about how an analyst is a specific, real person in ways which mean that they cannot be helpful to any and every client indifferently. She turns this argument onto Lacan and interrogates herself - in front of him - as to what he might offer her, specifically, as a human being …. It continues at length and then, Thus, my question remains: What is it, beyond all the rest, of the BEING of the analyst, how does it intervene in the analysis, what is it of their specificity, what is it as a result of your being, of you in the analysis, and of me who receives? (p 105). It’s a passionate speech. Long silence. Lacan slowly and gently responds, and she says he has difficulty looking at her. By the time she leaves, she is high as a kite - at page 112 we get Aphrodite and Zeus and Dione, followed by St John the Evangelist, filia [brotherly love] in Greek and Laudate Dominum in Latin - and then a flashback to the divorce of her parents.

But there is something she says in launching her attack which suggests to me that she has also pulled rank on the bourgeois Lacan who counts his money in front of her: I was brought up as one of Racine’s princesses (p 103). 

 When Geblesco returns on 21 June, the seating has changed: Lacan is sitting in his analyst’s armchair; Geblesco is directed to the desk seat he normally occupies, so I sit down, more and more astonished (p 108). But to me it seems there is still a game going on in which the Master may well be as busy planning his next move as he is with counting his money or playing with his Borromean rings(or knots) - these grow in importance during the period covered by the notebooks but I can’t summons up any enthusiasm to discuss them.
Meetings resume at the end of October (p 112) with the first session reckoned “a good quarter of an hour” (p 114) and continue up until Christmas (p 133) with the meeting on 14 December reckoned a “long session” - “at least twenty minutes” (pp 130-31) included in which time is a discussion of what Geblseco should do about a patient who she thinks may act suicidally during the Christmas break. Should I tell her she can contact me in an emergency? Lacan: It’s up to you and, then, She won’t do it (pp 129 - 30).

Geblesco reflects on her intense feelings for Lacan and acknowledges the Father-identification (p 120); comments on other female visitors to Lacan (“high fashion” p 116; “very beautiful” p 128); notes the hateful and frightened atmosphere in the general assembly of the Ecole Freudienne (pp 121-22), and links her reaction on the death of André Malraux at seventy five to the fact that her father died without her seeing him again ( p 125), though she does not indicate for how long she had not seen him [ see now summary of Notebook 4] - much later there is a very curious reference to a psychiatric examination demanded by her father at the time of the divorce (p 135). In this notebook, Geblesco acknowledges that she may be writing for eventual publication ( p 131).

And so on. There was a sentence which struck me very forcibly and deserves quotation: Beaucoup d’humains sont morts sans avoir jamais parlé à personne - Lots of people die without ever having spoken to anyone. ( p 125).

There is then a very long gap before the last entry in Notebook 3, dated 2 April 1977, in which Geblesco writes that she has been very ill - from the description, a reader will infer cancer.

Notebook 4 (April 1977 - May 1978) opens with a statement that from the waiting room she can overhear an analysis going on in Lacan’s consulting room (p 141); a second incident, more dramatic, is reported at page 148. The salle d’attente system which Lacan operates strikes me as amateurish at best and unprofessional at worst.

She says she is drawn to a male client, not classically beautiful but … Lacan isn’t happy and at the end of the session insists she returns the following week (p 143). On 13 June Geblesco writes a sentence which could be a very good essay question, Love is analysis itself (p 147) and wants to know if one can get beyond the conventional explanation of love, Because it was me and because it was him/her. Lacan  issues a warning about her attraction to her client. At page 148 there is a first remark about the fact that Lacan is getting old.

Everything stops for Les Vacances and we jump from 14 June to 18 October 1977 on which date there appears to be no recognition that an improvement in one of Geblesco’s patient's mood may be due to the fact that she has had thyroid surgery and hasn’t been in analysis for the period of les vacances. 

Geblesco criticises Freud for a reductive/positivist failure to allow for any mysticism (p 150) and Lacan wants her to come back for another meeting the next day. She asks herself, Do I have to pay ( p 155). Yes, she does ( p 158 ) though she makes him take a cheque. I love discussing with him but if I have to pay for that, my means don’t allow me to do it often. At page 161 she finds it tiresome that there is no time to discuss a client’s case in depth. Page 167 she makes a slip and asks for her next appointment on 14 February; Gloria laughs, presumably recognising a Freudian slip when it’s put on a plate. In the entry for that date she writes that she has been talking to Julia Kristeva about him. Kristeva says that she loves Lacan a lot. Geblesco adds, Moi, aussi je l’aime beaucoup.( p 168).

