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March 2014

Class! Who was the fifth Prime Minister of Australia?

Hum! Don’t know? Well, ignorance is no excuse. Write it down. Alfred Deakin served the fifth term, having done it earlier, and the fifth person to be sworn in as Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

Now let’s try something harder. Who was the fifth president of the United States? What? James Monroe. Yes! That’s right. Did you peek at the heading? Of course.
Monroe_Portrait.jpgMonroe was the last president to bear arms in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). While in the Continental Army he warned against the vulnerability of the fledging capital Washington D. C. and proposed defensive measures, which were rejected by the Secretary War at the time, one John Armstrong. The British burned Washington in August 1814 and in September 1814 Monroe was sworn in as his replacement.

Great Britain was much distracted by Napoleon réchauffé and made peace. Monroe was one of the commissioners who negotiated that peace at Ghent in Belgium before Andrew Jackson’s name-making victory at New Orleans. Monroe’s military, administrative, and diplomatic experience together with the patronage of Thomas Jefferson put a presidential stamp on him. There was some talk he would contest the office earlier but he stood aside for another Jefferson favorite, the diminutive James Madison who served two terms. (Monroe had been Secretary of State, had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, had been ambassador to Great Britain, to Spain, and much else.)

In 1816 Monroe’s time came. Though he was opposed because four the first five U.S. president had been from the Virginia Dynasty. (See if you can guess which is the odd man out.) Nonetheless, he was successful. At this time half of the state legislatures voted for candidates and then transmitted these votes to Congress. In the other half there was a popular vote which did not in all cases bind state delegates. If no candidate received a majority of electoral ballots, then the House of Representatives had a free vote. (All those idiots who idolize the Constitution as a sacred text without every having studied it, might consider this.)

In the event Monroe with the support of the outgoing President Madison and the living god Jefferson won. His re-election in 1820 was nearly uncontested, at least as much because the other major political party dissolved, the Federalists.

Monroe emerges from the pages of this book as a hard-working president who concentrated on foreign relations. This was an imperative because the United States was surrounded by European colonial powers. All were conscious that the United States offered an example of a successful rebellion against distant colonial masters that might be, and was, taken up elsewhere, particularly in Central and South American. There were the British in the Canada from coast to coast. The Russians had a toehold in the Pacific Northwest, while the Spanish claimed everything on the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, and all of the Caribbean Sea and California’s Pacific coast.

Monroe tried to divide these European neighbors with many separate negotiations. The Spanish were the weakest, and in time, thanks to the impetuous actions of General Andrew Jackson, they yielded Florida and the eternal supply of mosquitoes there.

Spanish weakness raised another specter and that was a French takeover. France rebounded from Napoleon’s second departure and its restored French Bourbon monarchy offered to regain Spain’s restive American colonies from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, and so on. The rumour was that Spain’s Bourbon monarch would transfer its American colonies to France, which would then dispatch a task force to raise the flag.

At the same time, an alliance between Prussia, Hapsburg Empire of Austria, and Russia was rumoured to be planning a move from Alaska into the Pacific coast to San Francisco.

There was a great deal of pressure on Monroe to support the several Latin American rebellions led San Martín, Simon Bolivar, Andre Marti. Monroe resisted this pressure and was criticized far and wide as a coward. (Nothing ever changes.) He was by no means sure how these rebellions would work out and if they failed, the Spanish with other European powers might take revenge on the United States which had proven incapable of defending itself in The War of 1812 a mere nine years ago and since Congress had cut military budgets by half every year… Yet the budget cutters in Congress called the loudest for a declaration of support for everyone, including Greece! (Nothing ever changes.)

Instead Monroe took his time and in a later State of the Union address he declared that the United States would not tolerate further European colonization in the Americas, nor tolerate a transfer of existing colonies to another European power. He was no Jefferson as a wordsmith, and the speech is guarded, qualified, indirect, and convoluted. The more so because the United States was hardly in a military position to enforce such an aspiration, it did by then, through some of those separate negotiations mentioned above, have a silent partner with such capacity and which partner did not want to see any other European power gain ground in the Americas. Class, see if you can infer which power that might be.

This assertion became known, thirty years later, as the Monroe Doctrine of the independence of the Western Hemisphere from Europe. It has been evoked several times since, by Teddy Roosevelt to warn off a German naval expedition to collect debts from Venezuela in 1904. Instead Teddy offered to broker an arrangement to deal with the debts which was accepted. The same had been done earlier (1865) and would be done later (1915) to impede French incursions into Mexico. Regrettably the Monroe Doctrine was also a cloak drawn over some unsavory shenanigans in Central America for two generations, and as a result became an object of resentment throughout Latin American by the time the Cold War came around. Then it was again cited, but by then its moral fiber was worn threadbare.

