Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Spirit of the game

Though I was not a natural sportsman, forces associated with school and family pushed me into various sporting activities which (as I see even more clearly in retrospect than I did at the time) I endured rather than enjoyed.

Back then I pooh-poohed the idea that sports, especially team sports, were character-building. Quite the opposite, I thought. Observing the behavior of teammates and opponents alike, I came to believe that playing sports only serves to bring out our worst qualities. I have come to modify this point of view however.

One positive thing which can be said for traditional games and sports is that, because they reflect (at least to some extent) the harsh and intractable realities of a wider world, they serve to counter Walter Mitty-like tendencies. And this could be seen to be ever more important as gaming and virtual reality technologies extend the possibilities of personalized escapist fantasies in ways that Thurber could never have imagined.

Sporting contests can also teach you to lose – and to win – with grace and equanimity. This may be more about manners than morals but it is no less important for that.

As I see it, the only strictly moral benefit of an initiation into traditional sporting culture relates to the idea of fair play: of playing by the rules – and the spirit of the rules. I don’t want to go on about this. I could elaborate and give examples etc., but I am wary of moralizing. Besides, I am inclined to think that if these concepts are not real to you already, nothing I say will make them so.

I don’t want to claim that there is this special way of looking at human interactions – i.e. in terms of fair play and abiding by the spirit of agreed-upon rules or laws – which is accessible only to those who have had the benefit of certain experiences in childhood or adolescence, though it's possible that this is the case.

Some experience with sports or games may (conceivably at least) represent a necessary condition for seeing things in the way I describe, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition. For there are and always will be those natural thugs who bring their thuggishness to everything they do, including sport. In the realm of sports and games these people are often feared, but they are (or at least were in my experience) generally despised by players and sophisticated spectators alike.

The failing or failed sportsman is often a devoted sports fan, and (from about the age of ten) I was definitely that. I have autographs of many of the cricketing greats to prove it. But as I grew older I gradually lost interest. Moreover, changes in the general culture of the game were making it progressively less attractive. Now sports exist for me only to the extent that my exposure to them helped to form me and to the extent that they feature in my personal memories (two quite different things).

Technical and aesthetic factors are important but it is ultimately the human side of things which give sports an abiding interest to players and spectators alike. It helps that the conflicts and dramas usually stop short of anything too distressing. In wars, you have death in battle; in politics moral dilemmas, all sorts of unpleasantness and very little in the way of style or grace or beauty.

Sports and games occupy a protected space. In this and in other ways adult sports – at their best, at any rate – can be seen to represent, like the arts, a kind of benign hangover, an extension of certain aspects of childhood.

What prompted these reflections was coming across, by chance, an old cricketing story from the early 20th century. The story is quite moving, actually, and worth retelling. But, though it probably has some emblematic significance, my original idea – to see it as underscoring "the massive gulf which lies between the sporting culture which characterized the British Empire and the professional sporting culture which dominates today's world" – was clearly overblown. So scratch that. I’ll just tell the story. Make of it what you will.

First a bit of background to set the scene. Victor Trumper was born in 1877 in the British colony of New South Wales. A natural sportsman and brilliant cricketer, he was much loved and revered, both for his playing and for his natural humility. He is probably best remembered today as the subject of a photograph by George Beldam, taken when the batsman was in full flight at The Oval in London. This image is probably the most famous in the game's history. Dancing down the pitch, with a huge backswing, Trumper is poised – perfectly balanced – to execute a straight drive.

Trumper was one of the most gifted strokeplayers of all time. The writer A.A. Thomson recorded recollections of one of his great innings: "It was glory, it was wonder. Old men who saw it recall it with tears…" Trumper died of Bright's disease in 1915, at the age of 37.

As a very young man, leg-spin bowler Arthur Mailey encountered Trumper – his idol – in a club game in Sydney.

"This meeting had been nervously anticipated by Mailey," writes Chris Waters in an historical piece for the Yorkshire Post. "[M]ight something happen to prevent his hero from playing in the match (“a war, an earthquake, Trumper might fall sick”), or might Mailey’s captain not bring him on to bowl against the maestro, fearing that the youngster might take a terrible pounding?"

But Trumper played and Mailey was indeed brought on to bowl to him. And Mailey achieved something beyond his wildest dreams – he had Trumper stumped off a perfect googly.

As Trumper walked past Mailey on his way back to the pavilion, he smiled, patted the back of his bat and said, "It was too good for me."

