Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Hopes of Europe Have Descended upon this Island". Yet again.

Several months ago I submitted an abstract for a paper to the "Britain and the World" conference, organised by the British Scholar Society. It's derived from my current book project on a British Christian intellectual group (though it contained a few non-British non-Christians) in the 1930s and 1940s and its reactions to the European crises of the period.

Little did I know that the conference would coincide with the UK's referendum on its membership in the European Union.

Hence I had little idea that the title of my paper -- which I will now give on the day before the referendum -- would sound '"The hopes of Europe have descended upon this island": War, Religion, and the National "Mission" in a British Christian Intellectual group, 1937-1949'

The quote in the bit before the colon comes from an essay in the Christian News-Letter from 1941 by an anonymous author identified as "an able historian with intimate first-hand knowledge of Germany".

I still haven't been able to figure out who he (and it's probably a he) was.

In any case, the essay was titled, "The Nazi Creed" and was mainly about analysing the enemy that Britain was at that time fighting largely alone (though with the support of its empire).

The essay is interesting for a number of reasons, not least for aspects of its analysis of Nazism: "The Hitler movement", it argued, "is suburban, and suburbia is everywhere practically out of touch with the traditions of Europe, including the religious traditions."

Right or wrong -- which is not the point of my talk -- the essay was also the source of my paper's title.

Here is the relevant passage, which consists of the concluding sentences of the essay, in a section titled "The Defence of the European Tradition":

In this war England is certainly fighting for her very existence but she is also fighting for the cause of Europe. She would be still fighting for Europe even if the whole continent should accept the Nazi new order. Success does not affect principles. The hopes of Europe have descended upon this island and there they will stay inseparably bound up with the fate of England.” -- Christian News-Letter #80, 7 May 1941.

What's coming is anyone's bet; though I'd suggest those hopes were better placed in 1941 than 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

For they have maxims, and we have not

Something about this passage, read aloud to me recently by The Wife, seems as relevant now as it likely was in 1860:  

"All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgement solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality, without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly-earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human."

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Penguin 1985 [1860]), 628.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The worst form of government, except for all the others

From a review of a book by William Beveridge that I've run across in the Church Times

A way must be found to combine full employment with civilized human rights, which he calls ‘British liberties’ – freedom of worship, speech, writing, study and teaching; freedom of association and making new parties, of choice of occupation and of spending a personal income. For that we must have democratic government. What democratic government essentially means he puts very well by saying: ‘I want to be quite certain that I can change the person who governs me without having to shoot him.’  

Well, there are worse definitions. 

And worse systems.

("The Plans of Men", Church Times, 23 July 1943, 381, reviewing Sir William Beveridge, Pillars of Security [Allen and Unwin, 1943])

Monday, January 25, 2016

Those who can't teach ... assess

Good article by Stefan Collini, in the current LRB, on assessing teaching excellence in academia:

Universities should provide good teaching. There has long been anecdotal evidence that they do not always do this. It would be desirable if means could be found to check, so far as it’s possible, when they are and are not providing good teaching, and when they aren’t, to nudge or encourage them towards improvement. The problem is that the Green Paper doesn’t know what it means by ‘teaching quality’. It treats it as the equivalent or sum of a number of things that can be measured. So, if a course provides a clear description of its aims and procedures; if the number of contact hours and requirements for written work are as advertised and the work is marked and returned promptly; if few students drop out; if students on the course have had a good record of subsequent employment; and if many students say they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the course – then all that is taken as proof that high-quality teaching has taken place. Or, more exactly, that is what, within the proposed framework, quality of teaching will now mean. But all these criteria could be satisfied without there being any reliable indication of the quality of teaching at all, though the information obtained may be evidence of certain kinds of efficient functioning in a university or department. For the most part, it will merely demonstrate that certain procedures have been properly followed, or rather that an institution is good at presenting a paper trail suggesting that those procedures have been properly followed.

