It’s always nice to have an excuse to go on about the awesome and beautiful SEC series of Mercedes coupes from the 1980’s. In fact the two previous posts on the topic (here and here) have been among the most popular things on this blog in the last 7 years. It’s partly the aesthetics, courtesy of the genius of Bruno Sacco (1, 2), and partly the sheer joy of zooming around in one, although they’re almost primitive by today’s standards. Such simplicity is is appealing in itself – and easier to fix when there’s a problem. I had a well used 560 SEC as a taster, I now have a 500 SEC, and it’s a keeper.
When you find out that it’s the favoured car of Clint Eastwood and the late Ayrton Senna amongst others – who could buy any car they liked – then you realise it must have a special allure, or pace the female readers, a certain manliness. It’s the antithesis of a highly capable yet boring and ugly modern car – the Nissan Juke, say.
Which brings me to today’s post. It takes a gallic sang froid to walk into the nearest Mercedes dealership to your appartement on the Champs-Élysées and order the absolute top of the range 560 SEC, with pretty much all the extras. The buyer in question, back in 1988, was Pierre de Bénouville, a prewar literary critic who became a general and a hero of the French Resistance. Here’s a sample of his New York Times obituary:
…like many French rightists, he was a patriotic nationalist and a bitter foe of the Germans,” and he rejected the occupied government’s call to capitulation and collaboration and went into the underground. An ardent supporter of Charles de Gaulle, to whom he was close in his later political career, he was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war and organized French forces in Algeria. In 1944 he was promoted to brigadier general in the French Army because of his achievements as the commander of a unit of Moroccan sharpshooters on the Italian front. He went on to be a major general. A high-ranking member of the Legion of Honor, he received other decorations, including the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance.
Impressive n’est-ce pas? Although he was a ‘rightist’, whatever that is, he was a long term pal of Mitterand (not necessarily a recommendation) and his post-war career was of a fiercely patriotic and successful establishment fixture. His views on the EU are not known to me, but as a Gaullist he was probably for it, as long as the French were in charge, and against the Brits. A couple of other obituaries make interesting reading (Guardian and Telegraph).
Tomorrow is the highly consequential French general election. What a patriotic and brave high achiever like de Bénouville would make of the lightweight effete Blair manqué Emmanuel Macron is a tricky one. His own career path has some similarities to that of Marine Le Pen’s dodgy father. My guess is he would emotionally sympathise with Le Pen but pragmatically vote for Macron, to keep le projet Union européenne alive.
So here, from the outstanding Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, is the full feature on de Bénouville’s exceptional W126 coupe. I’ve provided it as a jpeg and a pdf for any SEC geeks out there.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide, says article 2282 of the Catechism.
The story of Christopher Falzone is a tragic one, and it’s wrapped in claim and counterclaim. It is probably unwise to take sides in the wrangling during his short adult life between his parents and his apparent wife, Lily, though one senses his parents’ pain. He killed himself by jumping from the 10th floor rooftop of a Geneva hospital on 21st October, 2014.This may have been his fourth suicide attempt. In a previous one he’d been badly injured, and ended up in a wheelchair in a care home, still playing the piano miraculously.
His tale is that of a child prodigy in Richmond, Virginia, going on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and commencing a sparkling concert career. He won prestigious awards, toured successfully, and came to the notice of Martha Argerich, who when she’s not making slightly boring chamber music (a subjective opinion, I know) with her pals, can be one of the fieriest pianists on the planet. Argerich is good at promoting young pianists, but at some point, Falzone’s life and career began to unravel. Whether it was primarily a mental health problem, which seems likely, or money, family and relationship difficulties he ended up in a pretty bad way. By February 2014 he’d twice jumped off the Walnut St bridge in Pennsylvania, getting injured in the process. His parents applied for and received a court ordered guardianship, and by May 2014 his wife broke this and took him off to Switzerland. This disturbing GoFundMe request ostensibly written by Falzone, to obtain funding for a new life in Europe, was possibly penned by his wife. It certainly doesn’t read like an intelligent English speaking American wrote it.
After his death was announced, the internet helpfully chimed in with statements attacking his parents such as this one by ‘road rage’ virtuoso pianist Leslie Howard: “He was a very nice man, and an extremely good player and transcriber. His parents’ treatment of him was, to put it mildly, bizarre, and they have much to answer for. Poor dear chap“, or off the wall ‘psychiatry is evil’ schtick from an unusual Swiss lawyer, Edmund Schönenberger, with Scientology links. Sad, desperate, controversial and painful stuff.