There is then an important passage at page 169 where Geblesco appears to summarise what happened to her relationship to her real father: one day he takes you to the cinema and you never see him again.

Notebook 5 (June 1978 - September 1981). This last notebook chronicles the decline in Lacan’s health and the eventual acrimonious dissolution of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. The language becomes more religious - Bible phrases and so on with magical numbers thrown in - and in other respects more abject: only illness has prevented me from obeying him and to be there when he wished (p 212). This is not quite true: she has shown herself capable of standing up to him and there is in this notebook 5 a passage where she seems to be making a pitch to occupy Lacan’s place as a thinker.

She  says she wants to work up the idea that The unconscious is structured like a lineage and immediately Lacan terminates the session which has only just begun (p 209). (She is thinking of the way in which a psychological burden can be carried over more than two generations, which I think is true). Lacan doesn’t like it when she expresses approbation for anyone else’s psychoanalytic work: I believe he didn’t really like it that I had expressed appreciation for A Didier-Weill. Not that he’s megalomaniac but he’s fragile …(p 203).

We learn more about her relationship with her own father. Lacan is much more for me than my own father (p 216) and she cries when Lacan dies, me who didn’t cry when my father died (p 250). These more frequent references to her own life in the last notebook, linked to Lacan’s decline and death, bring into the foreground the tragic aspect of these notebooks. Geblesco has spent six or seven years of her life making tiring journeys from Monaco to Paris and paying 400 ( latterly 500) francs a time to talk for a few minutes to someone who treats her badly. And maybe just because her own father treated her badly.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Review: J Land Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832

There is something to be said for old fashioned historical prose, the sort which was written before the university institutionalisation of History. This powerfully written book dates from 1911 and has been more or less continuously in print ever since. It’s very readable and, indeed, moving.

One of the small ironies of such old works is that even when Radical and of great potential interest to a self-educating reader, they nonetheless assume a knowledge of French and Latin (though never German) of which the reader may be ignorant. The very first four lines of this book are in French - a quotation from de Tocqueville. The great radical R H Tawney had the same habit as the Hammonds. They did not quite escape from the assumptions of their class.

The Hammonds have a very clear story line and argument, supported by extensive quotations from their primary sources among which they (interestingly) include novels of the period. The old English aristocratic ruling class comes out of it very badly, the Church of England very very badly: in 1810 a Bill to remove the death penalty for shoplifting items below the value of five shillings passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other Lords Spiritual - six bishops of the Church of England - lending their support to the rejection (page 204) - and that’s just for starters.

At various points I was struck by similarities to the way we provide today for the poor. Though we do now have a minimum wage - an idea familiar and sometimes acted upon as far back as the sixteenth century - we also have all those kinds of income support which in the  18th and 19th centuries helped keep down wages and made swathes of the population dependent on public relief to the advantage of employers and rent-receivers. The Speenhamland system may have gone but we still have its legacy, for example, in the willingness of governments to pay private rents for poor tenants, thus keeping up the level of rent in a way deemed very acceptable to landlords. That a better idea might be to build more homes is not one that we have often acted upon, though Harold Macmillan in the 1950s famously did.

Like many English people, I can trace lines of descent through the agricultural labourers of southern England who are centre stage in this book. Those labourers did leave a record in their certificates of birth, marriage, and death but in very little else apart from the names they passed on. I read this book to fill out the picture and found much more of interest than I had expected.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible

I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

No Review Really Needed: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song

Gossip is a dish best served hot. True, it can sometimes be re-heated: how else explain the continuing fascination of literary London with tales of century-old Bloomsbury gropes and fumbles? Those fascinated  would be horrified to think that such things might happen today, still less  written about. But the fastidious are numerous, enough of them to ensure that in London publishing circles it is believed that the only really safe sex is that between dead posh people.

