Who are the #Brexit 300?

Juncker – he’s not happy

It may be an acquired taste, but Zack Snyder’s innovative epic, 300, concerning the Persian attempt to invade and subsume Greece back in 480BC, strikes me as masterpiece of film making. A Room With a View it is not, but it is surprisingly accurate to sources (ask the undoubted expert – Victor Davis Hanson), as it portrays the principled fight of a small group of Spartans, against the multinational might of the Persian Empire, led by its bullying power-crazed unelected leader, Xerxes.

Sound familiar?

The Spartans are fighting for the future of their nation and its citizens, not for themselves. They expect to die, to literally go down fighting. Indeed, they do lose the battle, Thermopylae. But it was the start of the fall of the Persian Empire. A couple of months later the Persian fleet got trashed at Salamis (thanks to the brilliance and leadership of Themistocles). The next year they got humped again at Plataea and Mycale. The empire started to fall apart, however slowly.

By 331 BC, Alexander the Great had reversed the whole scenario, and was the ruler of Persia. (Greeks are tough, what happened to Grexit?)

You can see where this is leading.

A huge factor in the defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae, lead by Leonidas, was the treachery of Ephialtes, who as a deformed, physically limited citizen was not allowed to fight (that’s the movie version of his background). His pride stung, he turned to Xerxes, and betrayed his fellow citizens by revealing the mountain path by which the Persians were able to sneak up on the tiny Spartan contingent, negating the advantage of defending the narrow pass between mountain and sea.

A very inspiring story, genuinely. Read Tom Holland’s classic Persian Fire if you’d like to know more.

So, who’s who?

The godking Xerxes, bizarrely, is Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Spartans are those Brexiteers who are not interested in Theresa May’s utterly crap deal. Plenty of other Greeks (to continue the metaphor) are, even Guido.

Leonidas is the plum role. To add more cognitive dissonance it has to be either Boris or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Given Leonidas’ uxoriousness in the movie, it probably has to go to the latter. The supporting Spartan warrior cast includes John Redwood, Kate Hoey, and others. Possibly not more than 300 though.

Themistocles has yet to be cast.


eph1 (2)

Ephialtes is easy. Take a bow Tony Blair. We thought that we’d got rid of you, but here you are again, betraying your country, actively loathing the electorate. Like Ephialtes, it appears to be making you miserable, but you’ve been able to persuade yourself that wrong is right for so long, it’s probably just a little nagging pinprick lurking at the back of your thoughts.

Lose the battle – perhaps – but win the war.

Weinstein – the Hobbesian revolutionary soothing the middle classes

It’s always a cop out, on the face of it, to use a blog to just reprint someone else’s piece. This, however is so good by John Podhoretz that I’ve broken that rule. It’s exceptional on every level: literary, philosophically, morally and even as entertainment.

Hobbes (and Original Sin) come out of it pretty well too. Read and savour it, wondering how such a monstrous and evil scenario can produce an unexpected delight.

Given Hobbes’ famous phrase (“the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”) I thought I’d conclude with one of the great Tom Waits’ best songs, in which he co-opts it to his usual effect.

In man’s natural state, with no social or religious order to impose limits upon his hungers and passions, “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, force and fraud are…the cardinal virtues.” Thus did Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, anticipate and describe the sordid story of the film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The reason Weinstein’s three decades of monstrous personal and professional conduct are so appalling and fascinating in equal measure is that he was clearly functioning outside the “social compact” Hobbes said was necessary to save men from a perpetual state of war they would wage against one another in the state of nature. For that is what Weinstein was doing, in his own way: waging Hobbesian war against the women he abused and finding orgasmic pleasure in his victories.

And Weinstein did so while cleverly pretending to leadership within the social compact and disingenuously advocating for its improvement both through political change and artistic accomplishment. Hobbes said the life of man in the state of nature was nasty, brutish, and short, but he did not say the warrior could not be strategic. Rochefoucauld’s immortal declaration that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue is entirely wrong in this case. Weinstein paid off feminists and liberals to extend his zone of protection and seduction, not to help support the virtues he was subverting with his own vices.

