Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jonathan Miller's view of life

I said I might follow up on Jonathan Miller, having posted a couple of weeks ago a segment of an old TV interview in which he talked about his Jewishness. There he was basically saying that he asserts it only in the face of anti-Semitism, and also that he was not religiously Jewish. (Apparently, he gave up on the religious side of things as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, which in the end never took place).

When he was interviewed by Ben Silverstone in 2006, Miller was saying the same things about his Jewishness as he had been a quarter of a century earlier. But it's clear that he had become more embittered over the intervening years, convinced that he had not been given his due (as a director, say) as well as exhibiting more regrets about giving up the practice of medicine.

A number of things struck me, most notably his commitment to the ideas (mainly his views on religion and social issues, I suspect) of Bertrand Russell. Miller's father (who later became a noted psychiatrist) had studied philosophy at Cambridge before World War I and Jonathan inherited his father's library which included works by Russell.

Miller -- I think unfortunately -- made a bigger deal than Russell did of rejecting religion. For Russell this was primarily a personal decision whereas Miller sees religion as an evil social force which must be actively resisted.

I am also out of sympathy with Miller's left-wing social and political views. His children were sent to the local comprehensive, described by his son as a "war zone".

Russell had some decidedly dodgy ideas on education, and made (or lent his name to) some extreme political statements, particularly in his old age as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups. But generally I think his social and political views were more nuanced than Miller's.

I won't talk about Miller's activism on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel. I have never lived in the region and I prefer to steer clear of these sorts of discussions. Both sides have done bad things.

In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayne's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who -- though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour -- was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read...

“My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jewish identity and assimilation

[Latest post in my Google+ Jewish Identity Collection:]

Jonathan Miller is one of those multi-talented people whose stars shone brightly for a time but then faded, leaving a sense, perhaps, of promise unfulfilled. I know that Miller has expressed some regrets about the course his life has taken. He sees himself, I think, primarily as an intellectual and a man of science rather than identifying fully with the areas in which he has spent the most time working and for which he is mainly known (entertainment and the arts).
At the time he gave this interview [see video] his star was shining bright. The excerpt deals specifically with the theme of Jewishness. Miller defends Jews who, like himself, choose to assimilate. Though a number of his statements are strong and unequivocal, I'm not sure that his overall position, as expressed here, is entirely clear or consistent (especially on the issue of "solidarity"). But then perhaps a degree of ambiguity and even inconsistency is inevitable when we are dealing with the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

I agree with most of the points that Miller makes. Assimilating Jews are all too often seen by other Jews as betraying their heritage. I understand the reasons for this but, like Miller, I think it's nonsense to talk about betrayal.

I don't know the details, but all of my most recent Jewish ancestors took an assimilatory path. On what grounds could we deem their decisions to be wrong or unfortunate? They made their choices on this and many other (often more important) matters: it just seems inappropriate for others to pass judgment.

If one believes in the basic tenets of Judaism (however they might be understood), then – sure – it may seem unfortunate that someone born into this faith decides to renounce it. I know that Judaism is not a creedal religion like Christianity is, but (as I see it) it only really makes sense as a religion if it is seen to incorporate certain beliefs (for example – and most importantly – that the God of the Bible is real in more than a mythical, symbolic or psychological sense). Miller also sees the issue in these terms apparently. He says he can't accept "the creed".

If you set aside Judaism there are still of course many valuable things which could be seen to characterize modern Jewish culture (or, more accurately, cultures). Intellectualism, respect for learning and education, a certain kind humour... One could easily extend the list. But I don't see how one could find in such things a compelling, unifying force, something strong and coherent enough to hold all those with Jewish ancestors together as a people going forward.

A shared history of oppression? Yes, Jews have often suffered discrimination and oppression, but these experiences varied from place to place and from time to time. And not all Jews suffered in this way. It is not a defining feature of being Jewish (as being associated with Judaism is).

It would be interesting to know if Miller's views changed as he got older. I may follow up on this.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Assimilating Jews in England and Ireland

A few more thoughts on Jewish migration to Britain [from my Google+ Collection, Jewish Identity]. My focus (for personal reasons) is on those who made the move before the middle of the 19th century.

One point I want to raise relates to a topic that came up recently in a comment on my blog post 'English Jewish surnames'. A commenter mentioned that his/her gentile great-grandfather had been lodging with a Jewish family in Birmingham and married a daughter of that family. They moved to Hertfordshire and became Christian spiritualists.

My speculation is that assimilating Jews were often drawn to nonconformist or marginal sects rather than mainstream churches. The 19th-century novelist George Eliot had a sympathetic interest in Jews, and explicitly wrote about them in Daniel Deronda. But I am also thinking of an earlier book of hers, Silas Marner. The book doesn't mention Jews or Judaism but the main character is obviously being presented as a Jew. I won't go into detail but he is described as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a slightly weird, quasi-Christian sect and as being unfamiliar with the rituals of the Church of England. He is a weaver by trade. (Jews were often involved in textile-related businesses, including weaving.)

Another point... Russell is a Norman name and one would normally expect families with this name to trace their roots back to the Norman invaders of the 11th century. But, in following up some Russell ancestors of mine, I came across a reference (in a book called The Families of County Dublin) to some Russells who lived in Dublin in the 18th century and who were merchants and weavers. Significantly, they were neither Catholics nor Episcopalians (the majority of Irish people were Catholic and there was a large Episcopalian minority). These Russells were Quakers.

There were also some notable Russells who were very active in Cork, merchants most of them. At least one was a draper. Some had links with Lisbon and one at least had business interests in (and travelled to) Brazil. This suggests to me that they were Sephardic Jews who had Portuguese roots, and that they may have simply adopted the name Russell and may not have had any connection to the Normans at all. (Russell is sometimes said to be a possible Sephardic name, but I don't have reliable information on this.)

