Friday, April 19, 2013

Value, Wealth and Richness

'Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix', John Ruskin (c. 1854) 

Can't stop staring at this picture. Chamonix was where Ruskin composed his intervention into political economy, Unto this Last, which inspired Gandhi, among many others. To capture the drama of this moment in 1860, when Ruskin published this provocative work, I (shamelessly) quote a piece I wrote a while ago: 
A great Victorian art critic, arbiter of the nation’s taste, suddenly turns his intellect and wits on the orthodoxies of the day — in this case, the revered science of political economy. In a series of four articles published in a popular, widely read periodical the critic condemns the very epistemological basis of classical economics. It is, he says, “the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind”. His once docile, admiring and thoroughly middle-class audience is horrified. He is, in his own words, “reprobated in a violent manner”. He is denounced in the press variously as “crazy and ignorant”, “a womanish man, who has run foul of a scientific truth”, “a mere baby”, “a mad governess”, and so forth. But the man does not relent. He spends a good part of the rest of his life lecturing and writing on society and economy. He stubbornly describes his economic writings as “probably the best I shall ever write”. That, in short, is the story of John Ruskin’s foolhardy foray into social criticism. The four articles, a call to infuse economics with affection and morality, were published in the Cornhill magazine as Unto this Last, from August to November of 1860. In time, more sympathetic ears would transform his words into action: his message would inspire Octavia Hill, Gandhi, and scores of other acolytes.
In fact, a survey of the first batch of elected Labour MPs in 1906 revealed that Ruskin and in particular, Unto this Last, were an inspiration for them, a name and a book they invoked more than any other writer or title. The issues Ruskin raised haven't gone away, in an age when inequality is worse than ever, when Thatcherism is still declared triumphant. As Ruskin said,
it is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists.
We need to go back to those debates. Rather, we need to always have them -- in any good society. What is value? what is wealth? and what does it mean for a person or a country to be rich?


And this should be in every shop and house, again from Unto this Last:
what one person has, another cannot have; and that every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not, is either so much life prevented, or so much slain. In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed: in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative Histories

We could be making Portuguese egg tarts, frying up tempura and speaking Singaporean Portuguese now... (Also another nail in the coffin for that myth of Raffles 'discovering' Singapore -- not to mention that the regional Malay princes and the Chinese already knew of it before the Europeans.)


Some extracts from Jaques de Coutre (a Portuguese diamond merchant), ‘Information about Building Some Castles and Fortresses in the Straits of Singapore and Other Regions of the South, etc.’ (1620s), a memorial addressed to King Philip III of Spain and Portugal. 

‘In the middle of the Singapore Straits there is an island [present-day Sentosa] ... this island forms a stone peak ... called Surgidera ... Your Majesty should order that a very strong citadel be built on this peak; all the vessels that pass through these Straits, through the Old Strait as well as the New Strait, stop and drop anchor around the said peak.’ 

‘It is necessary to build a second fortress or citadel in the Johor River estuary at the promontory of the Isla de La Sabandaria Vieja [present-day Singapore; around Changi]* ... The second citadel situated at the Johor River estuary and the first one at the Singapore Straits can lend each other assistance either by sea of by land ....Your Majesty ... should become the lord of this port, which is one of the best that serves the Indies. Your Majesty can build a city there and become the lord of this kingdom.’ 