Hobbes said that in the state of nature there was “no arts; no letters; no society.” But if the man in the state of nature, the nihilistic warrior, coexists with people who live within the social compact, would it not be a brilliant strategy to use the arts, letters, and society as cover, and a means of infiltrating and suborning the social compact? Harvey Weinstein is a brutal thug, a man of no grace, more akin to a mafioso than a maker of culture. And yet as a movie producer he gravitated toward respectable, quality, middlebrow, elevated and elevating fare. 

People wanted to work with him because of the kinds of movies he made. I think we can see that was the whole point of the exercise: It was exciting to be called into his presence because you knew you would do better, more socially responsible, more praiseworthy work under his aegis than you would with another producer.

And then, garbed only in a bathrobe, Weinstein would strike.

Weinstein was universally known to be a terrible person long before the horrifying tales of his sexual predation, depredation, and assault were finally revealed. And—this is important—known to be a uniquely terrible person. His specific acts of repugnant public thuggishness were detailed in dozens of articles and blog items over the decades, and were notable precisely because they were and are not common currency in business or anywhere else. It was said of him after the latest revelations that he had mysterious abilities to suppress negative stories about himself, and perhaps he did; even so, it was a matter of common knowledge that he was the most disgusting person in the movie business, and that’s saying a lot. And that’s before we get to sex.

To take one example, Ken Auletta related a story in the New Yorker in 2001 about the director Julie Taymor and her husband, the composer Eliot Goldenthal. She had helmed a movie about Frida Kahlo produced by Weinstein. There was a preview screening at the Lincoln Square theater in Manhattan. The audience liked it, but some of its responses indicated that the plotline was confusing. Weinstein, whose hunger to edit the work of others had long since earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands,” wanted to recut it to clarify the picture. Taymor didn’t, citing the audience’s favorable reaction. Then this happened:

He saw Taymor’s agent…and yelled at him, “Get the fuck out of here!” To Goldenthal, who wrote the score for Frida, Weinstein said, “I don’t like the look on your face.” Then, according to several witnesses, he moved very close to Goldenthal and said, “Why don’t you defend her so I can beat the shit out of you?” Goldenthal quickly escorted Taymor away. When asked about this incident, Weinstein insisted that he did not threaten Goldenthal, yet he concedes, “I am not saying I was remotely hospitable. I did not behave well. I was not physically menacing to anybody. But I was rude and impolite.” One member of Taymor’s team described Weinstein’s conduct as actually bordering on “criminal assault.”

Weinstein told the late David Carr in 2002 that his conduct in such cases had merely been the result of excess glucose in his system, that he was changing his diet, and he was getting better. That glucose problem was his blanket explanation for all the bad stories about him, like this one:

“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head.

Goldman’s then-girlfriend, Rebecca Traister, asked Weinstein about a controversial movie he had produced. Traister provided the predicate for this anecdote in a recent piece: “Weinstein didn’t like my question about O, there was an altercation…[and] he called me a c—.”

Auletta also related how Weinstein physically threatened the studio executive Stacey Snider. She went to Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him the story. Katzenberg, “one of his closest friends in the business,” told Weinstein he had to apologize. He did, kind of. Afterward, Katzenberg told Auletta, “I love Harvey.”

These anecdotes are 15 years old. And there were anecdotes published about Weinstein’s behavior dating back another 15 years. What they revealed then is no different from what they reveal now: Weinstein is an out-and-out psychopath. And apparently this was fine in his profession…as long as he was successful and important, and the stories involved only violence and intimidation.

Flash-forward to October 2017. Katzenberg—the man who loved Harvey—publicly released an email he had sent to Weinstein after he was done for: “You have done terrible things to a number of women over a period of years. I cannot in any way say this is OK with me…There appear to be two Harvey Weinsteins…one that I have known well, appreciated, and admired and another that I have not known at all.”

