Mourning – a mystery

I have found it hard to write about mourning and grief. Even Hobbes barely mentions it, perhaps because it was too painful, which in my own circumstance I understand. The late national mourning is sincere but of a different quality from genuine, gnawing, personal grief.

Grief and mourning are connected but distinct. Grief is internal, a stabbing at the heart – mourning is best described as a public act. It is an outward expression of grief, or of what should, socially, be required as grief. Perhaps it helps in the grieving process by letting out a pent-up tension within. Perhaps instead it makes the grief worse by serving as a reminder of things put out of mind, and because of the expectation that it will come to an end, when the grief never will.

The only reference to mourning in Leviathan is in an examination of the distortions used to justify the unscriptural Romanist doctrine of Purgatory: that the act of mourning is directed at a soul not placed yet in Heaven or Hell, which is a nonsense: “And thus with hard straining, hee has wrested those places to the proofe of a Purgatory”

whereas it is manifest, that the ceremonies of Mourning, and Fasting, when they are used for the death of men, whose life was not profitable to the Mourners, they are used for honours sake to their persons; and when tis done for the death of them by whose life the Mourners had benefit, it proceeds from their particular dammage: And so David honoured Saul, and Abner, with his Fasting; and in the death of his owne child, recomforted himselfe, by receiving his ordinary food.

No more does he say. As his life drew to a close, Hobbes wrote a Latin poem, later translated, telling the story of his own life. It is not a jewel of poetry, but shows the writer’s own priorities. At no point does he mention the death of his mother or of his father. Nowhere does he pity himself for having never married and produced progeny, so intense was his work. This does not mean that he did not grief or that he did not mourn. When his mother died we do not know – she is mentioned only in relation to giving birth at the shock of the approach of the Armada. There are things one does not write of, which are too painful. In those things there may be no outward morning, but grief, real grief there is indeed.

Why we mourn is individual. Every society has its rituals. They began as ways to rationalise grief and alleviate it perhaps in celebration of the achievements of the departed. In each culture they grow though to mocking versions of the original, into elaborate ceremonies of obligation that increase the pressure on the family, and impliedly condemn those who do not follow the prescribed form. Just as you want t crawl into a corner and hide from the world, you are dragged into what is effectively a tortuous party. Several cultures have the concept of professional mourners, which is a horrid mockery.

Perhaps the current restriction on funerals, to thirty people, is actually a blessing, as it tears away the social obligation to gather a hundred strangers with a hundred personal animosities together for a shadow-play, when you want to go and weep alone.

Character imbues the endeavour

Behind every successful enterprise is the character of its founder, without which it can only fade into mediocrity. History is but the biography of great men, Carlyle assures us: we prefer now to see systems and processes, but he was right: that initial spark of genius puts life into words and forms it into success or failure. The departure of that founder may often be its end.

Rome required Augustus. There could have been no Napoleonic Empire without Napoleon. As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.

A successful institution cannot be created just by one who knows that something must be done, but who knows what must be done, and how. It is not enough to determine objectives and pay hired men to pursue them: they do not have the vision nor motivation. Real objectives cannot be rendered in words but must be lived. It was the genius of the late Duke of Edinburgh that he could see the destination and the route, he could find those who shared his vision and he made them enthusiastic. He also made sure they got on with it. He was a consummate naval officer.

He did not see ideas in a one-dimensional nor black-and-white manner. His enthusiasm for science and engineering saw no contradiction in his love of nature and drive for conservation. The two do not conflict and have come to complement each other. Nature conservation is very much of our time, but before the Duke of Edinburgh took a hand it barely registered beyond the confines of the National Trust and faintly embarrassing feelings of nostalgia – but while the National Trust were content to buy to preserve and leave otherwise alone, the charities established by Prince Philip took on active research, education, engagement of local bodies, and creating a ‘conservation community’. That cannot be done without vision and a clear objective, and these cannot be achieved without the mind to direct them. The Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Wildfowl Trust (‘We formed it over dinner – duck I think it was.’); these are the product of a focussed mind.

The most popular legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which was quickly established all over the Commonwealth, and it above all bears the stamp of the Prince’s character and drive. It breeds drive, independence and resilience: I cannot imagine any committee coming up with it. Those of us who have been through it up to Gold, carry its legacy with us, which is a piece of the character of the Scheme’s founder. It has gone beyond the Commonwealth too and had imitators. (The Duke of Bragança, the man who should be King of Portugal, formed his own scheme in his homeland, but follows the template and the drive laid down by the Duke of Edinburgh.)

The challenge for a founder is to keep the foundation going beyond his time.  It is not easy.  The state built by Cromwell could be built only by Oliver, and when he died, his son Richard was unable to hold it even for a year, as Hobbes recounts:

Thus was Richard Cromwell seated on the imperial throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, successor to his father; lifted up to it by the officers of the army then in town, and congratulated by all the parts of the army throughout the three nations; scarce any garrison omitting their particular flattering addresses to him.

