Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

I imagine that he would like to be remembered riding through a horde of terrified revolutionary soldiers, scything them down with his sabre as bullets whizzed around him, passing through his cloak, but never so much as scraping him; the warrior-king of Mongolia, receiving reports, tribute and prisoners, like his hero Genghis Khan, in a hastily pitched campaign tent. My chief image of him, though, is less heroic; I picture him on the steps of a temple, hearing- and believing- that he has only a hundred and thirty days left to live, his mutilate face contorted by terror.

This book tells the story of Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sterberg, the last Khan of Mongolia, who in one short year rose from being a Russian Nobleman to incarnate God of War and returned Khan. In Mongolia he was lauded as a hero, feared as a demon and, briefly, worshiped as a god.

In late 1920 a White Russian baron and cavalry major-general, thin, intense and hideously scarred, cut his way into Mongolia, defeated the Chinese occupiers, took over the country, ruled it breify and brutally, and raised a Mongolian army to lead back against Russia.

It could have been just another bloody episode in the long horror of the Russian Civil War, but what made it unusual was the sheer oddness of Ungern-Sternberg. Most of the Russian leaders, whether Bolshevik Reds or their opponents the Whites, were a vicious bunch who were not averse to the slaughter of a few thousand citizens, the Reds in the name of the people, the Whites in the name of the tsar, but none of the others did it in the name of the Buddha..

It was an almost unbelievable story. One of his chief war aims was to free the Bogd Khan, the huge, blind Living Buddha who had been imprisoned by the Chinese, so that he could act as a rallying point for his crusade. Like all good conquerors, he was rumored to have left a hidden treasure behind him, plundered from monasteries and buried somewhere on the steppe. Ungern-Sternberg did not seem to belong to a century of tanks and telephones but to an earlier, cruder age. Like his Baltic forefathers, he was a lost crusader, a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter. His hatred was focused, though: Jews and Bolsheviks were killed by his troops onslaught, presaging a later, greater evil...

There seemed to have been more to his leadership than sheer despotic terror. He was undoubtedly popular among his Mongolian troops. who fought for him with a fury which appeared to some European observers to be close to devil-worship. Everything about the story, when I first encountered it, seemed uncertain, even Ungern's appearance, tall in some sources, short in others, gray-eyed, green-eyed, blue-eyed- nobody was able to pin him down. In one account he came across as a detached fanatic, willing to muse on philosophy and history, in another as a sadist and butcher, hands steeped in blood. Stories about him were a morass of rumor, myth and supposition. His personal beliefs were murky; his Buddhism might have been inherited from an equally eccentric grandfather, or the result of a personal conversion during his early years in Mongolia, and he seemed happy to use the most respectable, if mystical and apocalyptic, language of Russian Orthodoxy at points, despite his family being Lutheran. The changes in his appearance suggest an atavistic religious progress. In one of the few surviving photographs he appears in Russian army uniform, neatly groomed, but with an intense, monastic appearance, like an Orthodox mountain hermit, but near the end of his campaign he rode bare-chested, "like a Neanderthal', hung with bones and chains, his beard sprouting in all directions and his chest smeared with dirt. He had gone from monk to shaman in a few years.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Samuel Johnson's London

After the Great Fire in 1666 the engines of wealth and power began to generate the renovation of London in a rebuilding and extension to the west, clearing away much of the old to make place for the commercially and fashionably new. The fire was in a way a blessing because its ancient centre had burned down, allowing the laying out of wider streets and more public spaces, the envy of cities like Paris. But it was not until around mid-eighteenth century that the pace of growth really picked up. In 1757 the houses on London Bridge were demolished and foul Fleet Ditch was filled up. A few years later the City was opened up through the removal of its ancient gates, creating more fluid movement of trade and people. The city would not have lighting and paving throughout until the first Westminister Paving Act of 1762, the year Boswell first visited: gutters and underground drains, paving-stone replacing pebbles in the main streets, and a central system of street repair and cleaning making walking in London even safer and more pleasant.

In the newer areas of London to the west lovely squares were created that became the addresses of the aristocracy and rich. As a modern historian of London has put it, "From Covent Garden through St James's to Mayfair, the West End was wide and handsome, built to please those with money to burn and time to kill". Indeed, Georgian London took shape as a 'well-mapped topography of pleasure', but Johnson's area, Fleet Street and the Strand connecting Westminister and the City, was the place to be to watch life pass by in all its variety. "Fleet Street has a very animated appearance,' wrote Johnson in later years, and he thought that at Charing Cross could be seen 'the full tide of human existence.'

