Archive for 2007

Unity sees the bright side

Friday, December 28th, 2007

There is more to the story I told in the previous entry about the SS man who found he was a Jew. Here is how it ended, in Unity’s telling to Diana.

Of course poor Heinz was completely erledigt [shattered] when he heard it, & wanted to shoot himself at once, which it seems to me would have been the best way out.

Though, officially, he doesn’t count as a Jew as both the grandparents were baptized. But for Heinz, being a real Nazi ‘aus überzeugung’ [by conviction], that naturally made no difference. His father made him promise not to do anything until they had had a reply to their Ersuch [request] to the Führer, but so far there has been no reply, & in the meanwhile of course he is having what is practically a nervous breakdown. Well it seems that there are several half-Jews who have, at one time or another, been allowed to remain in the Party on account of special Verdienste [services]. So they hope that he also will, though of course this will anyhow, from his own point of view, have ruined his life. So she came to ask me if I would help her, & I told her that if she would write a personal letter to the Führer I would give it to him personally. Isn’t it awful for them, poor things. I must say it gave me an awful shock when she told me.

Unity is in many ways less unpleasant than Diana, whose combination of intelligence with quite psychotic self-deception is horrible. In later life, she is constantly roused to indignation because vulgar lower-class people will claim that her husband was anti-Semitic (is if there were anything wrong with that) or, most exquisitely, when a journalist quotes her as saying she was “very fond” of Hitler. This seemed to her a monstrous misunderstanding of “Off the Record”. So the last word goes her refutation, in 1976, of the suggestion that Unity might have made a snobbish remark about the Queen Mother, who was known to the Mitfords as “Cake”:1

The nastiest, well one of the nastiest, is Mr Float [The rector of Swinbrook] … He (apparently) told such an obviously false story of Bird [Unity] saying, in conneciton with the abdication, that Cake was like a shop girl. It is so particularly offensive and silly and, as we know, Birdie had strong race feelings, but not so much as a soupçon of class feeling and thus its something she couldn’t have said.

Italics in the original. What does it take to have such an inexhaustible fountain of self-righteousness?

1 Hence “Cake’s Dump”, a reference by Debo to Clarence House.

Nazis stole my Christmas

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I was given a copy of the Mitford sisters’ collected letters, and have sunk, enthralled, into its currents, occasionally surfacing, sputtering and expostulating, to read whole chunks out loud to the nearest victim. The nicknames and the silliness no longer come as news. Even Nancy’s prolonged death from cancer was something I knew about, though it is much more affecting in real time, so to say. But the letters of the fascist sisters, Diana and Unity, in the Thirties, came as a real shock. Knowing someone was a Nazi is entirely different from reading the unmediated reactions of a Nazi to the world around them. Here is Unity after and evening with Hitler:

The next evening, the Führer got into quite a rage twice; the first time with Kannenberg,1 for whom I felt heartily sorry! The second rage, however, was over Reichsminister Gürtner & the new laws he is making. He got angrier & angrier, & at last thundered — you know how he can — like a machine-gun – ‘Das nächste Mal, dass die Richter so einen Mann freilassen, so lasse ich ihn von meiner Leibstandarte verhaften und ins Konzentrationslager schicken; und dann werden wir sehen, welches am stärksten ist, the letter of Herr Gürtner’s law oder meine Maschinen Gewehre!’2 It was wonderful. Everyone was silent for quite a time after that.

It is no doubt very wrong of me to suppose that there are people in the Cheney circle who feel very sorry for the cook when he is chewed out unfairly. Because, after all, they do not send disagreeable judges to be tortured in concentration camps for failing to send others there. This is an important distinction.