So which Weinstein, pray tell, was the one from whom Katzenberg had had to protect Stacey Snider? The one he knew or the one he didn’t know? Because they are, of course, the same person. We know that sexual violence is more about power than sex—about the ultimate domination and humiliation. In these anecdotes and others about Weinstein, we see that his great passions in life were dominating and humiliating. Even if the rumors hadn’t been swirling around his sexual misconduct for decades, could anyone actually have been surprised he sought to secure his victory over the social compact in the most visceral way possible outside of murder?

The commentariat’s reaction to the Weinstein revelations has been desperately confused, and for once, the confusion is constructive, because there are strange ideological and moral convergences.

The most extreme argument has it that he’s really not a unique monster, that every working woman in America has encountered a Weinstein, and that the problem derives from a culture of “toxic masculinity.” This attitude is an outgrowth of the now-fashionable view that there have been no real gains for women and minorities over the past half-century, that the gains are illusory or tokenish, and that something more revolutionary is required to level the playing field.

As a matter of fact in the Weinstein case, this view is false. Women have indeed encountered boors and creeps in their workplaces. But a wolf-whistler is not a rapist. Someone who leers at a woman isn’t the same as someone who masturbates in front of her. Coping with grotesque and inappropriate co-workers and bosses is something every human being, regardless of gender, has had to deal with, and will have to deal with until we are all replaced by robots. It’s worse for women, to be sure. Still, no one should have to go through such experiences. But we all have and we all do. It’s one of the many unpleasant aspects of being human.

Still, the extreme view of “toxic masculinity” contains a deeper truth that is anything but revolutionary. It takes us right back to Hobbes. His central insight—indeed, the insight of civilization itself—is that every man is a potentialWeinstein. This clear-eyed, even cold-eyed view of man’s nature is the central conviction of philosophical conservatism. Without limits, without having impressed upon us a fear of the legal sanction of punishment or the social sanction of shame and ostracism, we are in danger of seeking our earthly rewards in the state of nature.

The revolutionary and the conservative also seem to agree there’s something viscerally disturbing about sex crimes that sets them apart. But here is where the consensus between us breaks down. Logically, if the problem is that we live in a toxic culture that facilitates these crimes, then the men who commit them are, at root, cogs in an inherently unjust system. The fault ultimately is the system’s, not theirs.

Harvey Weinstein is an exceptionally clever man who spent decades standing above and outside the system, manipulating it and gaming it for his own ends. He’s no cog. Tina Brown once ran Weinstein’s magazine and book-publishing line. She wrote that “strange contracts pre-dating us would suddenly surface, book deals with no deadline attached authored by attractive or nearly famous women, one I recall was by the stewardess on a private plane.” Which means he didn’t get into book publishing, or magazine publishing, to oversee the production of books and articles. He did it because he needed entities through which he would pass through payoffs both to women he had harassed and molested and to journalists whose silence he bought through options and advances. His primary interest wasn’t in the creation of culture. It was the creation of conditions under which he could hunt.

Which may explain his choice of the entertainment industry in the first place. In how many industries is there a specific term for demanding sexual favors in exchange for employment? There’s a “casting couch”; there’s no “insurance-adjustor couch.” In how many industries do people conduct meetings in hotel rooms at off hours anyway? And in how many industries could that meeting in a hotel room end up with the dominant player telling a young woman she should feel comfortable getting naked in front of him because the job for which she is applying will require her to get naked in front of millions?

Weinstein is entirely responsible for his own actions, but his predatory existence was certainly made easier by the general collapse of most formal boundaries between the genders. Young women were told to meet him in private at night in fancy suites. Half a century earlier, no young woman would have been permitted to travel alone in a hotel elevator to a man’s room. The world in which that was the norm imposed unacceptable limitations on the freedoms of women. But it did place serious impediments in the paths of predators whose despicable joy in life is living entirely without religious, spiritual, cultural, or moral impediment.

