Thursday, June 8, 2023

Quote of the Day (Randolph Bourne, on Friends as ‘Infallible Safeguards Against Misery and Poverty of Spirit’)

“A man with few friends is only half-developed; there are whole sides of his nature which are locked up and have never been expressed. He cannot unlock them himself, he cannot even discover them; friends alone can stimulate him and open them. Such a man is in prison; his soul is in penal solitude. A man must get friends as he would get food and drink for nourishment and sustenance. And he must keep them, as he would keep health and wealth, as the infallible safeguards against misery and poverty of spirit.”—Progressive Era essayist, social critic, and disabilities advocate Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), Youth and Life (1911)

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Quote of the Day (John Ruskin, on the Distinction Between Science and Art)

“Science deals exclusively with things as they are in themselves; and art exclusively with things as they affect the human sense and human soul. Her work is to portray the appearances of things, and to deepen the natural impressions which they produce upon living creatures. The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances, and demonstrations for impressions. Both, observe, are equally concerned with truth; the one with truth of aspect, the other with truth of essence. Art does not represent things falsely, but truly as they appear to mankind. Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything which is submitted to it imperatively this, and only this,—what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart, what it has to say to men, and what it can become to them: a field of question just as much vaster than that of science, as the soul is larger than the material creation.”—English art critic and social commentator John Ruskin (1819-1900), The Stones of Venice (1853)

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Quote of the Day (Poet Billy Collins, on Inspiration)

“In 19th-century English poetry, inspiration became a kind of pathology. There were metaphors for inspiration like flames, sparks and fountains. The trouble with the word inspiration in this context is that it suggests passivity—writers are people who write, but if you fall prey to this theory of inspiration, you're not acting, you're waiting….Waiting for inspiration is a way of ennobling procrastination. The trail of poets that has preceded you and affected your writing, those are my inspirations.  You’re never alone when you write. Your page is lit by the candles of the past.”—Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, “Soapbox: The Columnists—WSJ. Asks Five Luminaries To Weigh in on Single Topic; This Month: Inspiration,” WSJ., June/July 2023

The photo of Billy Collins accompanying this post was taken May 13, 2007, by Marcelo Noah.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Quote of the Day (P. J. O’Rourke, on Adam Smith)

“None of us, in fact, take the axioms of Adam Smith as givens — not unless what's given to us are vast profits, enormous salaries, and huge year-end bonuses resulting from unfettered markets, low labor costs, increased productivity, and current Federal Reserve policy. Like the AFL-CIO, France, and various angry and addled street protestors, we quarrel with Adam Smith. If this is to be an intelligent squabble we need to examine Smith's side of the argument in full. The Wealth of Nations is — as my generation used to say when my generation was relevant — relevant.”— American humorist P. J. O’Rourke (1947-2022), On “The Wealth of Nations”: Books That Changed the World (2006)

We don’t know the exact birthdate for the Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith, but he was baptized three centuries ago today in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Normally, to begin or end the workweek, I choose a humorous quote to get their minds off hard days at the office (or, more recently, the virtual office. In observance of this milestone related to Smith, I hoped to find jokes by or at least about him.

As you might expect, the author of The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments was not exactly the wisecracking type. Still, you’d hope at least other economists (or maybe someone who played one, like Ben Stein) might have gotten off a joke about his work. But no such luck, reinforcing why economics is known as “the dismal science.”

So the best I could do here was this quote from P. J. O’Rourke.

I don’t think Smith should be regarded as devoutly as many libertarians are wont to do. But I will give O’Rourke this: for someone whose work has influenced the course of the West as that other Enlightenment document that also came out the same year as The Wealth of Nations, The Declaration of Independence, Smith’s work does indeed remain relevant.

I should say here that I particularly like this Smith quote I noted in a prior post.

(For a vigorous attack on the belief that Smith accepted inequality as a necessary tradeoff for a more prosperous economy, I urge you to read Deborah Boucoyannis’ 2014 post on the “Politics and Policy” blog of the London School of Economics.)

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Rita Dove, on St. Paul in the Context of His Time)

“I see now that Paul's proclamations were demanded of him. At that time Christianity was still a heresy within a larger tradition; Saul’s persecution of Christians, his conversion, and his consequent wrangles with the priests in the Temple—these events were all in the family, so to speak. At the time when the Pauline Epistles were written, the biggest question for the new religion was whether or not to accept Gentiles; once that quandary was settled, more mundane issues (Can they remain uncircumcised? Must they obey the Judaic rules of diet?) were the order of the day. The disciples attempted to thread a path through the existing Old Testament laws; they sought an extension, and fulfillment, of Judaism. Paul’s public needed concrete rules, so he gave them restrictions to hold onto; Wife, obey your husband; husband, love your wife—just as you obey Christ and He loves you. Children, obey your parents. Servants (this is the tricky part), obey your masters—followed by a telling conditional: ‘according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ’ (Ephesians 6:5-6). And because pictures are worth a thousand words, he gave them metaphors: the Church as a bride, Christ as bridegroom, and martial imagery sure to delight a city devoted to the huntress Diana. Gird the loins with truth, slip the feet into the Gospel of peace, take up the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith! Blatant theatrics, but it worked.”—Former American poet laureate and essayist Rita Dove, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians,” in Searching for Your Soul: Writers of Many Faiths Share Their Personal Stories of Spiritual Discovery (1999)

The image of St. Paul accompanying this post was created by the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco (1541-1614).