Why, you might ask, am I writing this? One reason is to note, unoriginally, that some of the most talented artistes have been cursed with mental health problems. Creative genius and mental fragility often go hand in hand. Another is to pay tribute to a truly extraordinary gift. As far as I know, all we have are individual memories and YouTube, and thankfully the latter is a rich deposit.
There are lots (and lots) of technically perfect pianists about, with what seems like an endless supply from the former Eastern Bloc, and the Far East. All perfectly listenable, but one suspects that the ultimate value of many of them will be to provide ‘standard’ recordings of repertoire – safe bets, not earth shattering.
There is a much smaller number of truly special musicians, many of them now dead. My own living piano hit list would include Hamelin, Pollini, Zimerman. Amongst the dead there’s more, such as Rubinstein (Artur), Gould, Richter. No surprises there, in either group. Plenty of the big names are actually just a bit dull, though: Goode, Lewis, Aimard etc. Some of the best recordings are by people who never made it big, such as Latimer or Nicolosi.
Then along comes a guy like Falzone. His playing is brilliant – technically, rhythmically (often neglected), dramatically and emotionally. Not only that, he has charisma and flair. He’s not just a pianist. He is a terrific exponent of the almost dead 19th century art of piano transcription. He doesn’t just play Busoni’s enormous Piano Concerto, he transcribes it for solo piano, along with lots of other similar feats. Dull pianists don’t major in transcriptions, thrilling masters like Marc Andre Hamelin and Earl Wild do, and now Christopher Falzone. He’s just as good in venerable classics such as the Liszt Sonata or Beethoven’s awesome Appassionata
I used to dislike John Donne’s phrase “Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind”, as taken on its own it seems a trite observation regarding the one inevitability in all our lives (the whole poem is a different story). It is probably not to my credit that it takes a life like that of Christopher Falzone to make me realise that Donne had a point.
Art appreciation is a subjective business, art history shouldn’t really be. However, great though Rembrandt is in so many of his paintings, I think that this portrait is one of his finest works, an out and out masterpiece, in a field where that word is routinely abused.
Except, it’s not by Rembrandt, after all. That’s the conclusion reached by various experts around 1985, on what you might call fairly trivial grounds. Not everyone agreed, implied in this fine article from the New York Times back then. Indeed, with a painting so wonderful, does the attribution actually matter?
It went on and on, with Rembrandt as the primary victim of warring art ‘experts’ with some pretty odd theories. This great piece in the FT from last year makes the point well:
..we might ask who are all these mysterious, supremely talented “followers of Rembrandt”? Who are the artists able to paint works as fascinating as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” in Rembrandt’s studio, but who have left no trace of any independent practice? I doubt many exist – they are a spectre of modern Rembrandt scholarship.
Funnily enough, this seems to be one of the most popular Rembrandts out there, judged by web hits, despite the claims about authenticity. The Knife loves most of his stuff (see here and here), and in these days of atavistic violence posturing as a challenge to Western cultural values, there is no better cultural riposte than this endlessly fascinating meisterwerk.
There’s nothing original in this observation, but Peter Hitchens summarises it so well that I’ve pinched a chunk of his Mail on Sunday column. It’s been noted previously that New Labour adopted the tiny Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s ‘cultural hegemony’, revamped by noisy revolutionary Rudi Dutschke, a sort of intellectual German Tommy Sheridan, as the “long march through the institutions”, to change the nature of Britain, and its public life, by stealth.
They pretty much succeeded, with the best example being the rule of much of what we do by quango, and the people who still control these mostly pointless bodies.
Here is the mighty Hitchens:
The continued rage about Jeremy Corbyn’s rather dated Leftism baffles me. Most British journalists weren’t (as I was) members of the Labour Party in the 1980s. In the months before I quit, I used to be angrily called to order by the chairwoman of my local party. She was cross with me for (as she put it) provoking too much heckling from noisily pro-IRA, ban-the-bomb types.
Meanwhile, the real Left worked by stealth. That is why our political media never understood that the Blairites were in fact far more Left wing than Jeremy Corbyn. The Blair faction’s ideas came from a communist magazine called Marxism Today. The magazine, in turn, got the ideas from a clever Italian revolutionary called Antonio Gramsci. He wanted a cultural revolution, a Leftist takeover of schools, universities, media, police and courts (and of conservative political parties too). That is exactly what New Labour did.
