The Great Woman Theory of Vote Leave, Annie Ernaux, Tosca, T.S. Eliot and Hokusai
Thoughts on Various Subjects
Writing elsewhere: I wrote for CapX that We Can’t Afford The State We Want, and for The Critic about London’s malaise. I have an article about my time as a Young Fogey in this month’s Oldie, available at all good news stands.
The Great Woman Theory of Vote Leave
I recently argued that the Great Man Theory of History is alive and well, especially in the field of talent. This, from Dominic Cummings’ old blog, written in 2016, is a good example of what I mean. Events can and do hinge on exceptional talent correctly deployed.
Today we have made a software product available for download – Vote Leave’s ‘Voter Intention Collection System’ (VICS) – click HERE. It was named after Victoria Woodcock, Operations Director, known as Vics, who was the most indispensable person in the campaign. If she’d gone under a bus, Remain would have won. When comparing many things in life the difference between average and best is say 30% but some people are 50 times more effective than others. She is one of them. She had ‘meetings in her head’ as people said of Steve Wozniak. If she had been Cameron’s chief of staff instead of Llewellyn and Paul Stephenson had been director of communications instead of Oliver and he’d listened to them, then other things being equal Cameron would still be on the No10 sofa with a glass of red and a James Bond flick. They were the operational/management and communications foundation of the campaign. Over and over again, those two – along with others, often very junior – saved us from the consequences of my mistakes and ignorance.
The whole blog post is essential to understanding Cummings and recent UK politics. I especially enjoy this sentence: “Our biggest obstacle was not the IN campaign and its vast resources but the appalling infighting on our own side driven by all the normal human motivations described in Thucydides – fear, interest, the pursuit of glory and so on.” And this: “A basic problem for people in politics is that approximately none have the hard skills necessary to distinguish great people from charlatans. It was therefore great good fortune that I was friends with our team before the campaign started.” Talent matching might be this country’s biggest national problem.
Annie Ernaux won the Nobel prize for literature this year. I started reading Simple Passion but despite more than one attempt I just don’t find it interesting enough to keep going. Here’s a representative passage.
The fact that he was a foreigner made it all the more difficult to understand his behaviour, moulded by a culture that I knew only through folklore and clichés for tourists. At first, I was discouraged by the obvious limitations of our exchanges, which were reinforced by the fact that, although he spoke fairly good French, I could not express myself in his language. Later I realized that this situation spared me the illusion that we shared a perfect relationship, or even formed a whole. Because his French strayed slightly from standard use and because I occasionally had doubts about the meaning he gave to words, I was able to appreciate the approximate quality of our conversations. From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger.
If you find that impressive, you will enjoy the book. It confirms to me that auto fiction isn’t a very effective genre. One of Ernaux’s main techniques is to describe situations, objects and places in a way that imbues them with feeling or atmosphere. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it wears thin, even in a short book.
The opening describes a pornographic film, then Ernaux says:
It occurred to me that writing should aim to do the same, to replicate the feeling of witnessing sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.
She more or less succeeds with that but I can’t see it’s such a special accomplishment. And all the while, Jamaica Kincaid doesn’t have one of these prizes… Oh, and did I mention Helen DeWitt? I plan to read the diary Simple Passion is based on.
Tosca at the Colosseum
Erik Hoel has written a splendid essay suggesting that dreaming is a neurological necessity which helps the brain not to take the world too literally. Dreams help the brain not get caught in the narrow funnel of our own experiences without generalising from them. And fiction, he thinks, provides the same function. Trouble is, Netflix doesn’t do quite the same thing for you in this regard as real art. Netflix is a trap that triggers the dream-function without helping it much, similar to the way we react to sugar, for example. Entertainment is about keeping us static; art changes us.
Well, in that spirit, I am happy to recommend the current production of Tosca at the Colosseum. Puccini is for opera lovers and novices alike. The action starts as the bow first strikes the violin and doesn’t relent until the final seconds. The whole thing was exceptionally well performed and played. And it’s a political drama you will actually enjoy watching. How’s that for the curative power of art?
The Waste Land is a hundred
Eliot is famous for the wrong poem. Yes, it was a huge departure in modernism. Yes, certain passages stand out as excellent—the dead on London Bridge, the voices in the pub, the section beginning “The music crept by me upon the waters”. But it is incredibly uneven and more admired than read. The best writing in The Waste Land (audio link) is not about global civilisation but about London and personal misery. Eliot is very good at writing in the plain style and he doesn’t do that enough in The Waste Land.
His best early work is Prufrock which rivals Keats for giddy ingenuity, and Journey of Magi, both worth re-reading at regular intervals. (Those links have audio: recommended.) I wish he had written more like that. Donne said, “the whole frame of the Poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is it that makes it currant.” Well, the last line of Journey of a Magi is, “I should be glad of another death.” Beat that.
One of Eliot’s best poems is the translation of Anabse, which has much of the feel of his early writing. Try this:
…So I haunted the City of your dreams, and I established in the desolate markets the pure commerce of my soul, among you
invisible and insistent as a fire of thorns in a gale
O seekers, O finders of reasons to be up and gone,
you traffic not in a salt more strong than this, when at morning with omen of kingdoms and omen of dead waters swung high over the smokes of the world, the drums of exile waken on the marches
Eternity yawning on the sands.
Hokusai was in his seventies when he made this. (I’m writing a book about late bloomers—more information here, for those who don’t know.)
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