In Conversation with Thomas More: Escaping the Labyrinth of Theology

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“You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn,” wrote “Prince of the Humanists” Desiderius Erasmus in a letter to his friend Christian Northoff in 1497. Though himself a religious man, Erasmus had such a knack for articulating the ironies of learning that it would be understandable to misread him as a born sceptic. Either way, he tried throughout his life to free the methods of scholarship from the rigid formalism of medieval traditions and the often narrowing framework of theology.

It is unsurprising then that fellow Renaissance humanist Thomas More, born just twelve years after Erasmus, developed such a friendship with him. Sharing his equal detestation of the irrational feudalism still raging in 16th century Europe, More brought together many of their ideas in his 1516 masterpiece Utopia. Though it contains much that is archaic and illiberal by modern standards, More was after all a product of his time, he still manages to envision a world with some truly enlightened ideals. The most important of these is one that would utterly transform the earth today and it boils down to just two words: religious tolerance.

OvidMore agrees with Plato that the ideal state would be a communist one, but instead of Plato’s superior Guardians, the philosopher-kings, he describes an agricultural island overseen by a hierarchy of ‘syphogrants’, ‘tranibors’, and a single governor, who all form the democratic senate. His society echoes the myth of the Golden Age which Ovid so poetically wrote of 1400 years before him, a utopia of sorts that can be adapted to any outlook, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, atheist, or agnostic. In short Ovid imagines a world that has no mention of religion, but is simply governed by peace, equality, and harmony with nature:

      No punishment or fear of it; no threats

      Inscribed on brazen tablets; no jostling crowds

      Beseeching mercy from a lofty judge;

      For without law or judge all men were safe.

And More’s vision is just as optimistic, one where “Utopians marvel that any mortal can take pleasure in the dubious sparkle of a little jewel or bright gemstone, when he has a star, or the sun itself, to look at.”

He lived during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the sweeping movement triggered by Martin Luther in 1517 that saw a determined break from the Catholic Church in favour of a purified faith free of corruption, ritual, and embellishment. And it is the very fact that he was surrounded by such religious turbulence that makes his Utopia so interesting.

The island is populated by believers in not one but many different religions that vary from household to household and city to city, those that place their faith “in a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, beyond the grasp of the human mind, and diffused throughout the universe, not physically, but in influence”. However, there is one crucial characteristic of the Utopia that would transform our world today, and indeed is the core argument buried in the heart of his text that will make his words continue to stand the test of time, that “it is one of their oldest rules that no man’s religion, as such, shall be held against him […] everyone could cultivate the religion of his choice, and strenuously proselytise for it too, provided he did so quietly, modestly, rationally, and without bitterness toward others. If persuasion failed, no one was allowed to resort to abuse or violence”.

If this was only the attitude practiced by those of faith today, it would not only bring an end to the majority of the world’s most brutal and long-lasting conflicts, but it would free religious people from the impossible task of trying to explain and justify religious violence.

Though the resource-driven conflicts from Rwanda to Israel to Ireland would no doubt have taken place anyway, religion has always acted as a terrific force multiplier, an argument the great Christopher Hitchens always so vehemently advocated. As Freud said, we are torn apart as a species by the “narcissism of little things”, a genetic inevitability greatly intensified by an absolute belief in divine authority. Both faith in a supreme being, and faith that such a being takes sides are delusions of a truly fatal magnitude.

This realisation of the impossibility of human perfection is, in a way, what More concludes in the Utopia. Indeed, he abandoned his tenet of religious tolerance only a handful of years after its publication when he began to partake in the mass persecution of Protestants.

AragornBut that’s what makes imperfection such an important concept to acknowledge, not to simply deny by imagining a greater intelligence into the framework of reality. It’s why JRR Tolkien never wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. He began such a project, resuming the story some decades after Aragorn’s reign when the world had begun to destabilise again with the absence of the elves, but he soon abandoned it, realising that the cyclical nature of human vice and destruction is simply never-ending so why not let it rest at the culmination of one particular war.

This cycle is denied outright by theology, which has many elaborate timelines of creation, redemption, intervention, and absolution, all of which contradict the others.

The only way out of the labyrinth is through the realisation of imperfection itself, and the collective resolution to tolerate it.

LGBT Rights Today: Socrates, Dumbledore, and the nonsense that began in 539BC

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In October 2016 the trial of serial killer Stephen Port will begin in London. His story is a horrific one. Over the course of fifteen months from June 2014, Port coerced four gay men to go with him back to his house in Barking, where he manipulated them into taking large amounts of the Class C ‘party’ drug GHB (gammahydroxybutrate), before murdering them and depositing their mutilated bodies near a church and abbey in the impoverished east London town. Though murder is always reprehensible, Port’s crimes were made all the more horrifying as a result of his apparent motivation being the sexuality of his victims.

This is just one example of the fact that though laws are now finally starting to change in favour of LGBT men and women, homophobia is still a deeply embedded cultural belief across Europe. After four years of being ranked top on the continent for LGBT rights in the Rainbow Europe index, the UK has now fallen behind Malta, who pulled ahead last October with a score of 89% based on forty different criteria, while Azerbaijan still festers at number 49 with a score of just 5%. Though Malta should be commended, this only reinforces just how polarised opinions still are.