An astonishing number of senior New Labour people, from Peter Mandelson to Alan Milburn, are former Marxist comrades who have never been subjected to the sort of in-depth digging into their pasts that Jeremy Corbyn faces. Why is this? Is one kind of Marxism OK, and the other sort not? Or is it just that most political writers are clueless about politics?
To the list above, add many of the institutions of the medical profession and the NHS. There is one impressive thing about these mad lefties – they often had big hair.
A few posts ago I followed up a theme of Damian Thompson’s, namely where is the good or great modern classical music? I don’t subscribe to the cliche that it’s all atonal rubbish or syrupy choral stuff, but there’s still a lot of both. We are not in an era comparable with Beethoven et al, fair enough, but nor are we in an era comparable with Rachmaninov and other 20th century greats. We’re not even close.
Anyway, my nomination was a piece called The Hatikvah Variations (we’re talking about piano here), by James Raphael, which is magnificent, and right up there with other great Romantic piano masterpieces. Then to my surprise, along comes another.
Japanese culture, where it meets Western styles, is remarkably open minded. They loved atonal screeching experimental period John Coltrane when nearly everyone else hated it, they made 70’s British hard rock bands very rich, they even lap up rockabilly. However, some of the homegrown stuff is a little outre. Violent manga and anime are par for the course, and the 21st century curse of electronic lifestyles is producing some pretty odd results with hikkomori.
Anime is massive in the Far East, and to a degree over here. The plots are a bit childish at first glance, but one of the older ones, Gunbuster, is hugely popular (a sort of outer space Top Gun, with evil space monsters), and regarded as fairly tear jerking, surprisingly, with a memorable soundtrack.
So, East meets West. Here is Yui Morishita playing what seems to be a technically demanding Romantic era piano sonata-fantasy replete with big tunes. If it wasn’t called in its endearingly naive way, The Gunbuster Fantasy, but rather, if you chose German, Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, it could easily be a concert standard. I think it’s superb.
..and Morishita is a terrific pianist, with a great gift for a Knife obsession, Alkan. He doesn’t appear to have made any CD’s (that I’ve found), but he has the true virtuoso spirit. Here he is aceing Alkan’s rarely heard and extremely demanding Scherzo Focoso. Bravo.
Men who wear bow ties, cravats, and/or glasses on a string. People who join MENSA. Middle class people who go on a bit too long about ‘their’ football team.
All these categories may be victims of blind prejudice, or alternatively they may simply be stimulating a fully functioning bullshit detector, which is an essential piece of one’s armamentarium these days.
In medicine, beware of the patient loudly proclaiming they have a ‘high pain threshold’ – they will squeal like a pig as soon as you examine them. Junior surgeons who boast of their huge list of operations, personally undertaken are often the most callow and ineffective, prone to panic and misjudgement. Patients who enthusiastically medicalise their every feeling, for whom new diagnoses with arcane names such as fibromyalgia are the gift that keeps on giving. Doctors who are anxious to tell you how busy they are always have all their holidays booked, know their exact leave allowance, and go to silly meetings and get out of clinical duties more than any of their quieter colleagues.
So when I first saw Camila Batmanghelidjh, now of Kids’ Company notoriety, I think on Question Time a few years ago, I assumed she was of Nigerian heritage, or something similar. Why would she dress like that otherwise? The bullshit detector should have kicked in. Her exotic Belgian/Iranian gene pool doesn’t suggest an immediate affinity for sub-Saharan Africa.
Of course it now seems evident thatat bestshe was naive and bad at running things, but today’s revelation that she had an expensive chauffeur, because she didn’t like walking or getting public transport, suggests a more calculating persona, perhaps.
Normally I’d be indifferent to this sort of nonsense, were it not for the fact that her organisation seems to have hoovered up literally millions of taxpayers’ cash, with, as it happens, not much to show for it beyond a few anecdotes. Dave’s own involvement suggests he needs a new bullshit detector. Worrying in a prime minister.
Most people reasonably assume charities compete for money that the public may or may not choose to give away, not just sign up with the government for enormous handouts. If you did want to spend all that public money on the disadvantaged, you’d be far better handing it out in the street a lahelicopter money, rather than funnelling it through some loosely structured inefficient fiefdom like Kids’ Company appears to be.
