Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Inventing the Individual: a perverse view of the last 2,000 years

You could say that Larry Siedentop is swimming against the tide. You notice it first of all in the jacket image for the UK hardback edition. He uses Van Eyck's The Goldsmith,  a portrait from 1436, which you or I might see as a perfect example of the newly invented "individual", a modern staring at us through the picture frame. But that's not how the book sees it. According to the author, individualism started with St Paul.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual gives the impression that it could have been written at any time in the last 50 years. His intellectual heroes are the little-known Fustel de Coulanges  (“religion was the sole factor in the evolution of ancient Greece and Rome, the bonding of family and state was the work of religion … ancient religion thus consisted of worship of divine ancestors through the paterfamilias”) and the unread Francois Guizot (only remembered as prime minister of France, not for his vast quantity of historical writing).  You could even interpret in the acknowledgements to Siedentop’s book a thanks the woman who typed the manuscript (he doesn’t actually say this, but she is thanked for ‘patience in the face of the successive revisions of the manuscript’).  Looks to me like the author has himself something of the paterfamilias.

This book is about how the individual became the organising social role in the West – no arguments about that. What is novel, at least novel for the 21st century, is that Siedentop claims this individualism started with St Paul. The author’s argument is that ancient religion was all about the family (“the religion of the Greek and Roman pre-history did not speak to the individual conscience. Rather, it spoke to and through the family.” In contrast, St Paul emphasised a  personal relationship with God: “the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social roles”.

In some way, which I chose not to examine in detail, this individual relationship became the dominant mode of the Church through successive medieval popes creating a centralized administrative system in the C12 and C13. This I fail to see. As a result, in Siedentop’s view, the Renaissance loses much of its importance (even though the one thing about the Renaissance that everyone will tell you is that it was the age that invented the individual). In fact, he argues perversely that “secularization depended on the idea of personal freedom”, which itself was a product of Christianity.

I can believe in “liberal secularism” as the dominant mode of thought in the West today, but it seems to me stretching things a bit to identify the origin of liberal secularism with St Paul. Not surprisingly, there is next to no mention of the Enlightenment in Siedentop’s book.  The idea of individual freedom and equality owing their origin to the despised and ridiculed Christianity would make Voltaire and Diderot turn in their grave (not of course that they would have complied with such a Christian tradition as burial).

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

History: from darkness to light?

From Darkness to Light (image by Imen Bouhajja, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One view of history, perhaps perverse, is to see much, if not most of human history as a picture of prejudice, myth and irrationality, which has only very recently, and even today only partially, been eradicated. The latest issue of the TLS is an example. The lead article is devoted to a book about the religious writings of Isaac Newton. It is well known that Newton was a religious fanatic, yet I was surprised at the Newton revealed here.

Equal parts litigator, millenarian, numerologist, moralist and paranoid conspiracy theorist … his clandestine, lifelong and almost entirely fruitless obsession with the subordinate status of Christ
(Oliver Moody, review of Priest of Nature: The religious worlds of Isaac Newton, TLS Feb 23 2018)

We are talking here about the man who is revered as one of the founders of modern mathematics, claimed by some to be the greatest scientist who ever lived. A few pages later, there is a study of several medieval historians. These writers, dating back some six or seven hundreds of years, display a vast array of blatant prejudice.

Clerical misogyny drove both Gervase of Canterbury and William of Newburgh to attribute the failure of the Second Crusade to a lack of chastity in the camps (Leon Craig, TLS Feb 23 2018, p10)

What nonsense is this? Are we supposed to take these historians seriously? And of course the medieval historians reveal rampant anti-Semitism, with references to the so-called blood libel. Perhaps we should be more surprised at any evidence at all of reasonable thought before the Enlightenment. The sheer otherness of earlier cultures is at times overwhelming. Did anyone ever think rationally?

Friday, 9 February 2018

Contradictions: Bacon, Freud and the London Painters

 I was mystified by this exhibition, at AROS in Aarhus, Denmark (November 2017). I can’t deny it included Bacon and Freud, as the title states, and many, if not all the painters were based in London at some point. Some exhibitions have a theme, something running throughout the show that enables you to see this or that work in a new light, alongside another. Despite the undoubted quality of many of the 90 or so paintings shown here in their own right, seemed to gain little from being placed alongside each other. I tried several criteria before admitting failure, but in the end, all I could say about this group of painters was that they were to be found in London at various times from the 1950s to the 1990s – and that doesn’t tell you much. Perhaps the other uniting factor is that the Tate owns all of them, which at least explains one rationale for the show.