Most of all, London was the genuine city of the Enlightenment, the scene of ideas-in-action, pragmatic liberty and dashing, dazzling spirit. Eighteenth-century London was truly revolutionary long before the French Revolution, 'a revolution in mood, a blaze of slogans, delivering the shock of the new'. The French philosophes cast their eyes across the channel to England as the cradle of the modern, and anglophiles on the Continent 'celebrated Britain's constitutional monarchy and freedom under the law, its open society, its prosperity and religious toleration.' At just the time Johnson came to London, the city was embracing a print culture that proved to be the envy of the world, with periodicals and magazines of specialized and general interest- The Gentleman's Magazine was the most successful of the latter kind- cropping up out of nowhere, as well as novels, prints, and even pornography, all devoured by a hungry reading public.

As Johnson put it, this was an 'age of authors'- of both sexes. There seemingly were no limits or boundaries. Travellers, 'knowledge-mongers', writers, musicians, artists, and scientists, they came in great numbers from distant regions and countries to see what it was all about, and many like Handel, Haydn, Benjamin Franklin, and Pasquale Paoli, the exiled Corsican patriot, lingered or stayed to create because their geniuses found the spirit of modernity and freedom congenial. Knowledge 'generally diffused' was the icon of the age- 'society is held together by communication and information,' Johnson said.

What intoxicatingly flooded in to Johnson's life in those first heady days in London was uniquely English: 'England's modernizers had no stomach for the indigestible scholastic husks; they were not ivory-towered academics but men (and women) of letters who made their pitch in the metropolitan market .' Johnson very quickly came to subscribe to the notion of the un-cloistered writer playing with social and market forces in order to get his message out to the public."

The Vulture by Samuel Johnson

....A shepherd of Bohemia has, by long abode in the forests, enabled himself to understand the voice of birds; at least he relates with great confidence a story, of which the credibility is left to be considered by the learned.

"As I was sitting," said he, "within a hollow rock, and watching my sheep that fed in the valley, I heard two vultures interchangeably crying on the summit of the cliff. Both voices were earnest and deliberate. My curiosity prevailed over my care of the flock; I climbed slowly and silently from crag to crag, concealed among the shrubs, till I found a cavity where I might sit and listen without suffering or giving disturbance.

"I soon perceived that my labour would be well repaid; for an old vulture was sitting on a naked prominence, with her young about her, whom she was instructing in the arts of a vulture's life, and preparing, by the last lecture, for their final dismission to the mountains and the skies.
My children,' said the old vulture, 'you will the less want my instructions, because you have had my practice before your eyes; you have seen me snatch from the farm the household fowl, you have seen me seize the leveret in the bush, and the kid in the pasture; you know to fix your talons, and how to balance your flight when you are laden with your prey. But you remember the taste of more delicious food; I have often regaled you with the taste of man.'

'Tell us,' said the young vultures, 'where man may be found, and how he may be known; his flesh is surely the natural food of the vulture. Why have you never brought a man in your talons to the nest?' 'He is too bulky,' said the mother: 'when we find a man we can only tear away his flesh, and leave his bones upon the ground.' 'Since man is so big,' said the young ones, 'how do you kill him? You are afraid of the wolf and of the bear, by what power are vultures superior to man? is man more defenceless than a sheep?' 'We have not the strength of a man,' returned the mother, 'and I am sometimes in doubt whether we have the subtilty; and the vultures would seldom feed upon his flesh, had not nature, that devoted him to our uses, infused into him a strange ferocity, which I have never observed in any other being that feeds upon the earth.

Two herds of men will often meet and shake the earth with noise, and fill the air with fire. When you hear noise and see fire, with flashes along the ground, hasten to the place with your swiftest wing, for men are surely destroying one another; you will then find the ground smoking with blood and covered with carcasses; of which many are dismembered and mangled for the convenience of the vulture.' 'But when men have killed their prey,' said the pupil, 'why do they not eat it? When the wolf has killed a sheep, he suffers not the vulture to touch it till he is satisfied himself. Is not man another kind of wolf?

' 'Man,' said the mother, 'is the only beast who kills that which he does not devour, and this quality makes him so much a benefactor to our species.'

'If men kill our prey and lay it in our way,' said the young one, 'what need shall we have of labouring for ourselves?'

'Because man will, sometimes,' replied the mother, 'remain for a long time quiet in his den.' The old vultures will tell you when you are to watch his motions. When you see men in great numbers moving close together, like a flock of storks, you may conclude that they are hunting, and that you will soon revel in human blood.'

'But still,' said the young one, 'I would gladly know the reason of this mutual slaughter. I could never kill what I could not eat.' 'My child,' said the mother, 'this is a question which I cannot answer, though I am reckoned the most subtle bird of the mountain. When I was young, I used frequently to visit the aerie of an old vulture, who dwelt upon the Carpathian rocks; he had made many observations; he knew the places that afforded prey round his habitation, as far in every direction as the strongest wing can fly between the rising and setting of the summer sun; he had fed year after year on the entrails of men. His opinion was, that men had only the appearance of animal life, being really vegetables with a power of motion; and that as the boughs of an oak are dashed together by the storm, that swine may fatten upon the falling acorns, so men are, by some unaccountable power, driven one against another, till they lose their motion, that vultures may be fed.