Monroe oversaw the reconstruction and furnishing of the White House after the British bonfire, and entertained in it at a punishing rate. Three to four dinners a week with 20-30 guests, a reception for 100 to 150 guests once a week. These occasions were all at his own expense but they were expected in a small town where there was little else to do. He was absolutely formal on these occasions. He did not particularly like this enforced society and he refused all invitations to visit others on the grounds of the dignity of the office. He was no communicator or glad-hander.

To manage the work of the office he made use of his family at no pay, his brother, his son, nephews, and cousins, while his wife and daughters managed the social side.

He maintained a strict neutrality in the election of his successor in 1824, which alienated all the candidates, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun was his Secretary of War and he seems to have been a competent administrator with some strategic sense. It pains me to recognize any virtues in this violent and destructive man. It was his building program that led to the construction of Fort Sumter, later to be the flashpoint of the Civil War. Ironic that.

The petty bickering over personal and party preferment which characterizes Washington D. C. today has a long history. In 1817 when Monroe was to be sworn in the practice was for Senators to go the House of Representatives to witness the event in that chamber together with those who could fit into the public gallery once the Senators had been seated.

Henry Clay, a disgruntled candidate for president, was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. No friend of Monroe he. When the Senators proposed that they bring their own red leather chairs and put them on the floor to leave more room in the public gallery, Clay opposed this break with tradition. He was adamant, no red Senatorial chairs will ever sit in the House of Representatives!

Time pressed, and the result was to move the ceremony outside, where it has stayed ever since.

By the way, because of dispute over electoral ballots that changed nothing his second inauguration led to two days during which there was no president of the United States. Monroe’s first term, together with that of his Vice-President, expired on Friday 2 March per the Constitution at the time, but the dispute delayed his inauguration one day. For that one day, there was no one to exercise the presidential office. The succession arrangements in the Constitution at that time did not apply to such a problem. Then Monroe took the oath on Sunday, on which day it could not be communicated to Congress until Monday. The gap was then two days.

Monroe left office deeply in debt and the Congressional grant (in lieu of a pension) he had counted on covered less than half of it. He sold land and property (including tableware) to pay the rest. He died a poor man five years later, like Jefferson and Adams before him, on the 4th of July.

The volume is a part of series on presidents and it is confined to his presidency. Accordingly it does not mention at all Monroe’s support for the American Colonial Society’s efforts to transport freed blacks to West Africa, which became concentrated on Liberia, and in the city of Monrovia, as we know it today, which was given its name while Monroe was president.

The book is competent and thorough. It does stick rigorously to the presidency of James Monroe. It is not a biography then, and this reader got very little impression of Monroe the man, his family, his life before and after office. All of that is outside the remit of the series.

By my count this is volume fourteen (14) in Saylor’s Rome Sub Rosa series. In addition he has written two other novels set in Rome. He knows a lot about ancient Rome in the time of Julius Caesar. Though some of the novels are located outside Rome, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Crete, in Cyprus, in Greece. They all feature the adventures of Gordianus, and some times members of his family, too. Gordianus is a working stiff whose odd jobs for those who can pay come to focus on finding things lost or stolen, or finding out things, like who stole them and why. He becomes known as Gordianus the Finder, because he good at finding those things.

A successful case of finding for Cicero lead to ever more work for wealthy clients. The result is ancient history. The Rome Sub Rosa series has gone on so long and been so successful that Saylor has now gone back to Gordianus’s beginnings. In this book Gordianus is a twenty-one year old pitched up in Alexandria on the Egyptian coast that being the best place to be to avoid conscription into the legions fighting each other in some kind of Roman civil war. No sooner does he relax to enjoy the easy life of Mediterranean sun than ….
Raiders of the Nile.jpgThus the adventure begins. Saylor tells a good story and packs it with interesting and highly individual characters. The leader of the Raiders is particularly well drawn, but there is a also a witch, and more than a few villains of different stripes. Then there is the decayed and decaying court of King Ptolemy IX (?). As always Gordianus is influenced a lot by his first friend.

At times the descriptions seemed padded and the tensions piled too high for fear of revealing how contrived, thin, and far-fetched the plot is. Having said that, I read it straight through in a couple of evenings.

Those new to the series might best start near at the beginning with Roman Blood (1991).

There are several other series of krimies set in Ancient Rome. The other one I have followed closely and like a lot is much more light hearted. That is John Maddox Roberts, SPQR (1991) and following. I have read fifteen (15) of them recounting the misadventures of Decius, who does not take things as seriously as Gordianus does. These two series are set in exactly the same time, and each has novels that feature Cicero, Caesar, Catiline, Crassus, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Brutus, and their contemporaries. Reading them side-by-side is interesting both for the contrast in approaches and efforts to characterize these famous ones.