 On further examination it turns out that R B Kitaj coined the phrase “school of London” (rather than "London Painters" – when I googled this, all I got was painters and decorators). From the Tate glossary of art terms:
School of London was a term invented by artist R.B. Kitaj to describe a group of London-based artists who were pursuing forms of figurative painting in the face of avant-garde approaches in the 1970s 
Well, many of these paintings date from well before the 1970s, but perhaps you could try to define them by opposition to something else – hardly much of a criterion. Let’s not worry too much about this definition, and see if there are any possible criteria for looking at these paintings together. But all I found was a lack of commonality:
  • Oppression v sensitivity: there were large-scale images of oppression and dread by Bacon. Nearby were highly sensitive depictions of nudes by Coldstream, Uglow and Freud. They bore little relation to each other. Freud, Coldstream, Uglow have an emphasis on the human form, in the case of Coldstream and Uglow almost as a still-life, a powerful, respectful nudity, whereas most figures in a Bacon painting would I am sure prefer not to be there at all. Freud can paint like this, but can also stray in the direction of suggesting vulnerability and unease. In Freud, the individual is typically overwhelmed, either by their surroundings, or by some other figure dominating (or penetrating) them. 
  • Caricature v portrait study: there was nothing in common between Kitaj or Bomberg and Uglow and Coldstream. Kitaj and Andrews create highly stylized, caricature-like figures, as does Rego. Uglow and Coldstream depict the painstaking measuring they carried out to capture the human form in proportion. Rego would say that proportion is not the point. 
  • Narrative v portrait: Rego, Andrews, Kitaj are painters of stories, while Uglow and Coldstream attempt to capture the essence of a human through portraiture. Even when the subject is naked, the figure remains a recognisable individual, with almost tangible corporality. By contrast, Paula Rego and R B Kitaj are both telling stories through their paintings, albeit in very different ways. Rego tells a narrative, even creating a triptych in Hogarth-like fashion to show the progression of a marriage. Kitaj uses a kind of collage, assembly of components that together create a kind of story or argument around a topic 
  • Identifiable location v never-never land: David Bomberg paints the swimming pool where his child used to swim. David Kossoff paints Christ Church in Spitalfields. In contrast, Uglow’s nudes are in an unidentified interior, and have no sense of a specific location. Michael Andrews paints specific locations (Study for a man in a landscape, where the man is identified) as well as images set in no specific place (Man who suddenly fell over). 

What are we to make of it all? It’s a fascinating show, with some memorable images not often displayed, such as the early Coldstream portraits, and Freud’s 1947 Girl with a Kitten, as well as the magnificent Rego The Betrothal. Trying to pull all these pictures together is beyond me. But never mind, if the pictures themselves are good enough. Just enjoy the view, and don't try to lump them together.

Monday, 5 February 2018

How far do you justify your subject in a biography?

I know next nothing about St Augustine, but I’m quite prepared to believe that his autobiography is “one of the great books of the world” (Lucy Beckett, TLS,  May 18 2016). But does writing a great autobiography mean that subsequent readers and biographers justify his every action? Here is Ms Beckett describing Augustine’s relations with women:
It’s sadder, and seriously unjust, that down the ages Augustine has taken much of the blame for the Church’s negative attitude to women and to sex. He lived faithfully with a poor Carthaginian woman for thirteen years, from when he was a seventeen-year-old student, and was devoted to their son. He was heart-broken when he had to send her back to Carthage from Italy because she couldn’t be fitted into the project (largely his mother’s) of a socially and financially beneficial marriage to underpin what was becoming his successful career. He replaced her briefly with another concubine before his final commitment to celibacy.
It's quite common for biographies to depict their subject in the best possible light; but on the basis of the above statement, it looks to me like Augustine has quite a lot to answer for the Church’s negative attitude to women. Heartbroken he may have been, and I’m sure I would be too, but he still left his wife and child for a career-enhancing marriage. Not quite the role model Ms Beckett would like Augustine to be. 

The idea of Republicanism in early modern Europe

Much of history is a bit of a puzzle to me. I read about short moments in human history, and get excited (as no doubt do many other readers) by some of it making sense; but then later I start to ask what came before, and what happened afterwards, and it’s all a bit of a fog. It’s a bit like piecing  a jigsaw together; but occasionally, a book or a thinker comes along who seems to provide another piece of the jigsaw.

Years ago I was fascinated by the idea that the Italian Renaissance was to some extent inspired by ideas of republicanism. Some early republican histories glorified the city’s independence and, well, republicanism. It made sense, that a movement that was modern in many ways drew inspiration from what we today would think of as the more modern political system. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that – the republican moment in Rome was ended for all time with the assassination of Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic. But it was possible to draw a convincing picture, and Hans Baron drew it, of a republican Italian city state of Florence displaying Renaissance ideas and political republicanism, up to the seizure of power by the Medici in the early 15th century. But what happened to republicanism after that? Did it die with the end of republican Florence? 