Pride march 1981Across the pond, the outlook is similarly bleak. Though the ruling of the US Supreme Court to legalise gay marriage across all states last year was indeed a milestone, one need only look to the pockets of extreme Republicanism scattered throughout the country to see prejudice still raging. Consider the story of 15-year-old Larry King, who was shot twice in the back of the head in 2008 after asking his murderer to be his Valentine. Though it even prompted a rare political intervention by a tearful Ellen DeGeneres in a televised call to start changing attitudes once and for all, there were many who still denounced King as the bully in the scenario, with his own (abusive) adoptive father claiming he was then used immorally as a “poster child” for gay rights. All this does is once more show just how ingrained homophobia is in the human psyche in a long history of men claiming rights over the bodies and choices of others.

The fault for this lies almost entirely with religion.

It is staggering to consider the sheer extent to which the rise of monotheism bred this inhuman discrimination. From the perpetuation of the belief that homosexuality is not born nature but optional disposition, to the insistence that sodomy is sin, the collective damage inflicted over the last two millennia or so by religious delusions just defies comprehension. In the same way the sheer magnitude and complexity of the cosmos is beyond imagining, it is impossible to comprehend that scale of suffering.

SocratesThis is even more confounding when one realises that in the classical age homosexuality was an object of absolute veneration, and that gay men were not only considered the only people fit for political office and cultural accomplishment, but were also considered as being in possession of the highest and truest understanding of love. In The Symposium, Plato writes of a fictitious dinner party in which seven great orators including the very personification of wisdom, Socrates himself, gather to discuss the nature of love. The conclusion is that men inspired with the love of ‘Heavenly Aphrodite’, who had no mother, as opposed to ‘Common Aphrodite’, who was the daughter of Dione, were drawn to the ‘naturally more vigorous and intelligent’, that is, other men. Gay men therefore ‘are the best of their generation, both as boys and young men, because they are naturally the bravest’, and, being ‘pregnant in mind’, the result of their love is ‘more beautiful and more immortal’ than love with a woman.

It is an astonishing thought indeed that a people who lived two and half thousand years ago were more liberal than we are today. The only downside of this liberalism was of course that male homosexuality was only so prized in the first place due to the fact that women were universally believed to be fundamentally inferior; physically, intellectually, genetically, and socially. Even now the majority of verbal insults are still derived from a negative association with women, and gender stereotypes remain so embedded in our culture that many people don’t realise when they’re approaching something from the view that to be female is to be weaker or inferior in some way.

First London PrideIt is now almost an insult to be labelled a ‘feminist’, with a feminist argument often being the unpopular one regardless of how many times it is made clear that this is an equality movement. Hollywood is racked by gender pay gaps and a lack of “good roles for older women”, interviews by men with women always mention aesthetic beauty, most female comedians must be self-deprecating to be funny, periods are still used as cheap insults, and sexual attacks are blamed partly on the woman for walking alone or dressing how she wanted to. Everything women ever do is always defined first by sex, from filling out forms to the assumption that their names must be changed to the man’s upon marriage. Any film or novel or TV show in which a woman is the protagonist is pigeon-holed in depressing rhetoric like “strong female lead” as though it’s a revolutionary thing, and when a woman is better than a man at something or trumps him in an argument it is still met with surprise and patronising admiration in some quarters of the world. Frankly, no man will ever understand what it’s like to battle against such embedded, daily assumptions. And that’s just in the fairly democratic and progressive West where women don’t face, at least not anywhere near to the same extent, constant reminders of explicit inferiority, rigorous censorship, patriarchal control, frequent rape, genital mutilation, and total ownership by a male relative.

But it remains a fact that homosexuality was never a bad thing until the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, triggered the writing of what would become under Emperor Constantine centuries later ‘the Bible’, by ordering the local authorities of Jerusalem to come up with a single law code in exchange for a degree of autonomy from the Achaemenid Empire. Indeed, this will always be a thought-provoking question. If Constantine had not converted to Christianity in 312AD, would it have swept the globe as it did, and would polytheism then have survived?

With the rise of transgender awareness particularly over the last year given the publicity around Caitlyn Jenner and pioneering films like The Danish Girl it is more important than ever that these fatally unenlightened views are shattered by common sense and basic human compassion and civility.

DumbledoreIt is time for justice. And justice can only come with universal acceptance, though even the word “acceptance” implies LGBT people are different and “need” to be assimilated, that they are removed from “us” in some fundamental way.

As JK Rowling said to one Twitter user who claimed they were confused as to why Dumbledore was gay given they couldn’t see him that way:

“Maybe because gay people just look like… people?”

It’s time we, as people, treated people like people too.

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“I WANT EDGE”: Observations From Inside the ITV Newsroom

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“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information,” said Christopher Hitchens, probably with a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette in his hand.

One of the most fiercely analytical voices of the last half century and surely its most gifted debater, Hitchens rather encapsulated the sentiment of a generation with this statement. Though one could of course perceive a hidden idealistic streak in his desire to reform the field from within, he nevertheless articulates a widespread disillusionment with journalism that is only now starting to lift. Well, from where I’m standing it certainly is.

I had the opportunity at the beginning of the year to spend a week of work experience in the heart of the ITV newsroom in London. I essentially shadowed the Planning team for a week, the desk of editors who cover all the Home Affairs stories, planning and scheduling the items and reports covered on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. There are separate teams for foreign affairs, the tonight show, and specific editors and reporters for each programme.

To my delight, I discovered the software featured in TV shows and films about journalism is the programme they actually use: iNews. It’s an application utilised by all networks in to which flood the breaking news stories from all over the world. These wire reports are labelled with coloured flags to categorise their importance on a scale from red to yellow. Only the FTSE updates were classed as yellow though, the majority being red or orange. These little parcels of information appear on the screen every few minutes from Reuters with ‘slugs’ indicating the general subject e.g. LIBYA – SECURITY. The one week I spent with this wealth of information at my fingertips was the most up-to-date with the news I’ve ever been.