I stressed the individuality of the characters above because I have read too many krimies, including some set in ancient Rome, in which all the characters have the same speech mannerism, the same gestures, the same walks, etc. They seem to sound and look a lot alike. Not so for Saylor, or for Roberts either.

Recommended for all Hillerman fans and other krimie readers.

Tony Hillerman wrote twenty-five or more krimies set in Navajo country in the Southwest of the United States, more specifically in the Four Corners where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.
Four_Corners USA map.png His protagonists were first Joe Leaphorn, then as he aged, he was joined by the younger Jim Chee. Leaphorn believed in science and reason in land of mystique and mystery, where rocks have names, and spirits inhabit shadows, or so it is said. Chee, though younger, finds much of value in the old ways of the Navajo, wind-walking, spirit-talking, and more. In each book the place is powerful presence, sometimes brooding, sometimes menacing, sometimes benign, and at other time indifferent.

The Old Ways of the Navajo may be gone but they are not forgotten by the legion of archeologists and anthropologists who overrun the countryside. Moreover, there is a market for the rugs, for the pots, and even for the oral history of the Navajo. Then there are other indians, occasionally old enemies.

Into this milieu Anne Hillerman has stepped. Tony died and she sat down at the keyboard and three year later produced her first Leaphorn-Chee book.
spider womans daughter.jpg It is a fine addition to the canon. Leaphorn and Chee remain as ever, and Bernie Manuelito, who was Chee’s girlfriend and now his wife moves more to centre stage. Like Joe and Jim, she is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police.

As always there are many policing jurisdictions, to confuse this reader, but refreshingly for once the FBI agents are not treated as drooling idiots. The story opens with a shooting that baffles one and all. The false leads and blue herrings are many. It always comes back to those Navajo artifacts, it seems.

Readers who have followed Leaphorn and Chee all these years are advised to take this one on its own merits. There is plenty to keep a reader engaged.

Monument Valley.jpg

We drove to Monument Valley a few years ago and along the way saw some of the Four Corners, like no other place for the scale and remoteness, and the geology.

Hannah Arendt’s essay on space flight and humanity is a meditation on the impact of technē on us. It was written in 1962 long before smartphones, tablet computers, medical wrist bands, iWatchs, slave cameras, iris identification, bio inserts, and the like. Yet with a few changes it anticipates this world now, more than fifty years since she typed it. (Yes, as readers of biographies know, she typed the first several drafts of all her works herself.)

The changes would de-emphasize space flight with all the gadgetry and gizmos that go with it to protect the person and extend the astronaut’s ability inside the machine of a rocket, lander, or gravity suit. Instead of this kind of technology, it would refer to digital layers that now beguile and enfold us.

gemini-capsule_1.jpg apollo interior cut away.jpg Instrument panel.jpg

To make these digital technologies work, we have to cooperate with them, just as astronauts had to do with their equipment. We have to care for them. We patiently wait for them to boot-up. We keep them in cool environments so that they do not overheat. We feed them electricity, sometimes in carefully regulated doses to keep the batteries charged. We present ourselves to them in ways they can recognize, accept, and respond to whether that it through a keyboard or stylized gestures. We keep them charged up. We keep updating the app software. We discipline ourselves to work with the devices. (No one calls them machines, though that is what they are.)

The more the technology does for us individually, the more willing we are, one-by-one, to meet it halfway, or more.
Fit in a pocket.jpg
It all fits into the smartphone which fits into a pocket. Smaller and smaller gets the smartphone, so small soon that…. Use the imagination.

In some places now a person has a single telephone number that incorporates both a fixed landline at home and a mobile number. Once that number is mine, it remains mine even if I move to another home. That number is me ... and I am that number. Like it or not, I am my telephone number even if I don't resemble it.

Imagine the day when that telephone number merges with my Social Security Number, with my tax file number, with my Medicare number, with my VISA card number ... That day will come. (Pause to think of all those totalitarian nightmares of dystopian and science fiction writers.) In fact, in this scenario the metadata is me in all important aspects. Publicly no one needs to know my idiosyncrasies, opinions, or needs, all that counts is the relevant bar coded number to scan.

In the face of these temptations, Arendt urges readers to reverse Descartes, to ‘I doubt, therefore, I am.’ How that translates to digital technology, that is the question for today. She did not have to face that question directly since the space technologies that fascinated her, were not consumer goods. There was no iGravity Suit. But as always what she meant was to think, not to react, but to think. Reacting is easy, thinking is hard, slow, and sometimes wrong.