A fascinating TLS review from 2009 (Richard Bourke, review of J G A Pocock, Political Thought and History, Sept 25 2009) suggests what happened.

Pocock shared with [Quentin] Skinner a particular interest in the resurgence of “republican” political thought in Western European history … they also share an ambition to track the fate of the ideal of citizenship associated with republican politics after the decline of the Italian city-states … from the sixteenth century. However, both scholars … vary in their understanding of the crisis of republican politics.
 While Skinner’s work has focused on the devastating impact of Thomas Hobbes on the fortunes of the republican ideal of liberty, Pocock … has been concerned … with rival visions of politics … an antithesis between civilized corruption and natural purity, radical philosophes like Diderot pitted the image of innocent nature against the accumulated degeneracy of civilization, and in the process helped to inaugurate the anti-historial mentality of subsequent revolutionary politics.

Quite how the idea of republicanism became a pitched battle between Diderot’s North American Indian and the over-sophisticated Europeans is a something I cannot explain. But at least there is a suggestion in the work of Pocock that there might be some kind of link – and that the dream of republicanism did not die in Florence the day the Medici took power. Of course, if the grand idea of republican civic values just petered out when confronted by Diderot fashionable attachment to primitive innocence, then I do start to have doubts about the Enlightenment - did they really know what they were talking about?

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Attitudes to William Morris

Today was the last day of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, dedicated to May Morris, Morris's younger daughter. This was the first time I had been to Walthamstow for over 20 years, and it was a welcome opportunity to see the gallery again – and to discover that admission is still free.

The exhibition, not surprisingly, is rather autobiographical, blending works by May Morris with her politics and her life. The exhibition was quite small and there was the chance to see the main display about William Morris himself. In the bookshop there was a very small collection of books for sale, including the biography of William Morris by Fiona McCarthy (1994). For someone of my generation, it is impossible to think of William Morris without the E P Thompson biography, first published in 1955 but extensively revised in 1976.  Which is the one to read? Each of them is vast (McCarthy, the shorter, is 780 pages).

I discovered reviews of both titles. Broadly speaking, and simplifying somewhat, McCarthy provides the creative artist without the politics, and Thompson provides the politics without the creative artist. Does this matter? Well, according to Terry Eagleton, it does.

There is a TLS review (by James Pope-Hennessy) of the first edition of E P Thompson’s book that, unsurprisingly for its period, dismisses it. “In spite of its inordinate length, this is not even a complete study of Morris, for it largely confines itself to his socialist theories.” This review complains about Thompson’s lack of impartiality and complains “how fluffy were Morris’s socialist views” – and claims the prose romances are largely unreadable. For Pope-Hennessy, “Mr Thompson is too shrill to be persuasive”. This review betrays its age. For this reviewer, the best approach to Morris is “to deny his socialism, to forget the prose romances, and remember only the poems, the textiles, the tapestries, and the typography”.

In contrast, Terry Eagleton’s review engaged more with its subject. Eagleton claims that Morris is “one of the greatest Marxist cultural theorists Britain has ever produced, which is not perhaps saying a great deal for British Marxist cultural theory.” “His achievement was to take the Romantic critique of industrial capitalism and harness it for the first time to a progressive political force, the British labour movement. He was thus medievalist and materialist together”. That sounds more interesting. Eagleton complains that McCarthy fails “to reflect on his elusive inner being” – whatever that was. Perhaps Morris was summed up by his external activities.

Perhaps the most balanced judgement is Ruth Levitas, of the University of Bristol, in a 1996 review. She points to Thompson’s revision of his biography in 1976.  In this revision, “Thompson insists that Morris is both a utopian and a Marxist, with neither a hyphen or a sense of contradiction … between the two terms” …. “Morris’s particular contribution was to sustain this synthesis”. Perhaps there might be a view of Morris that doesn't just see him as the last champion of Ruskinian craftsmanship, before the modern world was overwhelmed by machine manufacture. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Scandinavian Paradox

The popular image of Scandinavians is full of contradictions. Denmark, Norway and Sweden must be by several measures the richest, happiest and most successful societies the world has ever known. [...] Scandinavia is also famous for hedonism and sexual freedom; yet the plots of Scandi noir stories often turn not on crimes but on old sins: adultery, incest, abuse.
Tom Shippey, TLS, December 2 2016