Most of the Planning team seem to perform admin-driven roles, finding stories and allocating them to reporters and programmes. They have the high-level view on the news-capturing process, also controlling what ultimately goes on the air by tailoring the topics for the executive planning meetings. The schedule and order of items are listed on iNews one day in advance, with ‘slugs’, ‘summaries’, initial ideas and angles, and an assigned reporter. Once locked in, these topics are updated until air, with processes obviously being in place to react to international breaking news. I heard some eye-opening stories about the atmosphere during the Paris attacks last November when the entire newsroom was kicked into action.

The studio itself is in the basement. Forget the sweeping panorama of the BBC newsroom, ITV’s is a green room tucked away at the bottom of the elevator where the anchor sits a few doors down from the control room. This was truly a sight to see, a relatively small room in which the Director and four producers operate an entire wall of about thirty screens from a bank of control boards. All the cues, effects, packages, adverts, and segments are broadcast with the flick of a switch, meticulously timed by the staffer who actually sits with a timer, counting down out loud the last fifteen seconds before each segment goes live. At one point, quite literally everyone was speaking at once, including the Director through his headset into the ear of the anchor.

It was an impressive set-up, but what was perhaps more enlightening were the executive planning meetings in which all the senior editors pitched stories and angles, deciding how to exercise the resources of their reporters spread across the world. The leader of these meetings, who shall remain anonymous, was like a cross between Rita Skeeter and Daffy Duck. From his suggestion to put a reporter inside a ‘vomit comet’ airplane to his proposal to strap a “GoPro on a stretcher” in emergency rooms in the US that treat gun wounds, he exploded like Aunt Marge every few minutes with some wild plan to secure more viewers. This may be the natural effect of living in the shadow of a much larger network that quite literally dominates every area of the field, or a deeper symptom of a certain journalistic stereotype. ‘Daffy Skeeter’, if you will, also referred to “scoops” as “prizes”, slammed the desk with the frustrated proclamation of “I just want something creative” every so often, proclaimed the nuance of every story is that it is “all about the characters”, and rather stuffily pointed out in the discussion of two different angles that “one might win us an award, the other won’t”. Suffice it to say, he seemed quite literally consumed by dry, materialistic statistics: audience retention, audience share, audience ratings. Verklempt, indeed. It wasn’t even a surprise when he stood up near the end and practically bellowed, “I WANT EDGE!”

A fascinating insight this was indeed, especially given this field has existed in its visual incarnation for less than a century, and whose tectonic plates shifted again with the birth of the internet.

NBCWith Murrow and the war correspondents pioneering radio broadcasting in the 1930s, the reign of the broadsheets, and the explosion of television on the scene in the 1940s with the likes of Cronkite, came the first real set of revolutions for journalism. Up to this point the dissemination of information and social commentary had been confined to novels and journals, circulated only among the ‘bourgeoisie’ of political history, the only people who could both read and afford to read.

But it cannot be denied that by the end of the 20th century, disillusionment had rather become the bien pensant attitude: disillusionment with the value and integrity of politicians, with rampant materialism, and with a bloated and biased media. One need only look to the impassioned howls of the Beat Generation for poignant articulation of this desperately disappointed sentiment.

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! – Ginsberg, Howl.

So where did it all begin?

Well, for starters, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley (founder of CBS) and David Sarnoff (father of NBC), headed into Washington DC to cut a deal with the US Congress in the 1940s. Congress granted the newborn networks free use of tax-payer owned airwaves in exchange for one public service: one hour of air-time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what would become the evening news. An oft-cited grievance today is that Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would perhaps have changed US national discourse for the better. They didn’t have the foresight to ban paid advertising from their golden hour, a slot that was never supposed to be about profits. Though such a condition would never have survived the subsequent decades of media deregulation, it would rather have set a precedent, the likes of which the BBC only really still retains, despite the fact they of course gain their funding through license fees and are quite literally the Charybdis around which everyone else gravitates.

CameraIt was Sarnoff who perhaps first recognised the potential for television, the combination of motion pictures with electronic transmission to disseminate information. He was put in charge of broadcasting at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1928 and soon teamed up with engineer Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin developed the first photomultiplier before demonstrating to the RCA a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver display tube in 1936. With these crucial camera components came the birth of electronic television.

Several short years later in April 1939 when the world was balancing on a knife-edge, regularly scheduled, electronic television in America was initiated by the RCA under the name of their broadcasting division at the time, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Later that month on April 30th, the opening day ceremonies at The World’s Fair were telecast in the medium’s first major production, featuring a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first US President ever to appear on television. These telecasts were only seen in NYC and the immediate vicinity, since NBC television had only one station at the time. The broadcast was seen by an estimated 1,000 viewers from roughly 200 televisions sets. Meanwhile, the London-based recording and publishing company Electric and Musical Industries developed a system based on Zworykin’s work and further Russian research which was put into action in Britain by the BBC.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it was also Sarnoff whose name soon became associated with a media ‘law’ of sorts. Put simply, this law states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers. I’ll tell you who would concur with that… Daffy Skeeter. But why should a network be driven solely by ratings and audience share, its initiative diluted by its own bureaucracy and reactionary nature?

I think there’s room to be a lot more quixotic than that.

News reporterTo hell with corporate concerns, competition, consequences, and general cowardice. It may be a crappy business model but it’s a fearsome journalistic one. A truly great newspaper or network is not just a conduit for information, it’s a factory of thought and analysis, a force to fly in the face of vitriol and voyeurism and above all, political duplicity.