The full integration of these digital technologies will erode, compromise, limit, and, perhaps, destroy our humanity. We will slowly and voluntarily become Borg. I may never resemble my phone number but I am nothing but that number, despite my vanities. I published an earlier piece along these line as 'The beast that blushed: on modern manners,' 'Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald,' 30 September 2000, pp. 6-7. (Speaking of vanities.)

No, she did not refer to the ‘Borg,’ bio-mechanical creatures who inhabit the fictional world of ‘Star Trek.’ But they may exemplify her conclusion in some way. Her fascination with technology traces to homo faber in her book 'The Human Condition' (1958).

Arthur Eddington once said it was foolish to suppose that he resembled his telephone number, it is said, but I found no text to support it.
‘The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,’ Great Ideas Today (1963) and reprinted in Between Past and Future (1963), a collection of her essays. The title was not her choice; it was the set topic which she accepted.

The exhibit is still on, details at this web site. Cut-and-paste it into a browser.

Fisher costume poster.jpg

If you are not a fan of Miss Fisher, get a life and become one. Start with this web link.

Off we went by City Rail to Circular Quay Station and downstairs to Wharf 5 got the Rivercat to Parramatta all on the Blue Card.  
The Parramatta River wends its way inland and the ferry ride takes about 90 minutes with a dozen stops, including Darling Harbour, Abbortsford, Cabarita, and Parramatta where the ferry turns around and we disembarked.  What a smooth and quiet way to travel and how different is the perspective on Sydney from the water. We passed many marinas along the way, and truth to tell some trash in the river.
river map.gif As we ascended the wharf there was a young woman offering maps and she recommended that we go along the river to Government House. (I assume she is a council employee to promote tourism, and for that I thank the council.)

I had planned to walk through the streets but we quickly accepted the advice of local knowledge. We took the aboriginal walk along the river which was itself informative and good-spirited in laying out the past without recriminations, and in about 20 minutes we were at the original Government Farm which is now a park and there on a low bluff was Government House.  

All new to me.  Our tickets were scanned and we entered.  Fabulous!  We saw a similar exhibition at Ripponlea in Melbourne last year, and enjoyed it. When I read about the Sydney exhibition it seemed to include more, and since a day trip to Parramatta by ferry had long been on the to-do list, the exhibition triggered it.  

So many hats, many of then cloche in the 1920s manner, and fifty or sixty frocks, coats, ski wear, and more. The volunteer docents were friendly and helpful. The Muzak was 1920s. This exhibit included some of Jack's gear, whereas the Melbourne exhibit did not.  The balance between his and hers in the display was about that of department store between men's and women's wear: 1 to 100.  There was one Jack fedora, one overcoat, one business suit. End. But Phryne Fisher is such a corker, who can deny her the rags?

The building itself is worth seeing, built by that visionary Governor Lachlan Macquarie.  
Lachlan M.jpg He built for the future, the distant future. But his vision has come true now that Parramatta is the demographic centre of Sydney.  
Parramatta cityscape.jpg

We had a fine time.  And then it was time for lunch!  Fish cakes for me and salt-and-pepper squid for the child bride in restaurant on the grounds. Perhaps the stables once.

Taking advantage of the Blue Card's all-purpose use, we walked to the shopping mall, bought some salmon for dinner and then took City Rail, an express, to Central and changed for Alpha Prime, aka Newtown.  A much quicker return.  

It was a 10,000+ step day and it was hot and sticky.  Time for a treat!  On the way home from Newtown Station we stopped at Gelato Blue and indulged in that Italian vice.  Yum! Anything to get another stamp on my loyalty card.  

I read three or four of Kerry Greenwood's Miss Fisher novels years ago, and I was pleased to see them come to the screen.  And what a coming! Brilliantly realized. Well plotted, period detail perfect with all those clothes (and hats), automobiles, locations like Ripponlea, and the rush to the future of the 1920s with the advent of Art Deco. Then there is Miss Fisher herself, magnificently realized along with the dour Jack and her team, Mr. Butler, Dot, and the two taxi drivers, Bert and Cec for the heavy work.

For a much more serious take on post-World War I Melbourne in a krimie see the novels of Carolyn Morwood, like Death and the Spanish Lady (2011) and Cyanide & Poppies (2013). They are contemporary to Miss Fisher but much darker and they are very well done.

When reviewers do not know where to start a review, they sometimes start by slagging off at other reviews. In that spirit I recall a review of an exhibition of Impressionist paintings complaining that it was too French; another that faulted a film about cricket for too many references to cricket. Then there are film reviews that find Hollywood movies so American. I can say, without fear of contradiction that ‘The Great Beauty’ is very Italian. That is why we went; to see some of Italy without the travel.

great beauty.jpg
'La grande bellezza' poster

The film features that greatest of Italian film stars: Roma itself.