(adapted from Peter Borschberg, The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore, 2010), pp. 245-8)

* This translates as 'Island of the Old Shahbandar's Compound'. I should note that the 'Shahbandar', a Persian term, was a port official of the Sultan of Johor, who supposedly had a compound here for the collection of dues and tolls. So Singapore was already a port of sorts, under the Johor sultanate, but we know regrettably little about it. Vieja is simply the Spanish word for 'old'. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Partying like it's Nineteen Eighty Something

Brief thought: North Korea's belligerence has now brought the (distant) prospect of nuclear war back to people's minds, a fear that was rampant, unavoidable and utterly haunting in the 80s. To quote Martin Amis' incredibly evocative article, 'Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals' (Esquire, 1987): 
When nuclear weapons become real to you, when they stop buzzing around your ears and actually move into your head, hardly an hour passes without some throb or flash, some heavy pulse of imagined supercastastrophe.
At the same time, Margaret Thatcher's death has provoked a memorialising of the same decade, filling the air of a week in April, 2013 thickly with the remembered actions and words, nostalgia and hatred intermixed, of Thatcher herself, but also Reagan and the still-living Gorbachev. An odd, hopefully brief, shadow has been cast. I thank the conjunction of world events for bringing back to life the decade before my birth. Please stop at this stage, though. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top Five

I've decided to record this list at this stage in my life, so I can look back and compare profitably in say, ten years.

(in alphabetical order)

1. Martin Amis
2. Jorge Luis Borges
3. James Joyce
4. Orhan Pamuk
5. J. R. R. Tolkien

But in terms of top five books, that's a slightly different list:

1. The Lord of the Rings
2. Ulysses
3. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton) 
4. The Dream of the Red Chamber  <<红楼梦>> (Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹)
5. The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)

As I was saying to someone, Shakespeare isn't here because that'd be like putting 'The English Language' on the list. No point comparing the celestial with the merely mortal.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guicciardini on Politics

When I think about politics in the Italian Renaissance, I am drawn not to the much-maligned meditations of Niccolò Machiavelli but to the writings of his more aristocratic, pessimistic colleague, Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian, statesman and political theorist. Guicciardini saw more service than Machiavelli, which accounts for his more realistic and sceptical politics. He is thus a good foil to Machiavelli (who despite his reputation was really an irrepressible optimist) though he's been somewhat forgotten, except by students of the Italian Renaissance. Guicciardini is the historian's historian, refusing to draw simplified lessons from political events, and often distrusting of Machiavelli's aphoristic pronouncements on matters. Contra Machiavelli, he doubted the value of historical parallels, claiming it was a mistake to be 'quoting the Romans at every turn'. In his Maxims (Ricordi), Guicciardini says that even if valid parallels existed
the names and surfaces of things will be so altered, that he who has not a quick eye will not recognise them
Above all, Guicciardini is troubled by complexity. The problems of Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century were so complex, claims Guicciardini in his History of Italy (1537-40), that
they could not be cured with simple medicines; rather, as so often happens in bodies overflowing with corrupt humours, a remedy employed to cure one disorder in one part generates even more pernicious and dangerous ill   
The problem that bedevils political action, says Guicciardini, is uncertainty of judgement and mistaken common opinion. We are told that 'wise men do not always discern or pass perfect judgements', that 'it is impossible ... to form a judgement as to the course of events ... our opinions must be formed and modified from day to day'. The world is full of 'erroneous and unfounded opinion'. In such an environment, policy is often impossible and as he notes above, one is sometimes hard-pressed not to do more harm than good. Politics is often defined as the 'art of the possible'. Guicciardini seems to me to ask, 'Do you even know what's possible? And how do you know?' Of course, Guicciardini is then free to construct and exploit his persona as the ultimate insider, somehow privy to the truth lurking beneath appearances. Yet in an age where T. S. Eliot's questions, from The Rock (1934)
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  
are more unanswerable than ever, I think Guicciardini's vacillations have some use. But it is this passage, from his Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1527), that I find striking
Consider, too, that our city is now old, and as far as one can conjecture from its development, the nature of things and past examples, it is now declining rather than growing. It’s not like a new-born or a young city, which is easy to form and set up, and receives the habits given to it without any difficulty. When cities are old, it is difficult to reform them; and once they have been reformed, they soon lose their good set-up and always remember their original bad habits.
This sense of senescence and exhaustion must be immediately recognisable to even the most casual observer of politics. Countries are old, as are their systems and governments. Politics sometimes seems  to have calcified along unchanging lines. The debates seem to be fought with nothing but ancient clichés, incendiary watchwords that serve as substitutes for thought, as automatic, unthinking calls to arms. (Class seems to be one such category, in Britain at least.) Guicciardini reminds us how truly difficult politics is; how even more difficult change is; how limited the power of politicians, even in the highest office, can be; and how policy is not for the faint-hearted, requiring steely consideration. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Missing the Dead

"... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another" -- John Donne, 'Meditation XVII', Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
So says Donne. Yet, sometimes, it is hard not to feel that the death of a great man or woman is a tearing out of a page in a book. The death of Roger Ebert and yes, Margaret Thatcher, reinforced this for me, but not as much as reading a collection of the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. I have to admit that I half-expected his letters to be slightly embarrassing, a bit like encountering the unreconstructed opinions of the elderly. (And I was also ready to forgive him for them, out of the love I have for his fiction.) But in fact, the letters speak to me, and move me greatly, with their intensely felt warmth (towards his children and friends) and in their painstakingly well-constructed and well-thought out opinions. I should have expected this, of course. I found myself longing for a time when people wrote considered letters to each other, and also for a time of conviction, not hasty, cowardly judgements: Tolkien comes across as resolute in his opinions, calm and yet struggling with matters entirely human. To just give a taste of how surprising his opinions can be, however, let me excerpt a letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, on 29 November 1943:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. 
Another surprising glimpse is of Tolkien as a young, career-minded don in Oxford: something which must have been a part of his life, but not really how one imagines Tolkien. There are also, for the Oxonian, lovely spine-tingling moments when he speaks of Oxford and its places -- which reassures me that one can still commune with the dead. This letter, again to this son Christopher, dated 30 Jan 1945, happily combines both, with a dose of comradeship with C. S. Lewis. Also proves that college administration never improves, through the ages:
 But I got to Magdalen, where after a brief shiver over 2 depressing elm-logs (elm won't burn) we decided to seek warmth and beer at the Mitre: we got both (pubs manage their business better than bursars: upon my word, I don't think the latter gentry would even hold down a Kiwi job in the R.A.F.!). A good many things happened then. My rest was rudely broken by a 'phone call on business from which quite incidentally I learned the startling news that Prof. H. C. Wyld died on Saturday. God rest his soul. But he leaves me a legacy of terrestrial trouble. For one thing I've got to make up mind what to do about the succession. Five years ago I'd have been thinking of how to get the Merton chair myself: my ambition was to get C.S.L. and myself into the 2 Merton Chairs. It would be marvellous to be both in the same college — and for me to be in a real college and shake off the dust of miserable Pembroke. But I think prob. not – even if there was a chance.
Which leads us back to Death. Reading Tolkien's letters made me miss him; it made me really wish he was still around. One realises what a huge, sucking vacuum the death of someone like him leaves. All the accumulated erudition, time-tested relationships, the meaning and significance of the deceased to each person who knew and interacted with him -- all of that is sunk when a person dies. And one is expected to just move on?


More excerpts from Tolkien's letters, because I absolutely cannot resist. Some glimpses of his reaction to Americans, who must have continually surprised him, first with their mannerisms and then their astonishing fervour for his work.  Quoting a fan's letter to Christopher, 25 October 1944:
'Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?' 
John Barrow 12 yrs. West town School, West town, Pa.' 
 It's nice to find that little American boys do really still say 'Gee Whiz'.

On 5 June 1955, in the New York Times Book Review, there was an account of Tolkien and his writings:
What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick? Dr T., who teaches at Oxford when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply: "I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)"
And for the geeks, from a letter of 4 November 1954, an instance (among innumerable others) of Tolkien taking his world very seriously, approaching it not as an inventor but as a chronicler and expert, this time on the objection that Gandalf's resurrection was 'cheating', and clarifying the powers and nature of wizards or the Istari:
Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my 'angelic' persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint.