24 Aug | About this blog

The spirit of this blog is perhaps best summed up by something said by Karl Krauss, the Viennese satirist and editor: ‘Die Kunst dient dazu, uns die Augen auszuwischen’ – ‘The purpose of art is to wash the dust from our eyes’. To Central European intellectuals like Krauss, the coffeehouse was an essential part of life; a place of debate, conflicting ideas and ironic humour where it was possible to speak any of a dozen or more languages and be understood and welcomed by the other habitués, even if they disagreed with your opinions. Although the blog isn’t open for public comment, invited guests will occasionally contribute, in a language of their choice, on subjects such as literature, philosophy, cinema, music and European culture in general, as well as on the many different kinds of diversity. 

The War of Identities

Every human being is unique. Each of us has specific characteristics, qualities, shortcomings and life experiences that make us who we are: an individual and important part of the vast tableau of humanity. We all have a role to play, however humble, and in our different ways, often subconsciously, we are all striving to be divine. 


Beyond our uniqueness, however, yet inextricably entwined with it, we all belong to a diverse collection of communities. We are part of a family, a tribe, a city, town or village; we are citizens of a country, state and region, an inhabitant of a continent. We are daughters, sons, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of an ethnic group, a social strata, a caste, a culture; a speaker of a language or group of languages; we belong to a profession, vocation, trade, religion, faith community or other organisation; we are a member of a race, a majority or minority, our skin is a certain colour, we have at least one gender or none, at least one sexual orientation or none; we are a friend, a colleague, a partner, wife, husband or confidant; a competitor, a collaborator, a helper, an enemy; we are part of the problem or part of the solution. The list of groupings and associations to which we belong, and where we intersect with others is almost endless. This is what makes up our identity; it is what creates our connections to other living beings and the rest of the world, perhaps even the universe. 


But the bridges that connect us to other people, places and cultures are being torn down. Boundaries and barriers – walls – are being built. Our individual uniqueness is being increasingly used to separate us from others, to set us apart from those who are ‘not like us’; to make enemies, not friends. 


Identity is fast becoming a weapon. It is frequently a political allegiance, an act of faith or ethnicity. We are ordered to define ourselves as members of a particular and separate grouping or sub-set, not part of wider society or humanity as a whole. To be different. 


The theory of intersectionality has contributed to this situation. It explores in detail the many ways in which it is possible to discriminate against someone on the basis of one or more elements of their identity, thus drawing attention to hitherto concealed forms of prejudice. Although enlightening, this has also helped set in motion a politics of identity that has seized control of public discourse, especially in the West. It is a mindset which, far from celebrating and cultivating our natural uniqueness as a gift, perverts it into a means of sowing discord; of taking offence at other people’s difference, accusing them of being ‘not one of us’. While justifiably attacking the social, hierarchical, racial, gender and class prejudice of the past (which still exist, albeit to a lesser degree)), it seeks to replace them with new forms of discrimination and victimhood. 


Identity politics is inherently destructive and divisive. Like the populist demagogues who it reviles, it creates, invents and encourages difference, incites suspicion and loathing, sees enemies everywhere, turns away love, kindness and friendship. It is demolishing the bridges that connect us to one another, the creative, inspiring uniqueness of each and every one of us, and replacing them with a new, Iron Curtain of hatred. 



The Ivy League

08 Dec | Philosophy

In the not-too-distant past, universities, particularly the more selective, research universities often referred to in Anglo-Saxon circles as the Ivy League, were places of bold, rigorous debate. The most extreme, even extremist opinions could be publicly expressed without fear of censorship and were subjected to merciless scrutiny, counter argument and rebuttal, sometimes complete demolition. 


This is how theories, ideas and inventions are tested to destruction before being published, marketed to the public, implemented as government policy or adopted as societal norms. It is a legitimate function of a community of intellectuals. Politicians have frequently consulted academics in order to get an informed opinion from the world’s leading authorities to help them formulate economic, political or social strategies. An effective head of government, such as the Chancellor of Germany, Dr Angela Merkel, takes a syncretistic approach to a range of views from specialists then moulds them into policies. This is a wise use of expertise. 