The only place I’ve ever seen this idea articulated and expressed with full unfettered enthusiasm is in the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a newstopia possibly even more barbed in its message than The West Wing that came along a decade before it.

It’s outrageous, it’s arrogant, it’s stubborn, it’s smug, it’s moralising, it’s hopelessly quixotic, and it’s bloody brilliant.

And that’s my idea of news done well. Because we can all be Don Quixote, a fact I thoroughly believe in having lived through the Scottish independence referendum.

I became eligible to vote on the day of the vote itself and it was the most enlightening experience of my life so far. Suddenly everyone was talking about politics, from the supermarket aisles to the school playgrounds to the pubs, it was the most incendiary topic of conversation for over a year and was a subject that quite literally transcended demographics. In a matter of months everyone was informed about oil prices, education policy, EU membership, the budget deficit, trade flows, the energy industry… And the sheer level of political engagement was reflected in the voting turnout, which came in at an average of 84.6%, the highest ever recorded for an election in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, and indeed a figure which beats every US Presidential election in history.

Moral of the story: the dream of a well-informed electorate who care passionately about the issues of the day is more than possible, and that’s what the news should do, frame that debate.

May 6, 1970 CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE Working Day Layout.  Walter Cronkite at typewriter in his office. Copyright CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: Staggeringly Underrated, Utterly Timeless, and Ubiquitously Sublime

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I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me. I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

It’s not often you read a book that utterly bewitches you. Sure, you can love a book, you can love many of them, but it is a rare thing indeed to find one that feels like it was written for only you to read, one that serves almost as a mirror, growing to inhabit your very being. For me, that was The Secret History, published in 1992, debut novel of 29-year-old Mississippi-born Donna Tartt, who actually began writing it a decade earlier while studying at Bennington College in Vermont. And frankly, I cannot believe I lived over nineteen years without it.

secret_history_penguinThe story is written from the point of view of Richard Papen, a quietly eccentric and reserved boy from the fictitious town of Plano in California. Richard is an unusual narrator in that he exists not only as a means through which we can view the events unfolding in the story world but as a carefully crafted enigma in his own right for us to explore, wracked by a subconscious inferiority complex, bouts of loneliness and depression, and an obsession with beauty, that fierce, unchanging Platonic ‘Form’ shared by Nature’s harshest things (for khalepa ta kala, as Richard would say). Indeed, every character that Tartt weaves is so flawed, so brutally human, it is almost inconceivable that they are, in fact, not real, that, when reading, they are incapable of stepping right off the page into our “phenomenal” reality.

The narrative opens with a short prologue written from some point in Richard’s future where he eerily reminisces about an event buried in his past of such traumatic magnitude that it became the only story he will ever be able to tell. We learn what it is in the very first line, the death of ‘Bunny’, and halfway down the page it becomes clear that Richard played a role in his murder.

And so begins possibly the most captivating ‘whydunit’ of all time. I would even go as far as to say that it is one of the greatest books ever written.

Chapter 1 throws us back into Richard’s childhood in a remote corner of golden California:

Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup.

And we soon learn of the series of events that triggered his exodus to the wintry and picturesque heart of Vermont and the highly selective Hampden College isolated on the other side of America away from everything he had ever known:

Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.

Hampden is at the same time intimately relatable, for any reader who has ever been to university far from home, but also enchantingly ethereal. The whole place has this otherworldly quality, which is only intensified when Richard has his fateful meeting with the five Greek students.

He had been drawn to classical mythology throughout the barren wasteland of his childhood and discovered a proficiency for Greek later in life, so was keen to pursue it in college after so miraculously securing a place, probably being one of the poorest applicants Hampden had ever seen. But, when he approaches the fantastically eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, who in many ways becomes the ‘senex’ or ‘sophos’ of the novel (I mean, he essentially is Socrates fallen through time), relatively early on in the narrative, he is told joining this notoriously elite class is quite impossible, despite there being only five students enrolled.

These five students rapidly become Richard’s obsession, the enigmatic idols onto which all his fantasies are projected, representing for him the very epitome of grace, knowledge, and beauty.

Materialistic Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, the ‘epicene’ twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, graceful Francis Abernathy, and, the most bewitching of them all, Henry Marchbanks Winter.

They all speak Greek, they all exude a hostile superiority which paradoxically only makes them more intriguing, and they all harbour dark secrets embodied forever in the irresistible title of their story.

snow

Richard does finally manage to enroll in the class as a result of a fortuitous encounter in the library when he helps Bunny solve a tricky question around verb endings and essentially earns his place.

It was as if the characters in a favourite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me. Only the day before Francis, in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke, had brushed past me in a corridor. For a moment, as his arm touched mine, he was a creature of flesh and blood, but the next he was a hallucination again, a figment of the imagination stalking down the hallway as heedless of me as ghosts, in their shadowy rounds, are said to be heedless of the living.

This marks the beginning of what will become one of the most emotionally shattering tragedies since the great Athenian masters, from Sophocles to Euripides.

It all revolves around Henry’s infatuation with Dionysus, or ‘Bacchus’ in his more violent Roman form, god of fertility, harvest, wine, but more importantly, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Unbeknownst to Richard, the others are swept along by Henry’s consuming desire to achieve a state of perfect bakkheia, an orgy-like frenzy, the ultimate spiritual, out-of-body, utterly enlightening experience so prized by the ancients, a cult Livy described as secretive, subversive, and potentially revolutionary.