Hobbes was the great philosopher of limits. We Americans don’t accept his view of things; we tend to think better of people than he did. We tend to believe in the greater good, which he resolutely did not. We believe in self-government, which he certainly did not. But what our more optimistic outlook finds extraordinarily difficult to reckon with is behavior that challenges this complacency about human nature. We try to find larger explanations for it that place it in a more comprehensible context: It’s toxic masculinity! It’s the residue of the 1960s! It’s the people who enabled it! The truth is that, on occasion—and this is one such occasion—we are forced to come face to face with the worst of what any of us could be. And no one explanation suffices save Hamlet’s: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”

Twattish comments: an occasional series – Ryan Gosling

The goofy faced Hollywood superstar seems like a charming fellow, I would concede that. But rather in keeping with the post below, he seems to have decided that we’re all a problem, and that all our workplaces are equally afflicted by Harvey Weinstein tendencies. He feels the need to shoulder the heavy burden of scolding the rest of us accordingly.

Ryan, you guys are the ones with the problem, and frankly it’s a little late in the day to start lecturing us all. Here’s his statement:

“He is emblematic of a systemic problem. Men should stand with women and work together until there is real accountability and change.”

Broadly true, but the implication that ‘men’ in general needed to be told this, because we are all guilty (copyright Dr Heinz Kiosk, and Michael Wharton), is more than annoying.

Here’s a now famous pic of Ryan advising Harvey to “stand with women and work together until there is real accountability and change”….





Lent and Pasolini


If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.

Great landscapes: Bruegel


Most landscapes don’t contain around 500 identifiable people, but this landscape is different, on many levels. It has a lot in common with one I blogged about several years ago, the extraordinary and beautiful Magpie on the Gallows. Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary is one of the many Netherlandish masterworks in Vienna’s mind bogglingly good Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is now 452 years since it was painted.

This one exerts a strange effect on people. It is the sole subject of one of the best art monographs you could ever read,  Michael Gibson’s The Mill and the Cross (1, 2) Gibson is an exceptionally clear and unstuffy writer, who is a brilliant analyst of a painting – and the associated history. He had unprecedented access to the painting from the enlightened gallery curators. He has spent literally hours poring over the painting, and his book allows you to do that too.

The painting has numerous subtexts related to Netherlandish folklore, peasant life, and running through it, the hardcore cruelty of the Spanish control of the Netherlands, exerted by the fearsome Duke of Alba on behalf of Philip II. They’re his men riding across the centre of the picture. As so often with Bruegel, the theme is one thing  – Calvary is tiny, in the top right, Jesus is barely noticeable at first, in the dead centre – the overall composition is another. Like Bosch and Patinir, he was a master of the far off blue distances, and the detailed smaller scenes such as the towns and buildings (top left). Gibson makes the point that there are three circles – Calvary, the town (incomplete), and the main central one of the procession and associated hangers on, which seems to revolve around the axis of the upright mill on the extraordinary crag, which may or may not be a visual metaphor for God’s role in all this. Charles Bouleau, who wrote a great book on the topic in 1963, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, would have a field day with it all. To give a flavour of that I’ve added Gibson’s three circles, the diagonals at the intersection of which is Christ, the three ‘landscape layers’ of foreground, middle and distance, and the most obvious verticals. There are three very similar irregular shapes – the front left rock, the mill with the rock and trees at its base, and Mary with her companions, front right.  Bouleau would have found more spatial relationships, no doubt. There is nothing accidental in the composition.


Amazingly, the story and composition of the painting became a film in 2011, with Rutger Hauer doing an unsurpassable turn as Bruegel. It is genuinely mesmerising, and got terrific reviews (1,2,3), particularly for an ‘art film’. When Russ Meyer’s buddy Roger Ebert is enthralled then you know you’ve struck a chord. Gibson co-wrote it with the Polish director Majewski, and it effortlessly recreates the Middle Ages like Borowcyk’s Blanche or Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. Not easy to accomplish, as it’s mostly about mood and authenticity. The whole film is occasionally available on YouTube, here’s the trailer:

