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February 2014

We had to see it, and see it we did. It is King Lear in worn jeans with grease under the fingernails.

For plot details see the Internet Movie Database entry at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1821549/
Or the official web site: http://www.nebraskamovie.co.uk

Nebraska title.jpg

What I liked about it included, the wonderful cinematography that made the Sandhills seem almost alive in the background of the long drive.

But even better was the slow and steady camera survey of the ruined and wrecked Woody’s face in confusion, despair, determination, loss, repose, fatigue, purpose. Bruce Dern is center stage and mostly silent while the camera follows the emotions across his face.
Viewers may remember Bruce from ‘Coming Home” (1978) or ‘Silent Running (1972). If not, they should!

Having yielded reluctantly his kingdom to age, like Lear, Woody tries to reclaim it a little of it in that lottery scam.

One of his two sons, having nothing better to do makes the futile trip with him. During the drive this son, David, learns many things, some about himself and some about his irascible, volatile, not very loving or lovable father. And he meets many very nice people and a couple not so nice. Such is life.

David sees in Woody lost opportunities, mistakes, quiet achievements that no one knows about but his wife Kate, who wants to stomp Woody more often than not but destroys those others who might criticize or take advantage of him. All in all, it gives David a lot to think about in his own life, about 40, going grey, bunking alone in a motel room.

The other son, Ross, seems completely self-centred, and yet when he is needed, he is there. Capped with a marvelous scene when the two brothers momentarily return to their youth, communicating preternaturally, and off they go to get that damned air compressor. They learn next time not to take quite so literally what is said by someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Well, maybe not diagnosed, for when a well-meaning stranger asks David if Woody has Alzheimer's he replies in the payoff line of the movie: ‘No, he just believes what people say to him.’ It is such a gem I thought, in my perfect hindsight it should have come later to cap it off.

The most powerful scene? Several come to mind, but none can beat Kate, Woody’s long suffering wife, when she bellows down the ravenous relatives who think Woody has indeed won the lottery. Jane Squibb as Kate blows their hair off, and the eyes of her two adult sons pop when she does.

I could not find an image of this scene, but here she is pensive.

But even more moving is the short drive down the street with Woody at the wheel of a new truck with an air compressor in the back. Redemption without a word.

Some critics, seeking always to be critical, which is usually translated as different if not perverse, suppose the director, writer, producer Alexander Payne is mocking the people who inhabit this story. I heard that a lot regarding his earlier movie ‘About Schmidt’ (2002) and let it go through to the keeper since the very assertion betrays an incomprehension so deep no remedy applies. It is a conclusion only a critic could draw.

This is not the country of Bill 'The-Cheaper-the-Shot-the-Better' Bryson.

Payne shows us a world, complete unto itself. It is light and dark, and within its confines, it has good and evil, too, but they shade into and out of each other. It is life.

I did not know Hollywood still made movies about real people, living real lives. It is a pleasure to see it is. Made by adults for adults.

I have no doubt that higher being Roger Ebert would put all thumbs up for this one.

I read this biography in the American Presidents program I set myself.  Eugene who? A president?  He was a presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, and my program extends to candidates, too.  Some unsuccessful candidates, like William Jennings Bryan, are far more interesting than some successful candidates, e.g., Grover Cleveland.  Both were Debs's contemporaries.  


The book sets Debs (1855-1926) in the context of his time, which was the Age of Robber Barons after the Civil War and reached national proportions from the late 1870s.  In Debs's experience this New Dawn played out on railroads and the unions of railway workers.  

From the spread of the Iron Horse to the 1850s railroads were locally owned and managed.  They usually came about from the combined capital and labor of men in a few small towns, hence the names of early railroads like 'The Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe' or 'The Kearny, Grand Island, and Hastings Line.'  Businessmen in the three towns would pool their money and borrow from local banks to raise the investment capital and to hire and train labor from the same three town to build the railroads connecting their three towns.  In boom times many did this and there were perhaps as many as 5000 of these independent railroads in the United States.  See Steven Salsbury, 'No Way to Run a Railroad' (1982) for background.

Each railroad was a small business where the owners knew all the workers and vice versa, sat next to them in church on Sunday, stood by them at parades on the 4th of July, and sent their children to the same local schools.  Accordingly, employer paternalism assisted workers, and workers made an extra effort to bolster their own towns' fortunes for their employers. What was good for the Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was good for Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe and all those who live in those towns and work on that railroad. 

