The forest through the trees

I had an earlier post where I mentioned Len Deighton’s use of the word “azoic” (lifeless) in The Ipcress File. I’ve been revisiting Deighton’s spy novels for a viewing of ’60s spy movies I’m preparing for Alex on Film, and recently turned up a passage in Funeral in Berlin where the hero is driving past a timber plantation where saplings are planted in rows and he looks out to where “the graticule of trees glowed with fiery foliage.”

A graticule is the grid of lines, typically of longitude and latitude, on which a map is drawn. I didn’t know that. Thanks again, Len!

Rage on

rageI recently reviewed Bob Woodward’s Rage, his second book on the Trump presidency (the first was Fear). It’s not a flattering portrait, though I thought he did his best to cast his subject in the best possible light, including excerpts from over a dozen lengthy interviews. What it made me think about though was what an official biography of Trump, when we get it, will look like. You’d have to think it will be flattering, but since no amount of flattery can satisfy a narcissist Trump will still object to it. Putting lipstick on the pig of this presidency, however, will be no easy task. Who will say anything good about Trump’s handling of the job? Not people like Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or James Mattis, who all held high positions in his administration but were cashiered or resigned in (quiet) protest, only to be insulted by their boss on the way out. I anticipate a truly Herculean feat of apologetics.

If certain tendencies proceed unchecked

From The Modern Century (1967) by Northrop Frye:

If certain tendencies within our civilization were to proceed unchecked, they would rapidly take us towards a society which, like that of a prison, would be both completely introverted and completely without privacy. The last stand of privacy has always been, traditionally, the inner mind. It is quite possible however for communications media, especially the newer electronic ones, to break down the associative structures of the inner mind and replace them by the prefabricated structures of the media. A society entirely controlled by their slogans and exhortations would be introverted because nobody would be saying  anything: there would only be echo, and Echo was the mistress of Narcissus. It would also be without privacy, because it would frustrate the effort of the healthy mind to develop a view of the world which is private but not introverted, accommodating itself to opposing views. The triumph of communication is the death of communication: where communication forms a total environment, there is nothing to be communicated.

Bond’s law of billiards

From From Russia With Love (1957) by Ian Fleming:

Kerim turned and faced Bond. His voice became insistent. “Listen, my friend,” he put a huge hand on Bond’s shoulder. “This is a billiard table. An easy, flat, green billiard table. And you have hit your white ball and it is travelling easily and quietly towards the red. The pocket is alongside. Fatally, inevitably, you are going to hit the red and the red is going into that pocket. It is the law of the billiard table, the law of the billiard room. But, outside the orbit of these things, a jet pilot has fainted and his plane is diving straight at that billiard room, or a gas main is about to explode, or lightning is about to strike. And the building collapses on top of you and on top of the billiard table. Then what has happened to that white ball that could not miss the red ball, and to the red ball that could not miss the pocket? The white ball could not miss according to the laws of the billiard table. But the laws of the billiard table are not the only laws, and the laws governing the progress of this train, and of you to your destination, are also not the only laws in this particular game.”

This chair rocks

This morning I was surprised to read, in Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists, that in Paris’s Universal Exposition in 1867 “The Americans exhibited an amazing new invention: the ‘rocking-chair.'”

Could that be true? I mean, it seems like such an obvious and fun bit of furniture as a rocking chair would have been around forever. And in fact it does seem to have an earlier provenance. Surprisingly enough, however, they were indeed an American invention. That’s where they apparently got their start in the early 1700s. Though cradles had been rocking since the days of ancient Rome. I wonder why the idea took so long to catch on.

I think Roe must have been thinking of Michael Thonet’s first bentwood rocking chair, which premiered in 1860. Which was a breakthrough but technically wasn’t the first rocking chair. Still, a much later development than I’d thought.

The anti-government mind

One of the things I enjoy the most about true crime books is the incidental insights they give into other people’s lives: the kinds of everyday details that never get mentioned in biographies or most other forms of general social reportage. These rarely have anything to do with the crimes that are the book’s main subject, but they’re the parts that stick in my head.

I registered one such moment while reading Monte Francis’s By Their Father’s Hand, an account of Marcus Wesson’s murder of nine of his own children in 2004. These were actually his children and grandchildren, as his incestuous relations require four pages of family trees at the front of the book to map only two or three generations of Wessons. If you want a true horror story, this is it.

But what jumped out at me the most in the book, probably because it’s a preoccupation of mine, was a moment during a conversation between Wesson and his wife that took place just after he had been arrested. The subject of politics comes up and things take an interesting turn. Of course the hatred the American Right has for government is well known, especially in its more contradictory expressions. Like the classic Tea Party slogan “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Medicare being a government program). Or, more recently, the opinion offered up by David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour that the best thing the federal government could do to respond to the COVID-19 crisis would be to get out of peoples’ way. Wesson, however, takes this anti-government attitude a step further.

To give just a bit of necessary background, Wesson, who at the time he was arrested was in his mid-fifties, had only worked for a few years over the course of his entire life. And that had been a brief stint in the army (that is to say, he’d been employed by the government). The rest of his life he’d lived off of welfare (he had an earlier conviction for welfare fraud), and been supported by his daughters. Now here are his political thoughts:

Republicans are mean-spirited, they don’t care about welfare and all that,” Marcus said. “But Democrats want to make government bigger. That’s why I’m not a Democrat . . . I don’t want the government in my life.”

The cognitive dissonance here, of someone living off of welfare not wanting the government in his life, is extreme, but not atypical of what we hear so often from anti-government platforms. What Wesson seems to have wanted was a life of absolute freedom, including freedom from responsibility. That this could only be achieved by becoming totally dependent on the government doesn’t seem to have registered with him. Now clearly Wesson was insane, but on this point he doesn’t seem far from a lot of mainstream thinking on the Right. And such attitudes are poison to any democracy.

Life without life

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy discovering new words when I’m reading. Words like pulvinate and catena, oscitant, and equitation and toxophilite. Reading Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File recently I came across a description of a character as looking thin and weak, with a voice sounding “like a whisky ad.” In what amounts to a summation he is later tagged with the adjective “azoic.”

If you check a dictionary you’ll see azoic defined as “lifeless,” which is its literal translation from the Greek. I think its primary meaning is as a way of designating a period of geologic time, the Azoic Age being the period of the Earth’s history before the appearance of life. Since the date of the first appearance of life keeps getting pushed back, it has been a fluid label. It has also been largely replaced by the term Archaean.

A secondary meaning azoic has is of a type of dye. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to describe a person before, and I think Deighton was having a bit of fun. Well played!

Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.

Galbraith’s Law

From The Age of Uncertainty (1977) by John Kenneth Galbraith:

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged feel also that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich. So it was in the Ancien Régime. When reform from the top became impossible, revolution from the bottom became inevitable.

From The Spanish Civil War (2006) by Paul Preston:

Accordingly, the Civil War of 1936-9 represented the ultimate expression of the attempts by reactionary elements in Spanish politics to crush any reform which might threaten their privileged position.

From The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900 – 1917 (2017) by Mikhail Zygar:

The colossal difference in wealth and education made the country extremely unstable, as indeed is any system based on segregation. Sooner or later, the prosperous minority becomes unable to withstand the pressure of the dispossessed majority pushing up from below.

The imperial family, the court, members of the government, the Black Hundreds – thousands of people were unable to renounce their belief in the medieval dogma of the divine origin of tsarist power. Their archaic conviction and stubborn resistance to the bitter end prevented reform and the country’s political development. Time and again they brushed aside all moderate evolutionary scenarios.