Then there was the scandal that touched Unity’s life earlier that summer. She writes to Diana, who would completely understand:

What I couldn’t tell you on the telephone was this. You remember my little friend from Vienna who you said was like an Indian, & his pretty blonde fiancée who asked the Führer for an autograph in the Osteria. Well yesterday she telephoned & said could she come & see me for five minutes, but her fiancé mustn’t know anything about it. So this morning she came, & she was here when you telephoned. You know Heinz, her fiancé, was a member of the SS in Vienna — I believe since 1932. He was a tremendously enthusiastic Nazi & really risked everything for the cause during the Schuschnigg Regime. Well it seems that just after the Machtübernahme his father, also a member of the Partei, who had brought him up to be very ‘nationaldenkend’ [nationalistically minded], told him that both his (Heinz’s) mother’s parents were Jewish. Of course poor Heinz was completely erledigt [shattered] when he heard it, & wanted to shoot himself at once, which it seems to me would have been the best way out.

I begin to sympathise with the husband of Cynthia Heimel, who made a special pilgrimage to Swinbrook on their honeymoon to piss on Unity’s grave. The marriage didn’t last but the gesture deserves to be remembered.

The other great shock of these memoirs was to discover that Unity’s main lover was an Austrian in whose family castle I have stayed — it’s now a sort of very upmarket B&B, run by the daughter and son-in-law of the Count Almasy who knew her. Strange to think of the night there resounding once with Mitford shrieks.

There is something about Austrian castles, is there not? The other one we atayed in on that holiday is now owned by Seyss-Inquart’s godson.

1 His cook

2 ‘Next time the judges let that sort of man free, I’ll have him arrested by my bodyguards and sent to a concentration camp; then we’ll see who is stronger, the letter of Herr Gürtner’s law or my machine guns!’

Two short notes on theology

Friday, December 21st, 2007

I can’t resist quoting at length from a glorious piece by Fred Clark on his problems with a spam filter. Clark is a Baptist journalist, whose blog, the Slacktivist, contains an extended, gloriously funny, deconstruction of the Left Behind books, and a great deal else that is thought-provoking, and clearly expressed. This week, he has been afflicted with Six Apart.

I should note the almost theological response we humans have to this kind of arbitrary system. We look for meaning and, if it cannot be found, we impose meaning. On my end, this produces something like the behavior one sees in a person who believes in the mechanical/magical efficacy of prayer (it’s not doing anything — I’ll do it more and do it harder). The multitude of comments trapped in the filter, meanwhile, seem to be rehashing the dialogues of the book of Job, with several taking the Eliphaz/Bildad approach (I’m being punished, I must have sinned) and others following the counsel of Job’s wife (curse TypePad and die). No one has yet taken the proto-Calvinist approach of young Elihu, arguing that all of our comments deserve to be deleted as spam and that if TypePad graciously allows some elect few to be published we ought to respond only with gratitude. Theology was once regarded as the Queen of the Sciences. If that strikes you as inappropriate, consider the theological scientific method at work in response to the seemingly arbitrary blocking of comments. We hypothesize that there is a reason or a meaning for why a given comment is blocked, and we experiment by resubmitting it with variations in an attempt to discern what those reasons and that meaning might be. Not the sort of thing one can measure with calipers, yet not wholly unscientific either.

On a related note, Quentin Stafford Fraser quotes something he found in one of Dan Dennett’s books:

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.

But this doesn’t go nearly far enough, because it assumes that these unchanging answers are always the answers to the same questions. And the great discovery made by scripture-based religions is that they don’t have to be. You can take the eternal, divinely inspired answers, and then choose among the questions until you find one to which the answer is right. In this way it is entirely possible to switch your position on such matters as slavery, democracy, divorce, the position of women, the age of the world, and anything else you care about. The process is slow, I admit. But it is also comprehensive, and erases its own tracks, so that by the end of it, everyone is sincerely, and reassuringly convinced that oceania has always been at war with eastasia. That is the blessed assurance that historical enquiry / the higher criticism really damages. But it is still true that heresy, like treason, is a matter of timing, and they would have burned even the current Pope as a heretic at Trent.

Life in the South

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

So, to a party in London, where the first person I talk to is Fay Weldon. It is incredibly noisy and cramped, and when I tell her that my latest work is really a sort of time-travel book about Sweden she gets the idea that I have written a work of science fiction, and talks for some time about how best to sell such a thing.