In New York there is also a  long literary tradition of re-heated gossip of which Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) might stand as an example: thirty years on from your time at Vassar College you dish the dirt on who said what, who did what, back then and for sure you have a best-seller on your hands. Truman Capote also achieved best-sellerdom with his 1975 Esquire magazine contribution “La Côte Basque 1965” which touted rather too recent gossip about very very rich people - the metropolitan elite with knobs on -  thus rather unsurprisingly causing its author no end of a problem. But the piece paid the rent and much more besides.

Swan Song re-heats the 1975 story and the furore it provoked and - since everyone involved is now very dead - the novel has received universal praise, the publishers able to splash plaudits over front and back covers and five garish inner pages of my edition: “Remarkable” (Woman & Home) “Spellbinding” (Sunday Express - An English newspaper for dead people), and so on. So much credit for re-telling so much past gossip. You can understand why there are authors out there ready to go the moment Prince Philip actually dies.

The author writes well, constructs scenes  effectively, varies the style of telling, and so on. It’s just a pity that it’s all in the cause of the idle rich. It’s not as if it’s Brett Easton Ellis: one learns a great deal about what people ate, drank, wore, and how they protected their skin from the sun but it doesn’t feel in the least bit satirical. I got to page 131 and then looked and saw that it would go on until page 467. I called it a day.

The novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction - which is why I bought it - but got no farther; perhaps someone suggested that there is really no good reason to go on feeding our conformist enthusiasm for celebrity gossip even when it is got up safely as Literature.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Surely a Great Time to Read Trevor Pateman Between Remembering and Forgetting ....

 Click on Image to Magnify

A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15 post free from the publisher and author. Online bank payment only - no cheques at this time :) But you can ask for a signed copy....

Order from   or

Regular UK stockists include  Amazon* and Waterstones

* Depending on how you access Amazon, it is currently showing only Kindle editions unless you click to All Formats. This book is not available as Kindle.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Review: Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other

In Ruritania, there are many ranks, orders, and medals. An elderly gentleman commonly known as Prince Charles but whose full title is sentences longer than that is often photographed wearing a chestful of ornaments, the birthday badges which his Mum has given him over the many years of a very extended childhood. But even those in the lower orders of society can aspire to their own Ruritanian badge. Bernardine Evaristo has one; she is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - remarkably, this Order does not have to wait for others to award it a ***** rating; it is already Most Excellent in its own eyes.

Evaristo’s MBE may explain much about Girl, Woman, Other. It’s not so much a novel as a set of thumbnails for a very long running TV soap attuned to well-established UK (social realist) and US (schmalz) markets. For the social realists, there is thumb-nailed poverty, rape and domestic violence. Etcetera. For the popcorn crowd, Bad characters like the Evil Nzinga are disposed of but the Good (Domnique & Laverne pages 111-112; Bummi & Kofi pages 187-188; and most blatantly Hattie & Penelope in the Epilogue) ride off into the sunset as the focus turns to soft and the credits roll. It’s a trope which is also found in Evaristo’s earlier Mr Loverman but in that better book there are main characters who are more fully developed and as a result they, as it were, earn their sunset. In this book, the happy endings are merely formulaic: try pages 111 - 112 for example.

The signature typographical style which uses line breaks instead of full stops does not really disguise the banality of much of the prose:

over time Shirley became an experienced schoolteacher who remained committed to giving the kids a fighting chance / realizing everything else was against them with such large classes and lack of resource and parents who didn’t have a clue how to help them with their homework / parents who’d left school early to work in a factory or learn a trade or be assigned a bunk bed in a Borstal … and so on from pages 234 to 236. 

The alliteration at the end of the quotation is not untypical; compare page 324 rozzers in riot gear, at the ready. I suppose it’s meant to breathe life into dead prose.

The narrator’s omniscience grated on me and as I tried to explain that I hit on the word  condescending.  Ruritania is structured by condescensions.  And  they invite collusion, including that of the intended readers of this book.  Evaristo’s novel has more Diversity than a Coca-Cola advertisement but often enough she wheels out her characters seemingly just in order to satirise them (try page 334) and prove to her audience (perhaps only too willing to have it proved) that, really, for all their dreadlocks and veganism and theyism (etcetera) they're really no better than the rest of us, though we can of course all strive, can’t we?

