The bleakest possible view of life?

Arthur Balfour, the British prime minister from 1902 to 1905, is remembered for two things: his Declaration which gave birth to Israel; and his saying that “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.”

I’ve been reading about him in John Gray’s book The Immortalisation Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death and learnt that he dabbles in the psychic research that was fashionable at the time. He like others desperately wanted there to be an afterlife and hoped that science could prove that there was.

Gray speculates on why so many highly intelligent people should have become involved in such research. An explanation for Balfour, a lifelong bachelor, promoted by his heirs is that he could never overcome his grief at the death of the woman he loved but to whom he’d never declared himself. Gray suggests, however, that this story was a myth and that the real reason was grief over the death of a mistress with whom he had sado-masochistic sex.

Following Balfour’s own famous quote, it doesn’t matter, but I was greatly taken by an extract from one of Balfour’s letters that seem to me that it could be among the great declarations on the futility of life [I’ve divided what was one long paragraph:


“Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets.

Of the combination of causes which first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science, indeed, as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses for the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant.

We survey the past, and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the Earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude.

Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds’, death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.”


Quotes from Proust XXV: the only genuine and fruitful pleasure is the contemplation of eternity

Fragments of existence withdrawn from Time: these then were perhaps what the being three times, four times brought back to life within me had just now tasted, but the contemplation, though it was of eternity, had been fugitive. And yet I was vaguely aware that the pleasure which this contemplation had, at rare intervals, given me in my life, was the only genuine and fruitful pleasure that I had known.

The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive).


Has my “demented” mother “ascended to a higher plane and been absorbed into the true Deity, which is impersonal.”

I often wonder how the world seems to my “demented” mother. Is she happy or unhappy? What happens in her mind, which has no short term memory and has forgotten much but not everything? Her parents, both dead for 30 years, are often (but not always) alive for her. I’m 15 but mysteriously look 65. But when I started, not wholly accurately, to quote Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud she could finish it when I could not. Together we sing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I’m half-crazy all for the love of you,” and she knows more verses than me.

But today in reading The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray I’ve come across the attractive idea that my mother has “ascended to a higher plane and been absorbed into the true Deity, which is impersonal.” The idea comes from David Hume:

“A variation on this theology occurs in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, when one of the interlocutors describes the view of ‘the most religious and devout of all the Pagan philosophers’, according to which worship of God ‘consists not in acts of veneration, reverence, gratitude or love; but in a certain mysterious self-annihilation or total extinction of all our faculties’.”


One of the reasons I’m so interested in my mother’s mental state is that I’m imagining myself in the same state. I’m slowly coming round to acceptance of dementia, although I had imagined that I would if I had the courage (and I probably wouldn’t) kill myself before I got there.

Will Scotland become independent?

It looks as if Scotland is going to have a second referendum on becoming independent. The First Minister is putting a vote to the Scottish Parliament, which will vote in favour. The UK Prime Minister would rather not have another referendum but will find it politically impossible to say no. The argument will be over the timing: the First Minister wants it before the UK is due to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister afterwards.

I’ve long thought that it’s ultimately inevitable that Scotland will become independent. (Demography dictates that Northern Ireland will eventually become part of Ireland, leaving the Former UK as just England and Wales.) It’s a matter of heart not mind.

It makes no sense economically for Scotland to become independent. Scotland spends a thousand pounds more per head on public services than the other parts of the UK, and the collapse in the price of oil means that an independent Scotland would have a very shaky economy. The Scottish Independence Party will argue that Scotland can stay in the European Union, meaning that it won’t face the economic downturn that will probably follow the UK leaving the European Union. The UK Prime Minister will point out that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is four times that of that with the European Union. And the European Union’s line is that Scotland cannot stay in the Union but will have to leave with the rest of the UK and then reapply. So a vote for independence could leave Scotland in no-man’s land, outside the UK and outside the European Union.

My dear friend Peter, who lives in Edinburgh, thinks it insanity for Scotland to leave the UK and campaigned actively for it to stay in the last referendum. If I lived in Edinburgh (and I might if the endgame is Scotland in the European Union and England outside) my head would tell me to vote against independence.