Later I speak to an academic about early Islam. He introduces himself as a historian of the subject, and says he has enough Arabic to read some of the sources. All this interesting and becomingly modest: this morning, when I looked at his card, I discovered that it actually says “Professor of Arabic” — and this at an extremely prestigious institution.

His partner, a nice archaeologist, is an American. When I give them one of my nice little Moo cards which says “Writes for people” on the back, she says “Writes for People?” Ah, no. Lower case people.

Book cover

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Here at last: the back cover text is in the alt tag.

Deep every winter when the cold really squeezed we would be pushed into a new world where everything outside became as lurid and frozen as the weather inside me. The change was announced by sudden metallic booms resounding through the house a little before midnight. This happened whenever the temperature fell to minus 30 C and the concrete and girders of the flats shrank in loud convulsive shudders. It was like a sonic boom announcing that we had passed beyond earth's atmosphere.

How to adjust the area

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

You’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of this Language Log post to learn the answer. It is a wonderful example of the perils of machine translation.

A rather cleaner piece of linguistics, from the same sourse, is a piece about an Indian language of the upper Bitteroot valley of Montana: the word for “automobile” in Salish-Pend d’Oreille, , is named for the appearance of tire tracks—literally, “it has wrinkled feet”!

It’s not for me

Friday, December 7th, 2007

It’s for a friend, honest: but does the lazyweb know a way to tweak the firewall in OS X so that all traffic on Port 80 is forbidden between midnight and 3.30pm, so that some work gets done?

Sell all your bank shares

Friday, December 7th, 2007

A terrifying glimpse into the US mortgage market, via Rafe Coburn, from which it emerges that until about six months ago, you could borrow enough to buy a house valued at a million dollars on a household income of less than a tenth of the sum. What is more, these loans are not on the books of the banks as “sub-prime”. That’s your pension invested in those loans.

I was also led to discover the wonderful world of “Neg-am” mortgages: the deal here is that for the first three or five years, your debt actually increases, because you are not even repaying the full interest, let alone the principal. But that’s all right, because in five years’ time the house will be worth far more than what we paid, right? And we’ll all be millionaires from our stock options, right … right?

The real trouble, it seems to me, is that this housing bubble can’t be collapsed, as housing bubble traditionally are, by a general inflation, because that might lead to a dollar collapse. I suppose that if everybody sees this, some way might be found to manage the mess. But that bungalow in Moskosel looks more fun every minute.

Truncated brain processes

Friday, December 7th, 2007

And you, too can be left looking like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel if you just read this. Part of me feels a twinge of shame for the Spectator that Alexander Chancellor edited.

This is what might be called the nut graf:

Those who believe the poisonous fiction about the ‘neocon conspiracy’ will once again be unable to grasp what is staring them in the face. Indeed, madness over Iraq is now broadening into madness over Iran. Those whose truncated brain processes tell them that the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proves that they never existed now claim that the Iranian threat is no more than a malevolently constructed fiction.

Are virtues Christian?

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Someone — I think Phillip Pullman — was complaining the other day that he got really pissed off by the claim that love, goodness, courage, etc, were “christian virtues”, since they can be exhibited by atheists and other non-Christians.

Are there specifically Christian virtues? No — in the sense they may be exhibited by people of any theological opinion. Yes, though, in the sense that the virtues always appear in the context of particular personalities. A virtue is an abstraction away from the conduct and character of particular virtuous people. In nature, it always appears in an alloy, or a matrix; this may be Christian or agnostic or anything, really, but when it is Christian, it makes sense to talk about a Christian virtue, because that is the context in which it develops and is practised. Just because Hume could be a good man without Christianity, it does not follow that Johnson, had he converted to Humean scepticism, could have retained his own virtues. I think this is especially true for intellectuals, who like to have explicit reasons for their actions and to weave these into something logically coherent.

If we look at human lives as a novelist would — and we should, to understand them — then the virtues of a Christian are Christian virtues, to the extent that the personality is coherent.

This isn’t at all the CS Lewis claim that the other examples of virtue are “really” Christian. But it is a rejection of the — perhaps implied — pharyngular claim that when a Christian displays courage, or generosity, or love, these are “really” atheistic.