But the recent decision by the University of Cambridge (one of many such moves in higher education) to change its official policy in order to ensure that everyone’s views are treated with equal respect is yet more evidence of the decline of universities as places of debate over the past few decades, during which time students at UK – or more specifically, English – universities have been charged increasingly high tuition fees, transforming them into customers who, rightly if not always successfully, demand value for money.


By acquiescing to this commodification of higher education, universities have chosen to become corporate institutions with significant PR, marketing and financial strategies. They have discovered, often to their discomfort, that they are now subject to market forces; and to that old adage, ‘the customer is always right’. 


They live in fear of the financial and reputational consequences of not giving in to the demands (even the whims) of the legions of activists and interest groups – some quite marginal – who throng their campuses in a permanent state of seething rage and entitlement, poised to take offence at the slightest thing and whose battle cry is, ‘I find that offensive’ – clearly unaware that it is a sin of pride to be offended. 


These agitators, many of whom are from privileged backgrounds and have never experienced discrimination or harassment, insist that universities must respect everyone’s opinions. But ‘respect’ means different things to different people. From this basic fact, misunderstandings and perceived injustices are guaranteed to flow. By their very nature, academics thrive on reasoned, informed debate and defend everyone’s right to express their opinion – as well as their own and other people’s right to disagree with and counter that opinion. This is the lifeblood of academia; it is how discoveries that change the world for the better are made.


Academics now often complain that they are no longer consulted by politicians and policy makers; and, if they are, their opinions are disregarded. But if they allow the censorship or suppression of valid, albeit unfashionable opinions in order to protect their image and their balance sheets, then they should not be surprised if they forfeit the ‘respect’ that they so cravenly accord to the personal and often corrupt playground agendas of their students. In this context, the wearing of masks imposed  by the coronavirus pandemic become symbolic gags. 


So perhaps the term ‘Ivy League’ is apposite? Ivy is an invasive species that chokes other plants and damages the buildings to which it tenaciously clings, giving a superficial appearance of distinction. It bears no flowers, harbours dust, dirt and creeping things, and has to be trimmed back regularly. In the end it is often cut down and uprooted.


The answer to the perpetually offended is this: if you want respect, be the first to show it.



Wooden tongues

27 Nov | Philosophy

The professed aims of the code of speech and behaviour now commonly referred to as political correctness are noble ones. By establishing societal norms about how people, groups and identities (for example) should be referred to and treated, it seeks to make us more reflective and inclusive in our choice of language, to regularly review and update our vocabulary and perspective as global society evolves (for better or for worse). 

Few people would disagree with this. The stigmatising and vilification of certain peoples has frequently led to violent persecution, wars and genocide, many of which are within living memory and in some cases ongoing. 

But from the admirable aspects of political correctness, dubious, self-seeking and hypocritical behaviours have developed and taken hold, which are contrary to its spirit and original intentions. This particularly afflicts the English-speaking countries, where the roots of political correctness lie, probably on a university campus on the west coast of America, a part of the world that dictates many social behaviours in what is sometimes referred to, with jingoism and a tragic lack of irony and self-knowledge, as the ‘anglosphere’. 

Just listen to one of the more vocal practitioners of this form of speech, which is prevalent among but by no means confined to those under thirty-five, who have come of age during its autocratic rule. Their carefully chosen, circumlocutory phrases come ponderously, accompanied by frequent attempts at eye contact and lemon-sucking expressions, as they try to ascertain if you are taking their valid point and are duly impressed by their unalloyed virtue. You can almost hear the pages of the dictionary turning in their mind as they search for the next, supposedly inoffensive and inclusive, but actually provocative and self-aggrandising expression for your education and general moral improvement. 

The vocabulary of political correctness is now extensive and constantly growing, ranging from ubiquitous evergreens such as ‘inappropriate’, ‘issue’ and ‘challenge’, to more specialised and arcane constructions lifted from anthropological and ethnological textbooks translated from a minority language spoken by only five hundred people somewhere in California, and then only at home. 

The French, who, due to the greater purity of their language and the watchful eye of the Académie Française, are spared many of the excesses of political correctness, have an expression for such ways of speaking: la langue de bois – usually translated as ‘cant’ or ‘waffle’, but more literally as ‘wooden language’ or a ‘wooden tongue’. 