But it all goes horribly wrong and triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Bunny’s demise.

And so Tartt achieves the extraordinary feat of completely emotionally justifying the murder of our protagonist’s close friend. What’s more, long before the act is committed, we find ourselves agreeing with their homicidal intentions. And it’s not just murder. Tartt leads us through such a convoluted moral maze that, utterly entangled in its thorny thickets, we end up advocating the execution of a boy who has become in many ways our own friend. It is a triumph in the sheer brilliance of its ruthlessness.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading The Secret History is in the majesty of the prose itself. For a novel that hinges around two violent murders, it is bewitchingly philosophical.

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The incomparable Donna Tartt

It is quite literally brimming with esoteric quotes in Latin and Greek, and constantly pays loving homage to Homer and Plato as well as dozens of other literary giants across the ages. Tartt’s intellect is staggering, you’ll find her quoting Rimbaud within the first few lines of the book. But none of these references are forced, instead her love for Greek mythology and literature itself suffuses The Secret History like beating veins. As John Mullan wrote in his 2013 article for The Guardian, ‘You are leaving the sublunary world behind and entering a realm of literary and linguistic riches. Outside the novel’s pages people are watching TV and talking in cliches, but within them you are in the company of the best that has been said and thought.’ It is an intoxicating experience.

Richard is the classic lonely narrator, setting out from poor and depressing beginnings to completely recreate himself, quite literally conjuring a fictitous history to reinvent his past. He is insecure, reserved, but filled with dreams and fantasies that he projects onto Julian and his classmates in a narrative driven by a quiet passion, the kind that is more like lava-infused bedrock than wildfire.

His first impressions of the five ethereal Greek students and their shining, unattainable world, this select group of Hellenophiles, erudite to a fault, are devastatingly juxtaposed against the truth; their real, human forms, warped by vice, arrogance, deceit, violence, desire. It is a tragedy of epic and ingenious proportions.

Henry is at the heart of it all, he is Plato marooned in the 20th century, an enigma: eccentric, conceited, captivating. From his studies of Arabic alchemy to his fatal obsession with Bacchus, he suffuses the story with an indescribable sheen of insidious intrigue.

There’s a wonderful moment that always reminds me of him at the very beginning of Plato’s Symposium just before Apollodorus relates the shenanigans that went on at Agathon’s latest party to our narrator, possibly Plato himself. This fictitious symposium of speeches philosophising on the nature of love was so widely gossiped about in the rumour mill of 5th century BC Athens that it came to the narrator in question fourth-hand, a whole decade later. But it is Apollodorus’ off-hand remark just before he launches into his tale that resonates with me most.

Whenever I discuss philosophy or listen to others doing so, I enjoy it enormously, quite apart from thinking it’s doing me good. But when I hear other kinds of discussion, especially the talk of rich businessmen like you, I get bored and feel sorry for you and your friends, because you think you’re doing something important, when you’re not. Perhaps you regard me as a failure, and I think you’re right. But I don’t think you’re a failure, I know you are.

This could have been said by Henry Winter, in Greek of course, to just about anyone he ever came across in the world of The Secret History bar his five classmates and the venerable Julian Morrow. Indeed, Henry’s utter idolisation of Julian is much like Apollodorus’ veneration of Socrates in The Symposium.

Julian is the sage, the father, the pinnacle of all wisdom, built up by his students onto a pedestal towering above the mortal, phenomenal world, practically cloaked in magic and mystery. The climax of the novel, and this is a masterstroke by Tartt, is not in Bunny’s death, but in Julian’s discovery of the truth. And it is the moment in which the illusion of Julian himself is shattered to devastating effect. He is human. Richard reflects somewhat bitterly in the ‘present’ that though they worshipped, romanticised, and sentimentalised him, they were perhaps blinded by love, and his desire to impart knowledge was not altruistic but driven by a malevolent desire to warp young minds fearing inferiority into believing in their superiority.

And so the story reflects the very best Greek tragedies, with the fate of sorts established in the prologue leading to an escalation of fermenting issues. Ultimately, it is about the darkest shades of human nature, the Marquezian obsessions that destroy, consume, shatter. And throughout it all the love and veneration for Ancient Greece and Greek mythology and philosophy serves as the backbone of the novel.

Aesthetic beauty, Romanticism, sexual self-exploration, social stratification, Dionysian expression, the nature of art, inferiority complexes breeding delusions of superiority, the destructive power of desire, guilt and jealousy, the inhumanity of humanity… these are all themes in the novel upon which thousands of words could be written.

But perhaps above all of them is that greatest and most harrowing of truths: khalepa ta kala… beauty is harsh.

“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.

“And what is beauty?”

“Terror.”

“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”

I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we only have one. What is it?”

“To live,” said Camilla.

“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

The teakettle began to whistle.

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Bread and Circuses: Reinventing Populares in the Wilderness of Westminster Politics

Gaius_Gracchus_Tribune_of_the_People

Westminster is something of a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. Within its walls one can imagine a cesspool of vitriol and backstabbing ambition, a merciless land where leering faces are reflected in all directions. Perhaps one could not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy… Just turn on the PM’s Questions for two minutes and you’ll see them braying across the benches at each other like a bunch of boorish barbarians.

This, of course, raises the question of populares, the manipulative masters of deception deviously spinning their webs in the heart of SW1. Indeed, we need look no further than the Autumn Statement to see populism in action, power-hungry panic triggering George Osborne’s high-profile U-turn on tax credit cuts. The policy would have cost low-income families an average of £1000 a year, but Osborne scrapped the plan altogether despite such a move forcing him to breach his self-imposed welfare cap, citing an unexpected £27 billion fiscal windfall.

