Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 2

‘What is more human than war?’
(Michel Ducraux, head of the Red Cross delegation in Kabul)

Chapter 3. The seductiveness of moral disgust

This rather pompous chapter title conceals something much more simple, which is: Don’t give up on trying to help the victims in disaster zones because you’ve become disgusted by the endless stories of brutality and barbarism. Or: avoid becoming disillusioned.

Ignatieff describes how, for the first four or so years after the collapse of communism, there was a lot of brave talk in Western diplomatic, academic and media circles about the ‘peace dividend’ and the ‘new world order’. Those years saw the international community energetically intervening in crisis situations around the world – overseeing elections in Cambodia, throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, creating a safe haven for the Kurds, attempts to end the civil war in Somalia, UN intervention in Bosnia.

There was hope that the huge budgets previously devoted to war would be redirected into foreign aid. But now, as he writes in 1998, the early 90s feel like a vanished era and he describes how that optimism lapsed under the impact of a series of failures and disasters, marked by the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide (pages 89 to 91).

So this chapter considers how to keep the cause of international humanitarian intervention alive, and how to make it more practical and effective.

I. On the road with Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The first half of the chapter is an account of a fascinating week Ignatieff spent as a member of the small press pack accompanying United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who held the position from January 1992 to December 1996). Boutros had had a big impact: when he took over the UN had 4,000 peacekeepers worldwide; three years later it had over 70,000.

Thursday 13 July 1995: on the plane heading south from Cairo. Srebrenica has fallen, the Dutch UN peacekeepers have been taken hostage, Muslim men have been separated from their women and driven off never to be seen again. Ignatieff cross questions Boutros who insists the UN has done as much as it could. If they had not been in Yugoslavia things would have been worse. They have set up refugee camps. But when it comes to intervening in actual conflict, the UN are negotiators and you have to wait till parties are ready to come to the negotiating table.

Friday 14 July 1995: Nayarubuye, Rwanda. The town where the inhabitants have decided to leave the dead from the genocide unburied as a memorial to the genocide. Fergal Keane is show round it in his book Season of Blood. Ignatieff says the UN force in Kigali could have done more. The genocidal militias were spurred on by Radio Milles Collines; the UN contingent could have shut it down. Machete-wielding gangs roamed the streets of Kigali; UN tanks could have stopped them. The reduced UN contingent did set up a safe haven at the soccer ground and protected the famous Hotel Rwanda, but then was forced to sit and watch three months of genocide. It was an epic fail by any standard. Now, one year later, key members of the genocidal regime are in the vast Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where they are being housed and fed by the same UN which failed to prevent the genocide.

Saturday 15 July 1995: Luanda, Angola. Boutros flies in to check on the ceasefire agreement between Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels and the government of Eduardo dos Santos. In the twenty year civil war half a million people died and an oil-rich country full of potential was turned into a wasteland. Now the UN tries to keep the peace in this ruined land.

The United Nations has become the West’s mercy mission to the flotsam of failed states left behind by the ebb tide of empire. (p.79)

Ignatieff notes that the UN has had to step in and administer failed or stricken states. He names Mozambique, El Salvador, Haiti, Namibia and Cambodia, to which we, in 2021, could add Iraq, Syria, Libya, let’s see what happens next in Afghanistan. After meeting with President dos Santos, Boutros and his entourage fly to the jungle base of the guerrilla leader Savimbi. The two men embrace. Diplomacy means dealing with murderers, that’s what it is.

Sunday 16 July 1995: Gbadolite, Zaire. Boutros, his team and the little pack of journalists which includes Ignatieff flies to the vast luxury jungle complex of President Mobutu. He keeps them waiting then arrives in a limo with entourage and charms everyone. Then smoothly promises Boutros he will not harm the Hutu refugees in their huge camps in eastern Congo. Three weeks later he breaks his promise and his troops start emptying the camps using whips and guns. [I’m not sure this is correct. All the other sources I’ve read claim that Mobutu supported and maintained the Hutu refugees. But maybe Ignatieff is referring to one event in what was a very confused situation, in the refugee camps, which went on for years.]

Monday 17 July 1995: Bujumbura, Burundi. Burundi is a kind of mirror image of Rwanda. It, also, is split in this great ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, but instead of the Hutu majority in power (as was in the case in Rwanda, leading up to the genocide) the Tutsi minority have remained in power.

Forced by the ‘international community’ to hold genuine elections (as most third world countries were, after the end of the Cold War), in 1993 Burundi finally elected a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, its first ever Hutu. His reforms antagonised soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army and he was assassinated in a failed military coup in October 1993. This led to the Burundian civil war, in reality a series of massacres around the country, which dragged on for years and in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Ignatieff pays tribute to a remarkable man, which is worth recording:

To stop Burundi from disintegrating, the secretary-general appointed a special representative, Ahmed Ould Abdallah, an indefatigable fifty-five-year-old Mauritanian diplomat, who bears himself with the imperiousness of a Saharan chieftain. In April 1994, on the night that the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali airport, Abdallah went on radio and television to prevent false rumours from precipitating a bloodbath. He sat up all night with the army chief of staff, phoning the local commanders and ordering them to remain in barracks. Most observers credit Abdallah with saving Burundi from the genocidal frenzy that overtook Rwanda next door. (p.85)

Ignatieff describes Abdallah as being on the phone all the time to local politicians, instructing them to keep a lid on things. He, personally, goes out on the streets, meeting the leaders of militias in ethnically cleansed towns, telling them to curb the violence or they will all be swept away. It’s a portrait of remarkable bravery. As always Ignatieff is interested in the theory or principle behind events, and sees in Abdallah a form of ‘preventative diplomacy’.