Alternatively Portuguese Jews could have married into an established Russell family of that region, but I have found no evidence of this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The case of the missing cuff-link

In their manifesto, the people behind the libertarian website Zero Hedge argue that anonymous speech plays an essential role in maintaining our freedoms. I wouldn't disagree with this, but I am a bit ambivalent about some aspects of online anonymity and the widespread use of pseudonyms. They have a place, but anonymity and pseudonymity are arguably being overused today and are all too often providing cover for wild and/or irresponsible and/or careless and/or crass content and commentary.

Strangely enough, however, the craziest articles at Zero Hedge are not from 'Tyler Durden' so much as from reprinted content from certain named, usually well-known – and often slightly unhinged – conspiracy theorists.

The site itself is fun. And useful, so long as you take most of what is said with a grain of salt.

And don't bother reading the comments. Unmonitored (as befits a libertarian site), but generally tedious and vulgar.

Here however is a little gem from a recent thread. It's witty, and could be seen – in an oblique and enigmatic sort of way – to be relevant to some of the wacky thinking (especially the technical analysis) that you often see on the site. Just two sentences from Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark...

"A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”

Beautiful, no?

Monday, June 27, 2016


[Just up on my Google+ Collection, Social and Political Reflections...]

Political and financial predictions are notoriously – and necessarily – unreliable, but we often have to make them and act on them. This is especially so for those who depend on investments for a large part – or all – of their income.

Predictions about the direction of stock market indices, property prices, interest rates, etc. are much harder to get right than predictions about the outcomes of elections or referenda. The former (like typical referenda and many elections) may involve a simple binary choice but – unlike elections and referenda – they are not tied to a timetable. So bubbles and other market distortions can persist for long periods of time. Timing is crucial for investment, but the best one can hope for in this regard is to get one's timing approximately right. [1]

Political risk is one of the things that makes financial predictions so problematic – and we are seeing a lot of it about these days.

Politics, one might say, is an unfortunate necessity. [2] Really, it's just about – or should be about – the boring business of organizing an institutional and legislative framework which allows large numbers of people to live together in a reasonably cooperative way. But it's also a very human thing, being utterly dependent on basic human attitudes, especially trust: trust in one another, and trust in the powers that be.

Recent events have amply demonstrated that both the US establishment and the EU establishment have lost the trust of (a majority of) the people. Add to that social divisions – the result of economic hardship and cultural changes (arguably compounded in some jurisdictions by large-scale immigration) – and you have a recipe for trouble. [3]


[1] I have been expecting a bear market in stocks for more than two years now. It may finally be upon us. But I have been dead wrong about Treasury bills and bonds, etc. (yields just keep dropping!). I know there is supposed to be an inverse relationship between stock and bond prices but (like many others) I see a bubble in both.

[2] The phrase is in my mind because a short commentary of mine on a fascinating episode of an old Canadian television panel discussion series is about to appear at The Electric Agora. The main question the panel addressed was: Is spying an unfortunate necessity?

[3] I know the immigration issue is a sensitive one, and there is a lot of xenophobia about, but it is wrong to accuse everyone who questions the wisdom of large-scale immigration of bigotry or racism. This is part of the problem, in fact. Many years ago Enoch Powell was forced out of British politics when he argued strongly against his country's immigration policies. The subject was taboo and it still is in certain circles. Why can't we just talk sensibly about these things?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The US presidential contest; Brexit

[This is the latest post in my Google+ Collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

A couple of things I am following at the moment are the US presidential election process, and the UK referendum on membership of the EU.

I see Hillary Clinton as morally compromised and dangerous both to America and the world. I tend to agree with something Marc Faber said some months ago: Trump may destroy America, but Clinton will destroy the world. Actually, I think you could say America is already well past the point of no return. I am thinking of debt (especially sovereign debt but also consumer debt), the precariousness of the dollar, and demographic and cultural changes. Certainly the old Protestant values of thrift, hard work and self-reliance on which the country was built are rapidly disappearing.

My analysis of Donald Trump is very much in line with Scott Adams' analysis: Trump is a master communicator and he will probably win the presidential election.

I'm am also watching the UK referendum closely. When Boris Johnson first announced his decision to support the Leave campaign, I thought it would be enough to swing it. As I said then, it has been clear for a long time (if not from the very beginning) that the EU was all about a federal Europe. People were deliberately misled on this, but now there is no excuse: anyone with half a brain knows that continuing membership would entail a progressive loss of national sovereignty. Some, wary of nationalism, think this is a good thing. But I would say nationalism can be a positive force, and that it has a role to play in maintaining social cohesion within (if not between) the countries of Europe. God knows, most of the other cultural (especially religious) traditions which tied people together in benign and productive ways are dead or fading fast.

To my mind NATO (and American interventionism generally) is a far greater danger to peace than patriotic feelings.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The tiger in the window

I have now begun a third Collection on Google Plus, called Language, Logic, Life.* No more are planned.

The new site has a similar name to my other blog but is not intended to replace it. 'Language, Life and Logic' is a play on the title of A.J. Ayer's account of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle and the blog has a more or less philosophical focus. The title of the new site lacks this oblique reference to Ayer, and logic is deemphasized slightly, with 'life' getting the more significant final slot. In other words, the new Collection is intended to be slightly more open than LL&L and will include lighter material as well as more serious stuff.

My latest post there illustrates the lighter side: just a snap and few words of commentary. As follows...

A striking Hermès window display (Collins Street, Melbourne)... I had thought that 'paper tiger' was a long-established English expression, but it seems that its use in English (and French as 'tigre de papier') only dates from relatively recent times – prompted mainly by its use in speeches by the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. It is a phrase which has very deep roots in traditional Chinese culture.