Was this a popularis moment, a blatant case of bread and circus tactics responding to an almost poll-tax-worthy level of discontent among the public and a whiff of rebellion in the Lords, or was he genuinely moved to reevaluate his position, realising he made a mistake and wanting to do… well, good?

The use of popularis as a descriptor for a set of policies or the character of the politician behind them has never been a good thing. First invoked in the dying decades of the Roman Republic to describe those leaders who “favoured the people”, it was even then a reference to blatant moral corruption, to those wealthy male snobs who slithered their way through the labyrinths of senatorial bureaucracy. Their webs of power were masterfully spun throughout the people’s assemblies until they had won the support of thousands, who were of course simply fat, juicy flies tangled in the silk. The most notorious of these political masterminds was undoubtedly Julius Caesar, but the best example of the populism that has so figured in the political disillusionment of 21st century Britain, is that of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus.

Immortalised in the corridors of history for implementing a potentially progressive amendment to the policy of Cura Annonae in 123BC, his intentions were suspect indeed. Gracchus was one of the ten ‘Tribunes of the Plebs’, tasked with checking the power of the senate and magistrates by proposing and vetoing legislation and generally advocating and safeguarding the wishes of the ‘commoners’. Cura Annonae, which involved the care of the grain supply, had been around in one form or another since 509BC, and was at some point personified as the rather artificial goddess Annona, with the grain dole itself being distributed from the Temple of Ceres. Gracchus’ policy involved a portion of the state-collected grain being sold at a subsidised rate to the plebeians.

Always a contentious political issue, for Gracchus the grain dole presented a perfect opportunity to advance his career, shamelessly appealing to the lower classes in a perfectly packaged parcel of manipulation. This, along with the provision of gladiatorial games, particularly following the rise of the Augustan empire, led to the proliferation of the maxim “bread and circuses”.

Populism for power began with the Romans and grew like a weed in every political regime that followed them over the millennia. It is the mark of not quite a broken system, but certainly one built on rotten foundations. When moral centres are substituted for power-hungry ones, disillusionment inevitably follows.

But perhaps we can reinvent the whole concept of populares in the political sphere. Is there room for a progressive interpretation?

Consider Publius Clodius Pulcher. A senator born sixty-three years after Gracchus, he is remembered for his actions in 58BC during his own bid for the tribunate. Amending Cura Annonae even further, he implemented a free grain supply to the poor in the world’s first large-scale benefits system. Though the expense to the state was extensive and Julius Caesar considered abolishing it, the policy survived into the Empire, even though Augustus reduced the number of recipients. Pulcher may have been embroiled in sexual scandals and political feuds aplenty but perhaps his policies were genuinely progressive for the right reasons. He has, after all, been described as “one of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history”.

Surely that’s what it’s all about?

Politics should by definition be reactionary. But it is only regressive and disillusioning when politicians lack integrity and resolve. The rub lies in those driven solely by their desire for popularity and power. As ever, the key lies in perception. Perhaps we can sever this link between populares, and bread and circuses.

What, then, is its true meaning? Perhaps a true popularis is one motivated above all by compassion and the all-consuming will to do good. In the political wilderness of the 21st century that seems like such a hopelessly quixotic concept, which is, unfortunately, a rather bien pensant opinion, as they say. After the Iraq War, the expenses scandals, and austerity, disillusionment with the ‘establishment’, the Westminster ‘paradigm’, is at a depressing high. But if we try to not just see through but past our so subjectively tainted lenses for just three seconds, a rather different image emerges.

Both George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn could indeed share this illusive quality. Of course it’s rather radical and polarising to start claiming similarities between two so politically opposed figures, but both have made impassioned speeches about their desire to truly make a difference, to prioritise the impoverished and vulnerable above all.

Is it too quixotic to believe them?

Cicero once said, non nobis solum nati sumus. Not for ourselves alone are we born. Perhaps that’s what populares should mean.

George and Jeremy

Je Suis Parisienne: Today, we all are, but barring refugees and waging impossible wars is not the answer

Outside the French consulate in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Graham Hughes/AP

Outside the French consulate in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Graham Hughes/AP

“Solidarity is an attitude of resistance, I suppose, or it should be,” Christopher Hitchens once said. Illuminating buildings, posting statements of sympathy and defiance, lighting candles… it can all seem so vastly inadequate in the face of such a brutal massacre that, on a peaceful November Parisian evening, left at least 127 innocent people dead and scores more injured.

But there is perhaps no greater form of resistance than showing friends, family, strangers on the other side of the planet, that we stand with the victims and their loved ones. It is often these understated acts of solidarity and defiance that are the most fiercely powerful in fighting back, not for the sake of vengeance, but for that of resistance.

In a statement earlier today, Angela Merkel told Germany, “those who we mourn were murdered in front of cafes, in restaurants, in a concert hall or on the open street. They wanted to live the life of free people in a city that celebrates life, and they met with murderers who hate this life of freedom… This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris. We are all targets, and it affects all of us… We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror. Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”

But rhetoric like Francois Hollande’s, labelling the attacks as an “act of war“, only adds fuel to a pyre of hatred and intolerance on the brink of raging into a wildfire that will consume the world. Bush’s “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks saw the panicked launch of an international campaign to destroy al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations that has resulted in no less than catastrophic failure and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, possibly contributing to the rise of ISIL itself. It has lacked a coherent objective from the very beginning and more often than not allowed participating governments to not only repress civil liberties but get away with shocking human rights infringements.