This was the world that Debs entered as a high school drop out.  (His bourgeoise parents wanted him to stay in school but he wanted the pocket money, and his strong will prevailed.)  His aptitude for office work soon took him off the locomotives.  Once he became a clerk, he also did the same work for the rail brotherhoods, these were philanthropic combinations that offered services to railwaymen, usually those injured, many started as funeral insurance funds. They worked closely with the paternalistic owners, and were often tougher on dubious claims than were the more socially distant and benevolent owners. Debs soon became a leader in these self-help associations, which were the seeds of trade unions.  

Though there was much rail there was no national network, and there were few connections because gauges differed, the rolling stock was often locally made and so distinctive if not idiosyncratic, and so on and on.  Despite the thousands of miles of track, it was still difficult and expensive to ship something from Omaha to Boston.  Enter the Robber Barons.  When recessions and depressions hit, they bought up these local lines cheaply and began the slow and expensive process of unifying the equipment, the organizations, the accompanying telegraph, and the labor practices.  They took the ownership and control of railroads out of the hands of locals.  Head office was now in New York City in the conglomerate that Was J. J. Hill, and not in the next pew on Sunday, or in the next chair in the barbershop.  

Injured railwaymen, and there were many, were cast aside and newly arrived immigrants who would work for less were taken on, and in turn disposed of when they were injured.  Try the Frank Norris novel 'The Octopus' (1901) for the gruesome details, far beyond the horrors of Stephen King's imagination.  

In this context the railway brotherhoods (firemen, brakemen, linemen, telegraphers, engineers, etc - these divisions among railway men proved to be as much the problem as the hostility of the Robber Barons) gradually moved to trade unions, the relationship between labor and owners becomes formal, attenuated, and belligerent, the conflict between those already there and immigrants added violence to the equation.

When conflict is unavoidable, per Salvatore, Debs shows an intellectual inconsistency and moral weakness in seeking compromises with the forces of darkness (CAPITAL) to deliver real, immediate, and tangible benefits to union members.  Heaven forbid!  He is as bad as these Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee who concentrated on building a clean and safe city for workers, eschewing class conflict for sewer lines and trams to carry labour to work, not to protest again capital.  It is no wonder that these Wisconsin socialists have been nearly written out of left history.

Debs's persistent effort to promote reform rather than launch a revolution, his willingness to ally with William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt in the mainstream of electoral politics, his effort to use the ballot box rather than direct action or violent strikes, his penchant for citing Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, or Harriet Martineau and not Karl Marx bemuses Salvatore, and is offered as evidence of Deb's naiveté. Such is the view from Olympus.

Debs was a tireless labor organizer and speaker. The very few quotations from auditors that make it into these pages suggest he hectored, badgered, and brimstoned his audiences.
Debs hectoring.jpg
H. L. Mencken said he spoke ‘wth a tongue of fire,’ and I guess that is what he meant. Mencken is not cited in this book, though he was surely the shapest observer of his time, and he certainly had the serpent’s tongue himself.

It is sadly true that Debs was jailed, and sometimes beaten up by thugs in the employ of CAPITAL.  But it also true that at times agents of wicked CAPITALISM asked his advice, deferred to him, and treated him with respect.  

In time he became involved in the Populist backlash that the Robber Barons generated, igniting at the end of those railways in the Middle, North, and South west.  He was mooted as the presidential candidate of the nascent Populist Party in the 1896 Presidential election, but Debs instead nominated William Jennings Bryan.  To comrade Salvatore this flirtation with Populism and alignment with Bryan are proof absolute that Debs was dopey.  

In 1912 he got 900,000 votes or 6%. This was the high water mark. The votes had no effect on the outcome: Woodrow Wilson won. Debs was last, behind both Teddy Roosevelt whose one-man party finished second and the Republican incumbent William H. Taft who finished third. But each campaign allowed this man, born to the priesthood, to preach across the nation. Though he was a very intense speaker, the book hardly mentions the campaigns.

Instead the book offers minute accounts of the faction fights, splits, divisions, competing agendas of the ever smaller number of socialists as each group sought perfection. Why did Socialism fail in the United States? That is a question often asked. The answer is right there. The search for perfection is the enemy of doing some good. Here’s an experiment to answer the question. Put three self-proclaimed Socialists in a room and close the door. A day later there will be five parties. The next day, eight splits. On the third day a revolt. [They never make it to the seventh day of rest.] See Seymour Martin Lipset, 'Why socialism failed in the United States' (1954), which is not cited in this book.