Mailey recalls in his autobiography that he felt no sense of triumph as he watched the receding figure.

"I felt like a boy who had killed a dove," he wrote.

[This piece was published earlier in the year at The Electric Agora.]

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Information, communication and insecurity

There are, these days, countless new and improved ways of losing documents and missing messages. If I and my friends are in any way typical, one routinely loses a large proportion of one’s stored data without even trying; whereas in the past we generally lost only what we deliberately threw away or burnt (school work, old tax documents, those embarrassing attempts at fiction, letters, etc.).

Back then, incoming messages were reliably received. Telephone numbers were generally stable over long periods of time, publicly listed and easily accessible. Household and business telephones rang (quite anonymously) and were answered – or not, as the case may be. Letters and telegrams were an essential part of life and sacrosanct with respect to privacy.

Across the Western world, a mythology had been built up, via news stories and fictional accounts, around the conscientiousness and persistence of the people who delivered the mail. A short story entitled “Le facteur rural” (“The country postman”) appeared in a French anthology from my childhood. It was very dated even then, but it must have struck a chord because I still remember it. And I recently came across a scholarly article on the role that national mail services played in France and other European countries in creating a sense of security, cohesion and national identity during the 19th century.

Mail service myths persisted into the late 20th century and even carried over into commercial settings. In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a very persistent FedEx executive who, after surviving a plane crash and solitary life on a deserted Pacific island, finally returns to civilization and personally delivers a package from the crashed plane to an isolated Texas farmhouse. But the commercial and (more or less) contemporary context of the film is far from that world in which national or imperial postal and telecommunication services were seamlessly integrated into everyday life.

Some time ago I wrote a short piece centered on the (Texas-born) writer Patricia Highsmith, based on a reading of a few of her novels. The claustrophobic and chilling world she describes is rooted in the mundane realities of the 1950s and 1960s and her fiction reflects important truths about the crucial role communication technologies play in weaving a cultural milieu and defining a locality.

“Some of Highsmith's central characters,” I wrote, “spend a large proportion of their allotted pages planning and writing letters, posting letters, organizing the material for writing more letters, waiting for letters and speculating as to why no letter has come or, more rarely, receiving a letter and analysing the contents. The local newspaper is good for keeping track of whether the body has been found or what stage the police have reached in their investigation. And the telephone looms as large as it did in the movies of the period.”

In their way, each of these media enhances the sense of place and/or the sense of distance from other places. Even the telephone signals the sense of distance by the involvement of a human intermediary, the operator.

The technological changes we have seen in the last half-century have not only provided many new ways to store, send – and lose – information, they have irrevocably changed the culture. The new media can be and have been used to stir up nationalistic sentiments but, by and large, the tendency of the transnational networks (technological and political) upon which we have come to depend is to undermine geographically-based identities.

These changes also have other effects. They strike at the root of our individual and group identities and affiliations and necessarily undermine old ways of thinking and doing things. On a personal level, a whole new mindset is required. One has to let go of old expectations, for practical reasons and simply to avoid stress and anxiety.

The very idea of the self can be seen to be changing in subtle ways as new opportunities for self-presentation and concealment appear. New codes of behavior are developed, or arise spontaneously. There are changes in goals, expectations and perceived responsibilities. Old insecurities are reshaped and/or replaced by new insecurities.

Take personal privacy. It was once sustained by social structures and a pattern of widely understood and accepted rules. But the advent of digital technologies and social media rendered the old rules irrelevant. It is now unclear what the boundaries of personal privacy are or should be.

A new definition or concept of personal privacy is called for and no one can say what form it will take. These things are determined by circumstances and cannot be precisely predicted. But, given the current political tendency to exploit technology to the utmost in order to enhance centralized power and social control, the general direction is fairly clear. Redefinition will almost inevitably involve a weakening and downgrading of the concept.

I’ll finish with a few more remarks on Patricia Highsmith.

Her writing style is plain and spare and utterly non-experimental but she explores the themes of identity and morality in very confronting ways. And, though her literary persona is cosmopolitan, sophisticated and liberal, there are traces of deep conservatism in her work. She was a Texan, after all.

Tom Ripley is her greatest creation, a likable psychopath. He only murders people (very few really) when he has to – and feels no guilt. He can kill someone in the afternoon and have a pleasant dinner, or dispose of the body during the night and really enjoy his morning coffee.

