The Qina and the Nakhba

It is no new observation that Arabs, who tend to know much more history than Americans, draw a parallel between two overseas occupations of what they call Palestine. In the Nakhba, the establishment of the State of Israel, they find echoes of the Qina, which from our side we call the First Crusade. If neither geopolitical event was quite as straightforward as the unprovoked invasion of the conventional narrative, that is only par for the course of perceived national history. Which is always about Us virtuously minding our own business until They viciously turn up and stomp us. The Muslims actually took took a bigger punch than the Crusades in what we call the Middle Ages; the Mongol devastation of Central Asia and Persia was provoked by extraordinary stupidity on the part of a frontier commander and his emperor, but the millions of ordinary dead would not have appreciated that.

The formative event for the Orthodox Church was the 1204 Latin conquest of Constantinople, in which the Franks divided up what was left of the Byzantine Empire as if it were an old-fashioned watch, apparently lacking any understanding beyond “Look! Shiny stuff!” Again, this was not really out-of-the-blue, and has even been treated as an internal putsch. In the same way, the Europeans conquered India by offering military assistance. Although the Spanish also overthrew the Aztecs and the Incas as external mercenaries in the service of native factions, in the light of the European impact on the continents as a whole the pre-Columbians may be conceded their unprovoked Catastrophe. In their five thousand years of history the Chinese have eaten a lot of bitterness, but the Jurchen sack of Kaifeng in 1127 probably stands out as their own resonant moment. The straightforward “they-just-came-and-spoiled-everything” perception is perhaps most accurate for the African experience and even more the Australian. The Russian-Polish-Hungarian experience of being devastated by the Mongols is the closest Europe comes to the simple narrative.

The odd men out here are the Western Europeans. We have our watershed of the civilisation-destroying 1914, to be sure, but that was entirely self-inflicted. Nobody came to do it to us from outside, which is why H.G. Wells had to give us the “vast, cool and unsympathetic” Martians. He wanted to show the complacent British what it felt like to be on the receiving end of superior technology. The question is thus whether we are ever likely to understand a culture whose historical memory is dominated by alien irruption and devastation.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 24, 2014)

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 17:09 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting Medieval, Miscellaneous

The Downtrodden Rulers

Robert Musil has penned a memorable description of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which he calls “Kakania” – from kaiserlich und königlich, but perhaps also echoing cacophony or something even worse) on the eve of the Great War that destroyed it. Every single ethnic group, not excluding the Germans (whom everybody outside thought ran the place), had a towering sense of sacred victimhood. Some called themselves the “Unredeemed Nations”. Well, in 1919 they were redeemed, and much good did it do them.

It occurs to me that precisely the same sensibility dominates our own time. “No man is a villain to himself”, and the same principle holds true of the social groups that others perceive as top of the pecking order. For example, many men consider themselves oppressed by women as the politically dominant sex, many heterosexuals are terrified of being somehow coerced into homosexuality (don’t ask me how this will be done), and above all, the white supremacists regard themselves as being on the verge of extinction. In just the same way, the Nazis did not think of the Jews as the weaker side, but saw themselves making a desperate last stand against a immensely powerful global Jewish conspiracy that mysteriously used both capitalism and communism as weapons against the Volk. The Jews stuffed into the death camps did not see themselves as deposed masters in this way, but that is honestly how the stuffers saw them. Similarly, it must be hard for an American woman of colour to perceive her white-male persecutor as an endangered species, but honestly, that is how he does – doubly – think of himself.

The main difference between the aggrieved ethno-nationalism of Musil’s Kakania and ourselves is that the competitively more-victimised-than-thou mentality led to two global interstate wars, whereas ours is more likely to lead to civil war, perhaps a global civil war. Which in some ways is what the last one was. So maybe there won’t be so much difference after all.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2012)

The Vauxhall Gardens Omertà

I read somewhere that Vauxhall Gardens was the premier site for pick-ups and commercial sex in 18th-century England. The chief point of these “Pleasure Gardens” was not the botany, not the food, not even the music, but the opportunity for a quick fuck in the shrubbery. And yet I would have been hard put to it to name my source – until I was fortunate enough to read the complete memoirs of Giacomo Casanova. Who ought to know.