In fact, the problem is a deeper one still, since it isn’t easy for anyone to say, in other than the most blandly formulaic terms, what good teaching consists in, and very difficult for anyone, even those involved, to say in any given case whether good teaching is happening (it may be easier to identify and describe certain kinds of bad teaching). I am not suggesting that there is some unfathomable mystery here, or that a Green Paper should be expected to resolve some of the most profound issues in the philosophy of education. But it shouldn’t try to kid anyone that the measures prescribed in this document will necessarily improve the quality of teaching in universities. They may improve some procedures and encourage better record-keeping, but at the cost of creating yet another bureaucratic burden that will make good teaching less likely.

Here in Germany we're as yet nowhere near the relentless self-optimising imposed upon universities in the UK, but there are indicators that something wicked our way comes - another pitiable, wrinkly carrot symbolising a superior position in the academic pecking order, funds and a reduction of teaching hours (!), dangling on a long, long stick.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Apt cartoon in today's Spiegel:

It made me think of V.S. Naipaul's comment on the high hopes Iranian communists had of the Islamic revolution. Well, we all know better now:

These [communist] volunteers in quilted khaki jackets and pullovers were revolutionaries who, one year on, were still trying to live out the revolution, still anxious to direct traffic to show their solidarity with the police, now of the people, not of the Shah), still anxious to demonstrate the Islamic "union" that had brought them victory [....] Behzad had said in August [...], "This is no a religious occasion. It is a political occasion." The communist son of a persecuted communist father, Behzad had read Islamic union in his own way, had interpreted Shia triumph and misanthropy in his own way, had seen a revolution that could be pushed further to another revolution. And these Islamic revolutionaries, in their Che Guevara costume, did see themselves as late-twentieth-century revolutionaries [....] Injustice, the wickedness of men, the worthlessness of the world as it is, the revenge to come, the joy of "union": Behzad was a communist, but the Shia passion was like his. And in August Behzad, like a Shia, was collecting his own injustices: Khomeini's revolution had begun to turn against the men of the left.
V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers (1981)

Beware of revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. And beware, you revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. The utopia you're dreaming up in your suburban "Jugendzimmer" might turn very, very nasty for you.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Shakespeare on Young Men and "Criminal Energy"

SHEPHERD I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting -- Hark you now! Would any but
these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty
hunt this weather? They have scared away two of my
best sheep, which I fear the wolf will sooner find
than the master  ....
The Winter's Tale (III.iii 58-67)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald, (Pop) Cultural Critic

I'm currently reading the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and have to say they're rather charming and entertaining (oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Fitzgerald myself). They are full of everyday gems like the following, from a letter to her older daughter Tina:

Quite exhausted emotions raised by Eurovision Song Contest: We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles and dandy's velvet-effect suit. It was very odd Germany suddenly giving 6 votes for Spain, I'm sure it was a vote to promote trade. (Wollen Sie in Spanien gehen?) As usual I was quite wrong as the one I though best got no votes at all, and Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.
Just to remind you of the target of her sartorial critique (and how astute it was):


Other passages in the letters are more wistful and melancholy, for instance when she describes a conversation with her other daugher to Tina:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

The following assessment of, again, her older daughter's disappointment with her English degree at Oxford contains an insight we should pass on to our students at the beginning of each semester:

I'm sorry that the poor English school is so dull too - the truth is, though I would never dare saying it in public, that the value of studying literature only really appears as you go on living, and find how it really is like life - that it all works - and it's a pity this can't somehow be shown in the course, except I suppose in Marxist Free Universities.

I'm not so sure about the Marxist Free Universities (in fact, I don't even know what she means by that), but in the first part of the quote Fitzgerald seems to put the finger on what may be the tragedy of the humanities.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes"

A few notes from the archives about events on the Fifth of November in the early nineteenth century in Lewes.

Where it sounds like they had a right good time.