Debs seems to have changed over the years and been willing to change his mind, but the author regards that as a failing. Debs also seems to have been a hard man to like. Cold, distant, jaded with time, and thin skinned to criticism from fellow socialists. In 1900 his VIce-Presidential running mate Job Harriman, despised him and left for a four-week tour of Europe to visit socialist conventions rather than campaign for or with him.
desb and harriman.jpg
Hmmm. That is commitment to the New Jerusalem but not today. Just the man for the job was this Job. He later found the workers’ paradise at Llano in the Mojave desert above Los Angeles where land was cheap for many good reasons, and when the apple was eaten in that paradise the group split he led some diehards to Louisiana to New Llano, a site I visited in 2004.

Debs had spoken vaguely himself of workers’ colonies in the West where the dreaded and dead hand of CAPITAL did not reach. But when Harriman tried it ... [Guess!] .... Debs objected, and so did most other socialists. This was not the way to paradise.

I often wondered why our author or why Debs himself did not turn to the most insightful student of American democracy ever to grace a page: Alexis de Tocqueville. He would have had no trouble in explaining the failure of Socialism. The promise of freedom, the promise of individualism, even if only partly achieved is irresistible. In family pictures of immigrants from Bohemia, Schleswig, Bratislava in Nebraska in the 1880s they are dressed -- to my eye -- in rags, sitting in front of crude dugouts, with animal dirt in evidence, yet these people glow with pride. They own themselves in a way they never could have done in Europe. Promise fulfilled! Serfs no longer.

Slave-pay, barbaric work practices, grinding existence, a barter economy, hunger, are second place to that self-realization. A Robber Baron is a small thing in this light.

Debs never thought out a position on race. But he was early, loud, and consistent on women's suffrage. Full marks on that one.

He was arrested during World War I for objecting to a war of nationalism while Woodrow Wilson was president. Though Debs was arrested by local authorities after the United States Attorney-General declined to prosecute a man for speaking his mind and doing so very carefully to avoid violating the law of the land. But a Federal District Attorney hungry for limelight proceeded anyway, and secured a conviction after stacking a local jury, while Debs seems to have welcomed this relief from pressures of the endless, unproductive, increasingly bitter faction fights which made martyrdom look good.

He was in a federal prison during the 1920 election when he got 915,00 votes, or 4% of the total.
debs prison candidate.jpg
Certainly a striking campaign button. The Debs Foundation offers replicas for $3.

Debs married young and grew apart from his wife who lived in their family home in Terre Haute Indiana which he visited on his coast-to-coast travels once or twice a year. He was hard drinker and this ruined his health, as did the nervous pressure of constant conflict among the self-styled socialists, and the rigors on nearly continuous travels. He was a frequent patron at brothels, and in later life, while remaining married, co-habited with another woman who seems to have admired him in a way his wife never did.

Being a secular man, I suppose, Salvatore spends not one word on the largest and most pervasive social force of that time and place, Religion. Did Debs have religion? Did he attend church? If not, did he express atheism or agnosticism? Unknown.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 inspired many and they split the Socialist atom once again to create the American Communist Party, e.g., Emma Goldman, John Reed, Earl Browder. That was the end of Socialism. Debs himself was a spent force by then and let it slide from his prison cell.

He was jailed in Atlanta from 1917 to 1921, when President Harding, no doubt in his usual alcoholic stupor, pardoned him.

Having opened with references to Debs’s contemporaries William Jennings Bryan and Grover Cleveland, let us return to them. Debs was certainly the intellectual and moral superior to Cleveland however one defines these terms. He knew and saw more American life than Cleveland, and he had more contact with and learned from people he met, unlike the bumbling recluse Cleveland. Yet he seems a remote preacher shouting down from a pulpit compared to Bryan, who liked people whether in ones, or twos, or thousands and seemed to speak with rather than yell at them. Bryan's message was God's love and social cooperation, while Debs offered that brimstone of Socialist perfection that admitted of no exceptions.

In sum, he is a man born to the priesthood, who created, accepted, nay, welcomed his own martyrdom. In this portrayal he seems much less interesting than Herbert Hoover, Sam Houston, or Teddy Roosevelt.

For the Salvatore, Eugene Debs is the ectoplasm in which changing social forces played out.

'Ectoplasm' is the word for Debs in these pages, because the author treats him like a specimen on the slide of history, and not as a living, breathing, thinking, learning person.  This is social science as biography, and least we forget, social science is about social forces that shape and make individuals.  That is called Structure with a capital "S" in the lecture halls of universities.  Hence the reference above to religion as a social force of the age.