He does not, however, describe it as an in-your-face meat market in precisely the same style as the contemporary Palais-Royal in Paris. My impression is rather of that class of women who, because they extract a somewhat higher price than their despised sisters, would deny being prostitutes at all. For on the subject of getting paid, the women of the Vauxhall Gardens told Casanova, “We never talk about such things”. Which is clearly an admission that they were there to provide play-for-pay, but that the precise parameters were never discussed openly.

What we are dealing with is, therefore, a cartel but a coded cartel. In which the principles of exchange are entirely tacit. I leave it to the reader to decide how much of the rest of life follows the same rules of obfuscation. In conjunction with other things we know, what the Vauxhall Gardens ladies said to the Venetian visitor suggests that a feminine indignation about prostitution driven primarily by the breach of a code of silence.

(Fiddle date-stamp to February 7, 2012)

Posted on September 26, 2019 at 18:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE NAME OF THE GAME, The Matrix Of Exchange

It Takes Two To Giggle

I have previously written about the competitive roaring and squealing that is so often confused with a sense of humour. Here the object of the exercise is not to achieve any wry distancing from the principal business of life on earth, namely ruthless self-aggrandisement, but rather to practice that very self-aggrandisement – in the form of taking up as much auditory space as possible.

Sitting at my Starbucks bench, I note how, when Young Female 2 arrives where Young Female 1 is already seated, they both giggle, apparently uncontrollably. It occurs to me to wonder whether anything is at all funny and if not, why giggling should constitute the primary greeting response. Is it some transposition from mere pleasure, a random signal of gratification? No doubt the arguable male equivalent, back-slapping and arm-punching, which looks like aggression but is not really, seems just as bizarre to the ladies. Perhaps I can see the inherent weirdness of both ritualised behaviours only because I am not a member of any social tribe and never have been.

Another approach is to reflect that laughter can be a sign of nervousness or embarrassment, and how among the Japanese this may hold true of both sexes. What, in my example, did Young Females 1 and 2 have to be nervous about? I naturally have no idea. Perhaps there was some real issue, about which they were obviously not going to tell a stranger at the next table. At the time, however, I was put in mind of the way people, particularly subalterns, nervously curry favour and pre-empt attack. This is why women smile at men whom they fear or dislike, which confuses the hell out of us and so may actually make their situation worse.

I was left, quite unprovably, with a sense of having witnessed two people who at some level found it necessary to apologise for existing. According to Calderón, so should we all, but once again, this is not humour.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 29, 2011)

Posted on August 25, 2019 at 16:11 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Against Nature, Miscellaneous

The Duellist And The Seagull

Reading the complete memoirs of Giacomo Casanova the other day, I was struck by the extreme amour-propre of those days; that is, the way they responded to what we would now call dissing. Casanova may be best known to us as a libertine, seducer, bon-vivant and con-artist, all of which he certainly was. But a physical coward he was not. In his unhappy old age, he confessed himself too much Nature’s slave to end his own misery, and yet in his prime he had cheerfully faced blade and bullet to avenge an insult.

It occurred to me to ask what our contemporary equivalent might be. The gangbanger, certainly, who would rather die in a shoot-out than go home with a sense of having been disrespected. As regards an exaggerated sense of self-esteem, however, it occurred to me that there is a more cowardly equivalent in the manager. Especially the so-called “seagull manager”, who flies in, squawks loudly, shits over everything, squawks some more and flies off again with the sense of a job well done.

I knew one of these once, a complete incompetent who never tired of repeating his mantra, “If you are a manager, you can manage anything”. In fact he could not manage his way out of a paper bag; which fitted very well with Dunning-Kruger Syndrome. People who knew him even better swore that he was not only stupid but extremely toxic. Perhaps what is actually taught in business schools is the golden rule, “If only you are abusive enough, you can get appointed to manage anything”.