Others think they have observed something of contrivance and policy among these mischievous beings; and those that hover more closely round them, pretend, that there is, in every herd, one that gives directions to the rest, and seems to be more eminently delighted with a wide carnage. What it is that entitles him to such pre-eminence we know not; he is seldom the biggest or the swiftest, but he shows by his eagerness and diligence that he is, more than any of the others, a friend to the vultures.' "

The Idler No. 22, September 9, 1758

Sermon IV by Samuel Johnson

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house: when thou seest the naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.

Isaiah 58:7-8

If the necessity of every duty is to be estimated by the frequency with which it is inculcated, and the sanctions by which it is enforced; if the great Lawgiver of the universe, whose will is immutable, and whose decrees are established for ever, may be supposed to regard, in a particular manner, the observation of those commands, which seem to be repeated only that they may be strongly impressed, and secured, by an habitual submission, from violation and neglect, there is scarcely any virtue, that we ought more diligently to exercise than that of compassion to the needy and distressed.

If we look into the state of mankind, and endeavor to deduce the will of God from the visible disposition of things, we find no duty, more necessary to the support of order, and the happiness of society, nor any, of which we are more often reminded, by opportunities of practicing it, or which is more strongly urged upon us, by importunate solicitations and affecting objects.
If we inquire into the opinions of those men, on whom God conferred superior wisdom, in the heathen world, all their sufferages will be found united in this great point. Amidst all their wild opinions, and chimerical systems, the sallies of unguided imagination, and the errors of bewildered reason; they have all endeavored to evince the necessity of beneficence, and agreed to assign the first rank of excellence to him, who most contributes to improve the happiness, and to soften the miseries of life.

But we, who are blessed with clearer light, and taught to know the will of our Maker, not from long deductions from variable appearances, or intricate disquisitions of fallible reason, but by messengers inspired by himself, and enabled to prove their mission, by works above the power of created beings, may spare ourselves the labour of tedious inquiries. The holy scriptures are in our hands; the scriptures which are able to make us wise unto salvation, and by them we may be sufficiently informed of the extent and importance of this great duty; a duty enjoined, explained, and enforced, by Moses and the prophets, by the evangelists and apostles, by the precepts of Solomon, and the example of Christ.

From those, to whom large possessions have been transmitted by their ancestors, or whose industry has been blessed with success, God always requires the tribute of charity: he commands that what he has given be enjoyed in imitating his bounty, in dispensing happiness, and cheering poverty, in easing the pains of disease, and lightening the burden of oppression; he commands that the superfluity of bread be dealt to the hungry; and the raiment, which the possessor cannot use, be bestowed upon the naked, and that no man turn away from his own flesh.

This is a tribute, which it is difficult to imagine that any man can be unwilling to pay, as an acknowledgment of his dependence upon the universal Benefactor, and an humble testimony of his confidence in that protection, without which, the strongest foundations of human power must fail at the first shock of adversity, and the highest fabrics of earthly greatness sink into ruin; without which wealth is only a floating vapour, and policy an empty sound.

But such is the prevalence of temptations, not early resisted; such the depravity of minds, by which unlawful desires have been long indulged, and false appearances of happiness pursued with ardour and pertinaciousness; so much are we influenced by example, and so diligently do we labour to deceive ourselves, that it is not uncommon to find the sentiments of benevolence almost extinguished, and all regard to the welfare of others overborne by a perpetual attention to immediate advantage and contracted views of present interest.

When any man has sunk into a state of insensibility like this, when he has learned to act only by the impulse of apparent profit, when he can look upon distress, without partaking it, and hear the cries of poverty and sickness, without a wish to relieve them; when he has so far disordered his ideas as to value wealth without regard to its end, and to amass with eagerness what is of no use in his hands; he is indeed not easily to be reclaimed; his reason, as well as his passions, is in combination against his soul, and there is little hope, that either persuasion will soften, or arguments convince him. A man, once hardened in cruelty by inveterate avarice, is scarcely to be considered as any longer human; nor is it to be hoped, that any impression can be made upon him, by methods applicable only to reasonable beings. Beneficence and compassion can be awakened in such hearts only by the operation of divine grace, and must be the effect of a miracle, like that which turned the dry rock into a springing well.