That’s so true, vicar, would you like another cup of tea?

Friday, 6 March 2020

Review: Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds

Very few, if any, societies have ever  arrived at a workable and sustainable consensus about how to distribute desirable scarce goods. The problem is exacerbated when the goods identified as desirable, notably money and fame, are inherently scarce because relative. If you extend the range to include, for example, happiness or virtue or wisdom - well, then things might get a bit easier. If you can identify goods where your gain is not necessarily my loss, so much the better. But for many people that’s a bit too subtle; their understanding is limited to zero-sum games: there’s a cake and any bit you get is a bit I don’t get.

A recent British Prime Minister, David Cameron, praised those who took the sharp-elbowed approach. If you want something scarce, then force yourself to the front of the queue. If you knock over an old lady on the way there, well, that’s life which is about grabbing what you can. President Trump agrees; he has grabbed many things on his way to the top and he will do whatever it takes to stay there - say, dirt on Joe Biden’s son as quid pro quo for US military aid.

I grew up at a time when it was thought that the distributional problem could be solved in a consensual way if societies operated meritocratically: you should get more of the desirable goods only if you in some way merited them. Talent, hard work, a track record of success were among the measures of merit. Race, Class, Sex were irrelevant. Though it was rarely articulated bluntly meritocracy was also a blatant alternative to inheritance; if you were really going to be meritocratic, then the House of Lords had to go and inheritance of serious wealth had to go too.

All general theories have their problems. At Oxford in the 1960s, one of my leftist friends reckoned it a problem deserving of serious consideration (his father in the wine trade), How should the finest wines be distributed after the revolution? Clearly, ability to pay would no longer be acceptable (or possible). Would merit work? Could you demonstrate through attendance at wine tasting classes that you had a  palate deserving of a Premier Cru? And so on through many rounds of drink….

Nowadays, no one is very keen on meritocracy. The favoured alternative is representation though no one has yet produced a definitive tome listing all the relevant parameters for who should be represented and where. I have tried to do the math, and once you move into multi-dimensional (intersectional) representation it is very  hard to formulate what would count as a situation in which it would be true that For all  values of the variables X and Y, X is fairly represented in Y

But basically the where is fame and money and the who is specified in terms of a few identities: ethnicity (but how many ethnicities are there?) and sex and/or gender (with a lot of ongoing debate there: is the Board of Directors gender balanced if half are males by birth and men by identity and the other half women by identity but with male appendages still in place? Trans ideologists seem obliged to say that the answer to that is Yes).

Nobody seems much worried about class anymore because the working class, rather awkwardly, has its own identity politics: in the USA it’s Trump and in England it’s Brexit. The identity politics with which Douglas Murray is concerned is a middle class thing; it’s about access to money and fame.

For example, when (apparently Caucasian) Sierra Boggess was cast to play Maria in a production of West Side Story one objection on Twitter read “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour”  (Murray, pages 142-43).

Well, to me that’s just an inversion on a standard working class complaint against immigrants They come here and take our jobs. In this case, Puerto Ricans having come to mainland USA (as US citizens, they have always had free movement rights) now claim back jobs which have been stolen from them. This zero-sum idea of theft is central to identity politics, most notably in the doctrine of cultural appropriation. Nobody supposes either that immigrants make jobs happen or that culture grows by appropriation. Human beings just seem to find positive-sum thinking too hard.

But there is more to contemporary identity politics than non-meritocratic competition for scarce goods. There is a strong sectarian or theological element with which Murray is largely concerned and against which he argues and where I find very little to disagree with. The hate-filled bullying behaviour of some young people who think they have virtue on their side repeatedly reminds me both of the American witch hunt tradition and of Jew-baiting on the streets of Hitler’s Germany. It is not the politics of the democratic Left; it has more in common with the politics of the worst Right - including an extraordinary degree of racism which Murray documents.

 Leave aside the bullying, it is also the case that identity theologians secure their prominence - their five minutes of fame on Twitter - by finding ever-new impossible things for us to believe before  breakfast. Murray singles out what trans ideologists expect us to believe and makes a restrained case against, urging caution but also flagging up the ridiculous. Eventually I guess the impossible trans beliefs will go the way of the Holy Trinity; whether they know it or not, most of those who are still Christians are Unitarians not Trinitarians despite the residual efforts of England’s state church.