Celebrity death match: the Queen v Blair

The Queen has done us another unexpected favour, via journalist Iain Martin at CapX. He has provided in one paragraph a neat summary of the unique awfulness of the Blair years’ cultural mood (traces of which remain). I would normally use the joint worst film ever made, Love Actually, to provide the necessary snapshot of the era, but here is the paragraph. You probably had to be there to fully appreciate how awful it all was:

For all that the Queen has provided continuity, she has been extremely canny in the manner in which she has adapted to change. In the last quarter of a century, no British institution or profession has been untainted by scandal. Parliament, the press, the police, the BBC, the armed forces, the City, bankers and sporting stars have all been badly burned at various points, as that decline of deference turned into full-blown disaffection with the behaviour of elites. In the scandal stakes, the monarchy got there first in the 1990s, from the events surrounding the divorce of the Prince of Wales to the death of Princess Diana, when even some of the monarchy’s supporters accused the Queen of hard-heartedness and inflexibility. But in a tight spot, the monarchy executed a pivot rather brilliantly while looking slow-moving and reliant on others. The masters of spin and marketing descended to “rescue” the Queen following the death of Diana. Afterwards, the Blairites swaggered about. They had prevented a potential revolution when public feeling spilled over into outright mania. They had saved the stuffy old Queen (who during the madness was doing the best thing possible of caring for her bereaved grandsons in the tranquility of the Scottish Highlands). Under pressure, she was forced back to London by the mob and politicians responding to the mob. And the two boys, just young boys, were paraded in front of the mob outside Kensington Palace, where there was a mountain of flowers, so that the mob – which had so fetishised emoting on demand and “caring” that it could not see the cruelty in what it was demanding – could gawp. This was all done in the name of modernity, but 18 years later the Queen is still reigning, magnificently. Where are the bright, modern Blairites and their hero now? In the dustbin of history.

In a separate cinematic reference, the kind of milking the public that Martin describes is reminiscent of the quote from Gracchus, in Gladiator:

I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death – and they will love him for it.

Possibly a link with the utterly daft invasion of Iraq there. If Labour hadn’t got the push in 2010, God knows what mob-friendly schemes they might have come up with, though I reckon the incompetent crowd pleasers of the SNP may yet show us.

The Queen, out for a stroll
The Queen, out for a stroll

Monks: “Take me, cowl’d forms, and fence me round, Till I possess my soul again”**


A few years ago I attended a charity ball to raise money for our hospital’s A&E service. One female guest got drunk early and insisted on showing off her thong to everyone,  generally being in your face and irritating. It wasn’t as much fun as it might sound. We all sat down to eat, she buttonholed me and loudly demanded to know “if you hadn’t done medicine, what would you have done?”

An interesting question, not least because I fluked my way in to medical school, really. Everyone at the table was waiting for the answer, so after a moment’s thought I said “a monk”. Which kind of killed it dead really. At the mention of religion a lot of people tend to get a bit shifty and move on, at least in a public settting. The thing is, notwithstanding the fact that I had already acquired a beautiful wife, it was kind of true.

Monks and monasteries do fascinate me, a phrase which even as I write it seems unbearably superficial, considering the subject matter. There is a certain interest in the Buddhist version, but it’s the real deal Catholic orders that I’m talking about. I’m not the only one. One of the finest short books you could read is the now deceased (at 96) Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful A Time to Keep Silence. PLF was neither religious nor Catholic, but in his postwar European wanderings he ended up staying at various monasteries for long periods. He beautifully describes the invisible transition between the initial aridity and boredom to peace, insight and happiness. It’s a magnificent book.

More recently, there have been two films, both highly acclaimed, about the austere contemplative orders. Of Gods and Men is the dramatisation of the true events of 1996 when French Cistercian Trappists in Algeria were murdered, possibly by Islamic militants. It got extraordinarily good reviews and narrowly missed the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Why would a Catholic monastery even  exist high in the mountains of a Muslim North African country?  The unique Into Great Silence is a documentary, without narration, about life at the Carthusian monastery in the Grenoble Alps, La Grande Chartreuse. Not a promising description, you might think, but its hypnotic patient rhythm draws you in. The monastery and its setting are stunning, and it’s off limits to visitors, making the film even more compelling. Read the reviews. These monks are serious, impressive people. It’s not untypical that after requesting the opportunity to make the film, the director Philip Groning got his answer – 16 years later.