….The army was inconstant; he himself irresolute, and without any military glory. And though the two principal officers had a near relation to him; yet neither of them, but Lambert, was the great favourite of the army; and by courting Fleetwood to take upon him the Protectorship, and by tampering with the soldiers, he had gotten again to be a colonel. He and the rest of the officers had a council at Wallingford House, where Fleetwood dwelt, for the dispossessing of Richard; though they had not yet considered how the nations should he governed afterwards. For from the beginning of the rebellion, the method of ambition was constantly this, first to destroy, and then to consider what they should set up.

Systems are attractive, but systems are dead hands: it needs men and women of vision. Systems without new growth are restraints against the very creativity which was required for the foundation they bind. The founder must therefore not just create a system but create successors who have the life of the idea within them. Robert Baden-Powell achieved it, with a good deal of the cult of personality to follow him – each troop runs as if B-P were looking over their shoulder even today.

I think of the sudden enthusiasm for free schools, which had great success, when there was for each a directing mind. As long as that mind has remained to guide and to chide, they continue to thrive. Some were established by parents wanting a better school for their children, but they have seen their sons and daughters grow up, leave the school, and they themselves need no longer be involved: those schools can flourish only if the enthusiasm is renewed with each upcoming generation.

Now, to be fair, vision is not enough for continuance: Jordan Peterson observed that two characters are needed: it takes a liberal, creative mind to create a new endeavour, and a diligent, conservative mind to run it. The great men are those who can be both.

Some foundations of our age have fallen into dotage by following good but dead rules, the fire having gone out. Many have been captured by political activists lusting after their funds and the prestige of their name, but with no care for the original drive.

For those foundations created by the Duke of Edinburgh there is hope, because much of his drive was in creating in his successors the same vision. The Award Scheme has alumni ready to take on the world, knowing what the scheme is for. The conservation charities found a new dynamic, beyond mere preservation. He has gone, but his spirit imbues them all. Long may it last.

Going back to Carlyle, he explained his theme at greater length than an line:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these

The imperial system of Augustus went into decline the moment he breathed his last. Napoleon’s too as he boarded the Bellerophon to exile. Their achievements were “the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men” and nothing without them. We may hope for better from the foundations left to us where the spirit of the founder still fills them.

See also

I always side with the Morlocks

In The Time Machine, H G Wells drops his character, the Time Traveller, into a very different world, in the year 802,701.

If you have not read the book, it imagines humanity that is no longer human. Some great, decayed buildings still stand but mankind which built them has gone. There is a great sphinx monument, and across the landscape there are well-heads (or so they seem) but the human race as we know it is no more. At a past age it had bifurcated into two species: surface-dwelling eloi and subterranean morlocks.

It s a well-crafted book, written before Wells ‘sold his birthright for a pot of message’, so it need not contain a political or social point – just the author’s brilliant imagination giving a radical possibility for the future.

The Time Traveller is charmed by the eloi and repelled by the morlocks. The eloi amongst whom he finds himself, in their bright, carefree, arcadian lifestyle, gathering flowers, eating the fruit of untended trees and doing no manner of work, with no machines or science or writing, childlike in attitude and stature, seem to live out the dreamed ideal of mankind. The morlocks dwell in tunnels beneath the ground, where there are machines beating unseen in the dark. They are white-skinned and pink-eyed, and malevolent. They emerge at night from the sphinx and the wells and hunt for their meat – the eloi. The eloi fear the dark.

The BBC has (or had) a weird and worrying children’s television programme, called ‘Waybuloo’ (which was apparently Buddhist propaganda, not that the Beeb ever noticed) portraying childlike creatures living such an idyllic life with no cares and no work, living on wild fruit. I saw it, and knew instinctively that someone has to be doing all the work that they could live, and I could hear in my mind the thumping of the machines in a deep, unseen cave and the morlocks waiting the harvest the Piplings they had cultivated above. Don’t tell the children.

I still prefer the Morlocks. The Eloi are clothed and fed by another’s work and sustained just as cattle in the field. They have lost all the attributes of humanity. They have a simple language, but little reason for it. They know no past nor future and do not even look after each other – Weena was left to drown in the stream without a thought. The morlocks however take a hand in their own preservation and prosperity. They work, they have machines. They are curious, carrying off the time machine to study it. They farm the eloi as a food source, and so the eloi depend on the morlocks, though little realising this. The morlocks impliedly built the sphinx so that all who see it know who is superior. The eloi neither build nor preserve anything. The eloi are a disgrace to their distant ancestry: they are mere animals. The morlocks alone continue the human story.