Meanwhile, the impossible beliefs are doing a great deal of harm, notably in university humanities and social science departments  which have cheerfully converted themselves into seminaries where nothing is studied or argued, and everything simply asserted and endlessly repeated  even if (as with Judith Butler’s prose) it is often confused or simply unintelligible.  

I thought Murray’s book very well argued and surprisingly nuanced for a writer whose metatags (Eton, Oxford, Henry Jackson society, neocon, Leaver,  ….. the Spectator) are so unpromising. The book is perhaps at its most effective when he looks to Martin Luther King for a defence of what later came to be called Big Tent politics. The general idea should be to find things we have in common, not ways of endlessly asserting the desire not to be common.

Recently, I tried to write a memoir of my years as an Oxford undergraduate, both personal and political. As concerns the political, I arrived in 1965 as an eighteen year old member of the Labour Party who had very recently knocked on his neighbours’ front doors to secure the election of a Labour government; three years’ later I graduated as a supporter or even member (I think I had a card) of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (which may or may not have had an apostrophe …). To put it anachronistically, during my three years at Oxford, I Woke.

But then trying to remember things I realised something which may now seem odd. However Woke I may have been - and this is not just true of me - that didn’t mean that you did not talk to the Unwoke (who were legion), did not debate with them, did not listen to them. And they reciprocated. It occurred to me, for example, that every week when he lectured, arch-liberal and critic of Marxism Isaiah Berlin pulled in a very full house and a significant part of that house was the Oxford Left which turned out in force, not to heckle or barrack, but to listen to the most mesmerising lecturer Oxford had on offer. I would not be pushing it if I said that when you took your place you looked around to make sure that your fellow lefterrati were there with you, rather as if you were at the theatre (which, of course, you were). If anyone had suggested that Isaiah Berlin should be No Platformed it would have produced bemusement or merriment. We had enough confidence in our own convictions not to need to suppress other people’s (and that may be one clue to understand where we have got to now).

It occurred to me that age might have made me rose tinted in thus presenting the Left as indulgently liberal so I looked for some external confirmation and found it indirectly in  - doyen of the Oxford Left - Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, originally published in 1987 and re-issued in a 2018 version which I am using. He writes about his time in Oxford where by 1966 he was already well-known as an activist and trouble-maker. That does not stop the local Conservative MP,

Monty Woodhouse from embarrassing me on more than one occasion He used to stop me in the street and say “I am to the left of the local Labour candidate [Evan Luard - TP] on immigration, on Vietnam, on Rhodesia and probably also on economic measures. But you and your friends will be voting, I take it, for him” To which I replied that we were voting for parties not individuals and moved off rapidly … (page 138)

So it was quite possible for a Tory toff (later the 5th Baron Terringon) and a revolutionary toff to josh in a civil way with each other on the streets of Oxford - and for Tariq Ali to tell the story twenty years’ later in a way which does credit to his opponent.

It’s true that very shortly after, end 1968-early 1969, quite a few of us did place one limit on our tolerance - just one, and after quite a lot of debate which in my case made me very familiar with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argues that free speech loses its privilege when the circumstances of an utterance constitute it into an incitement to violence of some kind. He gives an example: you should generally be free to say that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, but not to address those words to an already excited mob standing in front of the local corn dealer’s house. On this basis, I concluded -  and argued in meetings - that it was legitimate to try to stop Enoch Powell’s countrywide stump of political speeches since they constituted an incitement to violence, unintentional perhaps but their effect clear enough on streets which were becoming unsafe for black people. I had no problems with the idea of Powell addressing, say, a university seminar - indeed, I had attended one that he gave in Oxford and I simply sat a few feet away from him and listened. I agreed with Mill: circumstance makes a difference.

The blind spot in my thinking was the rather too easy assumption that we could take the law into our own hands. On the statute books, incitement was an offence so why not appeal to the state (as people do now)? After all, the state had more resources at its disposal than we did. Equally, the exception made for Powell was arrived at with some hesitation and doubt; it was a last line of resort not the first choice as it now seems to be (Murray provides examples).