When biography writers establish some distance between themselves and the subject, it affords them scope to be honest about the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the subject, but Salvatore’s distance is measured is astronomical hindsightyears. Salvatore knew all along that the Robber Barons were coming, that the conflict between capital and labor was foreordained by Brother Marx, Karl not Groucho, that class conflict would be the words to live by, and so on.  

He disdains the rather dim Debs who had to learn some of these lessons through his skin.  Debs, not Salvatore, was the one beaten on picket lines, but it is Salvatore who knows how Structure led to this beating.  Salvatore's Lefter-than-thou hindsight nearly buries Debs the man beneath an avalanche of class analysis jargon.  I began to suspect that the book started life as a PhD dissertation in which the premium goes to the theoretical framework and not the data, the man in question.  

Before conceding too much to Salvatore and his ilk, note that Karl Marx said that history makes man, but that also man makes history.  It is a reciprocal equation, social forces make us what we are, but the script is broad, blunt, and imperfect and in those imperfections we Lilliputians make social forces what they are.  Social life is an endless editing of the social script.  I am using the metaphors of Brazilian political scientist Roberto Unger's very original and generally neglected 'Plasticity into Power' (1987). (Do not be fooled by the long, laudatory entry in Wikipedia; his work is seldom cited in the halls of political science or law).

There is no question here, no tension in this book: Debs is a billiard ball bounced around by social forces he only vaguely perceives.  But which forces Salvatore can name in an instant, such is the alacrity of a good student who knows all the words and little of lived-meaning in the life-world.  (Apologies but I thought I would throw in some Germanic jargon from Martin Heidegger just to show that I could.)  

Other presidential biographers smell the feet of clay in their subject without squeezing humanity out of them.  Robert Caro's distaste for LBJ is palpable in Volume II but he also finds Lyndon to be larger than life and sui generis, fascinating for it.  Nothing is sui generis in the pages of this book.  All is explained by social forces, which reduce to the evils of CAPITALISM.  Get it!  If not hand-in your class consciousness card at the door on the way out.

The book does not ever even try to bring him to life. Ectoplasm is a stain on a slide. It is the first biography I have ever read without a human subject.

After plowing through these pages I will seek relief in some pleasurable, escapist reading: Let it be Inspector Pel!

Recommeded for Crime-travellers.

Inspector Singh Investigates is a series of six novels following the adventures of an overweight, lazy, down trodden Sikh, depressed Singapore police officer.

Singh beijing.jpg

He is very unSingapore with his curry stained neck ties, his grubby white tennis shoes, slovenly appearance, not to mentioned the five yards of sweat-stained turban he sports. In fact, he is so unSinagporean that in nearly every novel his superiors (and they include all ethnic Chinese in Singapore, he thinks) send him as far away as possible. He has been sent to Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Cambodia, New Dehli, and now Beijing.

His assets are that he does not scare easily (thanks to the training of his wife and her many, many relatives) and can always find a supply of beer.

While Singh never takes anything too seriously, these stories are darker than I usually like. The compensation is the exotic locales, and an appreciation for Asian English in these places.

In 'A Calamitous Chinese Killing' Singh, assigned at the request of the Vice-Counsel at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, finds himself caught between the merciless Chinese security apparatus and equally merciless Chinese corruption. Along the way he grows to respect the steel in the Vice-Counsel, a woman by the way, and befriends a penniless, retired, honest Beijing detective who introduces him to Szechuan cooking which Singh finds an acceptable accompaniment to beer.

His bacon is saved when he manages to bring these two behemoths -- the forces of security and the forces of corruption -- into conflict. While they slug it out, justice of a kind is done. Though many innocents are killed and psychologically scared. As I said, dark.

Singh has company among Singapore sleuths in the person of Mr Wong and his associates written by Nury Vittachi. Wong is in the private sector.

He has his footwear in common with Hermes Diaktoros penned by Anne Zouroudi who wanders the by-ways of Greek islands.

I offer some comments after a visit. At the end I qualify these remarks. It is certainly an excellent museum and it has a bright future. These comments are offered to contribute to that future.


First, it is an eye-opener to roam through the Provisional Parliament House, as it was called when it was built, but it is now referred to as Old Parliament House.
old parliament house.jpg

The plan of the building was for a working population of 300 and by the day it closed it had more like 3000. While the Prime Minister’s office is sumptuous compared to others in the building it was Spartan compared to most corporate CEO’s offices in the 1980s when it closed.