Let every one, that considers this state of obdurate wickedness, that is struck with horror at the mention of a man void of pity, that feels resentment at the name of oppression, and melts with sorrow at the voice of misery, remember that those who have now lost all these sentiments, were originally formed with passions, and instincts, and reason, like his own: let him reflect, that he, who now stands most firmly, may fall by negligence, and that negligence arises from security. Let him therefore observe, by what gradations men sink into perdition, by what insensible deviations they wander from the ways of virtue, till they are scarce able to return; and let him be warned by their example, to avoid the original causes of depravity, and repel the first attacks of unreasonable self-love; let him meditate on the excellence of charity, and improve those seeds of benevolence, which are implanted in every mind, but which will not produce fruit without care and cultivation.

Such meditations are always necessary for the promotion of virtue; for a careless and inattentive mind easily forgets its importance, and it will be practiced only with a degree of ardour, proportioned to the sense of our obligations to it.

To assist such reflections, to confirm the benevolence of the liberal, and to show those who have lived without regard to the necessities of others, the absurdity of their conduct, I shall inquire...


The End of Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin.

Johnson's prayer on his sixtieth birthday (1769) recorded his horror once again that he was not achieving anything and that his physical recovery was slow; "My days are easier, but the perturbations of my nights is very distressful. I think to try to lower my diet. I have grown fat too fast. My lungs seem encumbered, and my breath fails me, if my strength is in any unusual degree exerted, or my motion accelerated'. Such worries bred fears of an unprepared death that cropped up frequently in his letters: 'though I feel all these decays of the body, I have made no preparation for the grave. What shall I do to be saved?' Boswell's compelling passage on 26 October describing Johnson's mind in combat with itself is the most vividly terrifying ever written by someone who had the chance to study him closely:

His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgment, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him. To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, 'No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives...It will do him no good to whine."

Brave but desperate words. Boswell was in forbidden territory but foolishly persisted talking about death; "He was so provoked, that he said,' Give us no more of this", and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; showed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me, sternly, "Don't let us meet tomorrow."

Johnson passed away late in 1784, after a long struggle with the infirmities of old age. It is unclear how soon before Johnson died he came to a strong faith or 'conversion' that the afterlife would not, as he feared all his life, hold any terrors for him. Whenever that was, it is at least clear that he defiantly and frantically, even violently, fought the battle against death.

To begin with, he burned his papers, not the act of a man at peace with himself. Brocklesby reported that eight of ten days before he died, 'low and desponding', he cried out to him part of Macbeth's speech that begins with, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?'. And when five days before his death John Ryland attempted to comfort him that there was great hope for everyone in the afterlife, Johnson replied quickly, "Yes, we have hopes given us; but they are conditional, and I know not how far I have fulfilled those conditions."

What he most definitely did not want to hear were compliments on what a virtuous life he had led. Furthermore, the story Boswell told about his signing off medicine once Dr. Brockesby told him only a miracle would save him, clearly misrepresents what happened since he took plenty of medicine afterward and resorted to other physical means to recover.

Nichols told Boswell that less than a week before his death Johnson had such little fear of the pain of a needed surgical puncture of the revived sarcocele that when Brockesby began to take his pulse he grabbed his wrist and 'gave him a great look of contempt, and ridiculed the judging of his disorder by the pulse. Instead, he asked 'if puncture would not relieve him' and when Brockesby advised that Cruikshank was the best judge, Johnson shouted, 'How many men in a year die through the timidity of those who they consult for health! I want length of life and you fear giving me pain, which I care not for."

Johnson tried to bully Cruikshank, too, when he appeared later, but the surgeon refused to pierce the sarcocele. Then he commanded him to make incisions in his legs to release the pressure of the hateful dropsy. The surgeon was again afraid a 'mortification' might set in from any deep penetration of the knife and was in the process of merely lancing the surface of the legs when Johnson cried out again, "Deeper, deeper; I will abide by the consequence; you are afraid of your reputation but that is nothing to me..I would give one of these legs for a year more of life'...he is supposed to have said.

His truly terrifying and courageous act came on the morning of his last day of life. From his servant's report, Windham recounted what happened:

He had compelled Frank to give him a lancet, and had besides concealed in the bed a pair of scissors, and with one or the other of these he had scarfied himself in three places, two in the left leg, etc. On Mrs Desmoulins making a difficulty of giving him the lancet, he said, 'Don't you, if you have any scruples; but I will compel Frank... He then made the three incisions of which one in the leg was not unskillfully made; the other in the leg was a deep and ugly wound from which, with the others, they supposed him to have lost nearly eight ounces of blood.

Soon after that, Johnson took scissors and 'plunged them deep in the calf of each leg. He was so convinced dropsy was the root cause of most of his illness that he was determined to do anything in his power to get rid of it. If the butchering of his own body did not hasten his death, the experimental drug, digitalis, which he was given that last day in a major overdose, did.