So, I have to add to the above list, which is far from exhaustive anyway, a proclivity for dressing flamboyantly in a manner suggesting a different ethnic group. There are parallels here with the defiantly white black activist Rachel Dolezal, and indeed former candidate for the Democratic nomination, 1/32 Cherokee Elizabeth Warren.
Douglas Murray’s neat discussion of the ‘halo effect’ is as good an explanation as any of how previously well functioning bullshit detectors can be disabled:
It has often occurred to me that if you wanted to perform any great con trick these days you could do no better than to have a hard to pronounce name, wear achingly ethnic clothing and cultivate a sort of ‘mother earth’ persona. The search for authenticity is such that before long every culturally embarrassed media and political creep would beat a path to your door, sit at your feet and hug you like a tree. In reality you would never need to do anything much because you’ve already ticked all the culturally correct boxes.
Those of us who feel this way could be accused of being wise after the event, but once you’ve identified, well in advance of their current diminished popularity, Tony Blair, Bono, Richard Branson, Alex Salmond and many others, I feel one is entitled to claim a degree of authority in this emerging discipline.
There is a subject that runs through the history of painting, sculpture and indeed music, of ‘death and the maiden’, particularly in the Romantic and Symbolist schools, and I suppose I could have called this post ‘death and the surgeon’. My aim, though, is not to highlight death, but rather that interface where art meets surgery. Some surgeons, such as Sir Roy Calne, were pretty accomplished painters, and took their subjects from what they knew. Anatomists such as Vesalius, Bourgeury or the notorious nazi, Pernkopf produced work of great aesthetic merit.
Every now and then though, a work of art grabs me as capturing something special, related to surgery. Photography can do it, like this famous shot.
Most surgeons have been in comparable situations:
This one caught me today, from @ChickAndTheDead, it’s self explanatory. It might be a piece of upmarket pulp art, but I think it captures something real:
The artist, Saliger, had nazi links, like Pernkopf, does that invalidate what is, to any practising surgeon, a pretty evocative image?
My own practice only occasionally deals with ‘dramatic’ death in the form of life-threatening trauma, although much more commonly in the terminally ill for one reason or another. Here are two sculptures which capture something unique about that struggle at the interface between death and the chance of continuing to live. I love the fact that the first one is on the side of a hospital
The last one is Barba’s sculpture in Poblenou Cemetery, Barcelona, El beso de la muerte and I guess that in the context of this post, the surgeon has lost the battle.
This extraordinary work brings to mind a quote I gleaned from the now ubiquitous Henry Marsh, a (sort of) retired neurosurgeon, and a true NHS hero. He references the French surgeon and author, René Leriche:
Every surgeon carries about him a little cemetery, in which from time to time he goes to pray, a cemetery of bitterness and regret, of which he seeks the reason for certain of his failures
One of the most striking features of Dickens’ magnificent Great Expectations is the sense of mystery pervading the book, which continues to the last page. It goes well beyond the various plot twists, the whole atmosphere of it is soaked in a feeling of something otherworldly and unspecified swirling around the main character Pip, even in the ostensibly straightforward stretches of narrative. To a lesser extent it’s true of David Copperfield too.
Which in a strange way, makes Alain Fournier something of a French Dickens. His prose (in the original and in translation) is direct and sparse, quite different from some of Dickens’ textual curlicues and elaborate descriptions, but in his main work, and only completed novel Le Grand Meaulnes (otherwise known as The Lost Domain), he achieves a quite mesmerising sense of something numinous and profound, despite, on the face of it, a relatively ordinary story of lost love tinged with tragedy. A few male critics describe it as their favourite novel, and I think it’s because it perfectly captures something difficult to define about male adolescence and growing up, and about the sheer strangeness of events and experiences in those teenage years.
Summarising literary greatness can be difficult, and it’s a measure of the beauty of Le Grand Meaulnes, and the impact it has on the reader, that it’s so easy to find excellent commentaries, from Julian Barnes, Alan Massie and others. They do it better than I can.
Fournier’s own life fits with this theme, and not just in his own unrequited love. An immediately successful novelist, he was killed aged 27 in 1914, fighting in the Meuse area. He had no great hope of surviving the First Wold War, having said in 1911, when things were brewing, that war “is the great game – the great game of death”. He was already famous at the time of his death, and while many efforts were made to piece together the facts of his last minutes (a firefight with Germans), from the few survivors of the fighting, his body wasn’t discovered until 1991. That was thanks to an amazing 14 year search by a French schoolteacher, Michel Algrain. Fournier – identified by a lieutenant’s uniform – had been killed by a single bullet through the sternum and 2nd rib.
As the creator of this great novel, Fournier inspired such dedication, and the following year his body was formally buried with military honours. Le Grand Meaulnes is his enduring legacy.
A less than beautiful name, Samantha Brick, for someone who by any criteria, is not as aesthetically appealing as she feels obliged to claim. A couple of aspects to this somewhat contrived media hype stand out. One is, as has been pointed out, that public self-praise always leads to the anger of the mob. These days that means a “twitterstorm” and the most misogynistic, violent and conceited drivel is cloaked by the twin protections of anonymity and “she started it”. Such instant mindless cruelty is one of the arguments against restoring capital punishment in this country. These folk would turn up for the execution with their thermos and sandwiches outside the prison gates, the other end of the spectrum from the unwelcomefaux public grief of Wooton Bassett.
The other thing that occurs to me is that Ms Brick actually does have a point. It seems unlikely that it really applies to her, from my own aesthetic viewpoint, but beautiful people do sometimes have a harder time than one might expect, and they won’t get much sympathy for it. We’d all choose to be beautiful, on balance, but there is a downside.
The Knife knows a few beautiful people – I know how stupid that sounds – in fact, I married one. It’s not always easy for them, with a peculiar set of disadvantages, including being the focus of unwanted advances, being the centre of gossip and unsubstantiated rumours, envy to the point of spite and so on. All very trivial in some ways, but no less painful for it. Being the object of unrequited love or lust is definitely not a bed of roses. The Knife was reminded of this in reading Don Quixote, possibly the strangest of the “classic” texts, given its freeform absurdities and enormous length, but still undoubtedly great (try this translation).
Marcela is the beautiful shepherdess , who appears at the funeral of her unrequited lover (or stalker, by the sound of his behaviour) Chrysostom/Grisostomo , where she has been unfairly blamed for his death. Her speech is an eloquent exposition of a complex problem. This is from the excellent SparkNotes site:
Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.”
But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay- tell me- had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me? Moreover, you must remember that the beauty I possess was no choice of mine, for, be it what it may, Heaven of its bounty gave it me without my asking or choosing it; and as the viper, though it kills with it, does not deserve to be blamed for the poison it carries, as it is a gift of nature, neither do I deserve reproach for being beautiful; for beauty in a modest woman is like fire at a distance or a sharp sword; the one does not burn, the other does not cut, those who do not come too near.
Honour and virtue are the ornaments of the mind, without which the body, though it be so, has no right to pass for beautiful; but if modesty is one of the virtues that specially lend a grace and charm to mind and body, why should she who is loved for her beauty part with it to gratify one who for his pleasure alone strives with all his might and energy to rob her of it? I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields; in the trees of the mountains I find society, the clear waters of the brooks are my mirrors, and to the trees and waters I make known my thoughts and charms. I am a fire afar off, a sword laid aside.
Those whom I have inspired with love by letting them see me, I have by words undeceived, and if their longings live on hope- and I have given none to Chrysostom or to any other- it cannot justly be said that the death of any is my doing, for it was rather his own obstinacy than my cruelty that killed him; and if it be made a charge against me that his wishes were honourable, and that therefore I was bound to yield to them, I answer that when on this very spot where now his grave is made he declared to me his purity of purpose, I told him that mine was to live in perpetual solitude, and that the earth alone should enjoy the fruits of my retirement and the spoils of my beauty; and if, after this open avowal, he chose to persist against hope and steer against the wind, what wonder is it that he should sink in the depths of his infatuation?
If I had encouraged him, I should be false; if I had gratified him, I should have acted against my own better resolution and purpose. He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated. Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle.
Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn. Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them. If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another. The modest converse of the shepherd girls of these hamlets and the care of my goats are my recreations; my desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever wander hence it is to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, steps by which the soul travels to its primeval abode.”
A terrific soliloquy, which makes you wonder just what she looks like. Dore’s engraving, uncharacteristically, seems inadequate to the task