Bleak House: Musing on the Classes

July 23, 2014

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Chapter XXVIII, The Ironmaster, of Bleak House finds us in the company of Sir Leicester Dedlock, the gouty and unrepentantly reactionary worthy who forms one party to the interminable Chancery suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.  His character, and that of his wife, Lady Dedlock, are examples of Dicken’s unsurpassed talent for skewering social pretension, and perhaps are indicative of his feelings about British class society.  I wonder how this chapter was received by the public, popular as the book was.  Did the power-elite grumble about it as another case of some uppity middle-class gnat taking unfair potshots at one of their members?  Was it seen as inconsequential as todays sitcoms making fun of “rich people” sometimes are?

Sir Leicester learns that a tradesman, dealer in iron, wishes to speak to him about his son’s desire to become engaged to one of the household servants.  It seems that the man’s son also is standing for a seat in the House of Commons.  He and his poor relation, Volumnia, contemplate the degradation of society:

“And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions,” says Sir Leicester with stately gloom; “that I have been informed, by Mr Tulkinghorn, that Mrs Rouncewell’s son has been invited to go into Parliament.”

Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.

“Yes, indeed,” repeats Sir Leicester. “Into Parliament.”

“I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?” exclaims Volumnia.

“He is called, I believe — an — Ironmaster.” Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.

Volumnia utters another little scream.

That’s all in good fun, but this next bit is shaper.  Sir Leicester is beset by all sorts of family parasites – even the richest of the rich have poor relations – and they must be provided for, but it is getting harder to do it.  The old landed aristocracy making way for the crass commercial elite, and upper-class entitlement is running into some roadblocks:

In any country in a wholesome state, Volumnia would be a clear case for the pension list. Efforts have been made to get her on it; and when William Buffy came in, it was fully expected that her name would be put down for a couple of hundred a-year. But William Buffy somehow discovered, contrary to all expectation, that these were not the times when it could be done; and this was the first clear indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.

There is likewise the Honourable Bob Stables, who can make warm mashes with the skill of a veterinary surgeon, and is a better shot than most gamekeepers. He has been for some time particularly desirous to serve his country in a post of good emoluments, unaccompanied by any trouble or responsibility. In a well regulated body politic, this natural desire on the part of a spirited young gentleman so highly connected, would be speedily recognized; but somehow William Buffy found when he came in, that these were not times in which he could manage that little matter, either; and this was the second indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.

When Sir Leicester does meet with the Ironmaster, we see that he is a brisk man of business, with no nonsense or pretension, who is careful to give the lords what they consider their due respect, although he certainly is clipped about it.  Sir Leicester, for his part, can’t get over the fact that he must actually speak with this man who does not make it obvious at every moment that he considers himself a miserable inferior to his gracious lord of the manor.


The 97% Solution

July 18, 2014

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I often read that 97% of climate scientists agree with “the consensus” on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), so I decided to finally buckle down and read the article that has given the latest currency to this claim.  You can read it too, right here.  The heart of it is contained in Table No.3:

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You can see the 97.1% figure there, right in the first row.  Done deal!  But what does this really mean?  Read for yourself, but here’s a summary:

  • About 12,000 abstracts of papers on “climate” were culled from the Web, and distributed without names to twelve “citizen-science” researchers for rating.
  • About 9,000 expressed no position on AGW.
  • Of those that expressed a position, 97% “endorsed” the “consensus” view.  What does that mean?  Actually, the “endorsed” label was applied to any of three expressed positions to make the analysis simpler.  To receive that rating, the abstract had to take one of the following positions:
    • Explicitly state that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming
    • Explicitly state humans are causing global warming, or refer to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a known fact
    • Imply humans are causing global warming. e.g., the research assumes greenhouse gas emissions cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause

Pretty broad array of opinion there all rolled up into that 97%, which is actually only 97% of the 1/3 that expressed a position.  Could it be that those that did not express a position, 63%, just think it’s a trivial affair, not worth discussing?    And of those that did express “affirmation,” it seems that just mentioning that CO2 does cause the earth to warm – no mention of how much, or over what period, or whether or not it is worrisome – puts you down with the “consensus” position.