The other actors, fine though they be, are supporting players to this great star with its architecture, its lavish art works, its vistas, its history evoking buildings, it inspiring sunsets and ravishing sunrises, its profligate statuary, its intimate chapels and by-ways, its grande boulevardes, its.... Well, one sees the point by this time, or will never see it. The film is a paean to Roma.

Jep, played superbly by a very serious actor Toni Servillo, has frittered away his talent as a novelist along with his humanity, by living the indolent life Roma offered him with a spacious apartment overlooking the Colosseum, bedding so many willing women that he has long since lost count, rising at 3 pm on many days to party the night away. His being is certainly light in the sense of Milan Kundera’s ‘the lightness of being.’ To reach for another metaphor, it is the 'feathered life,' as the Aztecs offered their sacrificial victims before the knife. I read it as a character study but he could be taken as an exemplar of the milieu in which he swims, and thus the film offers some social criticism, too.

Sounds familiar? Yes, ‘La Dolche Vita’ (1960) comes to mind and there are many fountains. By the way, ‘La Dolche Vita’ is thirty (30) minutes longer than ‘La grande bellezza,’ which is listed at 142 minutes. Yet it held our attention as did ‘La Dolche Vita.’ Confession, one also thinks Silvio Berlusconi who defies parody. Then there is Fellini's own 'Roma' (1972) with the Master's taste for disconnection and the grotesque.

'La grande bellezza' has many tributes to Federico Felllini in its tableaux, its return to the sea, and -- it has to be said -- the dwarf, who here is a real person, not a circus prop, and even a giraffe, a knife thrower, performance art, and on and on.

Jep at 65 is bored, bored, bored, bored; he is also sometimes boring. He lives like a king, dresses like a prince, wanders the haut monde with nary a care in the world, except the dawning realization of his mortality. Jaded, cynical, and worn he is, yet he is not bitter, not angry, not a victim. But he is defeated. He wrote one novel forty (40) years ago, yet he still occasionally meets people who quote from it. He brushes off their admiration and when they ask him about another, second novel he is so long-practiced at diversion that the question does break his emotional skin. Instead he writes witty fluff for a newspaper which must pay him way over the odds so he can afford all those perfectly tailored 3,000 thread-count suits he wears.

It is all trip and no arrival. Much happens, but nothing matters. A tourist faints. Is that part of the story? It is not part of Jep’s story, no, but it is part of Roma’s story. A young man is killed in a car crash, or kills himself by crashing his car and either way drugs may have been involved. His life does not go on, but Roma's does. One of Jep's girlfriends dies and he hardly notices. He goes on ... for now. Roma goes on forever.

In addition to the gorgeous photography of Roma in its many faces there is a wondrous array of music -- some ethereal, some energising, some reassuring, and some that sounds like a train wreck -- in the soundtrack, and all the Milano style in the clothes on the actors. Though in Roma the Milano labels would be cut out. Eye and ear candy supreme.

For the viewer it is two and half hours spent following a camera around Roma over the shoulder of a wastrel named Jep. The camera is at times sinuous, at other time inert, then it seems to dart through the air, or float over the Tiber. However, Jep, no fool, is completely self-aware and perhaps he may yet try to write another novel, but probably not. It makes no matter to Roma.

Tony Servillo as Jep

I refered to Toni Servillo as a serious actor because I have seen him many times before, including as the very humane detective in ‘The Girl by the Lake’ (2007), a surprising story of what people will do for love. He also directed ‘Propaganda’ (1979) and ‘Guernica’ (1985). Both as serious as the titles suggestion. Though he smoked enough cigarettes in this film to reduce his chances of doing much more work.

Who is the greatest philosophy of the Twentieth Century? 

Before reacting with answers, think about the question. The question implies there are many philosophers from whom to choose, after all ‘greatest’ is a superlative that is the third is a series: great, greater, and greatest, and before that the very good, good, and so on.  Taking the question in that light several names come immediately to mind:  Bertrand Russell for ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910) and his other technical studies of knowledge, language, and logic;  Jean-Paul Sartre for ‘L'étre et le néant’ (Being and Nothingness’)(1943) and the essays that led up to it; or even -- in the German world -- Martin Heidegger for ‘Sein und Zeit’ (Being and Time) (1927).  Maybe even Richard Rorty, ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’ (1979).  Remember the honour is the ‘greatest’ and that excludes both the great and the greater, like Michel Foucault, John Rawls, Roberto Unger, Martha Nussbaum, and more.