Ignatieff sits in on the meeting Boutros chairs with the country’s political elite. Tutsis and Hutus sit on opposite side of the table and won’t look each other in the eye. One by one they retell their long stories of grievance and offence: the Tutsis did this to us; no, the Hutus did this first. It is the behaviour of five-year-olds in a playground. Boutros waits till the end, then harangues them, telling them they are grown-ups, they are politicians, and the art of politics is compromise. You talk, negotiate and compromise with people from the other side; you don’t try to exterminate them.

II. The limits of UN power

That evening in the hotel Ignatieff interviews Boutros. Doesn’t he ever get tired of all this? Doesn’t he yield to ‘The seductiveness of moral disgust’? (So that’s where the chapter title comes from.)

Boutros has an important message. He tells the leaders of all these screwed-up countries that the ‘international community is watching them’ and monitoring their behaviour, but he adds an important rider. The United Nations will not save them. He manages down their expectations. Lots of leaders think they can behave like petulant children and the UN will somehow fly in and rescue them from the consequences. But in reality the UN is much more powerless than it seems, tied to ‘mandates’ which are thrashed out by the Security Council. When even the most liberal power in the world, America, refused to let UN forces in Kigali intervene in the Rwandan genocide, then you realise how impotent it is.

In reality all the UN can do is try to steer opposing forces to the negotiating table. They are Relate for countries mired in civil conflict, but in order to change the forces in a country have to want to change. The UN can broker deals and then it can police what was agreed – but the conflicting parties have to agree to want to make a deal in the first place. Boutros gives the Israelis and Palestinians as an example. How long did it take to get them to the peace table?

III. Maybe we should be more imperialistic

Ignatieff describes how, by 1995, the euphoria and optimism which followed the collapse of communism has evaporated. He reflects that the problem of foreign intervention of the past 5 years had been too half-hearted. The West is hobbled by post-imperial guilt. We lob a few shells at the bad guys then withdraw, expecting things to get better, but by and large they only get worse. For such a card-carrying liberal, Ignatieff surprises the reader by asserting that maybe we need to be more imperial, more interventionist and more assertive.

What if General Schwartzkopf had been made the MacArthur of Iraq, toppling Saddam and given free rein to rebuild Iraq as MacArthur rebuilt Japan? What if America had responded to the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu with full throttle aggression, had defeated the warlords or dragged them to the negotiating table, and were now policing the UN-supervised reconstruction of the country? What if NATO had responded immediately to the Serbian uprising in Bosnia in 1992 with air strikes and an aggressive ground campaign, which had prevented the creation of new concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, the long agony of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica? (p.94)

The West maintains the arrogant assumption that we know best, and reserves the right to intervene where and when we see fit, but then always does so a) too late and b) half-heartedly, withdrawing whenever as soon as anyone gets shot or public interest wanes and moves onto the next disaster somewhere else.

IV. Disillusion and disgust

So now we get closer to the core of his argument. Ignatieff thinks he detects a new mood of disillusion throughout the diplomatic community which has spread to some of the aid workers. What’s the point? What’s the point applying sticking plasters to countries whose leaders are hell-bent on mass murder and social destruction? So this chapter amounts to Ignatieff wondering aloud whether the entire project of Western intervention has reached the end of its tether or needs to be rethought.

V. Ideologues of disillusion

Ignatieff describes this wave of disgust and disillusion as if it’s a ride washing over the Western world and goes on to mention two of its leading thinkers or idealogues (definition: ‘Someone who espouses a particular ideology, particularly a political one.’), namely Samuel Huntingdon and Robert Kaplan

Samuel Huntingdon

Samuel Huntingdon (1927 to 2008) was an American political scientist, adviser, and academic who spent over half a century teaching at political science at Harvard University, as well as spells advising the governments of South Africa and Brazil. He became famous among the chattering classes for his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This predicted that, with the end of communism, global conflict would in future be caused by clashes between ‘cultural’ forces, by which he religious and ethnic blocs. He predicted that the Western world would find its most severe antagonist in the Islamic world. Most liberals pooh-poohed this idea as reactionary until 9/11 turned the world upside-down and gave his ideas renewed popularity.

Huntingdon took a relativistic view of human rights and democracy, seeing them as achievements of Western civilisation were not necessarily appropriate to other cultures. Therefore foisting our values on other countries and cultures was not only morally wrong but a practical mistake.

Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.

Ignatieff was writing very soon after Huntingdon’s book was published and takes strong issue with it. Huntingdon appears to be saying this kind of civilisational clash is fated and predestined whereas Ignatieff very strongly disagreed. For Ignatieff, the whole point of Yugoslavia and Rwanda is not that they were fated, but that specific rulers chose to whip up ethnic nationalism in order to stay in power. Civic nationalism was a realistic alternative for these countries but specific leaders chose to neglect that path. At the opening of chapter 2 Ignatieff ridicules Huntingdon’s idea that the war in Croatia was a ‘clash of civilisations’ by reducing it to absurdity, saying that Huntingdon’s theory implies that there is some kind of invisible line between the farmhouse full of Serbs that he (Ignatieff) is holed up in and the farmhouse full of Croats 250 yards away, and that this represents the borderline ‘between civilisations’.