Perhaps there are ways to bring some of the workings of the building to life, e.g., a list of the activities that would occur in the building on a typical day with both houses in sessions, the committee meetings, the party room meetings, the interviews in offices, the debates on the floor, the division and division bells, etc. It would have a buzz.

Second, the two chambers -- House of Representatives and the Senate -- are small. So small that a single large personality at the centre table could dominate the room. Also so small that when the chamber went into a committee of the whole to go through legislation line-by-line it was small enough for everyone to be heard in a conversational voice, so I have been told and it seemed right.

H or reps.jpg

I thought I knew where on the front bench the prime minister and leader of the opposition would sit but I was not sure. Perhaps they need to be indicated somehow. If they already are, I missed it. Mea culpa.

Third, the expansion of the franchise to women and aboriginals was a strong point of the Museum. But there could be more about the evolution of the electoral system to the form it now has. The major changes in the 1920s from first-past-the-post voting to the preferential ballot and proportional representation has a long, colourful, and checkered history. Of particular value would be a simple, clear, and comprehensive explanation of how Senate ballots with preferences were counted in say en election with many Senate candidates without above-the-line voting.

It might also be desirable to look ahead to digital voting by reporting on how electronic and digital voting is being used in Scandinavia.

Democracy is about more than voting and I think that needs to be stressed. The purpose of voting is to create a government capable of governing for a term. That is more important than reflecting every current of transitory and ephemeral public opinion. Nothing in the exhibit places emphasis on this fundamental point. Pericles, who is present, certainly knew that. Too often, voting is just a game, as one of the boys said in the novel ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Governing, that is not a game.

Fourth, one of the strongest aspects of the Museum is the story boards which were accessible to children. I did not examine these closely but applaud their use.

cartoon 2.jpg
The cartoon exhibit left me cold, though I saw other patrons who were rapt. Different jokes for different folks, it is. I found the cartoons repetitive, simple-minded, and derivative. I also found those commenting on the ICAC investigations in NSW did not jibe with the national focus of Parliament House. Yes, I took the point that the findings damned the ALP but it was nonetheless a long bow to suppose that was of national importance. I am quite sure ABC Perth news did not feature the NSW ICAC hearings.

Moving on to some of the oddments included. That set of books in the library on social alternatives or futures or dystopias seemed, well, idiosyncratic. A library should certainly have books but what about handsome copies of the great books on democracy like:

Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in American (1835 and 1845), two volumes
Italian Roberto Michels, Political Parties (1911)
Englishman James Bryce, Modern Democracies (1921) two volumes
Frenchman Maurice Durverger, Political Parties (1951)
Australian Alan Davies, Australian Democracy (1958)
Hannah Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (1967)
Dutchman Arend Lijpart, The Politics of Accommodation. Pluralism and Democracy (1968)
Canadian C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (1973)
American Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversarial Democracy (1980)
American Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy (1986)
Brazilain Roberto Unger,False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (1987)
Australian John Uhr, Deliberative Democracy in Australia (1998)
Indian Niraja Gopal Jayal, Democracy in India (2007)

The list goes on. Mary Wollstoncroft and Thomas Paine are already there. By the way the Sydney suburb of Wollstoncroft was named for one of her brothers.

The list of the criteria of democracy was long and seemed to drift off from political institutions to other considerations. In retrospect, I am not even sure the most important one was there - peaceful and orderly changes of government with the consent of the governed. With that long list I wondered if the largest democracy in the world could possibly meet all those criteria, namely, India.

What is not there? Biographies of Prime Ministers would have been a welcome addition, even if just a bibliography posted with the pictures of each, but specimens of the books in the library would have been welcome in addition. Links to the Australian Dictionary of Biography would be better than nothing.

Singling out some noteworthy backbenchers like Bert Kelly would have reminded us all that parliament is not just prime ministers.
Some effort to spell-out the work of a backbencher apart from voting the party line would have been useful, e.g., the diary for a week of a hard working backbencher would be a revelation to many citizens.

There is also some research among backbenchers on how they see their role that could be summarized for display, are they there to represent their constituency or only those in it who voted for them? Are they there to prefer the national interest even at the expense of the interests of their constituency or constituents? Are they there to act on party directions on everything or is there room for conscience, especially in the party room? These questions might help explain the importance of the party rooms where backbenchers do have a say in shaping events before they reach the floor of parliament next door. Edmund Burke’s ‘Speech to the electors at Bristol’ remains the totemic text on this subject.