And now we’re back to where we started, with a brutal terrorist attack igniting calls for military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The whole situation could not be more precarious. With Putin pledging support to France in their quest for retribution, while remaining a close ally of Bashar al-Assad, and the US doing the same, while still carrying out deadly drone strikes on Syrian territory, it is quite possible to lose all sense of morality in the alarming propensity to act without thought for the nuances of such a situation, not to mention the long term consequences. Violence is never the answer when diplomacy can do so much more. And how can we possibly justify sending hundreds of troops into a distant country when we so lack an understanding of their cultural and historical contexts? Yes, we can sanctimoniously wave the banner of human rights but when we breach human rights in the attempt to safeguard them, what then?

With ISIL claiming responsibility for yesterday’s attacks in Paris, citing French bombing of Syria as the justification, and the recent reports that one of the Bataclan concert hall attackers was a Frenchman, the reality of the tragedy is irrefutable.

Further military intervention would be catastrophic.

It remains a fundamental fact that a nation or union of nations physically cannot wage war on a terrorist organisation. These extremist groups have no borders, they do not exist on a map. They operate in the shadows, and most terrifyingly of all, in our homes. The vast majority of these attacks are carried out by radicalised citizens of the very country they are attacking.

This makes the calls to ban refugees all the more outrageous. US Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson led the way in this stupidity yesterday evening when he demanded that the US should block all Middle Eastern refugees and asylum seekers, “If we’re going to be bringing 200,000 people over here from that region — if I were one of the leaders of the global jihadist movement and I didn’t infiltrate that group of people with my people, that would be almost malpractice.” Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee have also tweeted their willingness to support France in the “war on terror“.

The hundreds of thousands of young families fleeing the carnage in their homes, risking their lives at the remotest chance of finding a better one, are running from the very same terrorists setting off bombs in Paris and Beirut. The sheer inhumanity of politicians like Carson is disgusting.

In the aftermath of these heinous attacks one can only hope that leaders around the world focus on improving security procedures at home and tackling these online radicalisation programmes, not on waging impossible wars.

Paris 6

The landmark CN Tower is lit blue, white and red in the colors of the French flag following Paris attacks, in Toronto November 13, 2015. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday it was too soon to say whether the deadly attacks in Paris would prompt him to reconsider his pledge to withdraw Canada from airstrikes against Islamic State militants in the Middle East. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Martin Ollman/Getty Images

Martin Ollman/Getty Images

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Treasures of the British Library: Falling in Love with the Ritblat Gallery

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“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something,” said a ponderous Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit. Walking into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the magnificent British Library in the heart of London evokes just this feeling. You may not know what you’re looking for, or that you’re even looking for anything at all, but you will undoubtedly find something in there, something that will stay with you forever.

The icy lighting of the main hall gives way to darkness as you enter the treasures gallery itself. With the golden spotlights illuminating the faded leather covers and ancient yellowed paper sleeping behind the glass and the reverent whispers from their onlookers, the low-ceilinged gallery manages to evoke both the atmosphere of a church or a Buddhist shrine and a library at the same time.

Stretching along the southern wall rest a thousand years’ worth of musical manuscripts from Bach to Beethoven, including ninety-seven handwritten volumes of Handel’s operas. But one of the most intriguing books is seven centuries older. It is one of the first records of musical notation, a slim volume from 1050, lovingly created by Spanish monks from the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. The minuscule black notes are dotted between lines of curling Latin, the pages yellowed and stiff, with notes spilling into the margins like tributaries dancing away from a slow, wide river. A curious red, green and gold painting of four pheasant-like birds looks up from the centre of the right-hand page, decorating the music that was once used for the feast of St John the Baptist.

British Library 1Several feet from this treasure lies another curiosity, the Sumer Is Icumen In book from 1260 found in Reading Abbey, the most famous piece of secular medieval music in existence and known only from this copy. Tight, jagged black and red writing stains the ancient vellum, with flashes of blue or red at the beginning of each phrase, interspersed by lines of tiny, short-stemmed notes. The words are written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English and the rota itself happens to be the oldest known composition featuring six-part polyphony, in which there are six simultaneous lines of independent melody.

But that’s not all. Mounted on the wall to the left of these fragments of history is a panel of famous recordings and a set of headphones, so one has even more of an excuse to simply stand there and stare through the glass, enraptured. From Chopin’s Barcarolle and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to a soaring rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod from 1926, it would be hard to experience a moment of more intense serenity.

And stretching out from this spot right up to the literature section are over a dozen original manuscripts from Purcell, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck and Chopin, to Elgar, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, Bennett and Panufnik. Puccini’s handwriting is undoubtedly the messiest, an almost unintelligible scribble of pencil somehow managing to depict the final scene of his 1903 Madama Butterfly opera, when the distraught and heartbroken Butterfly kills herself in a fit of despair after losing her child. But there is something so inexpressibly moving about looking with your own eyes on the original impassioned scrawls of the world’s greatest virtuosos, knowing that they held these pieces of paper in their hands, guided the ink across these very pages in their moments of deepest and darkest pain, joy and rage. The ocean of notes crash behind the glass, almost beckoning, eternal echoes of those most passionate of souls.

And this is just the beginning. The rest of the gallery is perhaps even more inspiring.