So, we can state pretty definitively that those writers of published scientific papers who chose to express a view of AGW, do overwhelmingly agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activity – not just burning fossil fuels – is contributing to changes in the climate.  That’s a pretty safe set of propositions, but then, it is the nature of consensus to state the non-controversial.

NB:  There is absolutely no mention of the real crux of the controversy, i.e., what to make of the projections for the next fifty and one hundred years that are contained in the IPCC Assessment Reports and other publications.


Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

Farley Granger, Alida Valli senso-1954-06-g

Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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In Academe’s Groves

July 1, 2014

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The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, from a long entry about his days as a university student in Barcelona:

22 March - High Culture

…Syllogisms poured forth.  One pupil piped up confidently:  “Trees breathe through their leaves.”

Sr. Daurella replied gruffly, in his baritone bass pitch:  “The pear tree is a tree.”

And the pupil completed the round enthusiastically:  “Therefore the pear tree breathes through its leaves.”

We were all so pleased as punch we would readily have gone on for another hour or so.  It literally was a land of make-believe.

…How can you refute something you don’t understand or grasp?  It made no difference.  Every year the same episode was rehearsed, an episode I experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and if one ever describes it to anyone not deformed by our official seats of learning, they burst their sides in laughter because it reveals such stupidity – it is the legendary anecdote about Professor Arana.

“Sr. So-and-so,” said the professor in his mellifluous Spanish.  “Today we are doing Kant’s theory (or Rousseau’s).  Tell me about Kant’s theory.  What do you know about Kant’s theory?”

The student stood up, opened the syllabus, shifted his body slightly so his ear was better positioned to hear his prompter on the next-door bench, wet his lips, scratched the nape of his neck, and came out with drivel.  The prompter that day, for whatever reason, was a dreadful prompter.  He was a failure as a prompter.  A tense silence reigned in the lecture theatre.  In the meantime, Sr. Arana glanced at his student register through the gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose.  Finally, the wet fish of a student – to describe him accurately-confessed.

“I didn’t find time to study,” he said, looking distressed, oppressed, and completely at a loss.

“So, Sr. So-and-so,” the professor replied, not at all sourly, smoothing his moustache, as if he were commenting on the weather, “you don’t know Kant’s theory.  But I expect you know how to refute it.  Now, be so good as to refute Kant’s theory.”

As the prompters were a waste of time, sometimes a holy spirit arose from the most unlikely corner of the lecture theater to help the person questioned to survive.  The student heard various noises behind him, (what was known as “rhubarb-rhubarb”) and began to stammer.  Sr. Arana immediately struck the pose of a man who is completely entranced.  He wiped his chin as if he were stroking a goat’s nipple.  The rhubarb-rhubarb made sense and the student bore up.  The professor listened with growing admiration.  The amazing scene always ended with a professorial comment.

“You didn’t know the theory but you did manage to refute it.  That is quite an achievement.”

I don’t think high culture has ever scaled such heights as those exemplified by these absolutely authentic scenes.


Men of Green

June 24, 2014

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Mssrs. Rubin, Bloomberg, and Paulson have sponsored a new report on the economic impact of climate change:  These are all guys you can trust, right? Hmm… well, being green doesn’t mean just thinking about money, does it?

Actually, I have to hand it to them – they’re going to make lots of money no matter what happens, so I don’t believe that they have some nefarious financial scheme up their sleeves:  they really believe it!  Well, good for you, boys!

Rubin was heard pontificating about how climate change poses an “existential threat” to…us?  civilization?  the USA?  The nuclear standoff during The Cold War, now that was an existential threat!  Poverty, lack of sanitation, malaria, AIDS, those are existential threats to people in a lot of the world.  I’m not so convinced about climate change.