Robert Kaplan

In February 1994 i.e. only a year or so before Ignatieff began writing his book, American journalist Robert D. Kaplan published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled ‘The Coming Anarchy’. He had been on a tour of West African states and had seen for himself the anarchy and chaos in many of them (Liberia, Sierra Leone) and the example of the failed state Somalia on the opposite coast.

Kaplan predicted that, with the end of the Cold War, conflict of ideology would be replaced by conflicts caused by multiple overlapping causes, a congeries of causes which would be difficult to disentangle and impossible to control (p.98).

  • environmental deterioration would bring ever-increasing conflict over resources
  • impoverished rural populations would migrate to cities, creating huge unstable urban areas liable to splinter along ethnic or cultural lines
  • cultural or ethnic groupings would supersede political borders, creating regions of conflict which cross traditional borders
  • the post-modern world would be a confusion of cross-cutting identities, systems and allegiances

Ignatieff summarises Kaplan’s view as predicting that future conflicts won’t even be dignified by the phrase ‘civil war’, they will ‘wars of disintegration’, fought over drugs, resources, control, power – a return to pre-modern warlordism. The West and its economically advanced partners in Asia (Korea, Singapore, the advanced parts of China) will go from strength to strength, leaving vast areas of the globe to become ‘a subrational zone of semipermanent violence’.

Ignatieff doesn’t explicitly counter Kaplan’s vision. On paper he ought to be against it because Kaplan, like Huntingdon, has such a fatalistic tinge. But Ignatieff summarises his view simply as the most famous representative of what can be called the modern chaos theory.

Three questions

Instead Ignatieff ends this essay by asking three questions in light of the Bosnian war:

  1. When is it necessary for outside powers to use military force in civil wars?
  2. When is it right to back a minority’s claim to secede from a state?
  3. How can civilian populations be protected from the consequences of civil wars?

Trying to define answers to these questions turns out to be very tricky in the context of the complexity of the Yugoslav wars, but one theme emerges. Half-assed intervention may do more harm than good. UN supplying food to refugees of both sides may have encouraged both sides in the war to fight on. Claiming to provide ‘safe havens’ which turned out to be anything but, was arguably very harmful. But then the West refused to counter Serb aggression and let the Serbs bomb Sarajevo into ruin for four long years! On the other hand, sending in limited numbers of UN troops to try and monitor ceasefire lines and so on, gave hostages to the enemies. Once they were in place, more aggressive intervention, such as air strikes, became impossible for the Serbs would have massacred or taken the UN troops hostage.

To summarise:

The chief threat to international security in the post-Cold War world is the collapse of states, and the resulting collapse of the capacity of civilian populations to feed and protect themselves, either against famine or interethnic warfare. In a world in which nations once capable of imperial burdens are no longer willing to shoulder them, it is inevitable that many of the states created by decolonisation should prove unequal to the task of maintaining civil order. Such nations have achieved self-determination on the cruellest possible terms. Either they are torn apart by ethnic conflict, or they are simply too weak to overcome the poverty of their people. (p.105)

What is needed is a more imperial approach, by which Ignatieff means a really long-term commitment to bring peace and then spend decades rebuilding a state with the kind of civic institutions we enjoy in the West. But this, also, is fraught with risk and probable failure. It may be that peoples in a failing state come to hate each other so much that only a third force can enter and hope to restore peace and order. But the experience of colonialism is that quite quickly both sides will unite against the peacekeeper. After all this is what happened in Northern Ireland where the British Army initially went in in 1969 to protect the Catholic community from attacks by Loyalists. But they hadn’t been there long before a sequence of incidents led the Catholic community to hate their presence and there followed nearly 30 years of violence on all sides.

And of course Ignatieff was not to know it, but the Americans were to try follow his admonition to be more not less imperialistic in Iraq and Afghanistan this century.

In Iraq overthrowing the dictator turned out to be the easy part and then trying to create a peaceful civil society proved impossible as the country collapsed into waves of insurgencies. In Afghanistan, we have just seen the end of twenty years and over a trillion dollars worth of investment which is that the ‘state’ everyone involved claimed to have created was overthrown in less than a week by the Taliban and their theocratic rule has been restored to what it was before 9/11. And after all that effort Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least educated places on earth.

Ignatieff thought the West was ‘disgusted and disillusioned by its failed attempts to intervene in civil wars, keep the peace and try to build nations, back in 1998. I wonder what his position is now?

Chapter 4. The Warrior’s Honour

This is the longest chapter in the book and gives it its title. It opens with a long factual account of the origin of the International Red Cross, starting with Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessing the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, and then volunteering to help treat the tens of thousands of casualties which clogged the town in the aftermath of the battle. He returned to Switzerland, dazed by what he had seen, began consulting with experts in the areas of medicine and law, war law, and in 1863 the founding charter of the Red Cross was published in Geneva.

Ignatieff follows the Red Cross’s history through the cataclysms of the twentieth century, showing how rules and processes were added, the most important being the organisation’s studied impartiality, bolstered by the way that the entire international committee remained Swiss until relatively recently, and  its commitment to secrecy i.e. it has historically refused to turn over details of participants in war crimes etc to various international courts, because doing so would jeopardise its ability to operate in future warzones.