But what if we re-phrase the question? What if we ask 'Who was the only philosopher in the Twentieth Century?'  That question requires us to think about what we mean by 'philosopher.'

Hannah Arendt is my answer. If by ‘philosopher’ we mean someone who makes sense of life, then she is in a class by herself.  Always was, always will be.  She was the only philosopher in the Twentieth Century. This sense of the word ‘philosopher’ is what Aristotle meant by it.
Arendt film.jpg It has taken two generations for the dust to settle on the story that lies at the centre of this film, for her life and works to be appraised in their own light, not against national priorities, political necessity, ethnic identity, ideology, the lust for revenge, blind emotion, crowd mentality, etc.  In this context the film, by letting her words and ideas speak for themselves, is a tour de force.  And more. Here’s a word one does not see often: magisterial. 

With clever staging and segmenting of the story, Arendt’s singular voice is heard just enough to show how penetrating her thought was, and how naively courageous she was in pursuing that thought where it led. Publish and be damned! 

She did publish and she was damned!  Lifelong friends from childhood (and as an Jewish exile émigré she had few of those left to lose), genial neighours, editors, professorial colleagues, personal friends until then, shunned her. The hate mail, obscene phone calls, attacks on her husband, and her ever loyal intern multiplied, threats from Israel’s Mossad, a deathbed denunciation by an uncle, (her only living relative thanks to the Holocaust), feces smeared on the door of her apartment, and so on (the film omits as much of this as it includes of all this, details to be found in the biographies), none of these stopped her. 

Give her the Socrates Medal for putting Truth before all else.  

In the film, her greatest sin is the passing remark (ten pages of 300 in the book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem') that in some cases some leaders of Jewish communities co-operated with the Nazis as the Final Solution was implemented. These leaders calmed their followers, tried to slow the process by working with it, took over the administration of death at its zero point, selected their fellows for transportation on those railroads run by Adolf Eichmann and his ilk. Indeed this very point was made in passing during the Eichmann trial which is why she reported it.

It is this factual observation that lit the atomic bomb that almost destroyed the 'New Yorker' magazine where her articles on the Eichmann trial appeared.  To wash this linen in public was the sin that had no atonement, not that she was ever about to atone. It was to blame Jews for their own destruction. It was to betray Israel. It was to blaspheme Judaism. It was ....

Her second sin was to believe her eyes. She saw Eichmann as a nobody, a nothing.  How then to reconcile the equation with on one side the unbelievable evil of the Holocaust and on the other side this insignificant nobody?  The Darkest events of Dark Times were not committed by John Milton’s magnetic Satan of 'Paradise Lost' (1667) nor by Johann Goethe's breath-taking Mephistopheles from 'Faustus' (1808).  Instead, Eichmann was just what he appeared to be, everyman, anyman, noman.  Just a man, not the raging beast of Baal.  Evil could work through such a man. Though there is no denying, and she certainly did not deny it, that there were evil men and women in Nazism, but they worked much of their evil through everyman and anyman. A very fine, if harrowing, empirical study is Christopher Browning, 'Ordinary Men' (1992). But this too was unacceptable because if a nobody could destroy Jews then Jews were… weak, or should have resisted, or something…

What the film elides, though there is an early reference for the cognoscenti, is that Arendt’s ‘On Totalitarianism’ (1951) argued the unpalatable case that every means, device, and tactic used by the evil dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and their many imitators in Europe, had been developed, tested, applied, refined, implemented, and perfected by the Enlightened Western European colonial powers in Asia, and most of all in Africa, and, in truth, in Australia, too.  Selective murder, denigrating humanity, rape upon rape, displacing populations, mass murder, separating families, slave labor, industrial-scale cruelty, brutality for fun, group punishments, dehumanizing victims to themselves, genocide, all of these are well documented in colonial history long before 1939. Every colonial power made use of these atrocities.  Though she is careful to distinguish between the degrees of evil among the colonial powers, while she is ruthless on the collective guilt of the peoples of those colonial powers who did not (want to) know the evils done in their names in far away places that produced the riches that we still see today in a city like Brussels.

What the Twentieth Century dictators did was to repatriate those practices to Europe. They invented nothing.  But brought to new levels the technologies of destruction perfected in the colonies. (By the way this return from the peripheries is just what Michel Foucault detected in other social institutions at a lower level.)

Even generous reviewers have found it hard to work up much enthusiasm for this film about ideas with virtually no action, though there are enough tensions to produce heart attacks, fist fights, and brain aneurisms all around, and to ruin more than one career.  Apparently this is not enough to hold the attention of even a sympathetic reviewer. Admittedly, the film also features much thinking time when Arendt broods on what she has seen and concluded, and sees how all those other journalists who were there have trumpeted the conclusions they took with them. They react; they do not think. Thinking takes time and this director respects that and expects her audience to have the attention span to cope with it. Amen!  