Cistercian austerity commingles with vogueish minimalist architecture in the hands of the very gifted and successful John Pawson, one of the great European architects. Pawson rightly lauds the simple magnificence of Cistercian monasteries over hundreds of years. His work on a new monastery in Bohemia, the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, is breathtaking.  These monks do not live in the past. Their world is in fact, timeless.

And, of course, monks make the finest beer, which is also the most sought after.

These films, articles and visible signs of monastic life and activity are one thing, but how to sum up the essence of being a monk, to understand their reasons, their essence, is very difficult, and almost impossible if you cannot empathise with their religious belief. The Irish journalist John Waters, in a superb piece last month from the Trappist monastery of Mount Melleray put it as well as anyone can. I quote extensively from his very moving work below.

These men, I find myself thinking, are at the opposite point of human possibility to everything we take for granted as true and real. They bear witness to the strangeness of being, reminding us of this structural peculiarity of reality without any hint of moralism or rancour. ‘Look how odd the world really is!’ they seem to exclaim. ‘Don’t become too distracted by anything, for then you will miss this strangeness!’ Doggedly, they stand in silent contemplation as the world beckons them, mocks them, stares at them in puzzlement. They smile, or look away shyly. But they stay. They know why they are here.

More than once, I found myself wondering how it would feel to be here on, say, my 12,367th morning. It seems unconscionable. I cannot conceive of a degree of certitude that would enable me to do it. Even from the little I have learned about the lives of these men, I understand but vaguely how they see things. I know I am imposing my own ideas on a reality I but look into as into a passing canal barge.

There are aspects of the monkish life that recommend themselves to me: the predictability and weightlessness. But I am old enough to know that this is just a part of my psyche crying out for things no longer accessible in the great outdoors. I see through myself and know that I want these things in addition to the life I now have, which is not quite the deal the monk signs up to.

I look around the faces of these good men. I wonder if they ever have such thoughts. Does the trickle of news from the outside ever bring them to a point of doubt in themselves? Does their inevitable knowledge of the incomprehension of the external world cause them to feel even a hint of the restlessness I’m feeling now? Only the return of the Saviour, it strikes me, could adequately justify what these men have committed of themselves. And, what, I find myself briefly wondering, if He has no plans to come back? Where would that leave these great men and what they have made of their lives? I shudder at the implications of the question and delve back into the psalm to suppress the sense of absurdity that threatens to engulf me.

But then another thought overcomes the first: I am standing observing the dying breaths of pure Irish Christianity, and what the future holds for a world without men like this is infinitely more disturbing than any fleeting chill I may be feeling on their behalf.

The brief stab of absurdity I have experienced in this setting stands to become a chronic condition in a society in which there are no longer men and women prepared to live in this way. It strikes me forcibly that, even if we are barely aware of their existences – even if we scorn their sacrifices – the silent prayerful presence of these men here is somehow vital to our very human continuance. I don’t mean just that they pray for us, but that the sense they give us of something to be believed in so unconditionally – that, even as we scoff, this somehow allows us to continue inhabiting what we think of as the ‘real’ world, in much the way that we once partied all night, knowing that our staid parents slept fitfully at home, hoping we would make it back safe with the dawn.

It hits me like a train that, in a future without these monks at our backs, everything will seem as absurd as the moment I have just experienced as a spasm of sadness and affection.

In Father Columban Heaney’s booklet, there is the following startling passage: “The human person is really a metaphysical misfit in the world. He was not made for it and cannot find total fulfillment in it. Hence, he is a frustrated creature in this world; this can be taken as a definition of man. Monks and nuns are people who accept this definition of themselves and live accordingly. They know that they have no lasting city here on earth, so they turn to the desert where they hope to meet God and can begin to find part of that ultimate happiness for which they long.”