 Deposition of James Burridge, constable:

“I also was upon duty as police officer in the Town of Lewes upon the night of the fifth day of November instant and saw a great mob of persons unlawfully assembled together and making a great noise & disturbance, letting off fireworks and having lighted tar barrels through the high street. About ten o’clock I was violently assaulted by the mob who hustled me and threw stones at me and gravel and dirt into my eyes whereby my eyes were much hurt and painful.” 

Deposition of Stephen Clarke, constable:

“I saw a great riot and disturbance in the town with persons letting off fireworks, rolling lighted tar barrels and throwing lighted fire balls….Many of the persons in the disturbance were in disguise having masks and some having their faces black red and white and many of them had very large sticks.” 

Henry Powler Mackay deposed that he saw the tar-barrels fireworks and riotous mob:

“I have not joined in such occasions, there was more than ever I have before. I have not let off fireworks since I left school…The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes. I do not think the town would have been quiet if the police had not been there.” 

Deposition of William Bennett:

“…I have seen bonfire nights in Lewes and it was similar to the one last time, I saw tar barrels last year and windows broken.” 

 According to reports, many of the police were violently assaulted with sticks and clubs.

 Feeling nostalgic for the good old days yet?

(Source: The National Archive, ASSI 36/4 Sussex assizes 1841. These were among the sources I used in my first book, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, which is soon to be available as a paperback.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Counting your blessings, if slowly

Comments by historian (and committed Christian) Herbert Butterfield (who coined the term "Whig history") on "The Christian and history", from the first of a four-part series in The Christian News-Letter, 1949: 

In fact what we are faced with in the twentieth century are the disciples of Marx on the one hand, H.G. Wells (shall we say) on the other, the Protestants and the Jesuits, the Fascists and the Liberals, all producing their selections from the complexity of historical facts and their different organizations of the whole narrative of the centuries – all feeling that there is the absolute explanation, and longing to see it established as the basis for a universal teaching and examining system.

In a cut-throat conflict between these and other systems for the control of schools and universities (in other words for predominance in society) it is not clear that a specifically Christian or Biblical interpretation would in fact prevail at the present day; and though it is a sad thing when any man rejects Christianity, still Christians can hardly have a technical ground of complaint in modern society if universities do not pour all their academic teaching into a specifically Christian mould as in former times. Considering their own record of intolerance and persecution where they had the power, Churches must consider it rather fortunate for them if so often their enemies have been less thorough-going – thankful that, if society is not Christian, it is at any rate not yet wholeheartedly anything else.

While we have Marxists and Wellsians, Protestants and Catholics, Whigs and Tories, with their mutually exclusive systems (historical assertion confronted by counter-assertion), many people, confounded by the contradictions, will run thankfully in the last resort to the humbler “academic” historian – to the man who will just try to show what the evidence warrants, and will respect the intricacy and the complexity of events. In the clash of interpretations somebody will sigh in the long run for an answer to the more pedestrian question, the purely historical question: What is the evidence, and what are at any rate the tangible things which demonstrably took place?

Men are slow to count their blessings but Christians might even be thankful for this “academic” history at the last stage of the argument – thankful so long as no authoritative interpretation of history and the human drama has been rigorously imposed upon our educational system by an increasingly non-Christian society.

– Herbert Butterfield, “The Christian and History. I. The Christian and Academic History”, The Christian News-Letter no. 333, 16 March 1949, 91-92. (Paragraph breaks added.)

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The more things change

Something that sounds familiar from an early post-war report on a Student Christian Movement conference at Westminster:

"The outstanding fact revealed by these discussions was the ignorance of most students. By comparison with most European students in the groups they were ill-informed. A few had a wide general interest but had not mastered for example UNO terminology: a few had strong particular interests – Federal Union for example: a few were communists or near communists or had been to Yugoslavia. Many clearly did not bother to read a good weekly or daily newspaper, and the most common practical decision taken was to do so in future. Here and there the opinion was expressed that the salient facts are kept in the hands of Governments and the ordinary person is prevented from having a point of view, a labour-saving fallacy with a superficial grain of truth in it to make it highly dangerous." – Kathleen Bliss, The Christian News-Letter, #303, 21 January 1948, 5.