Paulson is certain that we are at a tipping point for the planet, something that has been heard repeatedly from different quarters for the last fifty years.   And then, there’s the money:  valuable assets may go south once the warming starts and people realize they don’t want to burn coal anymore, or so he thinks.  Seems also that millions of beachfront lots will be flooded and eventually destroyed.  Isn’t that going on now?  And farming will be disrupted, something that has happened before.  Anybody recall The Dustbowl?  We recovered.

Justin Gillis is the writer of the Times’ article, and this bit of his is so over the top, I’m wondering where his editor was:

Heat and humidity will probably grow so intense that spending time outside will become physically dangerous, throwing industries like construction and tourism into turmoil.

I don’t get that…if the climate of, say, NY, is going to shift south, i.e., become more like that of Georgia, are we to believe that the American South is currently a place where it is physically dangerous to go outside?  Even if you’re white?  C’mon, I mean Jim Crow is over, so even black people sit outside.

I could go on…


Fear – A Novel of WWI

June 10, 2014

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There are many fine novels and memoirs about the unspeakable human butchery known as World War I, and Fear (1925) by Gabriel Chevallier, stands very high among them in my view, although it is not as well known as others.  One reason might be that it was suppressed by the French government for many years, and, naturally, in the Anglophone world, the English writers are better known.  And unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, nobody made a great film out of it.

Each of these books has a distinctive tone:  All Quiet is epic in its seriousness and anti-war message; Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929) is mournful and bitter, a wrenching confession of betrayal and loss is how I recall it; Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (1920) is powerful, and unusual because the author thrived on the horrible challenges of trench warfare, but all are steadfastly unsentimental and unromantic:  they are at pains to rip the gauzy cloak of patriotic jabber off the horrific body that was warfare on the front.   Paul Fussell’s profound study of the presence of WWI in English literature, The Great War and Modern Memory, contains so much material from primary sources, it reads like a powerful memoir steeped in dramatic irony.  The very distinctive contribution of Fear to all of this is its tone of cutting sarcasm and irony that shrinks back from descending into ranting, and its emphasis on the primary emotion of a trench solider – fear.

The author was French, and much of what he describes is characteristic of the French war effort.  Englishmen rave against the stupidity of the generals, but they also talk a lot about the flower of the elite classes sharing the trials of the men, and dying with them.  The French officer class was notorious for its pig-headed stupidity, and complete unconcern for the welfare of the troops, and it was only the French army that experienced widespread mutinies during the war.

The novel is largely autobiographical – how could it not be?  You had to live through the hell to write about it.  The young man who narrates it joins up at the beginning of the war, out of curiosity mostly, completely unaware, as was everyone else, of what he’s in for.  He is educated, and is granted minor privileges now and then when he’s not on the front line by virtue of his class standing, but for the most part, his lot is that of every other poor soul trapped, waiting to die in the trenches.   Here are some excerpts:

He is wounded, hospitalized, recovers, and given some leave to go visit his family.  The gulf between the civilian patriots and the men who fight for the cause is unbridgeable:

‘Let me introduce my boy who has just come out of hospital after being wounded.’ [my father] says, shaking hands.

These important men interrupt their games of cards to greet me warmly.

‘Excellent! Bravo, young man!’

‘Congratulations on your bravery!’

‘I say, Dartemont, what a fine chap!’

Then they go quiet, not knowing what further encouragement to offer me.  The war is out of fashion, people are getting used to it.  Military men on leave are everywhere, giving the impression that nothing bad ever happens to them.  And I am just an ordinary soldier, and my fathers’s business is hardly flouring.  These gentlemen have been generous to take such an interest in me.  …

‘You have some fun out there then, eh?

I stare in shock at this bloodless old fool.  But I answer quickly and pleasantly:

‘Oh, gosh yes.  I should say so sir…’

He beams happily.  I have the feeling he is about to exclaim: ‘Oh-ho, those good old poilus!’ [doughboy, literally, "hairy one."]

Then I add:

‘…We really enjoy ourselves:  every evening we bury our pals!’