And much politically correct comment is just that: it sounds as if the speaker has a tongue carved out of a lump of blackthorn or something similarly dense and unyielding, and which is obstructing their speech. Or perhaps the words themselves have been carved out of wood and force fed to them to be duly regurgitated as a scripted lecture. It is painful to listen to and violates the English language, reducing it to a lesser dialect or volapük, and not the great, poetic symphony it can be when used with skill, sensitivity and insight. 

Why do so many people speak this way? Have they ever listened to themselves? The answer to that is yes – because it is for their own benefit that they use such language, not because they are genuinely concerned about minorities, the oppressed, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged, but because they wish to be publicly and visibly virtuous, to feel good about themselves.

And that is the key word that underpins their entire discourse: self.  




Words we are not allowed to use

What began as a sincere attempt to eradicate or at least reduce discrimination, has for some time been having the opposite effect. Millions of people who no doubt regard themselves as liberal and tolerant, open to other beliefs and points of view, are proving to be anything but. 

The policy of re-writing history, dictating what people must think and believe, was integral to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of East and Central Europe, and is also present, albeit to a lesser extent, in present-day Hungary under Orban and in Erdogan’s Turkey. But if you were to point out to the Thought Police of today  – the predominantly white, privileged, female social justice warriors who go boldly on the ether in their quest to make everyone as pure as they are – that they are behaving like Nazis, then you will be swiftly judged, found guilty and cancelled without trial. You might receive death threats, you could even be physically attacked – all for stating an opinion that they will not allow you to hold. But you are unlikely to meet these new Victorians in person: they rarely leave the safety of their keyboards.

The most recent manifestation of this new wave of visceral intolerance is being ‘woke’. This elastic concept has been adopted unreflectingly by a sizeable portion of the West’s most secure, comfortably-off citizens, and is increasingly used as a vehicle for their own prejudices and self-loathing, which they neither acknowledge nor confront.

To take but one example, there is the ‘N’ word. According to Woke Law, this deeply offensive word may never be used in any context whatsoever by anyone who is not Black. It must also be expunged from historical usage, including in books such as Huckleberry Finn, which reflects its era accurately and honestly. 

The Thought Police’s blanket ban on the ‘N’ word extends to non-Black people everywhere. Yet the vast majority of them would be unlikely to use it in any case, as it is almost wholly confined to the United States, with its history of legal segregation. 

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s, racial discrimination was an ugly but rarely considered part of life, even among reflective individuals. If questioned, most people would have admitted that it was offensive, patronising, divisive and uncivilised; that it should have been illegal, as it has subsequently and rightly become. Yet the most insidious aspect of racial discrimination at that time was its casual, often instinctual nature. It was simply the order of things.

There were many words to describe people of colour, all of them more or less offensive and shameful, and which do not need to be quoted here. We all know what they are, and if we are honest with ourselves, most of us have used them or acquiesced in their use. But in our individual ways we have also helped to make their use socially and legally unacceptable. 

But in the UK and the rest of Europe, indeed in most of the world, the ‘N’ word or its equivalent in other languages was and is not one of them. It is an American phenomenon, reflecting the deep fissures in their weak, spoilt, unjust and divided society, which appears to be becoming more, not less fractured; and more, not less stupid. For all its economic and military might, the USA seems powerless to address its many divisions. By prohibiting the rest of the world from using their homegrown racial insult, they are attempting to export their own problems rather than confronting and solving them themselves; lecturing others rather than putting their own house in order. It is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror. 

Trying to dictate what people think is an ultimately futile pursuit; even a casual examination of the totalitarian regimes of the past will show this to be true. So don’t tell us which words we are or are not allowed to use, particularly if they are not part of our usual vocabulary. As can be seen from the growing resistance to the Woke movement, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If you tell someone not to use a particular word, they will promptly do so. Anyone who has told a child not to swear knows this. 

You can give us your love, but not your thoughts. We have our own thoughts.