Wells, through the voice of his Time Traveller, supposes that the morlocks were descended from the working men forced underground to toil, while the eloi came from the masters in their airy villas who banished them, only to lose their vitality through indolence. Any division like that would be self-correcting in our world, as the vigorous class became masters over the useless. The world of 802,701 imagined by Wells had reached not a new equilibrium but a position between two separated species that had to be maintained by the constant work of the morlocks.

It is possible to read too much into The Time Machine by reference to the radical political ideas later espoused by Wells. His visit to Bolshevik Russia in 1920 may have been a turning point for him, seeing it as a science fiction writer might, for the imaginary being turned into a reality, and ignoring inconvenient subplots like the induced mass poverty and starvation, repression and massacres. During the Great War he had come to express radical ideas, spurred by a hatred of the Hun and their industrial violence, but the development of his political ideas through fiction can be traced back earlier. The War in the Air (1907) is more soundly Hobbesian in its concept of how the world would turn out if civilisation were to smash itself. The Time Machine (1895) looks far further forward, deeper into humanity and sub-humanity. Maybe this is what pushed him over the edge.

The world portrayed in the book is not really about the future: it is more personal and internal. Victorian philosophers used to talk of a good and an evil side to each of us (as expressed in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that is another article): the eloi and the morlocks represent those sides. Perhaps instead though they represent on one side the child’s happy dream and on the other are the monsters imagined in the dark. In waking, it may contrast the idyll of childhood summers against the toil of adulthood; or the ideal we dream of and the reality in which we find ourselves. The eloi are compared with children, in case we had not picked the clues up.

There is something worrying there too. The only named character of the future age is Weena. In the classic film adaptation she is portrayed as a lover. In the book her position is ambiguous: she is more like a clingy child, but the Time Traveller is not unreciprocating as he ‘returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena’. Not too childlike, I hope. (There are men who seek utterly limp and submissive women, but such men deserve no respect, and I pity the women concerned.) I will be generous and assume that in this case the man finding himself the only human being in the world needs some innocent, reassuring company.

He meets the morlocks in the tunnels beneath a well. In the dark there are just looming shapes, a mass of figures, the meat on a table, the huge machines of unknown function. Fingers paw at him, exploring, then seizing him and he wrenches himself away. Is it an attack or a desire to know more of this unknown being who has stepped amongst them, just as they wanted to understand the machine? We cannot know.

The night will come though, and it does, even as he and Weena are far from the communal hall of home, and the morlocks emerge. It is perhaps the first time we see them with characters of their own. They are still for the Time Traveller an anonymous swarm to be rendered no pity even as they scream in terror of the approaching fire. he does not see them as being closer to him than is the eloi girl in his arms, or maybe he does but does not want to know himself. He is as far as he can be from the comforts of that Victorian withdrawing room from which he stepped, but it has not left him. The eloi are comforting; the morlocks a deadly threat, but back in London men in the shadows are no less a threat.

In the book, the morlocks are observed as ugly, evil monsters, without any redeeming feature, and the eloi are beautiful perfection. However they morlocks cannot be all evil any more than people are. They must co operate and have a society in order to build and to thrive on limited resources.

All this analysis can be pushed too far. I might read the book for my own reading of it, or as the average reader (if there is such a thing), or the way Wells intended. As you wish.

What I take from it, which Wells did not intend, is that of the two species descended from mankind, the Eloi are lovely but a dead-end, unable to develop or even to survive on their own. The Morlocks look after themselves and each other, they plan ahead, they build, they are curious and accordingly they can develop and adapt. The future is theirs. I must always side with the Morlocks.

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Books

Creature of the Full Moon

A bright full moon, dazzling in a clear night sky, stirs the deepest nature in me. The hair beneath my shirt feels it and seems to thicken, my teeth are bared and my ears alive for prey. This is a hunter’s moon and man is a hunter.

The myth of the werewolf is an ancient one, found amongst the Greeks (in a typically rationalised form) and amongst the ancient Germans in the raw. In the saga, Sigurd puts on a wolfskin cloak and with it takes on the character of the beast, as if the poet recognised what is within, ready to be released when we step out of the accoutrements of society. All the tribes of the north had two names for that beast, one left unspoken out of supernatural fear, but still named their children ‘Wulf-‘ as if to recommend its character. In Mongolia they taught that the khan was descended from a wolf and a doe (a deer, a female deer), as if picturing the ideal characters they thought seemly in a man and in a woman.

The wolf is always with us. To look upon one is like seeing in a distorted mirror. The domesticated beast, the dog, looks up at man wishing to be loved, wishing to understand and to imitate. A wild wolf has looked into my eyes and he did so as an equal, but with another quality: he is looking for weakness. Among mankind we look at each other the same way, especially at the full moon. As Hobbes says in De Cive, ‘Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe’.