It comes over several times that the International Red Cross does not pursue justice and it does not campaign for human rights. Its job is to police the laws of war. It polices the implementation of the Geneva Codes. As Wikipedia explains:

The Geneva Conventions are rules that apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities; these include the sick and wounded of armed forces on the field, wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians.

In practice, as the Red Cross representative in Kabul explains, this means trying to calmly convey to warlords and militias the basic rules:

  • don’t shoot the wounded
  • don’t fire on ambulances
  • don’t target hospitals
  • don’t attack civilians
  • don’t torture prisoners

As Ignatieff summarises:

The Geneva Conventions are not about justice but about good treatment. (p.193)

And again:

Dunant’s original genius lay in his acceptance of war as an essential ritual of human society, which can be tamed but which will never be eradicated. (p.156)

Along the way Ignatieff points out that Dunant knew from the start that its principles of care for the victims of conflict no matter what their origin, ethnicity or involvement would not be enough to guarantee its future. Dunant also relied on the warrior’s code.

Ignatieff explains that almost all soldiers across all cultures, across all periods, have codes of honour, codes they operate by. Just being a mighty fighter isn’t enough. In general soldiers, whether Samurai or native Americans or Aztecs or medieval knights have operated by agreed codes of behaviour. He explains how the Red Cross has played along with these codes in various situations, matching its humanitarian aims to protect the weak and treat the sick with the nearest thing available in the warrior codes of the culture it found itself in.

However, things have changed. When his account continues into a detailed consideration of the role played by the Red Cross in the Yugoslav wars, he points out the organisation came under real stress. Both the Croat and Serb governments licensed the establishment of paramilitaries which were encouraged to carry out ethnic cleansing which their parent governments, and armies, could deny responsibility for (p.133). As part of this freedom from responsibility some of them attacked Red Cross convoys. The Red Cross were too late to help the inhabitants of Vukovar. The Red Cross were powerless to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Red Cross officials were traumatised to discover the Serbs had built the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War near Banja Luka.

These cumulative failures made Red Cross staff and managers wonder the organisation was relevant any more. Or whether war had changed so much that its role needed to be reconsidered (p.140).

Worse, was the advent of a new feature of the wars of chaos, namely child soldiers. Young teenagers have maybe fought in armies through history, but entire units of children armed with machine guns was a new phenomenon. It was most salient in Africa, especially the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Here teenagers, often stoned out of their minds, lorded it over roadblocks and machine gunned people at random, including several Red Cross missions.

In both instances, the warrior code which Dunant knew his organisation relied on, was not just breached but had ceased to exist.

Ignatieff applies the same interpretation to the civil war in Afghanistan. He flew into Kabul 3 days after the former communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, had been caught by the Taliban who had just taken Kabul, tortured to death, castrated, beaten to a pulp and his body dragged round the street behind a lorry before being hung from a traffic pole.

Ignatieff laments that, for most of its history, Afghan warriors fought by a code, not least limited by its subsistence agriculture. They fought after the seeds had been sown and until harvest time. There were in-built modes of restraint. But after the Soviet invasion of Christmas 1979, the Americans poured weapons into the country and these, along with what the Soviets left behind when they abandoned the place in 1989, made it one of the most heavily armed countries on earth. Once the Soviets had gone the mujahideen militias of this deeply tribal country fell to attacking each other, with a technology which didn’t require a winter break. By the time Ignatieff arrives, year-round fighting with bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades and mortars had reduced most of the towns and cities to rubble. Ignatieff tells us that in all the warzones he visited he had never seen such devastation as 1996 Kabul.

The latter part of the essay analyses in detail the moral basis of the Red Cross’s work. Even some of its own staff think it should take a more proactive stance on human rights. But the veterans know its mission is narrower and darker than that. Its appeal to the warrior code may be a slender basis for action, a slender hope. But it also may be all that separates war from utter savagery.

But times have changed. For most of human history states have endeavoured to secure a monopoly of violence and vest it in a specialised warrior class, ruled, as mentioned, by a warrior code. But modern technology has removed much of the interaction of ‘soldiers’ in the West, who are increasingly technicians; while the rest of the world has seen an unprecedented flood of weapons, billions of small handguns, and endless amounts of the light, cheap and reliable Kalashnikov rifle.

The result is that poor, weak, post-colonial states often cannot enforce that monopoly of violence. What state collapse means is that violence passes into the hands of private armies, militias, paramilitaries, warlords, gangsters, drug cartels and so on. One commentator has described them as ‘ragged wars’. Many of them are hardly wars at all, but conflict between criminal gangs fighting for control of drugs or raw resources, such as the precious gems and minerals of eastern Congo.

a) It is very difficult for any society to claw its way back from such total collapse.

b) None of the purveyors of violence listed above conform to any warrior code. They have not been trained in the art of restraining and channeling violence. The result is unrestrained savagery. Barbarism.

Ignatieff delivers a surprising conclusion. What the world needs is states. Before humanitarian aid, or general aid programmes or economic development, these countries need states which control professional armies with trained leaders. These armies can then disarm the militias and paramilitaries and enforce a return to peace. This may mean not intervening in civil wars and letting a victor emerge naturally – then supporting them to restore the state’s monopoly on violence. Only under these conditions can there be any hope of a return to the basic stability which is required before any kind of social or economic development can be undertaken.