But Highsmith is always aware of the moral landscape that Ripley’s behavior and attitudes challenge and always sensitive to the nuances of human communication which in large measure constitute the texture and map the significance of our lives. In Ripley Under Ground, a suicidal artist character reads from the journal of another suicidal artist:

“Where has kindness, forgiveness gone in the world? I find more in the faces of children who sit for me, gazing at me, watching me with innocent wide eyes that make no judgment. And friends? In the moment of grappling with the enemy Death, the potential suicide calls upon them. One by one, they are not at home, the telephone doesn’t answer, or if it does they are busy tonight – something quite important that they can’t get away from – and one is too proud to break down and say, ‘I’ve got to see you tonight or else!’ This is the last effort to make contact. How pitiable, how human, how noble – for what is more godlike than communication? The suicide knows that it has magical powers.”

Technologies change. Lifestyle, language and sense of self alter accordingly. But, through all this, human psychology and human needs stay fundamentally the same – a fact which I find vaguely reassuring.

[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which appeared last month at The Electric Agora.]

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Forbidden ideas

The English writer, actor and stand-up comedian, Alexei Sayle, was born into a seriously left-wing family (they were communists), and he still adheres to what he sees as Marxist principles. This background shaped his life but did not entirely destroy his sense of humor. He published an account of his early years under the title, Stalin Ate My Homework.

Sayle once talked about the peculiarities of left-wing audiences. He noted that, when he did a stand-up routine at party conferences or other left-wing gatherings, there was always a brief but discernible pause between the punch line and the laughter, just time enough for audience members to pass the joke through a mental political-acceptability filter.

Censorship can be understood as operating in various ways: top-down (via the policies and actions of governments and/or media companies); or bottom-up (via self-censorship driven by social pressure or cultural taboos). I have no “in principle” argument against censorship. Sometimes it is justified, even the top-down kind.

The only trouble is that, for many of us, the wrong people are in positions of power and are censoring all the wrong things. Even if the “right” people were in power, however, one could never be sure for how long. So the still popular (in some circles) ‘no censorship’ position is a kind of pragmatic compromise – and at first glance a sensible one. In the real world, however, censorship of one kind or another always exists to a greater or lesser extent.

If I was going to give a serious treatment of this topic, the focus would be on the impact of digital technologies. There is a lot to say. History is being rewritten and not in a good way. Certain views are being expunged from the record. Even some science journals are reportedly deleting previously published papers which have retrospectively been deemed harmful or offensive. But I will save all this for another time or – better – leave others to lay out the depressing facts. Here I just want to make a few remarks about the scope for personal frankness and openness.

Professional comedians inherited the privileges of the clown or of the king’s jester or fool who traditionally had a license to go beyond what would normally be considered acceptable speech and behavior. But how far beyond? What should today’s comedians be allowed to get away with? Should there be limits on whom or what they are allowed to make fun of? In most contexts today, as in previous times, strict limitations apply even if they are rarely spelled out, and there are adverse consequences for comics who overstep the mark or take what is perceived to be an unacceptable political or ideological line.

Theatrical productions were banned in England in the 1640s in a bid to rein in “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” The actors and theatrical companies strenuously objected, of course. But it can be safely assumed that mirth (lascivious and otherwise) and a degree of levity persisted within the general population even during these troubled times.

There is always a tension between laughter and authority. Generally speaking, laughter punctures pretentiousness, and in this respect is a powerful force for good. There is no more devastating response to a claim to authority or power than laughter, especially the spontaneous laughter of a crowd.

Ideally, we would all feel free – within the limits of politeness – to say publicly how we actually feel and what we actually think. But this isn’t the reality and never will be. The simple truth is that such freedom doesn’t exist; except, of course, for those with anodyne or boringly conventional views.

What’s more, the range of publicly acceptable views has narrowed alarmingly of late. This is sad. But I console myself that such a state of affairs has been the norm for most of human history. I just happened to have grown up in a time and place of unusually great freedom and need now to wind back expectations.

For a younger me (and my young contemporaries) the Soviet system seemed like an outlier, an anomaly that would soon pass away. It did. Now, however, we find ourselves heading into a totalitarian system of a not dissimilar kind.

Lately many old Soviet jokes seem to have taken on a new lease of life because they now apply – mutatis mutandis – to us, to the Western world. This one, for example…

A man goes to the KGB, explaining that his talking parrot has disappeared, presumably stolen.

“This is not the kind of case we handle, comrade,” he is told. “Go to the regular police.”

“Excuse me, of course I know that I must go to them,” he replies nervously. “But I just want to make it clear, to put it on record, that I disagree with the parrot.”