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Review: Daniel Immerwahr How To Hide an Empire

I recall from fifty years ago trying to explain to a class of fifteen year olds who had me as their (unqualified) History teacher that a country could have an Empire without having territories dotted all over the globe and coloured red. I used the example of Imperial Russia which had built up its empire by extending its land borders in every possible direction, the new territories often enough specialised producers of desirable commodities (coal, copper, furs, hemp, tea, wine …  ) which could be shipped back to the heartlands. At the same time, Russia reckoned (rather perversely) that by extending its borders it made its already unbelievably long borders more secure. True, the extensions did place St Petersburg and Moscow farther away from frontiers which invading armies would have to breach in order to get started on a war of conquest but, equally, invaders might just settle for the asset-rich borderlands, as did Germany late in World War One.

There was one anomaly in this simple story, explained at the blackboard with many chalk arrows: Alaska, separated by a short stretch of sea from the Russian mainland. But - ha, ha - Russia sold Alaska to the USA and that, as it were, proved my case.

Alaska figures in Daniel Immerwahr’s extraordinary book as the largest bit of the Empire which America built up over the course of a couple of centuries but in ways which often gave the impression that there was no such thing as an American Empire. Empire, on the British or French models, was acquired by conquest; America just bought Alaska and that surely was different. It had already bought Louisiana and would go on buying - in World War One, the American Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark. In the very recent past, President Trump reprised the old idea with an offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. He was shocked by the rebuff.  After all, money can buy anything can't it so what's wrong with my money?

It’s a long time since I read a book like Immerwahr's where virtually every page tells me something I never knew or imagined, from big stories to little anecdotes. I am sure that many readers of this book will go around afterwards  accosting anyone who will listen with Did you know …? stories. Some are shocking like those which narrate the devastations wreaked on the Phillipines by successive occupiers (Spanish, American, Japanese) and on Puerto Rico; some are comic like the story of the US State Department laying territorial claim to three small islands which it had already long-ago laid claim to and indeed was currently occupying. They had an excuse: by the 1930s the USA had laid claim to so many Pacific islands (some even inhabited) that it was understandable that they had lost track.

Immerwahr emphasises how these many territories did not fit inside the model USA designed by the US Constitution; they were anomalies but anomalies with several different statuses. Some were reckoned to be on the path to full statehood (Alaska, Hawaii - they got it in 1959); some were slated for independence (the Philippines); some had appointed governors and some were under military administration. Most had some military purpose and still do.

Anomalous territories can, of course, be found all over the world. Europe is full of them, most of them continuing to exist because they provide the rich and powerful with tax havens and money laundering centres: the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (possessions of the British Crown); the City of London; Andorra (Franco-Spanish Bishops isn’t it?); Liechtenstein; Monaco; San Marino. In Rome, if you want to launder money, you just walk across the non-existent border between Italy and the Vatican State and straight into the Vatican Bank. 

Some anomalies are military: on the island of Cyprus, the large Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are wholly owned by the United Kingdom and are counted as British Overseas Territories, anthem God Save the Queen but as a nice anomaly, currency… the €uro. 

Immerwahr has interesting stories to tell about the impact of leased American military bases on local populations the world over. Some are about the ABC underside of military occupation: arrogance, brothels, and crime. Others are about what can be huge economic gains from trade; some are cultural: Immerwahr (in a fascinating account)  links the rise of the 1960s Liverpool music scene (the Beatles included) to the presence nearby of a very large US military installation.

That is just one example of the ways in which he has done some very diligent research and turned up interesting by-ways which would  have been missed had be started from a more theoretically rigid approach than is evident in his four hundred page book. I read all of it with interest and quite often amazement. For once, I find myself in complete accord with the puff printed on the cover of my copy.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Review: Pascal Boyer, Minds Make Societies

Human beings are born with big brains which grow bigger. The internal structure of those brains is amazingly complex. But there are long traditions in philosophy and social science which suggest that from the perspective of trying to understand how human societies and cultures are possible and why they are as they are, human beings might just as well have sawdust between their ears. Most often, it is simply assumed that human brains are so made as to be plastic to whatever impressions other humans try to implant there - that is at the heart of Locke’s understanding of how humans relate to their world. Children are blank slates onto which anything may be written. That is a position which is also to be found in Wittgenstein. 