The final high drama of the death scene occurred on 13 December. Johnson slepted for most of the day, taking some milk which he complained had not been given to him properly, and blessing a Miss Morris who had come off the street totally unexpected to receive his benediction, but otherwise speaking to nobody. Nobody spoke to him because he seemed in a type of doze, breathing in short, regular breaths. Shortly after seven in the evening he took his last breath, awakening from his doze just seconds before to say to Sastras 'iam mortiturus' ('now I am about to die').

Hamilton said of Johnson what all the Johnsonians felt when it sank in that they no longer had with them the literary colossus who had touched and altered English life and the literary landscape so considerably in the last half of the century as well as their own lives in deeply personal ways:

"He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendancy to fill up.- Johnson is dead- Let us go to the next best:- there is nobody;-no man can be said to put you in the mind of Johnson."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Paranoia by Daniel and Jason Freeman

Paranoia is associated with a whole series of social factors: urban living, isolation, migration and victimization. But the thread running through them all, intensifying their effects and magnifying distress is poverty and deprivation. 'Deprivation' and 'poverty' are used here as relative terms. The very poorest people in Western societies today have many more material comforts than their equivalents a hundred years ago. But colour television, central heating, and proper sanitation don't prevent them suffering the disadvantages associated with deprivation. It's not 'poverty' per se that's responsible. It's primarily a question of wealth inequality- the size of the gap between the richest and the poorest in society.

The effects of inequality have been eloquently summarized by the leading epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, in his influential book Social Determinants of Health:

with large social-economic inequalities, societies will have bigger problems of low social status, feelings of inferiority, and subordination; with larger inequalities, the quality of social relations will deteriorate, leading to increases in violence and reductions in both trust and involvement in community life.

Which hardly makes for cheering reading in a world where inequalities of wealth show few signs of reducing. In the U.K., for example, the top 1 per cent of the population increased their wealth from 20 to 23 percent in the period 1997-2002; the wealth of the poorest 50 per cent of the population, on the other hand, steadily dwindled from 10 per cent in 1986 to 7 per cent in 1996 and 5 per cent in 2002.

The story is much the same in the U.S., which has the greatest inequalities of wealth of any nation. Between 1973 and 2002, for instance, the average income of the bottom 90 per cent of U.S. taxpayers fell by 7 per cent, while the income of the top 1 per cent grew by a massive 148 per cent. The top 20 per cent of U.S. househods now enjoys almost 50 per cent of the country's total income, while the bottom 20 per cent owns just just 3.4 per cent of it.

All of which means that the next item on our anti-paranoia wish list is government policies to reduce inequalities of wealth. The benefits of such an initiative are likely to be many and varied. But among them would be lower levels of social exclusion, stress, insecurity- and paranoia. However, rather like our suggestions regarding the media , it might be unwise to hold one's breath in eager anticipation. Many governments have committed themselves to the eradication of inequalities- indeed, a list of governments that hadn't declared such an aspiration would make interesting, although probably momentary reading. To date, at least, few of these pledges have been honored- though that only makes them more pressing.

An end to inequality. The transformation of our cities. A disciplined and temperate media. In sum, a range of measures in all areas of our society (from education, to town planning, employment to immigration policies) designed to build social cohesion. To which we might add- while we're aiming at the stars- the restoration of public trust in authority, from the government to the police to doctors and teachers.

When we survey our list of recommended measures for tackling paranoia, the spring soon leaves our step. It's difficult to hold out much hope that the problem is going to be tackled sucessfully any time soon, though these issues are certainly taken seriously by many in government. But if progress at this macro-economic level is going to be slow, thankfully we do at least have an armoury of tried and tested techniqies to combat paranoia on an individual level.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thomas More by John Guy

On 26 March 1534 Henry got Parliament to approve an Act of Succession, settling the inheritance of the crown on his heirs by Anne Boleyn with a clause requiring any subject to swear an oath affirming the 'whole effect and contents' of the Act, including a paragraph saying that Anne's marriage was legally valid. Deeds or writings threatening the king or slandering his marriage were to be adjudged high treason, with the same offenses by words alone punishable with life imprisonment and loss of property. One day encountering Thomas in London, the Duke of Norfolk said to him, "By the mass, Master More, it is perilous striving with princes. And therefore I would wish you somewhat to incline to the king's pleasure. For by God's body, Master Moore, the wrath of the prince is death."

"Is that all, my Lord?", Thomas replied. "Then, in good faith, is there no more difference between your grace and me, but that I shall die today, and you tomorrow."