Constitutional or limited government is likewise not a part of democracy per se, though the exhibit bundles everything together. Great Britain had limited government long before it had democracy. South Korea and Singapore have had limited government with very little democracy. Athenian democracy was completely unlimited and did some very dreadful things to its own minority of citizens. Restraining the tyranny of everyone, including the majority, comes under the heading of limited government, not democracy per se. See Shirley Jackson's story 'The Lottery.'

The exhibit would do well to distinguish federalism from democracy. Federalism adds a division of powers to the mix, weakening the central government. Great Britain is a democracy and has long been a unitary government without federalism, only recent steps at devolution to Scotland and Wales signal a move toward something like federalism.

The exhibit muffs the separation of powers whereas the strength of parliamentary systems is the fusion of powers, but ever since a smirking journalist confused that Queensland clown with a question of the separation of powers the phrase has become an article of faith to be ritualistically intoned with the brain off. Historically British parliamentary systems united executive, legislative, and judicial functions and it is only in the last two generations that the judicial element has been isolated from the other two, i.e., no more appeals to the English Privy Council. It is a complicated point to be sure, but I am sure a clever lawyer could phrase it simply.

There remarks are derived from what I can remember a week later. I took no notes.

I have been in Old Parliament House before in the public gallery of the House, once in the Senate chamber when it was not in session, and in a minister’s office.

My visit was not comprehensive. I did not press every button, look at every panel or object, read every word on the displays I did examine. I was a casual observer, as are most visitors.

One of the purposes of any museum is to edify and educate patrons, while entertaining them. I’d like more emphasis on a gentle but consistent effort to teach visitors a little about democracy, instead of asking them to express opinions on this and that, as if that is somehow democracy.

I still labour in the land of 'Ulysses.' I have listened to Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' episode on 'Ulysses,' again, and got some interesting points from it. But what I got most of all was the Solomonic wisdom of Judge John Woolsey's opinion which is quoted in full below.

Bennet Cerf, when he published the book on the day of this judgement in 1933, included the opinion in every edition, making it the most widely distributed judicial opinion ever. In reading about the case I noticed how reluctant the District Attorney was to bring the action and how the Customs Service ignored the injunction for weeks and weeks. The DA and Customs both seemed to think they had more important things to do.

I could find very little about Judge John Woolsey on the interweb. He was from South Carolina. There is an entry on him in the online History of Federal Judiciary but I could make the link work. The only picture I could find came from the cover of the 'James Joyce Quarterly.'


By the way, the District Attorney said he felt the book was a masterpiece of insight. The Customs officials said everyone brought it back from Europe and that it had caused no harm, so what was the fuss? The Appellate Court upheld Woolsey's decision on the points law.

Banning 'Ulysses' - Judge Woolsey's Decision

Opinion A. 110-59

December 6, 1933

[Edited out the technical matter.]

I have read 'Ulysses' once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter. 'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of 'Ulysses' is, therefore, a heavy task.

The reputation of 'Ulysses' in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, -- that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity. If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow.

But in 'Ulysses,' in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

In writing 'Ulysses,' Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while. Joyce has attempted -- it seems to me, with astonishing success -- to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.

To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of 'Ulysses.' And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce's sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.

If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in 'Ulysses' the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant pre-occupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.

Accordingly, I hold that 'Ulysses' is a sincere and honest book and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposed of by its rationale.

Furthermore, 'Ulysses' is an amazing tour de force when one considers the success which has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce set for himself. As I have stated, 'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt's sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one's own choice. In order to avoid indirect contact with them one may not wish to read Ulysses; that is quite understandable. But when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

To answer this question it is not sufficient merely to find, as I have found above, that Joyce did not write 'Ulysses' with what is commonly called pornographic intent, I must endeavor to apply a more objective standard to his book in order to determine its effect in the result, irrespective of the intent with which it was written.

The statute under which the libel is filed only denounces, in so far as we are here concerned, the importation into the United States from any foreign country of "any obscene book". Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305. It does not marshal against books the spectrum of condemnatory adjectives found, commonly, in laws dealing with matters of this kind. I am, therefore, only required to determine whether Ulysses is obscene within the legal definition of that word. The meaning of the word "obscene" as legally defined by the Courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.

Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts must be tested by the Court's opinion as to its effect on a person with average sex instincts -- what the French would call l'homme moyen sensuel -- who plays, in this branch of legal inquiry, the same role of hypothetical reagent as does the "reasonable man" in the law of torts and "the man learned in the art" on questions of invention in patent law.

