Sir Vidia Takes on Politics

Nobel Prize Laureate V.S. Naipaul

I have just finished reading V.S. Naipaul’s sixth novel, The Mimic Men (1967)—a semi-autobiographical work about what it is like to win fame and renown while coming from a place like the island of Trinidad, which he calls Isabella in the book. About fifty pages in, I came across his musings on politics and politicians, which I excerpt here:

Politicians are people who truly make something out of nothing. They have few concrete gifts to offer. They are not engineers or artists or makers. They are manipulators; they offer themselves as manipulators. Having no gifts to offer, they seldom know what they seek. They might say they seek power. But their definition of power is vague and unreliable. Is power the chauffeured limousine with fine white linen on the seats, the men from Special Branch outside the gates, the skilled and deferential servants? But this is only indulgence, which might be purchased by anyone at any time in a first-class hotel. Is it the power to bully or humiliate or take revenge? But this is the briefest sort of power; it goes as quickly as it comes; and the true politician is by his nature a man who wishes to play the game all his life. The politician is more than a man with a cause, even when this cause is no more than self-advancement. He is driven by some little hurt, some little incompleteness. He is seeking to exercise some skill which even to him is never as concrete as the skill of the engineer; of the true nature of this skill he is not aware until he begins to exercise it. How often we find those who after years of struggle and manipulation come close to the position they crave, sometimes indeed achieving it, and then are failures. They do not deserve pity, for among the aspirants to power they are complete men; it will be found that they have sought and achieved fulfilment elsewhere; it takes a world war to rescue a Churchill from political failure. Whereas the true politician finds his skill and his completeness only in success. His gifts suddenly come to him. He who in other days was mean, intemperate and infirm now reveals unsuspected qualities of generosity, moderation and swift brutality. Power alone proves the politician; it is ingenuous to express surprise at an unexpected failure or an unexpected flowering.

In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

A Thin Slice of Watermelon

A Great Writer? The Jewish-Ukrainian-Brazilian Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)

As my month of reading only women authors comes to an end, I find I have made a number of discoveries, especially Clarice Lispector, who was born Chaya Pinkhasivna Lispector in Chechelnyk, Ukrainian SSR in 1920. As a child, she emigrated with her family to the Northeast of Brazil, moving eventually to Rio de Janeiro. I am currently reading her last work before she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 57, a novelette entitled The Hour of the Star, from which the following is taken:

That girl didn’t know she was what she was, just as a dog doesn’t know it’s a dog. So she didn’t feel unhappy. The only thing she wanted was to live. She didn’t know for what, she didn’t ask questions. Maybe she thought there was a little bitty glory in living. She thought people had to be happy. So she was. Before her birth was she an idea? Before her birth was she dead? And after her birth she would die? What a thin slice of watermelon.

Also:

She thought she’d incur serious punishment and even risk dying if she took too much pleasure in life. So she protected herself from death by living less, consuming so little of her life that she’d never run out. This savings gave her a little security since you can’t fall farther than the ground.

The portraits of Lispector haunt me, with her high cheekbones. And her writing haunts me. I can see myself reading everything I can find by her.

Three Modern Day Gods

Romain Gary (1914-1980), French writer, at his place the day before his suicide. Paris, on December 1st, 1980.

There I was, reading the August 21, 2020 issue of the Times Literary Supplement in an article on the Franco-Lithuanian novelist Romain Gary, I suddenly came upon a new pantheon for our times:

  • Totoche, the god of stupidity
  • Merzavka, the god of absolute ideas
  • Filoche, the god of bigotry

The article goes into greater detail:

Totoche is a red-arsed monkey, adored by all who hurry humanity towards destruction: dim politicians who thump tubs, pure scientists who release genies from bottles, social psychologists who lead us up blind alleys, and demagogues who shout and bully. Merzavka is a cossack who stands gleefully, horsewhip in hand, on heaps of corpses industrially produced by concentration camps and torture chambers. Half of us lick his boots and the other half live or die by the religious, political and moral ideologies by which he rules and kills. Filoche is a concierge waiting to pounce on petty infringements of house rules, a hyena scavenging for scraps of racism, intolerance and orthodoxy with which to justify lynchings, holy wars and persecution.

The article, entitled “Brought to Book,” was written by David Coward.

In many ways, Gary’s invented deities were to perfectly describe the United States during the Trump Administration, even though Gary himself had long since (1980) passed on.