The film integrates black and white film footage from Eichmann's trial and it is essential.  Because, at least to this viewer, it confirms everything Arendt said.
Eichmann smirk.jpg
Adolf Eichmann

It is unmistakeable. No re-enactment, not even I suspect by the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, could do it better, and Ganz even briefly made Hitler seem almost human in “Der Untergang‘ (Downfall) (2004).

Barbara Sukowa offers a superb performance.  She projects a laser intelligence that burns through all the irrelevancies thrown in her path.  She dominates the camera when she sits silently in a crowd watching Eichmann testify as she seems to suck out of the air his every word, twitch, tic, hesitation.  It is a remarkable sequence in which she alone seems alive to what is there before all but she alone sees him for what he is - nothing.  It is a scene that is repeated in the press room among the cynical and jaded journalist there seeking sensationalism, and finding it. They react. They are satisfied with the prejudices they came with, but she, silent and still, is not. Though she is silent and still she is more alert, alive, and active than any of them because she is thinking, and they are not. So said Plato of Socrates’s silences.

Margarethe von Trotta is a very experienced director and I found her 'Das Versprechen' (The Promise) (1996) which mirrored the Cold War history of Berlin in a love story memorable for its compassion.  She also made 'Rosa Luxemborg' (1985) and 'Katrina Bluhm' (1975).  Both of these I found heavy-handed.  

But for this film she deserves her own medal for taking it and conceptualizing it in a way that could be filmed, and then selling the project to those that supported it.

Arendt fag.jpg  
Hannah Arendt

In the film nothing is made of Arendt's most important book 'The Human Condition' (1955) and most important essay 'The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man' (1963).  There is nothing else Iike either.

The official website for the film which is in German but there is an English translation button.

When Alain Resnais died a few weeks ago I stopped to think about his films, well to be exact, the ones I have seen.
Recently when browsing ‘Le Monde’ I saw another tribute to him and that prompted me to be more systematic about my own recollections. I put them in three categories: (1) compelling, (2) entertaining, and (3) undecided.

1. Compellng does not always mean comprehensible.

‘Nuit et Brouillard’ (1955)
nuit.jpg A very short film (22m), believe it or not, a lyrical meditation on Nazi death camps from the German ‘Nacht und Nebel’ in Wagner's Rheingold where it is magic spell, but it became a code for extermination. The many enemies of the Reich began to disappear into the ‘Night and Fog.‘ Understated and cryptic.

‘L'Année dernière à Marienbad’ (1961)
Everyone tries to figure our what it all means, and like James Joyce it may mean nothing at all but it is gorgeous to look at it.

‘Muriel’ (1963)
Though not a word is said about the Algerian War (torture, genocide, coup d’état, betrayal, treason, lying, cover-ups, assassination, a putsch) and yet its shadow falls across everything. Long silences. Social dysfunction. Unspoken and unspeakable guilt and shame.

‘Providence’ (1977)
John Gielgud writes a novel which Dirk Bogarde Ellen Burstyn, and David Warner are living, or are they? An ode to the creative process of the novelist.

2. Entertaining is not always funny.

‘Le guerre est finie’ (1966)
The most acessible and explicit of his films, an absurdly romantic vision of a communist cell plotting against the Franco government, but Yves Montand burns with conviction.

‘Pas sur le bouche’ (2003)
A musical comedy is a real change of pace for the master at 81 years of age; it is fast and furious. ‘Not on the lips’ is the title.

3. Undecided.

‘Hiroshima mon amour’ (1959)
War is bad, atomic war is worse, yes, I got that much but as for the rest, it is too deep for me.

He made a lot more films, I see from the Wikipedia filmography.

Missed this film during its short theatrical release in Sydney, but noticed it in Civic Video après le gym the other day. There was only one copy on the shelf.


It is a very clever and daring film. Silent and in black-and-white, so that means 95% of those under 40 will ignore it. On the other hand, because it is silent the language barrier is lower and the title cards are far fewer and easier to read than subtitles.

The film transplants 'Snow White' to Seville 1925 in the milieu of bullfighting and bullfighters. The usual suspects are present: the evil step-mother, the helpless father, the seven dwarfs who are aspiring bullfighters. It all hangs together though Snow White as a bullfighter takes some getting used to.

By the way, the bullfighting sequences make it very Spanish but are filmed very carefully for an international audience, i.e., not cruel or bloody.