The risk involved in the use of such a reagent arises from the inherent tendency of the trier of facts, however fair he may intend to be, to make his reagent too much subservient to his own idiosyncrasies. Here, I have attempted to avoid this, if possible, and to make my reagent herein more objective than he might otherwise be, by adopting the following course:

After I had made my decision in regard to the aspect of 'Ulysses,' now under consideration, I checked my impressions with two friends of mine who in my opinion answered to the above stated requirement for my reagent.

These literary assessors -- as I might properly describe them -- were called on separately, and neither knew that I was consulting the other. They are men whose opinion on literature and on life I value most highly. They had both read Ulysses, and, of course, were wholly unconnected with this cause.

Without letting either of my assessors know what my decision was, I gave to each of them the legal definition of obscene and asked each whether in his opinion Ulysses was obscene within that definition.

I was interested to find that they both agreed with my opinion: that reading 'Ulysses' in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.

It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned. Such a test as I have described, therefore, is the only proper test of obscenity in the case of a book like 'Ulysses' which is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes 'Ulysses' is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of 'Ulysses' on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

'Ulysses' may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.


United States District Judge

December 6, 1933

By the way, to me Bennett Cerf was a panelist on 'What's My line?' in the 1950s where he was the life of the party in a dry and droll way. He is second from the left.


On Australia Day when I mentioned our forthcoming trip to Ireland, the host asked me I had ever read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ I confessed, ‘No.’ Deftly I parried this admission of ignorance by suggesting that she read it for her book club! The riposte, taking me by surprise, was ‘Let’s you and I read it!’ Being a polite guest, I dumbly nodded. Gulp, what had I got myself into? But a deal is a deal. A few days later I went shopping. The local bookstore, yes we still have one nearby, had three editions of ‘Ulysses,’ being a very high brow concern, and I took the one with the largest print (and ergo the most pages, 933 -- 933 -- of them).
I have since seen several other editions, one with 300 pages of notes explaining the allusions, double entendres, and literary references. T. S. Eliot poems come with footnotes, too, explaining the idiosyncratic and obscure implications, that’s why I gave up him until ‘“Cats” came along! Joyce has yet had no such redemption.

As a rule I do not comment publicly on books I cannot be positive about but in recognition of the reputation of this book and the effort it took to read it, I make an exception.

Here I am nearly four weeks later at the end of a long and dutiful (a deal is a deal) march through those 933 pages of Joyceprose. [Calm down, editors, I am imitating Joyce’s style of run-on words, run-on sentences, missing objects after transitive verbs, et beaucoup plus [to imitate his gratuitous spicing of foreign terms]. These notes gather my thoughts.
James_Joyce.jpg This novel is usually described as modern, as in modernist, and his technique is equally, commonly described as stream of consciousness. I felt ready for both. I have a read a lot of modern novels, and the modernist ones among them were incomprehensible as I comprehended them. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Juan Louis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, Robert Musil, Virginia Wolfe with their discontinuous story lines, the unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, unattributed dialgoue, the elaborate but meaninglessness red herrings, the inwardness, the self-referential, and meandering nothingness. (Starting to sound like a curriculum committee meeting.)

I have also read plenty of streams of consciousness from William Faulkner (Benj in ‘The Sound and the Fury’), William Styron (Peyton in ‘Lie Down in Darkness’), and Thomas Wolfe (Eugene Gant in ‘Look Homeward, Angel). It is a technique that takes the reader into the mind, the world as seen by the mind, of a character as no other technique can do, and when it works, it is devastating, as it does in the three instances cited.

In 'Ulysses' in the early pages, I found the multiple voices and the passing-through conversations on the street interesting, as the parallel conversations in Robert Altman’s film ‘Nashville’ and the cryptic quality of some of the early remarks, incidents, observation were intriguing, think Gene Hackman in ‘The Conversation.’ In contrast to these films, however, in this modernist novel it is all technique and no payoff. Just showing off. Then after 900 pages Bloom goes to bed, disturbing his wife Molly’s lumber and her half-awake mostly asleep thoughts are the soliloquy that ends the novel in 60 pages without punctuation, apart from two randomly placed carriage returns.

As with an actor who speaks bad lines badly, we cannot hold the actor wholly responsible, after all a producer and a director allowed it to happen, and the writer who wrote the lines must be guilty. The same mitigation cannot be said for Joyce’s publisher.