The Vast Armies of the Benighted

A Scene from the Merchant Ivory Production of A Room with a View (1986)

I have never ceased to marvel how some homosexual authors as Marcel Proust were so brilliant at translating their knowledge of relationships into a more “acceptable” heterosexual context. This is also true of E. M. Forster, whose A Room with a View I have recently read. The following is taken from Chapter Seventeen of that novel:

It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that, to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.

“Something Buried Somewhere in the Book”

G. K. Chesterton Holding Book and Pen

I can think of few authors who can be read and re-read with as much pleasure as G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). I am currently re-reading his Autobiography, which is less an autobiography than a collection of essays on various themes suggested by his life. If there is any vestige remaining within me of the Catholicism with which I was raised and educated, it is owing largely to Chesterton and such writers as Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. What Chesterton says here about a soi-disant biography he wrote about Robert Browning applies equally to his own autobiography.

Finally, a crown of what I can only call respectability came to me from the firm of Macmillan; in the form of a very flattering invitation to write the study of Browning for the English Men of Letters Series. It had just arrived when I was lunching with Max Beerbohm, and he said to me in a pensive way: “A man ought to write on Browning while he is young.” No man knows he is young while he is young. I did not know what Max meant at the time; but I see now that he was right; as he generally is. Anyhow, I need not say that I accepted the invitation to write a book on Browning. I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong. But there is something buried somewhere in the book; though I think it is rather my boyhood than Browning’s biography.

A Portuguese Plague Diary

The Costumes Might Be Different, But It’s the Same Thing

The following are quoted from Gonçalo M. Tavares’s “My Plague Diary,” excerpts of which were published in the June 5, 2020 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

For days, a violent poster campaign on the streets of the capital: if you are reading this, our condolences. You don’t want to be shut up at home, but in a coffin instead.

This poster worries more about your family than you do.

If you go out, you kill. If you go out, you die. If you go out and get sick, don’t complain. In any case, you won’t be able to complain.

If you have just gone out to visit your family, say goodbye to them.

At the entrance to the Metro: here’s hoping you don’t read me, here’s hoping you don’t die.

A lot of Brazilian prisoners are writing goodbye letters to their families. They say they’re getting sick. Coughing, fever, cries for help in a number of cells.

A picture from two weeks ago, jackals in the streets of Tel Aviv. They are hungry and they’ve lost their fear. Because they are hungry they’ve lost their fear. They need to go back to having fear or food, somebody says.

A friend from Brazil writes to me: “I wish I had a loudspeaker, like this guy in Ipanema.” They say he’s on the tenth floor, opposite the beach, and he’s set his speaker up on the balcony. And from all the way up there he was issuing warnings through his loudspeaker: Hey, lad in the blue shirt, the one on the bike, yeah, you! You’re going to get coronavirus, you know. Hey, lady in the flowery swimsuit, with your hair done and the red lipstick, yes you! You’re going to get coronavirus, you know…! She lives in Rio. She’s terrified.

Unemployment reaches 1929 Great Depression levels in the USA, and in Guatemala, women on the side of the road are holding a white flag. They wave the white flag when a car or a motorbike passes. They are unemployed, they ask anyone who stops for food.

Maria Branyas, aged 113, is now the oldest person to beat the novel coronavirus.

Dizziness, I’ve got to check this out. Too many days like this. Lying down, I’m fine, but sometimes it’s good to be on two feet. They don’t seem like days—but days in the middle of something. As if the day even when it is finished were not complete. It is always between one thing and another. These days are always the middle sibling. A need for lightness; feeding the dogs organizes my time; without their hunger I would surely be having more dizzy spells.

Two actions of resistance. You must wait or clean. How long does evil remain on a surface? Think about evil that can be eliminated by cleaning.

Doesn’t matter what you think, what matters is what you do.

Serendipity: Wounded Bear

No, Not Donald Trump—This Time

The following consists of the opening paragraphs of novelist Trygve Gulbranssen’s Beyond Sing the Woods (1933), set in 18th century Norway. The novel reads almost like an old Icelandic saga. It is a pity that it is not better known.

The crags above the depths of Maiden Valley were deepening to blue and their lines softening in the raw air of the autumn evening. Behind them the sky flamed, with a streak of blood where the sun was setting. Upon the outermost crag a bear stood, dark as the rock itself, and sniffed towards the Broad Leas where mist lay over tarn and water-way.