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.) 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Love of Wisdom

Can we start an internet meme, please:

Human Kindness and the Whiff of Hemlock?
Human Kindness and the Stench of the Decaying Res Extensa?
Human Kindness and the Funk of a Philosopher's Fart?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On having a bird (of sorts)

Tim Dee in today's Guardian - do we really need this juvenile simile?

In my birdwatching lifetime, blackcaps that breed in southern Germany and Austria (the birds are mostly grey and look like handsome German soldiers in greatcoats) have started coming north-west to Britain in the autumn instead of heading south. 
To explain the title: "to have a bird" - "einen Vogel haben" - means being mad in German.


After encountering a hefty dose of Pinker-bashing at this year's Anglistentag, I thought it a lovely bit of irony to stumble over this at the station bookshop in Paderborn on my way home:

I simply had to buy it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Being beastly, by God, to the Germans

My current research on British Christian newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s turns up quite a bit of interesting material that is not quite directly project-related.

For example: there was relatively little turning of the cheek in a commentary by the Dean of Wells (Richard Malden) in the Guardian (the Anglican Church paper and not to be confused with the Manchester Guardian) in May 1945 on what should be done with Germany in the post-war world.

The dean, in fact, took rather a hard line.

Direct retaliation – that is to say, massacre or mutilation of the German race – is out of the question.

You can almost hear the Dean's sigh of disappointment.

Such violation of the Moral Law is not for us. But within the inviolable limits prescribed by the Christian conscience it is not easy to see how any punishment which can be meted out to the German people can be counted too severe. I have said ‘to the German people’, because there is no real distinction to be drawn between them and the Nazi party.

After the First World War, the dean recalled,

…we were urged to discriminate between the Germans and their rulers. We were assured that the German race is at bottom simple, honest and kindly, content to live within a horizon bounded by music, philosophy and beer. Its admirable moral qualities had made it an easy prey for the wicked Hohenzollerns, who had exploited it to serve their dynastic ambitions.


The truth was, and is, that the Germans are not at bottom simple, honest and kindly, though it has often been to their interest to try to persuade foreigners that they are. (A sound axiom for dealing with them is: Any German will say whatever he thinks convenient, and do whatever he thinks he can.) They have consistently, for two hundred years at least, if not for longer, shown themselves to be as arrogant, greedy and brutal as any nation which walks the earth, with the possible exception of the Japanese.

Among the dean's more concrete suggestions was evacuating the German industrial city of Essen and laying it, as he put it, 

utterly waste, and to remain so for ever. Any attempt to re-occupy or rebuild it to be an immediate casus belli without parley.

The destroyed city would serve as a reminder and warning for future generations. (The seventh son of the seventh son is not mentioned, but you get the picture.)


The first step towards their regeneration must be for us to make them understand that they are almost universally detested, as few people have ever been; and despised for their sheeplike docility. They must be shown that detestation and contempt will be their portion until they begin to show themselves worthy of something else. If they are to be allowed to set foot in British territory in any part of the world (and for my own part I believe it would be wise to exclude them absolutely for a term of years and to make plain that trespassers will be executed), it must only be in rigidly restricted numbers…

…and subject to strict regulations. For example, Germans were to be treated as “ticket of leave men” (e.g., they would be required to check in at police stations at regular intervals), would be forbidden to acquire property, their correspondence to be strictly censored and they would be required to pay a special “poll-tax" that would defray the costs of all the surveillance that the dean thought necessary to keep them under control.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent weeks' correspondence columns in the Guardian were pretty lively.

(Source: The Dean of Wells, “Treatment of Germany. The Way of Regeneration”, (Anglican) Guardian, 25 May 1945, 203-204.)  

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.) 