Chapter 5. The nightmare from which we are trying to awake

The past is an argument. (p.174)

The final chapter is a consideration of the purpose and effectiveness of truth and reconciliation commissions. The most famous one is the one set up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, but there were also attempts to air dirty secrets and establish the facts about the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

These commissions are based on shaky propositions:

  1. That a ‘truth’ agreed by everyone can ever be achieved.
  2. That a direct analogy between individual psyche and national psyche.

We know that some people can be cured of crippling neuroses or obsessions or depression or other mental symptoms if they can be made to face up to traumatic experiences from the past; if they can ‘work through’ their ‘issues’. Bit it’s wishful thinking to imagine the same can happen for nations. A nation is not a person, doesn’t have a ‘mind’ and an ‘unconscious’.

Still, on the plus side, may people were brought ‘closure’, particularly by concrete information about what happened to their loved ones who went missing decades ago. They were tortured to death by the Chilean police or dumped out of helicopters into the sea by the Argentine air force.

Ignatieff suggests a kind of hierarchy of outcome, or a series of waystations, for these kinds of commissions, in order of attainability:

  1. truth
  2. reconciliation
  3. justice

Truth He draws a distinction between truth and justice. It’s one thing to get all sides to agree on a narrative of events (the ‘truth’), it’s quite another to get them to agree on an interpretation of what those events mean. After all, they’re likely to be coming from very different perspectives.

He says some international supporters of truth and reconciliation processes were disillusioned when the military in both Argentina and Chile refused to take part and refused to accept any blame or responsibility.

A truth commission can winnow out the facts upon which society’s arguments with itself should be conducted. But it cannot bring these arguments to a conclusion. (p.173)

Reconciliation is difficult because of the identities people all-too-often create around their plights and experiences. Both victors and victims create narratives which entrench their status, how both sides refuse to acknowledge any guilt or responsibility, how time hardens these myths into stone. Compromise becomes impossible.

Ignatieff takes us on a whistlestop tour of such T&R commissions. These include the ones about the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, which the military of both nations took part in but ensured their scope was severely limited. The one carried out in Germany after reunification.

The glaring fact that one has never been a public admission of guilt or acknowledgment carried out in Russia. Russia was never de-Stalinised and therefore continues to bear the burden of unspoken guilt, creating two Russias, one of the hundreds of thousands of liberals and intellectuals who are well educated and ashamed of its murderous past, and the tens of millions of party members who feel no guilt about the past, who take their medals and awards to their graves, who resent the liberals as traitors and foreign agents, who play into the hands of Putin the patriotic Russian nationalist.

The title of this chapter is a famous quotation from James Joyce, to be precise Joyce’s character Stephen Dedelus in his novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ The character, like Joyce, was conscious of Ireland’s stifling attachment to its grievances and oppression which almost guarantee that the same situation recurs over and over again, like the recurring nightmare of a trauma victim.

The only way to awake from the nightmare is to acknowledge the trauma and try to lay it to rest. Ignatieff praises President Alwyn of Chile who publicly apologised to the victims of Pinochet’s repression, and German Chancellor Willi Brand who got down on his knees in front of a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. These gestures by leaders opened up a space in which millions of their citizens could also come out into the open and make gestures of apology. Saying sorry opens the door for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Ignatieff is full of scorn or anger that none of the leaders of the six post-Yugoslavia states have apologised for anything.

Vengeance

In the last pages Ignatieff offers a striking new interpretation of the idea of vengeance. He makes the brilliant point that vengeance is usually considered a low, dishonourable act, vulgar and crude. But it can also be interpreted as a strongly moral devotion to keeping faith with the dead, by continuing their work, by acting on their behalf. Thought-provoking idea…

But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that vengeance tends to an eternal cycle of violence as sons take revenge for their fathers who took revenge for their grandfathers, and so on endlessly, just as the Serbs and Croats of 1992 were encouraged to avenge their grandfathers of 1942. Something must break this cycle, some act of penance or reconciliation. And the first step towards that is understanding of the other side and their hurt, no matter how difficult or repugnant that might be.

Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. (p.190)


Credit

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

Therapy by David Lodge (1995)

One of the depressing things about depression is knowing that there are lots of people in the world with far more reason to feel depressed than you have, and finding that, so far from making you snap out of your depression, it only makes you despise yourself more and thus feel more depressed.
(Therapy, page 107)

This is the story of TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore, who’s riding high on the success of his soap opera The People Next Door. He is the archetypal middle-class middle-aged successful man who has it all – big house, lovely wife, kids successfully launched into life, fast car, award-winning career, lots of money – but is unhappy and doesn’t know why.

How many novels are written about this figure? If there’s such a thing as the ‘campus novel’, is there the ‘depressed-middle-aged-successful-professional-man’ novel? Maybe it’s the ‘menopausal man’ novel.

A new kind of character

For thirty years (1960 to 1991) Lodge had been getting into the minds of academics and intellectuals, literary critics and theologians, in texts which were never far from detailed considerations of literary theory, Catholic theology, or sex. Certainly the combination of literary high-mindedness with graphic sexual description is the tell-tale sign of his previous five or six novels.