The men of former days lived beside the wolf and saw in it their own instincts: in hunting both show intelligence, co-operation, ruthlessness, the thrill of the chase and remorselessness in the kill. Perhaps they imagined man to be descended from the wolf, as the Mongols did – it would be a more attractive proposition than descending from an ape.

There have been plenty of Sci-Fi stories imagining manlike creatures evolved from wolves, but why always wolves and not other creatures? Perhaps it is an obvious thought as it just seems from their eyes and behaviour that the wolf could be like us.

Perhaps instead we should think that we are like wolves, beneath. Our dogs try to imitate us, but in the wild, man imitates the wolf, the perfectly designed hunter alongside which many generations of man grew up. Civilisation is just a few millennia old, barely that amongst the peoples of Northern Europe, while the Stone Age lasted far, far longer. We are Stone Age people, with a thin crust of civilisation sitting on top of countless ages of instinct. Beneath that veneer of society, the natural man drives our behaviour, and waits for the cracks to appear. On those cold nights where the clouds depart and the full moon blazes in the sky, casting shadows, showing where the prey lies; on those nights the crust of modernity is very thin, the age-long instincts of the natural man rise.

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Books

Hate speech: the Denning Solution

The Law Commission have discredited themselves into irrelevance. The Police have lost the respect they need to bear authority. Power has passed to the unaccountable. Lord Denning had a solution ahead of his time to define what is truly hate-speech worthy of the law’s attention.

The tussle between freedom to speak and the maintenance of order is an old one, maybe as old as speech itself. The first Stone Age tribal chieftain who clubbed underling for speaking out of turn began an age-long train of action.

Not so long ago, freedom of speech was limited even in Britain, but there was liberty enough to grumble against it, and juries were not so willing to convict their neighbours for speaking against what the government or polite opinion insisted upon. The main crime of expression was one against the written word only: ‘seditious libel’, and on this charge many pamphleteers was put before a jury for insulting the King’s ministers and sowing dissention against the lawful authorities.

In the latter half of the twentieth century Lord denning expressed his opinion of the offence:

The offence of seditious libel is now obsolescent. It used to be defined as words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects. But this definition was found to be too wide. It would restrict too much the full and free discussion of public affairs…So it has fallen into disuse for nearly 150 years. The only case in this century was R. v. Caunt…when a local paper published an article stirring up hatred against Jews. The jury found the editor Not Guilty.”

The Caunt case he quotes concerned a shocking editorial in a local newspaper: in 1947, the editor of the Morecambe and Heysham Visitor published an article virulently attacking all Jews and suggesting that violence against them would be understandable; and this just two years after the death camps had been opened. It was written as a response to the Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, making no distinction between the rebels in the Levant and Jewish people generally – its key paragraph would get any journalist sacked and disgraced from any respectable newspaper today, or promoted in the Guardian. It may have been a cause of anti-Jewish riots that followed in Liverpool. Nevertheless, the jury acquitted the editor, because free speech was more precious to them.

The acquittal burst the idea that racial hatred could be restrained by the law of seditious libel, and in time the first Race Relations Act was introduced. It made explicit as a crime to stir up racial hatred. That is not a problem for anyone: today’s issue is in imagined interpretations of the much later Equality Act, unwarranted extensions of the McPherson recommendations, and a hedge built about the law by those with a deeper agenda.

Lord Denning’s summary of the law of his time was perhaps a personal one, as ‘seditious libel’ was a common law offence not defined in statute, but is much quoted abroad, where sedition is still a live topic.

Denning’s summary gives us a what may be though the ideal standard not just for speech against races but against any portion of the population, whether one of the narrow categories of the Equality Act or any other group which has attracted the ire of an ill-disposed speaker, to persecute any minority or majority:

words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects

That should be simple enough, and it should be enough: stirring up violence. That said, the coda, in the idea of “ill-will or hostility” is itself very broad, which might be what made the old law a dead-letter in the hands of a jury. Political rhetoric today (on one side at least) is dominated by accusing opponents as a class of being fiends in human form, which is improper and to be condemned socially but finding the policeman’s boot at the doorstep of every Labour or SNP activist its likely to bring the law into disrepute.

The law steps in where it is necessary to protect society each individual in the society it governs, and guard the social bonds which keep order in that society. In a totalitarian society those bonds may be drawn tight and inflexible, but a free society needs elasticity, and that means mutual tolerance of originality and plain rudeness. It only steps over the line when actual violence is threatened. That is where a law of sedition has a place. In the Denning formulation then, the essence of what should be forbidden is “words intended to stir up violence”: the promotion of feelings of hostility is the method whereby violence is stirred or made more likely, not an additional offence: “promoting hostility such as to stir up violence”, not stirring up violence or promoting hostility.

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Books