Plain English

A Christian argument for minding one's language via the recurring column "From a Journalist's Notebook" in The Church Times, 1939:

Let’s Talk English 
I thoroughly agree with the writer in the Tablet who protests against the use of pretentious and pseudo-scientific terms when simple everyday phrases are far more expressive. Herr Hitler has, for example, been recently described in the Times as a paranoiac with delusions of persecution, he is aggressive, a megalomaniac with messianic feelings, and the victim of a power impulse for bloodless victories. Why not, as the Tablet suggests, use English, and say that Herr Hitler is a nasty piece of work.
(The Church Times, 3 November 1939, 378)

As far as I know, "a nasty piece of work" doesn't appear in the Authorised Version.

Though perhaps this is an error that needs revising. 

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On Norbert Elias

Today marks twenty five years since the death of the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias. So far I have only seen that anniversary marked in German-language publications, so I thought I would briefly note it here.

Norbert Elias (via Wikipedia)
For me, Elias has been an inspiration and intellectual companion of sorts for about twenty years. He was one of the main theoretical guideposts for my dissertation, which I started thinking about in the mid-1990s.

I can still remember my dissertation advisor at the University of Maryland recommending in a rather offhand way that I take a look at Elias's main work -- The Civilising Process -- while we were in the early stages of discussing what was then my aim of writing about changing standards of behaviour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with regard to "recklessness".

In the end, I wrote about violence in nineteenth-century England, but Elias -- and the historical and sociological work that he had inspired -- remained important to me, even if I struggled at first with both Elias's ideas and his style of writing. (This is one of the many, many instances in my life where chance meetings and comments have led to life-long interests and even obsessions. Given Elias's emphasis on the unplanned nature of historical development, this seems maybe appropriate.)

Elias's imprint is certainly unmistakable in what resulted, published in 2004 as The Shadow of Our Refinement. (Review)

In my post-doctoral Wanderjahre, I tried to build on this work, exploring ways of combining the essentials of Elias's "figurational sociology" with both cultural history and evolutionary psychology. I think, actually, that I might have been the first person to try in any sustained way to combine all three of these ingredients. It's still relatively rare to see all of them brought together; however, there has been a great deal of increased interest in this kind of combination well beyond the historical field itself thanks not least to the enormous resonance that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature has received since its publication in 2011. (A book to whose development I'm happy to have made some small contribution.)

I've also had a go at applying Elias to literary violence and civilisation, in an essay on de-civilising themes J.G. Ballard's novels High-Rise and Super-Cannes (published in a remarkable essay collection that resulted from an excellent conference). 

In recent years, my historical research has moved away from the history of violence and crime (to intellectual religious's a long story for another time), so I haven't had much to do with his work directly. (Though one of the figures who plays a role in my current project is Karl Mannheim, with whom Elias worked in Frankfurt in the inter-war period before both were compelled to leave Germany. So some slight connection remains.)

While Elias's ideas are far from uncontroversial among historians of violence (which I've had the mixed pleasure of experiencing first-hand on some occasions), they have in one way or another inspired much of the most important work on violence history over the last thirty years. Of course, like all theoretical systems, Elias's is certainly in need of constant testing, reconsideration and revision.

Still, for me, Elias's work has been important well beyond the academic battlefield. Rather than being something that I simply apply "in my work", his ideas have also helped shape the way I see the world more broadly. Even Elias's meditations on death -- in his book The Loneliness of the Dying -- helped me when I was coming to terms with the death of my mother some years ago.

On the long list of deceased intellectuals from the past with whom I'd like to have had the chance to have dinner, Norbert Elias is at the top. And I can't think of all that many other intellectual influences I had in my 20s that I still have in my 40s.  

Elias himself had a complicated, dramatic and in many ways rather sad life, and he remained very much an outsider in his field until the 1970s, when he was well into what for most scholars counts as retirement. Since then, the process of rediscovering his thought and applying it in new ways has gathered pace.

Looking back, I'm happy to have been involved -- in at least some small way -- with that.