In addition to the step-mother, Snow White also has to deal with a corrupt and incompetent press and a manipulative and scheming promoter. It is a lot for a fairy tale to deal with, but she does well, despite the downbeat end.

The Brothers Grimm would approve.

Technical note, the black-and-white in this is not monochrome. Believe it or not monochrome film stock is far more expensive than colour these days. The technical notes on the official web site it was shot in colour and then it was developed as black-and-white, I think it says that. Some will notice this film lacks the subtly of monochrome which offers a world of greys. Whereas in this film, and perhaps it fits the story, everything is either black or it is white.

In anticipation of a trip to Prague, I read some Czech literature, starting with this one.

Milan Kundera

I liked the proposition that life is light, and knowing that causes anguish. ‘Lightness’ means that life is produced by chance, accident, coincidence, mistakes, and so on. It all could just as well be otherwise. There is nothing profound, fated about what happens. Our individual lives are nothing much and we might as well enjoy what we have since there is nothing deeper to it, no world-historical meaning, no kismet, no divine plan. Just living and breathing, as Karenin, the dog, does. Lightness = liberation.


Only when Tomas and Tereza shed all their past lives and move to the country where the high point of the day is a walk in the woods with Karenin do they find happiness together. Though by then they are both so worn and defeated, she by weightiness and he by lightness, that they are barely aware of it.

But knowing that life, that one’s own life, is trivial and insignificant can disturb some. In reaction they search for weight, for meaning, in political action, in religious conviction, in martyrdom, in intellectual snobbery, in technical argot that excludes others, and so on.

There is much food for thought here. Moreover, sprinkled throughout the book are ruminations on the consequences of the Prague Spring of 1968, the subsequent Russian intervention, and the reactionary Czechoslovak regime that followed. Tomas and Tereza flee and then return, and that seems a kind of fate and the consequences are certainly heavy. Life may be light but the weight, like gravity, is always there. It cares not whether one denies it.

Tomas falls from social grace, from a skilled and valued surgeon, to a general practitioner, to a pharmacist, to a window cleaner, to market gardener. Evidently Czechoslovakia had so much educated talent it could afford to train its window cleaners to be surgeons.

Tereza’s fall is lateral, from budding photographer who documented the Prague Spring and then the Russian intervention to tell the world of the hopes of the former and the crimes of the latter, only later to realize her pictures meant to celebrate Czechoslovak courage and fortitude were used by the Secret Police to identify victims. She tried to be heavy in taking the photographs and discovered the law of unintended consequences took over. It is the one law we all obey.

I cannot say I enjoyed reading the book. Though the substance as adumbrated above is compelling, the storyline seems, more often than not, an adolescent idea of life with Tomas and his parade of willing women who never seem to want anything from him but an hour of sex which is completely light in that it never has any consequences. An endless supply of them seems to await only his nod. That is the major key in the novel, and that no doubt explains why the film was made, an excuse for a parade of sex. That project would appeal to the boys with arrested development who dominate the film industry.

That and the side tracks with Franz and Sabina, and some pontifical interpolated pages detract from the momentum of the novel.

Equally, the fractured timeline that moves back and forth on itself is metaphysical but not motivational to the reader.

It is indeed a modern novel with its broken and curled timeline, its unreliable narrators (Tomas and Tereza, among others), its inconsistencies, its multiple points of view, and its abrupt shifts of place, as well as time.

Tried to read it before and lost interest in one of the sidetracks. The film passed in front of my eyes on a long flight once.

I read a lot of science fiction, and I certainly read novels by Sheckley though I have no recollection of reading this one. The title that chimes with me is 'Journey Beyond Tomorrow.' Though the cover reproduced below is familiar.

I saw a copy of 'The Status Civilization' last month, in of all places, The Museum of Democracy in Canberra. In the once parliamentary library in the Museum there were a number of utopian and dystopian novels. (I thought them out of place in absence of any books on the subject of the Museum - democracy.)


The name Sheckley meant something to me so I put the Dogs of Amazon to work in tracking down a copy. A lot of 1950s science fiction is now being reprinted so we can re-visit them and I got a copy and read it in a day. It is slight book of little more than one hundred pages.

It posits a world consistent with Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature with some shadowy political institutions. The motif is familiar, Philip Dick, 'Clans of the Alphane Moon;' Mack Reynolds, 'Equality;' John Carpenter, 'Escape from New York;' and more.

The plot twist at the end was mildly amusing but quite inconsistent with all that had gone before, making the whole broken-backed. The point was how easy it is to misperceive a distant reality, and maybe that made more sense at the height of the Cold War than it does now.

Still it was a tonic compared to James Joyce’s 'Ulysses!'

Details at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Status_Civilization

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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