For the point does not seem to be actually having any skill, but rather deeming yourself to be “a manager”. After all, competence in management is not something that can be proved, as all outcomes can be blamed on the business cycle or the incompetence of others. Not even when his staff resign within five minutes of their first meeting with him will it occur to the self-congratulatory manager to wonder about anything else. The amour-propre involved seems to be not too removed from that of the eighteenth-century gentleman by birth, who might not be good for anything but who nevertheless could not be disparaged, or else. It is only a pity that duelling is no longer lawful; as it is now, the parasites have all the rights and we have no remedy.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 11 April 2010)

Posted on July 16, 2019 at 18:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Homo Homini Lupus

Return Of The Window Tax

In Les Misérables, read better late than never, I find a French excise on doors and windows that positively guaranteed that houses would be insalubrious. Funnily enough, I remember hearing about the English imposing a window tax as well. The governments probably justified these as a rough measure of overall prosperity, one that the taxman could assess from the outside. From that point of view the window-tax is begging to be reinvented in the coming age of privatisation, which is what the ancient evil tax-farming will now be called, as it offers far lower costs of collection and thereby a competitive tender. So make sure you have no windows on your hovel, and you might actually to get to keep something.

The only alternative rationale that I can think of is that the insalubriousness was actually the object of the whole exercise. Why might that be? Why, with the aid of zero-sum thinking. You cannot be rich unless there is someone to be poor; and if you cannot on a rising tide lift all ships then you can at least sink some. Their misery will then be to you an absolute good.

Sitting At Their Feet

I was sent up to Oxford by philistine middle class parents who had no idea what went on there, or even what this thing called education might truly be, but just wanted the bragging rights. That is not to say that, looking back, I would consider that education was something Oxford actually provided. The pretenders on both sides thus deserved one another. You could educate yourself there, to be sure, but at the same time it was still the world of Anthony Powell, where people went in order to be recruited into powerful coteries. I never was, not would have been of any use to one.

Since writing the above paragraph I have started in on the early Scott FitzGerald. Yes, This Side of Paradise describes exactly the same scene.

It has been observed before that the only profession that (at any rate then) received not the slightest training for its supposed mission was that of university teacher. More than that, the dons appeared to have an active contempt for normal rational processes. For example, the idea of providing new students with a reading list was anathema; the dons gave out the names of essential books at a brisk conversational speed, which you were supposed to retain by powers of total recall or else talents in stenography that of course you did not possess. The photocopier had yet to be invented, but the mimeograph and stencil machine did exist. The dons did not use such things, however, presumably because useful devices were bad for the character.

The same principle was employed for lectures. I attempted a few, once sitting literally at the feet of a great man, underneath his lectern, because there was no other space. The effort was soon abandoned, in part because of the huge logistical difficulties of getting from one lecture to another, pedalling or trotting across town and so always in a lather, in part because I dimly realised that this was the most inefficient means of information transmission ever invented. The party of the first part, who has had no training in public speaking, reads aloud his new book to the party of the second part, who has had no training in shorthand. The latter can either attempt to comprehend something of the material, or attempt to note some of it down, but never both. I was never told which lectures were important to new students and which were an exercise in obscure scholarship or even an ego trip. I came to suspect that the real way to use Oxford was secretly communicated by older family members to younger, so as to cripple and exclude grammar-school boys and other such oiks.

At any events, I resorted to reading books, and thus obtained a respectable Upper Second. Had I been better directed to the best lectures, I might have taken a First; or then again, I might not. I was never able to form a clear idea of what, if anything, I had missed; and with the wisdom of age, if any, I still stand on my assertion that this was a system simply designed not to work. Since my day everything at Oxford has become co-educational, making in some ways a huge difference, but my impression is that the place is even more about trading on medieval glories, specifically extracting money from innocent foreigners.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 1 January 2012)

Situations Vacant: Deaf Chimps

What most people remember about Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is the vicious satire of Taylorism – an ideology that underpinned both capitalist America and the Soviet Union. People remember the actor being passed through the giant cogwheels, and they remember the banana-feeding machine. The colour-screen address by the boss, science-fictional at the time, they have forgotten, perhaps because it was so efficiently employed by Steve Jobs.

Reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s account of factory labour in Detroit, however, I am reminded of an element that Chaplin by the nature of his medium could not possibly have included – namely the astonishing level of the noise. He describes the ideal Ford worker as a “deaf chimp”.

Which makes me wonder, if the ideal medieval worker was a beefy thicko, and the ideal Ford worker was a deaf chimp, what is the modern ideal? For many jobs, the lanky speed-cyclist; for others, the plausible liar. Of course, should we ever need deaf chimps again, we shall find a plentiful supply, as the kids have destroyed their own hearing and show no signs of missing it.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 1, 2012)

What Does It Mean To “Do Me”?