The day before the Act of Succession came into law, More put all his property into trust, naming his trustees. Should he die, they were to distribute his assets in accordance with a set of sealed instructions deposited for safe-keeping with his secretary. This was technically legal but might be regarded as the equivalent of a debtor setting up a trust on the eve of an insolvency claim. His chief concern was for his daughter Margaret, his favorite child, remembering that he'd never got around to giving her dowry to William Roper. Plainly troubled as to whether his settlement would hold (it didn't), two days later he signed a second conveyance removing the two and a half acre plot known as Butts Close from the trustees, throwing in a house, barn, garden, and making them over to the Ropers unconditionally. They moved to Butts Close, barely five minutes walk away from the mansion house, a few days later, enabling Margaret to stay beside her father, but with her future in Chelsea secure.

The rest of the family must have been oblivious to the danger since, according to the eyewitness recollections of Harris and Margaret's new maid, Dorothy Colley, Thomas decided to give them a visceral, macabre warning, inviting them all to dinner, then arranging for one of the king's messengers to call in the middle of the meal. The man knocked at the door, entered the hall, and pretended to summon More to appear before the King's commissioners administering the oath. Pandemonium ensued, before Thomas confessed that this was a dress rehearsal. He'd wanted, he explained, to prepare those dearest to him for what fate [ providence by More's own reckoning] was about to bring; it would be the more devastating for them to be taken unawares.

Once everyone was calm again, Thomas spoke of his own fears and doubts, of the joys of heaven and the pains of hell. Only with the blessing of his wife and children, he said, did he think he could find the strength to refuse the oath, for after over twenty years of doing everything he could to keep his public and private business seperate, he'd finally been forced to concede that he was too gregarious, too emotionally dependent on his family, to face Henry's terrible wrath alone, and that far from screening them from what was too come, he could only achieve his aims with their constant love and support.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin

A half-century ago there were fewer than 100 million obese individuals and 7 billion malnourished people. There are now 1.6 billion overweight and obese people in the world, many living with the chronic diseases that contribute to the bulk of deaths worldwide, while there are 800 million undernourished people. The increase in obesity has been more rapid than the decrease in under-nutrition- particularly in the past two decades.

The relatively recent addition of caloric beverages to people's diets plays an important role in the development of this pandemic; physiologically, a calorie of sugar in a beverage is not treated in the same way as a calorie of food but rather is ignored by the digestive system- by passing signals of satiety- so that when we drink sugared beverages, we're simply adding excess calories.

Sodas and fruits drinks are serious culprits in this affair but it is also true that today, the average American adult consumes over 100 calories a day from alcohol... total alcohol intake, mostly from wine and beer, increased four-fold in the U.S. between 1965 and 2002. New England has the highest alcohol intake rates of all the geographic regions of the United States.

The shift to calorically sweetened beverages, larger portion sizes, more eating occasions, and the increased availability of sweeter and fattier foods- which are the result of technological and economic changes -are causing the obesity epidemic. More than half of the money Americans spend on food today is for meals consumed away from home. That doesn't count how much we spend on food prepared at grocery stores that we take home to eat. Even in restaurants and homemakers in China, Taiwan and South Korea have learned to mimic some elements of how fast-food chains process food, including large drinks and food portions

As the result of agricultural subsidies ....we have had much cheaper beef, poultry, corn, soybeans and sugar...this has occurred at the expense of healthy plant foods- particularly fruits and vegetables, whose relative cost is great compared with fats, sugars and meats in today's marketplace. The results for all of us- not only in America but around the globe- have been devastating.

Continued, regular, and incremental caloric burn- from dish washing, doing laundry (the old-fashioned way), preparing food or shopping was significant in times past. The same went for all standing, lifting and movement in our jobs.We used to walk up more stairs, amble about our neighborhoods, with progress our movement has changed for the worse. Many people are not able to establish the long-term habits of moderate exercise that would help avoid obesity and maintain health in this environment.

Advertising, packaging and distributing- rather than the ingredients themselves- make up most of the cost of food. The cost of the ingredients often makes up only 5 to 10 percent of a processed food's retail price. For soft drinks, the ingredients cost pennies. The mark-up is thus enormous; food producing and processing is a hugely profitable and powerful enterprise.

Some Big Sugar and Big Beverage companies -seeing the writing on the wall- are working in a stealth fashion to cut calories and added sugar in their products but, for the most part, trade associations like International Life Science Institute remain hostile to the findings of nutrition researchers like the author of this book. The Institute of Medicine is the only advisory body that is usually outside food politics.