This is the truth of us all, whether we can face it or not. Without this clue as to the ultimate nature of reality, we are headed nowhere rather than somewhere, no matter how determined our step. Without such as these monks to remind us, all sense of an ultimate meaningfulness would leech away, leaving us with our baubles and the debris of our emptied hopes, cold-sweating in the face of another pointless and pitiless dawn.


** from Matthew Arnold’s striking poem Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, 1855




Great Landscapes: Francois Boucher

François Boucher. Landscape with a Hermit. 1742.The  Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow
François Boucher. Landscape with a Hermit. 1742.The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

This landscape tells a story.  Derived in part from The Decameron, subject of one of Pasolini‘s slightly dodgy medieval films, the hermit is Frere Luce, revered (incorrectly) for his holiness. One of his few neighbours is a widow with a beautiful daughter. The hermit behaves badly by advising the widow, through a subterfuge, that the daughter must become his ‘companion’ by divine decree, in order to give birth to a great pope of the future. All goes according to the nefarious plan, until the baby is born – a girl.

That story aside, I love this painting for the detail – such as the tiny belfry on the hermit’s hut – and the generally magical air. So many of Boucher’s works were effectively portraiture, but his landscapes are all terrific.


Beware of ‘modern classics’ and good reviews

Basically rubbish, unfortunately
Basically rubbish, unfortunately

If you read the bad reviews on Amazon, they frequently end up with something along the lines of ‘..so I gave up about halfway through’. The Knife is averse to doing that, but by my calculations – if I live long enough – I’ve got no more than 800-900 books left to me, and it’s a bit of a waste to spend time on something that’s going nowhere.

Which is how I felt for much of the time when battling through Saul Bellow‘s alleged masterpiece, Herzog.  It is emphatically no longer the great book that it might have seemed to be, when it was published in 1964.  This is Woody Allen without the jokes, a solipsistic ramble through an American Jewish man’s midlife crisis, and as such has spawned a whole genre of self indulgent novels about nothing in particular. Bellow has some neat turns of phrase, but they don’t balance out the sheer hard work of getting to the end of 346 pages. Compared to another American existentialist novel from the same era (1961), Walker Percy‘s very fine The Moviegoer, it’s night and day.

This recent experience made me reflect on just how often I’ve felt ambushed by believing good reviews, or more often, wild acclaim. It began in 1981 when I worked in a record shop. If you were at the till you got to choose what was played in the shop, so I put on U2’s Boy. About 10 minutes in I realised that it was basically shite (to use the local dialect), and that seems to fit with everything they’ve produced since, despite wild acclaim etc.  Another classic example would be the solo works of John Lennon (and most of his Beatles stuff too).

Similarly with films. After about 30 minutes of Reservoir Dogs it became obvious that the hype was just that. A terrible movie of actors enjoying playing, embarrassingly, with guns. I know that description might fit quite a few films, but everyone seemd to be raving about it. Nearly all of Tarantino’s stuff is just as bad. Or the worst film ever made (copyright The Knife), which by coincidence  is on tonight, Love Actually.

Classical music has a long list of overpraised bores: Sir Simon Rattle, Paul Lewis, Alfred Brendel, Evelyn Glennie, to name a few. You can waste a lot of money believing the kind of reviews that these people tend to get. A good clue is often yet another regurgitation of the standard repertoire – I think Brendel has recorded the Beethoven concerti about four times. Pointless.

There’s no easy answer to this, but in order to save any passing reader some money, and quite a few hours of their life, avoid all those mentioned above, and for extras, don’t bother with: any ‘serious’ book or film that claims to be about sex; any rock music recorded by someone over the age of 50, or possibly 40;  any film with Sean Penn in it; anything involving a British comedian (or more accurately, “comedian”); almost any stage play, unless you genuinely ‘get’ Shakespeare; any singer-songwriter since about 1990; anything at all that might have any connection with or endorsement by Stephen Fry. The list keeps growing.

Trust me.