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Flashback, June 1958: De Gaulle Returns to End 4th French Republic, Begin the 5th

Sixty-five years ago this month, Charles de Gaulle returned to power as Premier of France at the start of June 1958, much in the same manner in which he stepped into the public eye in 1940: to rescue the country he loved with mystical fervor.

The WWII Resistance movement commander had stepped away from the government he was widely expected to lead in 1946 and stayed on the sidelines.  The dozen intervening years confirmed his opinion that the Fourth French Republic created after the war would be fatally flawed by legislative wrangling and executive impotence.

Only two Socialists were included in de Gaulle’s government and no Communists, reflecting the general’s suspicions of the latter party dating back to WWII, when, despite its critical support of his leadership of the Resistance, he came to view it as a dangerous revolutionary force.

Though the National Assembly had voted 329 to 224 to put him in power, nobody knew exactly how the 67-year-old de Gaulle would implement the unlimited powers it gave him for six months. Part of his agenda—or at least what could be ascertained from his sometimes vague public utterances on the subject— was to prepare a reform of the republic to be ratified by referendum.

What was still unclear was how he would resolve the crisis that had convulsed the nation and precipitated his return to leadership: the Algerian war of independence. When the conflict broke out in 1954, 1 million European settlers (the pieds-noirs, “black feet”) lived on Algerian land. With so many Frenchmen there, the government was reluctant to leave its colony.

What resulted was one of the most vicious conflicts in postwar decolonization, with a cycle of insurgency followed by counterinsurgency marked by torture. By the time the conflict ended in 1962, 25,000 French troops had died and hundreds of thousands of Algerians.

In France itself, the unrest exacerbated the instability that de Gaulle foresaw would plague the Fourth Republic. Twenty-four cabinets were formed under 16 prime ministers during the 12-year regime. Just as bad, according to a 2004 analysis in the British Journal of Political Science on the republic’s cabinets by John Huber and Cecilia Martinez-Gallardo, they were also staffed by ministers who were relatively inexperienced.

Understandably chafing at this inexperience and instability, reactionary elements in the French military, learning nothing from its recent debacle in French Indochina, resisted this new anti-colonial movement, especially when the latest French government indicated it was prepared to negotiate with the National Liberation Front, or FLN.

The anger of the military brass had climaxed on May 13, 1958 with an uprising of French partisans in Algiers, supported by the 10th paratroop division of General Jacques Massu. It was, in essence, a putsch, with Massu and his movement forming a Committee of Public Safety, calling for de Gaulle to return to power in Paris.

The instincts towards Catholicism, conservatism, and monarchism that de Gaulle inherited from his father may have steered him away from many radical or even liberal currents in 20th-century thought. But above all, the general was a realist.

His growing realization that the economic, political, and human costs of the Algerian War could no longer be contained moved him towards overtures to the Algerian independence movement that deeply disappointed his most revanchist followers.

De Gaulle’s final acknowledgement of Algerian independence sparked another putsch, this time an August 1962 assassination plot against him—the most serious of more than 30 attempts on his life over two decades. (The latter plot inspired Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling 1971 political thriller, The Day of the Jackal.)

Washington watched the developments around de Gaulle with special interest, remembering well the prickly relations the Free French leader had maintained with the Western Allies during WWII.

Winston Churchill had been annoyed by the general but ultimately tolerated him as the best alternative to the collaborationist Vichy regime in WWII. Franklin Roosevelt abided him only on sufferance, with the President’s son Elliott quoting him in the 1946 memoir As He Saw It: “de Gaulle is out to achieve one-man government in France. I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more.”

Amory Houghton, U.S. Ambassador to France, sent a June 1, 1958 telegram that functioned as a flashing yellow light about the general to the U.S. State Department. While noting that “the interests of the United States will be served by de Gaulle’s success,” Houghton also warned that “the General’s character suggests that problems will increase and it is doubtful how well the General grasps and will comprehend the complexity of military and political relationships which have grown up since he retired from the political scene.”

Two years later, an intelligence report prepared in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research was equally skeptical about the outcome of de Gaulle’s Algerian maneuvering:

“Even if de Gaulle is able to establish autonomous organs in Algiers, it is unlikely that peace could be restored, at least in the short run, without political negotiations with the FLN, which both he and the army strongly resist. de Gaulle’s policy, unless it is modified on this point, is therefore probably inadequate to bring peace to Algeria in the foreseeable future.”