At a slightly higher level of sophistication or stupidity, according to taste, the twentieth century produced leading psychologists - B F Skinner in the USA and Pavlov in the USSR - who thought that the way to make psychology into a science was to eliminate from its vocabulary the human mind and to study exclusively correlations between visible inputs and visible outputs: the visible reactions of pigeons and rats to the provision of electric shocks or food pellets. The idiocy of this approach culminated in B F Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) which Noam Chomsky savaged in 1959 in one of the great scientific book reviews of the twentieth century: I was surprised to find no mention of it or of Chomsky in Pascal Boyer’s book.

Chomsky can claim to be a main source of inspiration for the kind of approach to culture and society which Boyer introduces and elaborates in this excellent book. But not the only source and the other sources Boyer explains as he goes along. 

There has been the inspiration of that neo-Darwinism which makes extensive use of game theory as a powerful theory to think with. This approach dates back at least to John Maynard Smith’s Evolution and the Theory of Games (1982). (Maynard Smith was Professor in the university where I taught, which explains why I made some use of his work in my own 1980s doctorate on Chomskyan linguistics).

Next comes the contribution of what we now call cognitive science which is very happy to study human minds and to do so in close collaboration with those more interested in artificial minds, sharing not just vocabulary but significant theoretical assumptions (about modularity, for example). So no one is now fazed when a theorist writes of human minds computing results.

Then - and perhaps not yet as well known or obvious - there is the contribution of  those theorists who have developed sophisticated models of communication starting from the idea of intentions and recognition of intentions rather than from the idea of communication codes

Finally, benefitting from these theoretical advances, observational developmental psychology has been able to take giant steps in understanding what young children bring to the world in which they find themselves. Wittgenstein once called the babble of the baby “nonsense”; developmental psychologists have called him out, showing how it develops and what it is doing. Likewise, the drawings of young children develop in  reconstructible stages which have a high degree of cross cultural universality and which  - importantly - proceed independently of surrounding visual cultures. Young children may look at adult pictures but they  do not copy them; they have their own ideas about what a picture should look like.

Boyer introduces us to a number of old topics to which (for want of a better shorthand) cognitive anthropology has contributed fresh understanding: tribalism, the madness of crowds, the origins and persistence of religious belief, the family, social justice, and - very interestingly and originally in chapter Six - limits to our own capacity to understand our own cultures and societies. At time, Boyer is able to quote  extensive research support for his arguments; at others, and as he acknowledges, we are still at the hand waving stage - knowing roughly the direction in  which we must travel but not yet having undertaken the journey.

He makes no use of the term meme, though he discusses its limitations towards the end of the book, nor does he use the term learnability which I have found useful: the things which cultures/societies present to new members as things to be learnt can connect more or less well to unlearnt dispositions, intuitions, computational capacities. Thus, there is quite a lot of support for the idea (for example) that atonal music is not learnable as a first music and that, in contrast, we are born adapted to tonal music. Boyer adds  to this an interesting claim that there is an unlearnt ability to improve on a corrupt version of a piece of tonal music - a piece with wrong notes etc.

At the end of his book (pages 272-76) Boyer tries to find a way to exit us from the endless debates about Nature and Culture by claiming that his new paradigm transcends that  folk psychology / folk sociology opposition. I am not convinced his argument succeeds though I can see why it would be politically helpful for it to do so. All of Boyer’s arguments depend on the idea that as a result of very long term neo-Darwinian evolution human beings are born quite well equipped or adapted in specific manners to make sense of and be able to operate in the worlds in which they are most likely to find themselves - there is an unpleasant duty upon researchers to paint the picture of those terrible worlds in which this will not be true. That adaptation helps explain how and why our social and cultural worlds are as they are.

But that idea of pre-adaptation just is a theory of human nature, even though it is primarily a theory about the human mind as something which shows trans-historical and cross-cultural uniformities and has little or nothing to do with blood or bodies or IQ. But the idea, even made that clear, is anathema to the Wittgensteinian cultural apologists, the social constructionists, and the politically correct. They may not (probably will not) understand that the theory is one which is interested in what humans have in common, not what differentiates them. They will just hear the word “Nature” and reach for their guns. Maybe it’s time to face up to the challenge rather than try to make it go away.