The World Is Fat; The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products That Are Fattening The Human Race by Barry Popkin, prof of Global Nutrition at UNC, Chapel Hill, Avery Press, 2009.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rimbaud by Edmund White

What must be underlined is that in 1875 Rimbaud bade farewell forever to literature. He didn't write it and he didn't even read it from from now on to the end of his life. He looked back on his years of creativity (from the age of fifteen to nineteen) as shameful, a time of drunkenness, a period of homosexual scandal, of arrogance and rebellion that led to nothing. He was desperate to be a success- at anything, more or less. First he tried poetry and abandoned it when he could get no one to look at A Season in Hell. He then tried languages, which he could use as a traveler, a businessman, an interpreter. He tried to turn himself into a pianist- and gave that up quickly. He had no bona fide skills- just genius, which no one seemed to appreciate- so he turned to gunrunning, dealing in import-export, exploration, and writing about it (but in the driest possible way). Since he'd failed as a writer he rejected all bohemian values and longed for the sort of respectability and financial gain that his mother would admire...

But Rimbaud's legend has been amazingly long-lasting, self-contradictory, and widespread, far more vigorous that the posthumous reputation of Verlaine, for instance. Perhaps obscure poets (and Rimbaud invented obscurity) become more renowned than transparent ones since only the obscure need interpretation- that is their lasting appeal both to scholarly exegetes and adolescent mystics. In Rimbaud's case he also had his reputation as a teen rebel going for him- his outrageous arrogance, his photogenic looks, his extreme impertinence, his aberrant sexuality, his definitive renunciation of art at age nineteen and his sudden, bold departure for Africa.

He also had a devoted promoter in Verlaine.

To his associates in Harar, Rimbaud spoke of his years with Verlaine either not at all or scornfully. When his boss Bardey, for instance, asked him about his time in London, he dismissed it as "a period of drunkenness". And when another curious colleague in Africa asked him about his career as a poet, Rimbaud said, "Hogwash"-it was only hogwash." The word in French he used was rincure, an unusual one that comes from the word for "rinsing" and means "dishwater" or "slops" and is even used for "bad wine". Quizzed about the poets in his past, Rimbaud once told his boss that he'd known "those birds" rather well; Bardey claimed that Rimbaud once showed him a letter from Verlaine and said that he was sending his old friend a message "to leave me the hell alone"( Foutez-moi le paix!").

Verlaine, despite the contempt and lack of contact with Rimbaud, remained faithful to his genius. In 1883 he published three pamphlets called The Accursed Poets ( Les Poetes Mudits) about Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Tristan Corbiere. All three, now recognized as among the giants of their day, were unknown when Verlaine decided to write about them. The text about Rimbaud was especially courageous since it might have dredged up the scandals of the past: the trial, the imprisonment, his immoral relations with Rimbaud, the divorce. Bitter and angry and derisive towards Rimbaud in the years 1975 to 1880, Verlaine now spoke about him with affection and admiration. In the pamphlet Verlaine reproduced several of Rimbaud's poems, which many people in literary Paris were reading for the first time. They were stunned. As Edmond Lepelletier wrote, no one had very favorable memories of the boy they'd met fifteen years before. All they recalled were his beastly manners and the high opinion he had of himself: "The quotations that Verlaine gave were like a revelation." Without Verlaine's efforts Rimbaud would be just a footnote in the history of a fogotten literary movement, Zutisme.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Murdoch Comes To America by Michael Wolff

There's levels and levels of editing", Murdoch will tell me incredulously after an early tour of the Wall Street Journal's newsroom. "Every story gets edited about five times. Then it goes down to Princeton, where they put the paper to bed, there's 150 people there and they say, 'We do everything in the final edit to make sure everything is absolutely right and check the sources and stuff.' And I thought. 'Oh my God, it's a wonder anything ever gets in the paper or on time."

This has been a consistent disconnect- what American journalists think of when they think of the news and what Murdoch thinks about news. To Murdoch, even the word tabloid is misunderstood. "Tabloid" in the Murdoch context is an idea of immediacy, sharpness, efficiency, and emotion- it's news at its most visceral and powerful and entertaining. The craft, and it is a high craft, is compression. Necessary and vital compression: The tabloid tradition in Britain and Australia derives in part from newsprint rationing after the First and Second World Wars...

"Tabloid" in the modern U.S. context- to most people at the Journal , certainly- is about celebrities and gossip. It's faux news. Tabloidism is a modern journalistic illness, a virus spread most of all by Murdoch himself.

But Murdoch is, more accurately, not a modern journalist but the last representative from an era when a newspaper was its own advertisement, when it had to sell itself. Newspapers as sellers of news- as loud, unsubtle, rude instruments, as midway-type entertaiment (games of chance, horoscopes, funny pages)- were, of course, the American form too. The Hearst and Pulitzer empires were built on such papers. Any city with two or more papers fighting it out was certain to have a version of carnival news: cheaper (cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy), blunter, louder.

