October 2011

On October 19, Sylvia and I became grandparents. Our son James’s wife Lien gave birth to Ashley Elizabeth in Santa Clara, California. All three are doing great, and we look forward to visiting them in December.

I was not inconsiderably miffed to read, in an article in the New York Times about the seriously ill Christopher Hitchens, that the journalist and public intellectual ‘had recently come up with some new ideas about his hero, George Orwell, for example – among them that Orwell might have had Asperger’s – and he said he ought to include them in a revised edition of his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters”’. Regular readers of this site will be familiar with my 2005 article (sadly unpublished: see Orwell’s Clock) that made this tentative but original diagnosis, shortly after to be echoed in Professor Michael Fitzgerald’s book “The Genesis of Artistic Creativity”. I had attempted to contact Mr. Hitchens a few years ago, bringing his attention to a copy of my article, as I shared his obvious enthusiasm for Orwell, but I never heard back from him. While I can understand how he could overlook my contributions to the field, I was surprised that he had not seen Professor Fitzgerald’s volume. I thus sent an email to the NYT reporter, Charles McGrath, and also attempted a posting on the Daily Hitchens website. I was gratified to see that the blog editor had published my message (at  http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7073647307948118016&postID=5467002031484202634&isPopup=true   ) We shall watch to see what happens next.

Another echo of something I wrote earlier was provided by the historian Juliet Gardiner, in the magazine Prospect of October 2011. She wrote: “The spectre of the 1930s still hovers over Britain. A decade in which politicians were found incapable of dealing with crushing economic and social problems, including intractable unemployment; an international situation where ‘liberal intervention’ was constantly contested and seen to bring a slew of unwelcome commitments; a people largely out of love with their government, suspicious of the impotence and contumely of politicians. The parallels seem stark.” This would appear to reinforce my message in “A Recent Mirror”, a short piece that won a prize in aHistory Book Club competition, which can be seen here.      And the comparisons with the 1930s appear to be being taken up by other observers. In the New York Times of October 15, Joe Nocera wrote a column titled “The 1930s Sure Sound Familiar”, which can be seen at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/opinion/nocera-the-1930s-sure-sound-familiar.html?_r=1&ref=opinion , drawing upon Frederick Lewis Allen’s “Since Yesterday”, and making the same point.

I am continually surprised at the quality and number of new books being published about World War II. On this site I recently wrote about Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”: this month I read another fine example – Michael Burleigh’s “Moral Combat”. Burleigh shows a deep understanding of the dynamics of the conflicts and inhumanities of the war, unafraid to offer his opinion, but reluctant to moralize superficially. His lessons are fairly simple, among which I would emphasize the following: that it is clear that there were evil agents at large in the war, and that monstrous acts were perpetrated at all levels; that evil is more easily recognizable than good; that the evils of Communism have been understated in relation to those of Nazism; that certain inhumane actions (such as the bombing of Dresden) were justified in the pursuit of the greater goal; that no one who has not been put in the position of such dilemmas as resisting evil when the lives of hostages were at stake can easily pontificate on such questions; and that the Law of Unintended Consequences is always at work during apparently ‘moral’ campaigns. Burleigh for the most part avoids attributing collective guilt, indicating, correctly, that evil works through an accumulation of individual human choices. For that reason I was surprised when a wishy-washy twenty-first century liberal conscience on one occasion pierced his cool analysis. In Chapter 17 he writes: “More recent episodes of Western amorality are far more contemptible than the choices made by wartime Allied governments.” Amorality ascribed to such an entity as  ‘the West’? Surely not that simple.

When I was last in England, I bought a remaindered copy of a privately-published biography of the prolific novelist and make-believe spy William Le Queux (“William Le Queux: Master of Mystery”, by Chris Patrick and Stephen Baister). I had come across Le Queux in my readings on espionage, but knew little about him, and had never read any of his works. The only work of his held in my local public library (Wilmington. N.C.) was in an unimpressive collection of detective stories edited by Graham Greene’s brother Hugh, “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”. These were trivial items, mostly, but the name of another contemporary writer anthologised by Greene caught my eye – that of Ernest Bramah. Bramah was a name I knew from an old Penguin in my father’s possession in the 1950s, “The Wallet of Kai Lung”. Again, I had not read anything by him: the Oxford DNB entry (like that of Le Queux) is rather feeble, but the Wikipedia entry led me to discover that, in 1907, he had written a dystopian novel that had influenced George Orwell. Originally titled “What Might Have Been”, it was re-issued as “The Secret of the League”, and Orwell reviewed it (along with Huxley’s “Brave New World”, London’s “The Iron Heel”, and Wells’s “Sleeper Awake”) in Tribune in July 1940. An original – but scruffy – copy of this volume will set you back over $3000, but, fortunately, it has been reprinted (with several errors) by the Specular Press in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was able to buy a copy at a reasonable price via abebooks.

“The Secret of the League” describes a revolt by a group of bourgeois/capitalists against a confiscatory Socialist government. It is not a well-written book. It is choppily constructed, has a leaky socio-economic framework (the socialists do not nationalize industries, but bleed them), offers mainly two-dimensional characterization, and its dénouement is melodramatic. Yet it has some passages of wit and insight – as I believe the extracts that I have posted in my Commonplace book will show. While earlier having regarded Bramah as ‘a rarer bird than the Phoenix – a modest literary man’, Orwell rather woodenly deplored Bramah’s attack on the proletariat. But the proles are not the villains. Bramah directs his scorn at simple-minded government ministers confiscating money to spend on entitlements while ignoring how wealth is created, yet concludes his novel in a spirit of some reconciliation and uncertainty. The Socialist practices described could well be applied to Greece today. Indeed, the book must have influenced Ayn Rand and her paean to free enterprise in “Atlas Shrugged”, written fifty years later. The main mysterious figure (who turns out to have been a naval hero) is named ‘Salt’, and the cry ‘Who is Salt?’ finds its echo in Rand’s ‘Who is John Galt?’. Rand’s life-sucking bureaucrat Wesley Mouch is the re-incarnation of the earthy but power-hungry members of the Socialist cabinet – Mulch, Guppling, Tubes and Vossit. I include passages from both Burleigh’s and Bramah’s books in this month’s Commonplace entries. (October 31, 2011)

September was highlighted by a visit to the UK to celebrate the marriage of our elder nephew, Jonathan, to Pippa. A hectic trip, but a delightful occasion on a fine day in Essex. A shorter-than-usual set of Commonplace entries this month. (October 1, 2011)

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