Which makes Therapy a welcome change, at least initially. The story is told in the first-person and TV scriptwriter Passmore’s voice is refreshingly different in tone and idiolect from anything that’s gone before. Unlike the over-educated but under-worldly figures we’re used to in Lodge’s fiction, Passmore is a convincing portrayal of a much more middle-brow character: more or less the first Lodge character to be interested in sports, to be happily married and faithful to his wife, who swims confidently in the demanding but relentlessly unintellectual world of popular TV. (In the middle section we find out from  his wife that although he attended a grammar school, he was always bottom of the class, and left with just a couple of O levels – p.196)

In an amusing character trait he enjoys looking up words and sharing their definitions with us, and his nickname in the TV industry, since he put on quite a lot of weight and lost most of his hair, is Tubby. All of this is broadly funny in a tolerant, grumpy-old-man kind of way.

Part one (pages 3 to 129)

The first 129 pages consist of a diary or journal which Laurence starts in order to keep track of the painful twinges he’s getting in his knee. He has a keyhole operation to cure it which, alas, doesn’t work, but the diary goes on to record his visits to a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist, a physiotherapist and an aromatherapist as he searches for a cure to his physical ailments but also, it emerges, the undefined malaise nagging at his soul. He has everything. So why does he lie in bed at nights, unhappy?

His platonic mistress (female best friend) Amy, in London, describes his condition as Angst and, in looking it up, Laurence stumbles across the writings of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegård (1813 to 1855). Intrigued, he buys some of his works in the Charing Cross Road and begins to explore Kierkegård’s philosophy (as expressed in the great man’s rather confusing works). Ideas around what attitude we should take to life, to decision-making, how to avoid a permanent feeling of dread, how to live an authentic existence. In a biography he discovers how much SK’s philosophy was prompted by the one great love of his life, Regine, who he rejected in an agony of indecision, a moment he regretted for the rest of his life.

A great deal else is covered in this opening part, painting in Laurence’s everyday life and down-to-earth character, from his regular tennis games with friends to moans about his ongoing medical problems, a lot of detail about the different therapies and the idiosyncratic therapists who perform them, the day-to-day business of being married, and quite interesting insights of how his scripts are written, produced, rehearsed and directed into the thirty-minute sitcom which is the basis of his fortune.

But as he becomes more intrigued and beguiled by Kierkegård’s writings, Laurence begins to sound like many another Lodge intellectual, sometimes less a character than an idea with legs. After a few months he has understood Kierkegård well enough to be able to explain to us his rather arcane notion of repetition – that repetition is the ultimate form of existential fulfilment, that in it we find ourselves.

And exposition of this rather abstract idea leads Laurence into an eloquent hymn to married life, to its rhythm and predictability, to the virtues of getting to know someone inside out, relishing their character and tastes and the little things that please them, through the repetition of day-to-day tenderness and love.

Which makes it all the funnier, and the more heart-breaking, when this whole section ends on the bombshell that his wife, Sally, wants to divorce him.

Part two – dramatic monologues (pages 133 to 198)

Very confidently and amusingly (Lodge has done this so many times before) the entire middle section of the novel is made up of dramatic monologues from the ‘secondary’ characters. We read:

  • A court deposition from Brett Sutton, Sally’s tennis coach. Laurence had begun to suspect his wife of having an affair with Brett, so he starts stalking him, making silent phone calls to him at all times of day and night, occasionally pretending to be Sally’s mother and putting on a high-pitched voice, damaging his greenhouse and then – in the climax of this strand – breaking into his bedroom with a pair of garden shears to cut off his…. ponytail. It’s only when Brett wakes up and turns the light on that a horrified Laurence sees that he is in bed with… his boyfriend. He is gay. He emphatically has not been having an affair with Laurence’s wife.
  • Plump Amy, Laurence’s platonic girlfriend in London, a skilled casting director, explains in a series of monologues (each one representing a session with her therapist) how she hears about the news of the separation, how she comforts Laurence but fears he might now want to sleep with her, and how she is persuaded to go with him on the worst foreign holiday of all time to Tenerife, to the hotel from hell, where they push together the two single metal bunk beds and, despite all his efforts, Laurence turns out to be impotent. In its depiction of Playa de las Americas as hell, this is very funny.
  • Louise, a high-powered Hollywood producer who once, five years ago, on Laurence’s one trip to the States to discuss creating a US version of the sitcom, took a bit too much cocaine in the ladies’ loo and made a blunt pass at Laurence. We hear her phone conversation to a fellow American media woman – frequently interrupted by other important calls from Hollywood contacts – in which she describes her astonishment that Laurence flies out to California, solely to meet her, solely to recreate that long-vanished evening, solely to try and seduce her. She is flabbergasted, gets him drunk, and kicks him out of her car at his expensive hotel.
  • Ollie Silver, the middle-aged producer of The People Next Door, meets an old pal from Current Affairs in the pub and chats about work and especially the problem he has: Deborah Radcliffe the star of the sitcom, wants to leave and he needs Laurence to write her out of the series. But Laurence, caught in his mid-life meltdown, refuses all the suggestions he and the Head of Comedy have made. If he continues to refuse, they’ll invoke his contract, cut him out of the show and hire a more compliant writer.
  • Samantha Handy, the hilariously self-centred young script-editor, hired by Laurence’s lecherous agent, Jake Endicott, visits a work colleague whose mouth is wired shut due to recent dental work, and breathlessly describes being invited by Laurence on a trip to Copenhagen to research his quixotic fantasy of creating a new drama series based on the life of Kierkegård, where she expects to have to sleep with him as a return for his recommending her to Jake – but is surprised when he turns down her increasingly blunt offers. Turns out visiting the sites of Kierkegård’s life make Laurence feel genuinely philosophical, make him think much more seriously about life and the choices you make.
  • Sally Passmore, his estranged wife, meets Laurence’s therapist to emphasise that the marriage really is over, kaput, finished, but finds herself drawn into reminiscing about how they met and the constraints of their very different families in the late 1950s, which drove them to seek escape by marrying.