If I am famous for anything, it is surely for not having the slightest clue about popular music. Nevertheless even I have noted that there exists a so-called lyric consisting of the insistent injunction to “Do me, do me, do me”. I heard it a lot in Africa but really have no idea where it comes from.

My interest in language never seems to disengage, and so I observe how this verb changes its meaning according to both context and gender. If a woman says, “Do me”, it can hardly mean anything other than “copulate with me”, while if a man says it, the meaning may be the same – but not quite as inevitably. For among males, to do someone can quite possibly mean to cheat them. (We see this in the clichéd jocular inversion, “What can I do you for?”) Were a woman, on the other hand, to say that her estate agent (realtor) “did her”, there is an excellent chance that she would be misunderstood. The same applies to the verb “take”, of course.

If this linguistic dimorphism tells us anything about the nature of human life, it is surely something deeply depressing. So men exist primarily to be cheated and women to be copulated with? It is enough to drive us into the cloister. And yet one feels quite certain that this is how many people do see the world, not least the movers and shakers. Thus is the world; no, thus have we made the world.

For someone brought up in my time and place, however, the effect of the repeated musical injunction in a female mouth is simply weird. Not that I am saying women should not be allowed to sing, “Do me”, but I wonder whether any other such brief expression has so encapsulated the changes through which I have lived. My unease about copulation being the primary meaning of the most general verb of action hardly lessens when girls use it themselves in that sense. I am happy with strong female sexuality, and yet I do not particularly want to live on a planet in which a woman’s primary function is to be “done”.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 17, 2012)

Going For A Burton

Meaning no disrespect to the 17th-century physician, the Victorian explorer, the Welsh actor or the American director, I am applying the name of Burton, bearing a certain superficial resemblance to a real name known to me, to a phenomenon that I do not think anyone has ever treated before. Let us imagine a Country A. Our Burton is the first native of that country to reach Country B, where by dint of networking skill he becomes thoroughly established. He becomes the go-to authority, a one-man cultural ambassador, interpreting Country A to the natives of Country B, and perhaps the other way round as well.

If he is a moral, learnèd and wise man, this will no doubt be a good thing. But suppose that Burton is a knave or a fool? The authorities of Country B will be in no position to realise this, as Burton is all they have to go upon, and he will take good care to be judge in his own cause. He will obtain bureaucratic cover, occupy academic positions, impose examinations and recruit acolytes, thus creating a School of Burton to which no opposition is possible. Anybody who points out that what he says about his own language is gibberish, anyone who argues that the imputed national characteristics are merely the eccentricities or uncouthnesses of Burton as an individual, will be culled from the herd. Anyone newly arriving from Country A will find that the “intercultural expertise” is a done deal, and that he had better conform to Burtonism or else.

I have studied this phenomenon quite closely in a pair of European countries. I may even have been guilty of practising some Burtonism myself. Certainly it is a standing temptation to the expatriate to defend himself by claiming that his personal vices are the Done Thing in wherever he comes from. Other cultures I do not know well enough to prove the Syndrome, but I nevertheless suspect that it is a universal law, because it follows from human nature and government practice.

Should the scenario sketched above remind us somewhat of the plot of Shōgun, that is all the more felicitous insofar as Occidental-Japanese understanding is a vast and lucrative business. This is because the complexity of the respective cultural codes is a gift to anyone wanting to attribute their own incompetence to a whole nation. I myself do not speak Japanese and am totally at sea with many aspects of Japanese behaviour. But I have known a professional at “inter-cultural communication”, allegedly balancing between not merely two but three cultures, whom I am pretty certain was a phoney practising the Burton technique. She seemed to be telling all three sides that her faults were the authentic cultural practices of one of the other two.

Moreover, a little research into the eikaiwa or conversation-practice industry suggested that it was full of losers and psychos. After all, the colonial European nations know that we exported our worst specimens, so that cross-cultural interpretation can become the continuation of Empire by other means – a cushy number for the scoundrel who has failed at home and now seeks to cash in on his sole asset, his foreignness. Similarly, I have encountered teachers of Japanese in European countries who strike me – on the basis of my bullshit-meter – as merely making stuff up and claiming authority for their own ignorance and mental quirks. Nice work if you can get it.

Whenever you are told something about his home country by an expatriate, the question you should be asking yourself is, “Were this to be absolute bullshit, how would I know? Who is in a position to say that this emperor has no clothes?”

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 15:08 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language