British Library 2The feeling of sheer awe when you look upon the Nowell Codex for the first time cannot be overstated. Dating all the way back to the 11th century during the reign of King Aethelred the Unready, the original Beowulf manuscript is truly a sight to behold. The slim, grey pages, stuck inside a larger yellowed-page book, are faded in places, the brown ink almost invisible at the edges, damaged in the infamous fire of 1731 that destroyed more than a quarter of the Cotton Library collection. One dreads to think of what would have happened if the flames had consumed it, given Beowulf wasn’t transcribed until 1786, nor translated until 1805. The world would have lost forever the epic story of monsters and mortality that would become one of the foundation stones of western literature.

Right next to the Nowell Codex sits the scribbled first drafts of the most famous translation of the Old English poem, by Seamus Heaney, or Heaneywulf as he was called by many of his contemporaries. The fascinating thing about these notes is that you can see with your own eyes what he changed on the first page of the poem between his first and sixth drafts…

Take the first line. In the first draft it reads, “So. The spear Danes held sway once. / The kings of the clan are fabulous now / because of their bravery.” Whereas the sixth draft reads, “So: the Spear Danes held sway once. / The kings of that nation are known to us still / because of their daring: what they did was heroic.” Even the adjustment of a full stop to a colon over the course of so many drafts conveys just how much thought Heaney put into his translation, all in the tireless effort to do both the story and the language justice, in many ways an impossible task.

Along this same wall a whole host of original manuscripts can be found, including the 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s scribbled, looping translations of Petrarch’s original Italian sonnets, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, the first page of Shelley’s politically ingenious 1819 poem The Mask of Anarchy, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (complete with a wonderfully illuminating revision, a self-deprecating paragraph boldly crossed out in eight arrow-like scores), as well as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates, WH Auden’s 1939 journal, and even a letter from TS Eliot to a friend glumly reporting his dissatisfaction with London life, his longing for “sea and mountains which give some sense of security” and his struggles with a new poem… a poem that would in just a few short months become The Waste Land.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is now a whole new section dedicated to three thousand years of Chinese writing, displaying everything from “dragon bones” dating back to 1600BC found in the ruins of Yin, the sight of the last capital of the Shang dynasty, to strips of wood, bamboo, silk and eventually paper all covered in Chinese characters.

This is followed by a selection of ancient maps from Bedfordshire to Tokyo, overshadowed by an enormous globe from 1693 Paris, a baroque vision of the heavens by Vincenzo Coronello, part of a family of globes specially constructed for Louis XIV, showing the mighty figures of the ancient constellations including Hercules, Delphinus, Pisces and Habena, a beautiful and sprawling amalgamation of wings, swords, manes and tridents…

Just around the corner sits a breathtaking display demonstrating the evolution of bookbinding, with examples of the finest books ever bound, a glittering case of gold, diamonds, rubies, silver thread, green goatskin, purple foil and white vellum, all positively shining in their elegant spirals, squares and swirls. The jewel of this collection is a vast Persian tome that sparkles behind the glass like a star fallen from the sky.

British Library 3Next come the substantial range of volumes contained within the sacred texts and art of the book sections, the former of which features major works from every religion in human history, and the latter of which boasts artwork from medieval Indian paintings, English and Italian art and the earliest intact European book (the St Cuthbert Gospel, a tiny and unassuming handwritten copy of the gospel of John found in Cuthbert’s coffin in 1104, with a curious Celtic design of four spades emblazoned on its wine-red cover), to the Lindisfarne gospels and the Catholicon Anglicum, one of the only remaining comprehensive Middle English-Latin dictionaries from 1483.

The art of the book display spills onto the historical documents section, which includes a 10th century glossary of rare Latin words from Worcester, a letter from one of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ recruited by the Soviet Union, a suffragette’s scrapbook, letters from Churchill regarding the Monuments Men, a letter from Karl Marx, the original Crimean reports from Florence Nightingale in 1854, the last letter from Horatio Nelson which he never finished, written from the deck of HMS Victory on the day of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a beautifully printed and preserved copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, with gold inlaid over the huge cover boards and the histories arranged chronologically from King John to Henry VIII. This also includes one of the earliest surviving copies of Henry IV, collected by Nicholas Rowe in 1709 in an effort to preserve the works of the world’s greatest playwright, given some of the original manuscripts had already been lost. Rowe also divided the plays into acts and scenes, and added character lists and illustrations. Opposite this enticing display dedicated solely to Shakespeare lies the Codex Arundel, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, showing his eclectic array of passions from mechanics to bird flight and written in Italian in his famous ‘mirror writing’.

But my favourite item on display in the Ritblat Gallery, aside perhaps from the First Folio, is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s writing desk. This unassuming wedge-shaped block of dark red wood and black leather, lying just along from the Nowell Codex and given to her by her father in 1794, is complete with compartments for ink, pens, paper, stamps and sealing wax. A two hundred year old pair of writing spectacles sleep in the top left corner, and the whole bottom half of the desk is hinged so Austen could hurriedly sweep the pages she was working on into its dark and secret interior. Indeed, the two pages of the original Persuasion mounted just above the desk, covered in her tight, slanted writing, are on cream notepaper cut down from their full foolscap size so she could easily hide them when interrupted mid-composition.

With the political Machiavellianism currently rife in the British party conference season, the turmoil still rampaging through Europe with the shocking treatment of refugees and the horrors raging in the homes they are fleeing from, yet another mass shooting across the pond and discontent stirring over Putin’s interference and intentions in Syria, we could all do with stopping just for an hour or two for a few stolen moments of true contemplation. And where better to do it than amidst one of the world’s greatest collections of literary treasures, the air heavy with the weight of three millennia of storytelling, myth, legend and history?

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something…