Then there are the legions of admirers and enthusiasts like Frank Delany whose podcasts I listened to for a while, seventy episodes, yes 70, as he unpacked each and every reference in the text word-by-word, line-by-line, page-by-page, nearly all them minuscule, pointless, and adolescent. (Indeed, I thought Delany over-interpreted the text often making something out of nothing in the manner of a Phd dissertation, or those people who see human profiles in clouds.) In all, the book brought to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s petty vindictiveness in his ‘Confessions,’ though Rousseau is even when spiteful in his dotage a wonderful stylist to be envied, unlike Joyce who seems to be determined to compensate for .... by being as deliberately naughty as possible, though the naughty in 1921 is trivial in 2014. It is in short an unremitting and totally self-indulgent memorandum of alienation from everyone and everything by someone privileged enough not to work on a farm or in a factory. An ordinary day with ordinary people, it is not, though that is often said of it. Ordinary people are much more purposeful and I rather doubt any of them would read this novel.

I did like one passage in particular, when one character muses on the differences between Romans and Jews in the ancient middle east. Jews come to a hill top, meditate and decide to build a majestic temple to the glory of god. Romans come to a like hill top … and decide to build ... a toilet.

I am sure all the Irish have it in the genetic code to defend, if not truly to enjoy, James Joyce’s novels. So be it.

When we visit Dublin we will do a tour of some James Joyce and Ulysses sites to recoup a little on my investment.
joyce dublin map.jpgI did get something out of the three weeks I spent with the book, putting aside all other reading to concentrate soley on it, and that is the right to strut on Bloom’s day next. (Joyceans will get it, and the rest will not.) Oh, I also got a strong desire not to read anymore James Joyce. ‘Finnigan’s Wake,’ which I am told is even more modernist than ‘Ulysess’ (which claims without ground an affinity with the eternal story of Homer)! Some people think that is a recommendation but I am not among their number. To me modernist means lack of punctuation, contempt for readers, and self-indulgence.

I do, however, have plenty of other Irish reading in mind before we travel.

'Casablanca' has slipped a rung in the list of the greatest movies ever made.  'Backyard Ashes!' Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' has got nothing on it.  That chess game is dead boring by comparison. The drama! The pathos! The barbecue! The googley! It has everything!  And it has more!  

Backyard Ashes.jpgText

'Citizen Kane,' move over.  This is an instant classic.  ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ is so last century. Why bother? [Confession: I thought that at the time.] But before cinema history is revised let’s go back to the beginning.

Blue ticket in hand I set out from the Ack-comedy on the 370 bus which wound about to Coogee Bay Road where I dismounted and walked around the corner to the Randwick Ritz, an Art Deco picture palace.  Leaving the wind and the rain behind I flashed the receipt on my iPhone and entered.  The password was ‘Cinema 2, on the right.’

The Best and Brightest showcase, unanswered emails, summer projects, the Machiavelli exhibit, the British International Studies Association conference paper, the remaining 400 pages of James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' the Prague utopian presentation PowerPoint, mysteries of the slate roof, all of these fell behind in a thrice. The lights went off and the magic started.  

After some initial stereotypes to set up the people, the place, and the tensions, time flew by all too quickly.  There was so much snorting and guffawing I am sure I missed some imperishable dialogue. A fellow nearby slid off his chair laughing.  At the end several patrons seemed unable to move, paralytic with amusement.  

Shades of Big Merv, the key in the wicket, Dennis the Mo, Richie, body line, to say nothing of the specter of BRADMAN which hangs over it all with Wilma and Mack.  Best for last, that ball from Seven-Eleven.  

Oh, and the cat!  

If only Roger Ebert could see this.  He'd love it for what it is: Warm, witty, wise, and wonderful. Just like Wagga Wagga.

I do feel sorry for the professional critics who have to find fault with it, e.g. ‘rough around the edges,’ ‘a cast that combines professionals with some amateurs inevitably...‘ Here’s a perfect example: ‘Wearing its heart and hopes on its sleeve may help patch over the repetition and derivation that monopolises the movie; however, the passion of the production can’t conceal the standard and less-so elements,’ says one reviewer on ArtsHub giving it a measly two stars from five. But wait, ‘repetition and derivation that monopolises the movie,’ what does that mean? How can ‘derivation’ ‘monopolise’ anything. Is this Monash English? Only a self-described film critic can answer that. This Einstein also finds the references to cricket in a movie about cricket to be annoying. Go figure. I know what Spock would say.... [In this case, Spock is one of the cricket players.]

Such reviews are as infantile and self-obsessed as 90% of posts on Trip Advisor. This film is a GEM.

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