All very persuasive and entertaining, sometimes very funny.

Part three (pages 201 to 282)

Back to Laurence’s diary, recommencing on Tuesday 25 May, and almost immediately he reveals that he wrote the dramatic monologues listed above, as an exercise for his therapist (and Lodge’s joke at the reader’s expense). Unexpected as this twist is, I think it ultimately detracts from the novel. It would have been far more interesting to have been the genuine views of all these characters. Knowing they were done by him somehow narrows them.

Barely has Laurence explained this, than he tells us he’s been musing more and more frequently on his first girlfriend, Maureen Kavanagh, back in impoverished south-east London where he grew up, and this is the pretext for a freestanding section, titled ‘Maureen: A Memoir’, which makes up most of this part.

It is a long section (pages 222 to 258, inclusive), quite a change of tone and a complete change of setting: from the heady delights of Soho’s medialand circa 1993, to schoolboy days in black-and-white post-war Charlton, 1952, with our hero attending Lambeth Merchants’ grammar school, playing in the school soccer team, and doing a star turn at the Catholic youth club dances, holding his Maureen tight as they smooch to Nat King Cole.

Maybe this whole section – presumably indebted to Lodge’s own upbringing at the same time and in the same place – is intended to be a symptom of a man unable to face his life in the here and now, escaping back to idealised memories of halcyon innocence. But it also reads like a stand-alone short story which has been inserted, not totally convincingly, into the longer text. Also, it reworks themes familiar to any reader of Lodge: the precocious 16-year-old echoes the identically aged protagonist of Out of the Shelter; the link between teenage Catholicism and sex are unhappily present throughout his work.

The story itself starts out as the sweetly innocent romance between Laurence and local Catholic girl, Maureen. After a year of catching trams to school at opposite stops, they finally bump into each other and speak, and then Laurence starts attending the Catholic youth group in order to be close to her, especially at the Sunday night dance (supervised by a priest). And then he gets to accompany her on the 15-minute walk home. And then they kiss, a radiant memory. And then a little more than kissing. And touching. And every week thereafter, a little further, until Laurence attains every schoolboy’s Holy Grail and, in the cold damp area under the steps to Maureen’s house, he gets to feel the curve of her teenage breast. Eureka! Which goes on for several weeks.

But then they both become involved in the Church Nativity Play in which Maureen is cast as Mary. The priest directing it emphasises to her that she must not only play the role she must pray the role, aspiring to be as chaste and pure as the Virgin. And so she shyly and embarrassedly asks Laurence to stop, to stop the fondling and the kissing. And he is angry.

And I was embarrassed. I felt increasingly like a voyeur at the violation of a teenage virgin. After the slow, sweet build-up, the story unravels quickly from that point onwards. As they go on to perform in the Nativity play, Laurence puts increasingly genuine contempt for his one-time sweetheart into his performance as Herod. And as soon as the productions are finished, he publicly humiliates Maureen, quits the Catholic social club, gets a job in a West End theatre, and quickly leaves his boyhood world behind.

Now, 40 years later, as he continues using the journal to search his soul, he realises he is still haunted by his heartlessness. On the spur of the moment Laurence revisits his childhood neighbourhood, tracks down the house where he grew up, then Maureen’s house and then the Catholic church which oversaw the youth club. Here he meets the modish young priest struggling with Excel spreadsheets, and makes enquiries. Turns out Maureen married the director of the youth club nativity play – Laurence’s much despised rival, Bede. Further investigation turns up that this rather pompous young man went on to become a civil servant in the Department of Education, ultimately playing a key role in the implementation of the new National Curriculum.

So Laurence rings Bede up out of the blue and goes to visit him in his plush home in Wimbledon. Here he discovers that Bede and Maureen’s eldest son was recently murdered in Africa. And for this and other reasons Maureen, still a devout Catholic, has undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

And, on impulse, his present life in ruins, seeking, searching, yearning for the certainty of those vanished days – Laurence decides to track her down.

If all this feels rushed and against the grain of the leisurely and fairly comedic opening sections, that’s because it is.

Part four (pages 285 to 321)

He tracks her down. He spares no expense driving up and down the autoroutes of southern France and Spain, stopping at every pilgrim’s lodge, searching for her name among the registers of overnight guests. He eventually finds her trudging along a busy A road, weary and foot-sore. After her initial amazement, she allows him to take her bags to the nearest hotel, but she insists on walking. And quite quickly he falls in with her plans, driving her backpack ahead to the nearest town, then walking back to meet her, as she slowly, painfully completes every step of the pilgrimage.

