T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”

Bartleby by Herman Melville.

“I would prefer not to.”

This text is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Some readers may find it poignant, while others could deconstruct it from a psychological perspective. However, it can be seen as an existential drama about choice and movement.

The main character opts to stay still. This life strategy has disastrous personal consequences. Nevertheless, the individual gains a degree of dignity and freedom via this choice. Under capitalism, movement, circulation and growth are seen as valuable, while reflection is not perceived as important. Refusing to participate in the race is viewed by authority as a crime.

If we say yes too often, we are open to excessive exploitation. By preferring no, we can draw some of the lines we want. Flexibility, agility and contentment can only be maintained if we have the kind of courage embodied by the character depicted by Melville.

 

People Power. A User’s Guide to Democracy by Dan Jellinek

“there is no reason why people who protest cannot also vote or take part in more formal activities. In a sense, ‘formal’ politics is all that we have to run our lives as an organized, collaborative and cooperative group of people.”

This informative text borrows from the theorizing of Professor Colin Hay. It contends that the active citizen should engage in democratic politics for the benefit of society. It has no time for anarchists who view the state as an obstacle to freedom.

The strength of this text is not to be found in the abstract realm. There is little to be found here in relation to the undemocratic power of business interests. However, the book shows how we can get involved in processes that may help others. There are opportunities for political intervention at different levels of governance.

Perhaps the evolution of the UK is hampered by the vagueness of its constitutional arrangements. The flexibility of a largely unwritten constitution may be of use to the powerful. There is little evidence that it is of any assistance to the powerless. As the British state faces serious challenges to its future coherence, there are important debates to be had.

 

 

 

Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

Why Labour shouldn’t let the Tories off the hook…

“If there be no Opposition, there is no democracy.”

Sir Ivor Jennings, constitutional expert.

The struggling Tories recently made a plea for some collaboration from Labour. With the Government engaged in the awkward process of Brexit, it might seem that Labour should put the troubled country first and engage with their traditional adversaries. Most Labour supporters can see this is a risible idea, but swing voters may be confused about why the party should remain resolutely opposed to the policies of the Tories.

The truth is that the Brexit process is unlikely to go well regardless of Labour’s tactics. Working with the Tories would only serve to discredit Labour. Nor is it clear that Brexit is the biggest issue facing the UK. Terrible inequality and mounting environmental problems are major difficulties for British capitalism.

The inadequate Taylor Review was short on substance and the Tories are ideologically hostile to a regulated labour market. As a consequence, Labour has to try even harder to represent struggling employed and unemployed people. Cooperating with the Tories would lead everyone to think ‘they are all the same.’ Labour moderates who do not recognise this fact have learnt nothing from the Corbyn surge.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Some writers are their stories. They have witnessed remarkable things. They have overcome massive obstacles. Nevertheless, it is their personal literary style which separates them from ordinary survivors of trauma, poverty or discrimination. Maya Angelou is an inspirational author and teacher of this type.

Many readers will be familiar with her personal tale of suffering and abandonment. They will know her description of the terrifying American South during the Depression. However, they might not have read Mom & Me & Mom. This illuminating text revisits the complex dynamics of her tough family.

However, the later work does in part reveal that writers can find it hard to let go of their best material. Jeanette Winterson is another superb author who has kept raiding her early life for content when her most famous effort has been completed. However, Angelou developed a brilliant honesty which distinguished her from many of her contemporaries. Perhaps she inherited or copied this trait from her mother:

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: They will come back to you.”

Ethics and Welfare: the Case of Hunting by Roger Scruton

Most philosophy cannot be put in the simplistic category of bad. Although some philosophy has been misused by fascists, that same philosophy has sometimes provided inspiration to harmless artists or interesting intellectuals. However, Roger Scruton has proved that philosophy can possess few redeeming features. His odd argument in favour of fox-hunting is an example of wicked thinking.

The essay is not light on research. This is in part because the conservative thinker received assistance from experts with various aspects of the piece. Despite this seriousness, the work does not address the critical questions one might expect. Instead it assumes that fox-hunting can be viewed in terms of the management of wildlife.

It is correct that debating fox-hunting can generate more heat than light in urban settings. And it is true that the issue of social class can shape perceptions of the activity. But it is wrong to suggest that respect for foxes can justify the cruel pursuit of them for pleasure. Nor does the aesthetic of the hunt make the following statement relevant to meaningful modern ethics:

“From Homer to Sassoon the art and literature of hunting exhibits an almost religious respect for the quarry…”