What the State Department did not foresee was that, within five months, de Gaulle would squelch a "Generals' Putsch" intended to seize control of Algeria and topple his own regime. That strengthened his hand internally, leading to the Evian Accords with the FLN in 1962.

On a broader front, de Gaulle delivered on his promise to deliver a new constitution, in effect ushering in a new Fifth Republic--or, as Lara Marlowe characterized it in a September 2018 Irish Times article, "The Beginning of French Politics As We Know It." The French President effectively ended the chaos that had characterized his nation's postwar era, partly through the executive-oriented measures of the new constitution, partly through his own considerable mystique.

That mystique, erected on the basis of the general’s indomitable defiance of his nation’s Nazi occupiers, was maintained by his height and hauteur. It was a fearsome thing for another politician to look up at the high forehead and Cyrano nose of the six-foot, five-inch head of government. He didn’t leaven his interactions with charm, as FDR and Churchill could do.

Washington and London, as they anticipated, had to get used to this prickliest of allies—one so intent to preserve France’s ability to act unilaterally on the world stage that he pushed his country to become a nuclear power, withdrew from NATO, and kick-started the Canadian separatist movement with the cry, “Vive le Qu├ębec libre!"

According to biographer Jean Lacouture, de Gaulle was a "grand nomad" who sometimes had to "take to the wilderness for his true stature and the sheer gap left by his absence to be perceived." 

If confirmation were needed of this contention, it came through the events of late spring 1958--and, indeed, since 1969, when his resignation as President after a decade in power left a vacuum in moral authority that his successors, for all the constitutional authority he bequeathed them, have struggled to fill.

Fortunately, he did not turn into a Bonaparte but something like a French George Washington--a military leader who withstood the siren call of absolutism, a President who left those who followed him in office with enormous executive power to be used for good or ill, and a leader with a grand vision for his country--or, as de Gaulle described it on the first page of his war memoirs, "France is like a princess in a fairy story, Madonna in a fresco.”

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, With One of the Great Openings in American Literature)

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”—Nobel Literature laureate and American novelist and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), A Farewell to Arms (1929)

In a post from nine years ago, I discussed how, by force of will—anywhere from 39 attempts (the author’s estimate) to 70—Ernest Hemingway came up with an ending to A Farewell to Arms that finally satisfied him.

I don’t know if Hemingway struggled quite so much with his opening to this novel from his golden period, but I do know that it is magical in a way that his bleak conclusion isn’t, and probably couldn’t be.

The cadences of the sentences—filled with short words, but featuring multiple clauses that add complexity—feel inspired by the King James Bible in their constant repetition of “and.” The details of the landscape were born of close observation by a writer who, on childhood fishing trips with his father, developed a lifelong love for nature.

Put all of this together and the results are lyrical. But Hemingway has also slipped in, as naturally as the pebbles and dust he notices, three symbols that will dominate the rest of the novel: the plain, the mountains, and the river.

The plain is the scene of suffering and death, created in this case by the havoc caused by World War I. Even the movement of troops through the village disturb the natural order, raising dust on the trees. The mountains come to represent refuge and home, the transitory “separate peace” that narrator Lt. Frederic Henry and his lover Catherine Barkley treasure.

The river signifies rebirth, a departure from the devastation of war into a new realm of freedom and love, where Frederic will dive to escape the carnage and madness of war.

World War I wounded civilization as a whole and Hemingway in particular. The wound to the then 18-year-old ambulance driver on the Italian front was physical (fragments from a mortar shell entered his right foot and knee, striking his thighs, scalp and hand—and, most ominously, the first in a series of concussions) and psychological (a belief that violence could intrude at any time on life).

For all the granular physical description in the opening of A Farewell to Arms, it paradoxically gains power through the blurring of other details. “In the summer of that year”—which year? “A village”—which one? Likewise, the river and mountains go unnamed. It is all so mysterious that the reader wants to know more, but at the same time the experience has become universal, beyond a particular time and place.

Although Hemingway has been frequently criticized for his treatment of the women in his life and his fiction, two female writers were looked beyond his blustering macho and found inspiration in the powerful opening of A Farewell to Arms. Joan Didion analyzed it in a 1998 essay for The New Yorker, but had already hailed it in a 1978 interview for The Paris Review:

“He taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”

Equally seismic was the impact on the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, one of Hemingway’s most perceptive and eloquent advocates in the Ken Burns biography of the Nobel laureate. In her own 1984 interview with The Paris Review, she explains how she first encountered this passage:

“Shortly after I arrived in London I saw an advertisement for a lecture given by Arthur Mizener [author of a book on F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise] on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one. So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt—Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write.”