Lodge includes a lot of tourist colour, describing the landscape, the other pilgrims, the lodges and rest-houses, as if he himself has done the route or researched it pretty thoroughly. It has stopped in any way being a detached, amusing comedy. It feels more real and urgent than that. She is not the trim schoolgirl of his memory. She is a baggy, paunchy, wrinkly, tubby middle aged woman gone to seed. But it doesn’t matter to Laurence, driven by his obsession.

Finally, when Maureen has walked all the way to the cathedral and taken part in the necessary rituals and then attended the big celebration Mass – finally they repair to a swanky hotel where Laurence finally gets to make love to her (he had been offering to all the time, but she had refused while she was making pilgrimage). And thereafter, like spring chickens, like fit young 20-somethings, they make love every siesta and every night. He offers to marry her but she says, No, she must go back to Bede.

And so they make their respective ways back to London. In a tearing hurry Laurence drives up to Rummidge to try and effect a reconciliation with his wife, but she says she has now fallen in love with another man and slept with him. Game over.

As the book ends Laurence explains that the problem with his sitcom, about the actress leaving – that was all sorted out; the money is still pouring in; he’s now the best of friends with Bede and Maureen, he’s going to move to Wimbledon and join the golf club; and he and Maureen still enjoy fairly regular ‘siestas’, her ongoing marriage to Bede not appearing to trouble her at all. And the problem with his knee, which prompted him to start the journal? All cleared up, old boy. Maybe there is something in these pilgrimages.

Conclusion

There is something profoundly wrong about all this. It is fine for Lodge’s characters to fall in and out of bed with each other when they are in one of his obvious comic-fantasies. But the backdrop to this encounter is Laurence’s genuine cruelty of 40 years ago, Maureen’s bereft mourning for her dead son, the complex and real damage this has done to her marriage to Bede, and the long, agonising, physically draining experience of the pilgrimage, not easy for an out-of-shape housewife in her late 50s.

I just don’t believe a woman like that would simply open her arms and say Yes to sex. And that they would then shag like teenagers every afternoon and every evening. It feels too much like male wish-fulfilment, the need of Laurence’s penis over-riding every other real-world consideration.

From the moment in Part Two that he introduced the Maureen memoir, it began to feel like a different novel from the first half, one dealing with potentially much more serious and upsetting themes. And yet it is embedded in the increasingly inappropriate chatty, upbeat tone of his middle-brow TV scriptwriter. Subject matter and tone feel at odds.

And the facile capitulation of Maureen to his childhood fantasies – seems too much like fantasy, in the negative sense. Or that the fantasy seems cheap and easy, compared to the short but powerful scenes about the son’s death and the pilgrimage itself. These threads hint at the much deeper complexity of human nature, at enduring issues of tragedy and loss, of age and decay, of lost loves and lost hopes – which can’t just be reconciled and sorted out with a few fancy meals and improbably athletic sex in an expensive hotel room.

It feels like Lodge’s comic instincts do a disservice to his deeper intuitions about human nature.

Social history

Lodge’s previous novels are all very specific about their location in time, and all contain references to contemporary events (in the case of How Far Can You Go? almost obsessively so). Laurence’s diary commences on Monday 15 February 1993 and the last entry is on September 21.

The advantage of the diary format is you can make passing comments on anything which takes your fancy without disturbing the flow of ‘plot’ (if there is a plot). Thus Laurence bolsters the ‘realism’ of the text by including numerous references to contemporary events and trends:

  • global warming (have we really been worrying about it for 20 years?)
  • British Rail introducing the irritating phrase ‘station stop’
  • the well-publicised case of Jamie Bulger, abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by two young boys on 12 February 1993
  • on the train to and from London he works on his laptop computer (the etymological dictionary says the word was first used in 1984)
  • he hears about the death of Bobby Moore (24 February 1993) on the evening he’s gone to see Reservoir Dogs, and contrasts the dignity and heroism of the footballer with the cynical, squalid hyper-violence of the Hollywood movie
  • Diana’s Squidgeygate tapes are in the news, making him feel sorry for the Royal Family
  • the Serbs are bombing Sarajevo
  • John Major has the lowest popularity rating of any Prime Minister since records began

This deployment of background chronology has been Lodge’s practice since his earliest novels, but I question why. Ezra Pound said an ‘epic’ is a poem with history in it, and proceeded to shove his long poem, The Cantos, full of historical references, but himself ultimately judged the poem a failure, because of its lack of coherence.

Something similar is going on here. The history has to be woven into the pattern of the narrative. The history has to engage with the plot and the characters. Just noting what’s on the radio or in the papers that day – Jamie Bulger, John Major, Sarajevo – certainly matches the story against a chronology of the times – but it doesn’t integrate history into the narrative, doesn’t dramatise it. The two strands run on parallel lines without ever touching.

Mid-life crisis

Thirty seconds on the internet showed me that novels about a middle-aged man who feels he’s missing something is a well-established and thoroughly defined genre – the ‘mid-life crisis novel’ – and that Therapy is routinely included in them.

Nat King Cole – Too Young

This is one of the songs to which the 16-year-old Laurence dances with his childhood sweetheart, all those years ago, back in post-war south-east London. My mother (same generation as Lodge) had a big collection of original Nat King Cole records which my Dad bought her, and which I inherited.


Reviews of David Lodge novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

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