“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, November 18, 2004

To a philosophical student of politics, however, Irish history possesses an interest of the highest order. It is an invaluable study of morbid anatomy. – William Lecky

(LI wishes that Lecky’s prejudice against the Irish hadn’t produced such a beautiful phrase, since we’d like to use it about the U.S.A. We can only, weakly, substitute the name of one nation for the other.)

The political posts on this site are conceived to fit, ideally, into one of two modes: the polemical or the analytic. Therein lies a problem, both for LI, and, in general, for those who attempt to see the political things themselves (to the company of which LI flatters ourselves we aspire, and even sometimes succeed in joining). In the analytic mode, Bush is simply Bush, a president. His mental capacity is a variable that can be filled in by a man with a much greater mental capacity – that is, Bush’s ideas can be defended or proffered by much smarter men than Bush. In one sense, Bush shows a high mental capacity, insofar as he adheres, for the most part, to a consistent vision. We can say this even though the actual policies of the Bush administration have, on the micro level, a definite helter skelter look.

In the polemic mode, Bush becomes variously grotesque. His character is described with malice towards all of it; his friends and associates become cronies and gangmembers; his exploitation of Iraq, which is out of the norm, vis a vis relations between the U.S. and various third world countries, only by way of its outsized and monstrous proportions and horrendous management, becomes looting. And so on.

If analysis strives to mirror reality, polemic strives to animate it. There is no animal temperature under the tain until insult and praise, invidious description, the angle of incidence of the writer’s intentions, makes one.

It has struck us that our problem, in short, with handling Bush is the same problem Tennyson had with writing Maud.

We’ve been reading Maud – long, sporadically gorgeous, sometimes incoherent, sometimes music box-y Maud. Tennyson is known for having a certain genius for prosody – somewhere we read that he was the most technically brilliant poet, in that way, since Spenser. But Maud is an odd work, in that it tries all forms, and finds that some of them are definitely sounding brass. The work proceeds in obscure but brilliant bursts of commentary, and you definitely need the footnote to tell you that, for instance, at a certain crucial point the narrator has entered the loony bin. But we who have read the modernists have patience for this kind of thing. In fact, the joy of difficulty is our particular joy. Still, it is somewhat difficult to pinpoint just how we know that the narrator’s father was (probably) murdered, or at least driven to self annihilation, by Maud’s commercially successful father. We know, from a scene that distinguishes itself from the prophetic venting by being rather down to earth in the details, that the narrator shoots Maud’s brother dead in a duel. And somewhere in the thing Maud dies too.

Well, we are treating the poem with too little respect. But you get the idea. Tennyson apparently wanted the hodgepodge effect to convey the different stages of the narrator’s passions. Each dominate passion would be as another personage. This was, of course, in the days long before our fashionable therapeutic diagnosticians made money out of finding multiple personalities behind every suburban act of irresponsibility.

We are trying to do something a bit Maud-like with this blog, then.

Maud is interesting, too, because the mad narrator’s cure is on a nationwide basis: war. Tennyson, like Ruskin, thought that the besetting vice of Victorian commercialism was its ignobility. Nobility, the Victorian counter-liberals thought, could only be earned through a certain sacred violence. The Neo-cons, who have mixed up their history, have a vague sense that this was happening in Victorian times. Instead of nobility, they have it in their heads that the American commercial elite that fund their think tanks are the end of history, and we must crusading go to spread the news.

Maud, in Tennyson’s poems, both enchants and repulses the narrator. There is something in Tennyson that revolted at the iron rules of decorum that created, out of the great regency hostesses, an ideal of simpering idiocy as the proper behavior of a gentlewoman. Maud, when she is casting conventional smiles on all and sundry and dropping her glance demurely to the ground, is an enraging woman:

“All that I saw -- for her eyes were downcast, not to be seen --
Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,
Dead perfection, no more; nothing more, if it had not been
For a chance of travel, a paleness, an hour's defect of the rose,
Or an underlip, you may call it a little too ripe, too full,
Or the least little delicate aquiline curve in a sensitive nose,
From which I escaped heart-free, with the least little
touch of spleen.”

This is a surprisingly Dostoevskian touch – one thinks of Nastasja Fillipovna in The Idiot. Like Nastasja F., Maud has another, wilder side. She likes to sing to the narrator songs of war.

As it happens, the poem was written, as Andrew Lang says, within earshot of British warships training to make the voyage to Sebastopol. The poem is a tissue of allusions to the war, including one clear hit at the Manchester school:

“When I thought that a war would arise in defence of the right,
That an iron tyranny now should bend or cease,
The glory of manhood stand on his ancient height,
Nor Britain's one sole God be the millionaire.
No more shall commerce be all in all, and Peace
Pipe on her pastoral hillock a languid note,
And watch her harvest ripen, her herd increase,
Nor the cannon-bullet rust on a slothful shore,
And the cobweb woven across the cannon's throat
Shall shake its threaded tears in the wind no more.”

Crimea was, in many ways, the Iraq invasion of its time. The cobweb woven across the cannon’s mouth was the devout hope of the free traders, who were represented in Parliament by Richard Cobden. Cobden opposed the war with his usual Benthamite imperturbability. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he made about the warmongering culture that maintained British morale during all the frightful and stupid slaughter.

"I claim the same standing-ground, in discussing this question of peace or war, as any other hon. Gentleman. I will deal with it as a politician, strictly on the principles of policy and expediency; and I am prepared to assume that wars may be inevitable and necessary, although I do not admit that all wars are so. We, therefore, who took exception to the commencement of this war on grounds of policy, are not to be classed by individual Members of this House with those who are necessarily opposed to all wars whatever. That is but a device to represent a section of this House as advocates of notions so utopian that they must be entirely shut out of the arena of modern politics, and their arguments systematically denied that fair hearing to which all shades of opinion are fairly entitled, no matter from what quarter they may emanate. I say, that we have all one common object in view—we all seek the interest of our country; and the only basis on which this debate should be conducted is that of the honest and just interests of England.
Now, the House of Commons is a body that has to deal with nothing but the honest interests of England; and I likewise assert that the honest and just interests of this country, and of her inhabitants, are the just and honest interests of the whole world. As individuals, we may act philanthropically to all the world, and as Christians we may wish well to all, and only desire to have power in order to inflict chastisement on the wrong-doer, and to raise up the down-trodden wherever they may be placed; but I maintain that we do not come here to lay taxes on the people for the purpose of carrying out schemes of universal benevolence, or to enforce the behests of the Almighty in every part of the globe. We are a body with limited powers and duties, and we must confine ourselves to guarding the just interests of this empire. We ought, therefore, to cast to the winds all the declamatory balderdash and verbiage that we have heard from the Treasurybench as to our fighting for the liberty and independence of the entire world. You do not seriously mean to fight for anything of the kind; and, when you come to examine the grave political discussions of the Vienna Conferences, you find that the statesmen and noble Lords who worked us into this war, and whipped and lashed the country into a warlike temper by exciting appeals to its enthusiasm, have no real intention to satisfy the expectations which their own public declarations have created. I say, we are dealing with a question affecting the interests of the realm, and one which may be discussed without any declamatory appeals to passion from any part of the House."

At one time, politicians actually spoke like this. Marvellous.

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