[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which originally appeared at The Electric Agora.]

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A few comments on Ingrid Bergman's work in European films

One of the reasons the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman interests me is because her career illustrates both the connections between European cinema and Hollywood and some of the differences and divisions.

In the 1940s, Bergman took the English-speaking world by storm, but this was not her only public manifestation. She was renowned in her own country before she went to Hollywood and – surprisingly – she almost became a German film star (her mother was German) just before World War 2.

In 1938 Bergman went to Germany, having signed a three-film contract. She was pregnant at the time and only made one film there – a very light but strangely touching drama, Die vier Gesellen – before returning to Sweden to give birth. An offer from David Selznick took her to Hollywood soon after.

Die vier Gesellen was designed specifically as a vehicle to launch her German career. The film is very stylish, and veteran director Carl Froelich does a wonderful job bringing out the complexities and vulnerabilities of the main characters. Bergman is particularly good. She plays an ambitious young commercial artist who is in love with her former art teacher but is determined to prove herself in the tough, male-dominated commercial world of late-1930s Berlin.

Intermezzo (1939) was Bergman’s first American film. It was a remake of a film she had made three years before in Sweden which was co-written and directed by Gustaf Molander. The Hollywood version – directed by Gregory Ratoff who had replaced William Wyler who walked out after a dispute with producer David Selznick – is flawed by schmaltz, gratuitous moralizing and a dumbed-down script. Some scenes are positively ludicrous. By contrast, the original Swedish film – though melodramatic at times and made in a style reminiscent of the silent era – is intelligent, well-crafted and full of subtle and realistic touches.

After World War 2, Bergman continued to work in America but also worked in Europe. Notably, she appeared in films made by Roberto Rossellini, whom she married. Journey to Italy is set in and around Naples. Though Bergman, her co-star George Sanders and most of the other actors spoke their lines in English, the film was first released – dubbed into Italian – as Viaggio in Italia in 1954. The restored English-language version is generally recognized as a masterpiece. It has almost the feel of a documentary but is profoundly personal and (I would say) truthful. It is basically a study of a marriage in crisis but manages to incorporate a good deal of understated humor.

Late in life, Bergman returned to Sweden to make Höstsonaten with Ingmar Bergman. Höstsonaten (co-written by the director) incorporates thematic parallels and echoes of earlier films in which Ingrid Bergman appeared, notably Intermezzo.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Debt and the monetary system; I invest in a gold mining stock

What follows is a modified version of (a part of) a personal email which I sent recently to a friend who had asked about my views on the current economic situation. He is a fan of Andrew Yang. I am not…

I listened (on YouTube) to an interview with Andrew Yang. He is right about jobs and automation but I find him to be very naive on economics. He doesn’t seem to understand money and debt. He talks about America as the richest nation in the history of the world when the country is actually in dire economic straits. The real economy has been hollowed out and ultimately the status and purchasing power of the dollar is at risk.

I agree with Yang that there will not be anywhere near enough jobs in the future. This will inevitably lead to trouble. I don’t pretend to have a solution, but to get to a solution we need to understand economic realities at a deep and basic level.

My friend asked: “[W]hat about other currencies? Are they all fiat, rather than backed by something?”

They are all fiat. Most float; some are pegged to the dollar.

There are a whole bunch of other names I could mention but George Gammon (accessible on YouTube and Twitter) has a good grip on the way the monetary system works. At least he is interested in understanding what is going on and uses evidence and reason and communicates well. It’s not rocket science, but most people can’t be bothered.

On recent monetary history, my understanding is that the petrodollar replaced the gold-backed dollar in the early 1970s. It involved an understanding with the Saudis. Before Nixon was forced to abandon the gold-backed dollar (because France and other countries wanted gold for their dollars and the US had nowhere near enough gold to pay them with), the USD was pegged to gold at $35 an ounce and all other currencies were pegged to the dollar. This was the Bretton Woods system. Since Bretton Woods fell apart you have had the current debt-fuelled system which has now gone completely crazy and exponential.

Gold is now about $1900 an ounce. It’s not so much that gold has gone up in value. It is that the dollar and other currencies have lost value (i.e. purchasing power). Technological advances (especially robotics and AI), debt defaults and current demographics (aging population) are all disinflationary but debt-ridden governments can’t allow deflation because it increases their (and every other debtor’s) debt burden. They have to print more money and create inflation in order just to keep things going. You can see where this is headed.