Then American papers- American news- turned orderly and genteel. This happened as newspapers, feeling television's competition, figured out a new business model: monopoly (largely by absorbing secondary papers). And then the big chains- Gannett, Knight Ridder, Tribune Company, Advance- replaced local owners. What's more, the American city as a working-class redoubt was transmuted into ghettos and suburban flight. The newsstand, and with it the battling urban evening newspaper, died. But a newspaper controlling its geographic position- not so much the city as its piece of the great expanding suburbs- had a monopoly on local ads. In a single-newspaper market, local advertisers often had no alternative but to advertise in the single paper. So a newspaper's best strategy was to be sedate, mannerly, uncontroversial- to offend no one, and not to call attention to the fact that it has monopolized the market, which it would certainly do if it screamed and bullied.

The dominant news voice in the United States has become a network television voice. News is now a serious, weighty, basso profundo affair, delivered by men of impeachable integrity and, relatively speaking, zero personality. News, bland news, self-important news, suddenly defined a kind of respectability and upward mobility. For the middle class, Walter Cronkite rather than Willian Randolph Hearst or a chain-smoking city editor came to represent the news...

Arriving in New York in the early seventies, Murdoch- whose papers are in markets where television news is hardly a factor, and are are still staffed by working-class reporters- is struck by one overpowering sense of the market: American news is lazy, stultifying, pickle-up-its-ass, boring. This suggests, to a man who has spent twenty years selling news in some of the most competitive news markets in the world, great opportunity.

Murdoch himself may have soured on and been disaffected with Britain, but Britain embraced his Sun. Its tone is pitch perfect. It is so spot-on that it effectively revolutionizes the form itself- in modern Britain, the tabloids become the most powerful media, breaking stories, setting the agenda, electing politicians, changing the culture. To question the form means you're standing on the sidelines. Questioning it, turning up your nose at its cultivated noxiousness, its calculated down-marketness, would make you something like an intellectual arguing against television, or a sixties parent decrying rock and roll.

The Sun and the News of the World are what he somehow hopes to bring to the United States. The size of his dream is disconcertingly huge- to be able to create a national tabloid with the success and impact of the Sun on a U.S. scale would be massive. And yet, judging by the incredibly boring newspapers in the United States, it seems almost like a no-brainer

Such sales as the Sun and the News of the World are having in the United Kingdom are dependent, however, on working class men (ideally with the same interests, i.e. soccer) who buy papers, and newstands where they can buy them. The absence of those factors in the U.S. market is an indication of how little Murdoch knows...In a car culture, in the great rolling suburbs, the only place the middle class gets to truly eyeball the cover of a periodical is in the supermarket. And all the middle-class people doing this eye-balling are women.

The Murdoch formula- his tabloid magic, his working-class insouciance, his badgering and bullying- is for men. The aggressiveness, the girls, the sports, the jokiness, the news- is for men.

Supermarkets in America do not really sell newspapers. Supermarkets sell magazines. And tabloids, aka "the tabs". In the seventies, the American tab is a magazine's newspaper hybrid- it fits into the supermarket checkout rack- that merges two publishing genres: the fanzine (with slavish attention to celebrities) and the fantastical (accounts of aliens and grotesques and deviants with only the barest pretense of being factual). Murdoch's idea of a tabloid as a media property that could become a powerful working class institution comes face to face with the American reality that a tabloid is a product that defines not only its readers' lack of standing but that of its owners. This is confounding and frustrating to him- and significantly, an entirely different business and cultural climate from any he's ever been in. He has no background in soft celebrity gossip targeted at women.

It's important to keep in mind how pre-modern Murdoch is. He's a fifties guy. A guy's guy. From an era when guys talked about guy's stuff.

Now comes the stubbornness and the relentlessness and the conviction that he can do whatever it takes. That, going forward, is the important thing. You set something in motion and then you try to control it. Doing it is what defines you. He remains committed to the tabloid model, unable to see beyond it, believing that the visceral impact of tabloidism has to prevail- and, indeed, finally will, on the Fox network and on Fox News.

Shakespeare's Wife By Germain Greer

All this, in common with most of this book, is heresy, and probably neither truer nor less true than accepted prejudice. Ann Shakespeare cannot sensibly be written out of her husband's life if only because he himself was so aware of marriage as a challenging way of life, a 'world-without-end bargain'. The Shakespeare wallahs have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have then vilified the one woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him. There can be no doubt that Shakespeare neglected his wife, embarrassed her and even humiliated her, but attempting to justify his behavior by vilifying her is puerile. The defenders of Ann Hathaway are usually derided as sentimental when they are trying simply to be fair. It is a more insidious variety of sentimentality that wants to believe that women who are ill treated must have brought it upon themselves. The creator of Hero, Desemona, Imogen and Hermonione knew better. Ann might say like Lady Macduff:

I have done no harm
I am in this earthy world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence
To say I have done no harm? (iv ii 75-80)