His head was lean and sharp, his neck long and scraggy and sparsely covered with fur. These last few autumns he had been late in hibernating; for all his plundering and devouring the comfortable, lazy, autumnal heaviness of his younger days was slower every year in coming, and this year there was something gravely wrong. Somewhere in his body pain snarled at him, and meat had lost its savor. The greater part of every carcass he left lying, and when he gulped a little warm blood, half-living hearts, and other such light fare, he could eat no more.

No longer could he stalk elk in the forest, for his body soon stiffened and wearied, and the pain had gnawed ever since that dread reëchoing bang came at him from the man away to the north in the Björndal woods. The bang had torn its way into his flank so that the blood gushed, and the wound ached and gnawed at him long afterwards. But though he could no longer go after elk, he had felled cattle and stolen many sheep.

This autumn people had housed their animals too early. On one or two evenings he had had to venture as far as their dwellings under cover of dusk, and break in the cattle-shed doors to find blood and meat. Men had come after him with yells and shouts, but he had dashed his paw at one of them so that he fell and lay still. After that they had followed him no further.

Both men and dogs down here in the Broad Leas were different from those northward in Björndal, where he had raided in his young days. There they had hounds that hurtled upon one, and yapped and barked and drove one out of one’s wits, while the men came quietly without yells or shouts, and one was not aware of them until they were close—then would come a bang shivering through guts and bones, leaving a pain that stayed. Down here in the Leas dogs slunk scared behind the men, and there was only noise and uproar, and no bangs. He would stay here, and in the evening when the lights were out make his way down to the byres.

He remained standing for a long time, pitch-black against the sky now darkening to blood and night. His head stood out sharply, his ragged neck stretched at a slant from his powerfully built body, shrunken now, with pointed shoulder-blades sticking up under his coat.

A Camus Notebook 1942

French Existentialist Writer/Philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960)

I have been Reading Albert Camus’ Notebooks 1942-1951 from which I have excerpted the following selections from the year 1942. Even a fragmentary work by such a great writer is well worth the effort. I keep thinking of Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées have been a major part of my life since high school.

Secret of my universe: Imagining God without human immortality.

Capital punishment. The criminal is killed because the crime has spent all the capacity for living a man has. He has experienced everything if he has killed. He can die. Murder drains a man.

“What am I thinking that is greater than I and that I experience without being able to define it? A sort of arduous progress toward a theory of negation—a heroism without God—man alone, in short.”

Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.

Solitary arrivals at night in strange cities—that sensation of stifling, being transcended by an organism a thousand times more complex. It is enough to locate the main street on the morrow, everything falls into place in relation to it, and we settle in. Collect memories of night arrivals in strange cities, live on the power of those unknown hotel rooms.

Novel. Beside the dying body of the woman he loves: “I can’t, I can’t let you die. For I know that I shall forget you. Hence I’ll lose everything and I want to keep you on this side of the world, the only one where I am capable of embracing you, etc., etc.”
She: “Oh, it’s a dreadful thing to die knowing one will be forgotten.”
Always see an express at the same time the two aspects.

Sexual life was given to man to distract him perhaps from his true path. It’s his opium. With it everything falls asleep. Outside it, things resume life. At the same time chastity kills the species, which is perhaps the truth.

Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest love novels because it ends in failure and revolt—I mean in death without hope. The main character is the devil. Such a love can be maintained only through the ultimate failure that is death. It can continue only in hell.

Living with one’s passions amounts to living with one’s sufferings, which are the counterpoise, the corrective, the balance, and the price. When a man has learned—and not on paper—how to remain alone with his suffering, how to overcome his longing to flee, the illusion that others may share, then he has little left to learn.

Serendipity: Marley’s Ghost

Tiny Tim with Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

In honor of Christmas, I will excerpt a brief scene from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, representing the first moment when Ebenezer Scrooge realizes that something is not quite right. He sees, instead of the usual door knocker, the face of his dead partner Jacob Marley. (I know I was a little hard on Dickens in a post I wrote last week, but I think that this particular story is not only one of his best: It has influenced the way that Christmas is celebrated across the West.)

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including—which is a bold word—the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

The Door Knocker Transposed into Marley’s Face

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.

He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley’s pigtail sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said “Pooh, pooh!” and closed it with a bang.