I have started buying shares in a smallish gold miner (ASX: SBM). I try to base my decisions on research and reason. But there seems nothing wrong with letting sentiment come into it a little. After all, everything is uncertain and there is so much data out there it can be overwhelming. Sometimes sentiment can help push you to act, to take the plunge. After all, nowhere is safe. Staying in cash long term is certainly unwise.

So this is the personal and quite irrelevant detail that helped to get me moving: my father was born at Gwalia, a small Australian gold mining town in a very inhospitable region. Mining eventually became unprofitable and the town was abandoned. However, the Sons of Gwalia mine around which the town had been built – and with which a young Herbert Hoover (future American President) had been directly involved – was reopened and extended and currently represents St Barbara Limited’s chief Australian operation.

The basic numbers for the company look okay to me, though I don’t pretend to have a grasp of the details. Their other two operating mines (both gold mines) are in Nova Scotia and Simberi (an island in the Western Pacific). Currently I am down a few thousand dollars on my investment but am quite optimistic for the medium and longer term. If there are declines in the share price and the fundamentals stay the same, I will be buying more over the next year or so.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Cinema: a personal perspective

[This is the first part of a piece I wrote recently for The Electric Agora. The final section of that piece – focussed on Ingrid Bergman – I will post separately at a later date. The EA article elicited some interesting comments, by the way.]

It is impossible to put an exact date on it, but around 1990 I changed my mind about movies – or at least new movies. I was increasingly indifferent to them. Even many films of a type I would normally have appreciated had become positively painful to watch.

An appreciation of the arts is a very personal and tenuous thing. It can be seen almost as faith-based. A character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels used to visit the National Gallery in London and these visits were for him uplifting, like a religious experience. But for some reason he lost the faith, as it were, and the magic no longer worked. In this case, it was not the Gallery which had changed, but the man.

In the case of my about-face on cinema, however, the man stayed pretty much the same, I think. It was the films which had changed – and the world which they represented. I am not talking about the external world here so much as the ideas behind the films. The ideas and stories being offered were simply no longer interesting to me.

During my childhood years, we lived near one of those grand old Art Deco cinemas. It was family owned and its best days (the 1940s?) were long gone. It struggled to survive. Cutting costs to the bone, the management would show one classic mainstream movie (Lawrence of Arabia, say, or Born Free) for many months on end, sometimes for more than a year.

In terms of genre and content, as a child I favored science fiction in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; as an adult, I gravitated to character-based narratives centered around families, friendships and ordinary life. In some ways my cinematic preferences were affected by my parent's views.

My father had grown up in the early days of film. Apart from Chaplin, whom he admired, he showed little interest in the cinema. He was a voracious reader, however, and a big fan of George Bernard Shaw. He approved of the 1938 film Pygmalion (for which Shaw himself wrote the screenplay). He enjoyed the musical My Fair Lady which was also based on Shaw’s play. But a combination of social conservatism and a predilection for solitary reading predisposed him to see the cinema as something of a passing fad for which he had little use.

My mother was much younger than my father and had more modern and progressive views. As a teenager she was influenced by Bertrand Russell’s popular essays. From her early years she had been an avid movie-goer and she talked to me about the actors and movies she had loved. Many of these movies were shown on television when I was a child.

Lately I have been watching or rewatching old English, European, American and some Japanese films. One of the things which I find interesting is trying to see patterns in my preferences. There are various personal factors at play, of course. One gravitates towards writers and directors (as one does towards personal acquaintances) with whom one shares temperamental or cultural affinities. There is also an ideological dimension. But I shy away from films which attempt to be in any way manipulative in this regard.

Any kind of “ism” or ideology is suspect as far as I am concerned. If ideology is taken to refer to a personal framework of values and moral priorities, however, the concept is unexceptionable and applies to us all.

Though each of these individual value frameworks is unique, it is the fact that they overlap with the value frameworks of others which makes them relevant and viable, which gives them traction in the social world.

Cinema, in its own small way, demonstrated the importance of a shared vision. The classic cinema experience – the crowd of silent strangers nestled together in the warmth and the darkness – works best when values are shared at a deep level.

That’s all over now, for me at any rate. But at least these old films still exist and are readily accessible to individuals interested to know how it was back then so that they might have a better sense of our cultural trajectory and – looking to the future – a clearer view of cultural and moral possibilities.

Friday, August 28, 2020

A few thoughts on name-calling, parody and satire

The bluntness and ruthlessness of childhood interactions is well known and name-calling is a favorite ploy in childish struggles for social dominance. Such behavioral patterns persist – albeit usually in muted or more subtle forms – in adult contexts.