But my heart would probably tell me to vote for independence, and this time independence may come. Firstly, loving Scotland in an unashamedly Romantic way,  I recognise that it’s a very different country from England, with different values, traditions, and history. This stark difference was illustrated by the way that Scotland voted heavily to remain in the European Union, while the UK as a whole, and particularly most of England, voted to leave. Secondly, many Scots feel that Scotland is “occupied” like a “colony” by the English. This feeling is particularly strong when the UK has a Tory government. The collapse in the Labour Party means that the UK as a whole will soon have a stronger Tory government–and may have one for decades to come. Thirdly, we learnt in the Brexit referendum that economic arguments, particularly when presented negatively, do not prevail. Fourthly the SNP has some very accomplished politicians, while the Scottish electorate resents being threatened by English politicians. Finally, this relates to the blog I posted earlier about “people from somewhere” being misunderstood by “people from anywhere.”  I suspect that even more Scots than English are “people from somewhere” and are fed up with “people from anywhere” governing them.

Scotland is headed for independence. Friends from outside Britain must wonder what kind of craziness has gripped us in Britain. Perhaps it’s the political equivalent of dementia: we are just too old.



American Justice

I was not greatly impressed by the Royal Academy’s exhibition America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s; as Chicken said, you could see what the Abstract Expressionists were reacting against. The exhibition did have some strong paintings, including American Gothic, which could be described as America’s Mona Lisa. But the one painting that hit me hardest was American Justice painted by Joe Jones in 1933.

American Justice

I don’t think it a great painting, bit it tells a strong story, one as relevant in the US today as then.

The half-naked woman at the front of the painting is huge and clearly inspired by Gaugain. She is beautiful and erotic, with the power of nature. Behind her the Klu Klux Klan with their prominent crosses prepare to lynch her; the noose is prominent at the centre of the painting. A dog guards her, and behind her house is already burning. That is American justice.


People from somewhere, anywhere, and nowhere

Much intellectual effort is going on in trying to understand what exactly is happening within the world of Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and populism across Europe and beyond. This morning while eating my porridge and washing up I heard David Goodhart describe his theory of people from somewhere and anywhere. Goodhart, I discovered afterwards, “is the founding editor of Prospect magazine and currently head of the Demography, Immigration and Integration Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.” A wonk, in other words.

People from anywhere are those who left home to go to a university somewhere else, learnt and adopted liberal values, and have moved from place to place. They are highly educated and are comfortable with change. People from somewhere identify with a particular place, grew up there, are sceptical of change, and place a high value on traditional values.

(Goodhart didn’t talk of people from nowhere, although he did talk of “global villagers”; Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times describes himself as citizen of nowhere in response to Teresa May’s sneering reference to “citizens of nowhere” as if they have no values and loyalties.)

Goodhart’s divisions map neatly onto immigration. The 50% of the population who are people from somewhere think that immigration is too high, whereas the 25% who are people from anywhere think it’s about right. The 25% who are “inbetweeners” also think it’s too high, helping to explain the Brexit vote and why there is such political pressure to reduce immigration. (The tiny fraction of global villagers think it too low.)

The people from anywhere are the people who have been running the country, and they simply haven’t paid enough attention to the people from somewhere. Many of the people from somewhere stopped voting, but once given a chance in the Brexit vote to voice their displeasure they did so.

The crucial debate now is how the people from anywhere, who are still running the government, respond. Do they acknowledge their mistakes and try to respond to some degree to the values of people from somewhere or do they try and “put them back in their box”? Teresa May is clearly trying to do the former, and, as the people from somewhere make up half the population that’s politically sensible. Labour needs to do the same.

Oliver Letwin, a leading strategist in David Cameron’s government who described himself as “one of the guilty men,” accepted a lot of Goodhart’s analysis but though that the economic crash of 2008, the effects of which are continuing, is an important cause of Brexit and other populism.

He made the interesting aside that the success of the Tory party has not been in resisting change but in judging correctly the speed at which it can be made.

I am, of course, a person of anywhere (although rooted firmly in Clapham) hovering on the edge of being a person from nowhere.



How to live and how to die

Chicken, my wife, first introduced me to C P Cavafy’s poem Ithaka. It remains one of my favourite poems. I’m now reading my way through Cavafy’s Collected Poems, and despite being translated (which often kills poems) find that they speak to me with extraordinary directness–as if written just for me.

This morning I reread Ithaka, which I think of as a poem on how to live (recognising that Ithaka is death), and The God Abandons Antony, which I didn’t know  and read as a poem on how to die.


As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.


Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.


Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.


And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


The God Abandons Antony 

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.