Recently I was re-reading Henry Bacon’s insightful study of the work of Luchino Visconti, the Italian cinema, opera and theatre director. Among the themes that Bacon discusses is the vital necessity for an artist to be free of any kind of boundary, any limit that society or life itself may attempt to impose on them, their nature or their vision. He refers to Isaiah Berlin’s reflections on certain nineteenth-century intellectuals, which he feels apply to Visconti, and also to Stendhal, who of all the writers of the era most closely resembles Visconti in character and background:

‘…they belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout their life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and style of a civilised and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures … who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between the douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalising future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being’. 

In his book on Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann made the not-dissimilar observation that art is the ultimate manifestation of immanence, aspiration, and their interdependence: ‘Conceiving the world as a colourful and turbulent phantasmagory of images through which the ideal, the spiritual glows is something eminently artistic and allows the artist to find their true nature. They can be sensuously and sinfully attached to the world of phenomenon and appearances, because they know they belong to the spheres of both ideas and the spirit, as the magician who makes appearances transparent for them’. 

For some time we have been witnessing an imposition of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, moral or intellectual, which reflect the desire of fearful, insecure individuals to control that which is not theirs to control; to stifle the creative impulse. Humanity only flourishes when boundaries are set aside and imagination is given free rein, in order for connections to be created, bridges built, similarities celebrated. 

As Rainer-Maria Rilke wrote, in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’: ‘Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust’. 


The Summer of Friendship

07 Oct | Literature

During a trip to Flanders, I read Volker Weidermann’s almost mathematically precise novella, Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft – ‘Ostend 1936: the Summer of Friendship’, which I first encountered in 2014, when the drumbeat of Europe’s current existential crisis had already long been audible, – at least to those who care to listen – in the same way that the coming war was clear to observant and committed Europeans by the mid-1930s, if not earlier.

Set in the Belgian seaside resort, then far more fashionable and elegant than drab Ostend is now, it takes a magnifying glass to a small group of mostly Jewish writers, centred on Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun, who have fled Hitler’s rapidly expending Reich, to take refuge in Ostend; what turns out to be a form of ersatz literary exile which soon fragments under the inexorable pressure of events that were soon to engulf the whole of Europe. 

Comparisons between the 1930s and the present time are, of course – and with justification – very popular at the moment, with varying degrees of accuracy and insight. The rise of highly organised and increasingly ruthless extreme right factions in almost every European country is the most obvious symptom of decadence, as well an indication of a possibly impending conflict, that we share with the immediate pre-war era. Of particular concern is the agenda of Alternative für Deutschland, who occupy 94 seats in the German Bundestag, and whose discourse is more than an echo of right-wing groups who helped bring about the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

Nonetheless, this is not the 1930s. Europe has moved on from 1945, despite what England’s homegrown nationalists would have us believe. For over seventy years, there has been a prolonged and historically unparalleled period of peace on our Continent. 

Weidermann’s novella is not a historical commentary. Instead, and arguably more intuitively, it draws us into the often claustrophobic milieu of a small group of Jewish artists and intellectuals who will soon be scattered across the globe, and will perish – directly or indirectly – by their own hand, not that of the Nazi regime.  

It describes the often tenuous and complex friendship between Zweig, Roth and Keun, and others in their circle. The reality of their situation, the looming and indescribable horror, is familiar to all Europeans and most of the rest of the world. We know what is coming, and hope that it won’t be repeated; or at least, most of us do. 

Sitting in a café on a rainy afternoon in Ostend, I came across a passage that lies at the heart of this slim, clear-sighted book. In their different ways, Zweig and Roth both suffered from nostalgia for a recent but increasingly bygone era – that of the Habsburg Empire, a near-continent made up of dozens of peoples and languages where – and this is the element which most closely resembles the situation in 2018 – it was possible for its citizens to move freely from one country to another without a passport; to live, love, work and retire in any nation of the Kaiserlich und Königlich dominions, to speak their own mother tongue and be understood and accepted, even if your countries had once been at war. 

Perhaps the European Union will go the way of the Habsburg Empire, which it so resembles. Some of us would view that with sadness and even fear; others would not. In fact, they would do their utmost to accelerate the process. 

But where the present time differs from that described by Weidermann is in the title. For we have no summer of friendship: that has already been consigned to the bonfire of the past.