His smile goes into reverse and the complement freezes on his lips,  He grabs at his glass and sticks his nose in it.  In shock he swallows his beer too fast and it heads straight for his lungs.  This is followed by a gurgling noise and then a little jet of spume that he spouts into the air and which descends on to his stomach, in a cascade of frothy bubbles.

‘Something go down the wrong way?’ I inquire mercilessly.

The Germans, referred to as The Boche, mount an attack, for which the author’s units are well prepared:

‘We had six machine guns in action right off.  Can’t do anything against machine guns!…I never seen so many going down as I did then!’

‘Not as many as I have,’ says the machine gunner sergeant who is listening to us.  ‘When we were fighting in open country, I was with the Zouaves.  There was one time when there were three of us gunners dug in behind tree trunks on the edge of a forest on a little rise.  we opened fire on battalions that were coming out at four hundred meters, and we didn’t stop firing.  A surprise attack.  It was frightful.  The terrified Boche couldn’t get out of the way of our bullets.  Bodies piled up in heaps.  Our gun cress were shaking with horror and wanted to run.  Killing made us afraid!…

There is much more graphic description of the carnage of the front, and it is difficult to read, even when the author polishes off the description with a bit of rapier wit.  And then, there is is scathing contempt for the officer class, the directors of the war:

The officers of the colonel’s entourage…are carefully shaved, powdered and scented:  these are men who have time devote to their toilet…

Finally the colonel shows up.  He’s tall and slim, with a long Gallic mustache, dressed in khaki, cap pulled down over one ear, chest pushed out – very much the musketeer. . . He pulls himself to his full height when he sees a solider, fixes his magnetic gaze upon him, and salutes him with a fulsome gesture which might signify, ‘All honor to you, bravest of the brave!’ or ‘Always follow my plume! [an allusion to a famous statement of Henry IV].  Unfortunately, at the moment of a skirmish, that plume will stay put rather far in the rear…I am only going by appearances, and I do not know the true worth of the colonel, apart from his theatrical salute.  But I never trust people who give themselves airs.

His audience over, the captain rejoins us.  We leave Versailles…

The historical allusions to Henry, the satirical reference to Versailles – we are in the presence of an educated, intelligent, and deeply comic narrator.  His willingness to tentatively suspend judgment, despite having seen scores of men sent to their deaths on pointless missions ordered by men who look like the colonel, is part of his engaging nature.

At one point, knowing the war is grinding down, he delivers, to himself, an impassioned denunciation of everything associated with the entire sick enterprise:

‘I’ve had enough of this!  I’m twenty-three years old, I’m already twenty-three.  Back in 1914 I embarked on a future that I wanted to be full and rick, and in fact I’ve got nothing at all.  I am spending my best years here, wasting my youth on mindless talks, in stupid subservience……My patrimony is my life. I have nothing more precious to defend.  My homeland is whatever I manage to earn or to create.  Once I am dead, I don’t give a damn how the living divide up the world, about the frontiers they draw in their maps, about their alliances, and their enmities.  I demand to live in peace, far away from barracks, battlefields, and military minds and machinery in any shape or form.  I do not care where i live, but demand to live in peace to slowly become what I must become.  …Killing has no place in my ideals.  And if I must die, I intend  to die freely, for an idea that I cherish, in a conflict where I will have my share of responsibility…’

‘Daretemont!’

‘Sir?’

‘Go and check where the 11th have positioned their machine guns.  On the double.’

‘Very good, sir!’

The photo at the top is from a collection of color photographs, yes color!, taken by the French during WWI, and you can find more here.  My guess is that they tidied things up a bit before shooting the pics.


Force

June 5, 2014

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It’s a little thing for a newspaper, but it did take two thousand years for physicists to figure it out, that is, that forces act only in straight lines.

The diagram is from an article on GM’s failure to recall cars with a dangerous defect, responsible for at least 13 deaths, that unexpectedly turned the ignition off.

I suppose the weight of the key ring, shown as a vertical force vector, causes the key to rotate in the lock, but the motion is rotational, not the force.


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