The field of politics can be relied upon not only to exert a disproportionate attraction for narcissists and psychopaths (many of whom would have been playground bullies in their earlier years), but also to bring out the worst in all but those with the very highest levels of integrity and self control. Naked power games are not restricted to politics, however: they are evident in virtually every area of human life.

Literary life has always had its own (often ruthless) politics. But good writing manages to free itself, at least to some extent, from the limitations of the social matrix within which it arises. Satire and parody, for example, take what is twisted, stupid, crude, crass or childish as raw material and transmute it.

Unfortunately, technological and social changes have pretty much destroyed literary traditions. Digitization and social media have finished them off.  Writers have been marginalized and replaced by “influencers”.

The high-point of secular literary culture was arguably the 18th century. Certainly it was a golden age of satire and parody.

Satires and parodies are unusual amongst literary forms in a couple of ways. For one thing, satirical works necessarily take an activist stance whereas other literary forms need not. Satires and parodies necessarily – by their very nature – take a stand. And such works take their targets from the real world of the time. Precisely because of this engagement and topicality, they are not as self-contained as other forms and tend to date more quickly.

Henry Carey is little known today. He was a gifted satirist, librettist and writer of songs. In 1725 Carey wrote a parody of the writing style of one of his contemporaries, Ambrose Philips. The latter had pioneered a simple and direct verse style utilizing a seven-syllable line. Philips was (in the efficiently dismissive words of Ian Lancashire) “a minor poet not highly regarded then or now.”

The issues at stake were primarily aesthetic but there were also political undercurrents. Carey’s parody of Philips’s poetic style was entitled “Namby-Pamby: or, A Panegyric on the New Versification.” ‘Namby-Pamby’ is a play on Philips’s first name. The nickname was picked up by Alexander Pope and others and soon became firmly embedded in the language.

Carey’s parody begins as follows:

All ye poets of the age,
All ye witlings of the stage,
Learn your jingles to reform,
Crop your numbers and conform.
Let your little verses flow
Gently, sweetly, row by row;
Let the verse the subject fit,
Little subject, little wit.
Namby-Pamby is your guide,
Albion’s joy, Hibernia’s pride.
Namby-Pamby Pilly-piss,
Rhimy pimed on Missy-Miss;
Tartaretta Tartaree,
From the navel to the knee;
That her father’s gracy-grace
Might give him a placy-place.
Now the venal poet sings
Baby clouts and baby things,
Baby dolls and baby houses,
Little misses, little spouses,
Little playthings, little toys,
Little girls and little boys.
As an actor does his part,
So the nurses get by heart
Namby-Pamby’s little rhymes,
Little jingle, little chimes,
To repeat to little miss,
Piddling ponds of pissy-piss…

Some of Carey’s wordplay verges on nonsense, but it is highly charged and nothing like the later tradition of gentle nonsense-for-its-own-sake exemplified by the likes of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Carey’s critical engagement with contemporaries and with specific cultural and political issues marks and motivates his writing. The rivalries and controversies in question have faded into history, but the emotional energy they generated is still evident, even to the casual reader.

I conclude with a few remarks about Alexander Pope who was a master of subtle and civilized satire. When I studied 18th-century English literature as an undergraduate, I still had strong Romantic prejudices and was initially unimpressed. Heroic couplets, I have to say, are an acquired taste. But the personality of some of the writers showed through, especially (for me) Pope and his circle. I came to love Pope as a person and to admire him as a writer, for his warmth and wit and moral clarity.

Unfortunately, given the barriers that the verse form which he employed creates for today’s readers, he is no longer widely appreciated and never will be. Foreign and ancient authors can be translated and live again. But what Pope and other poets of that period said was not only closely tied to the preoccupations and personalities of the time but also inextricably bound up with a particular style of versifying. Form and content formed a fragile and contingent whole.

Those who have the patience to immerse themselves in Pope’s verse will come to realize that the technical constraints which he willingly adopted and embraced suited the tenor of his mind and allowed him to express serious moral and aesthetic judgments without sounding ponderous or pretentious. Poetic conventions also gave him more freedom than prose would have allowed to give voice to the deep affection which he felt for his friends, both men and women. (See, for example, the “Epistle to Miss Blount, On Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation.”)

The more combative aspects of his writing, the skewering of his attackers and other enemies (as in The Dunciad), may hold some interest for literary and intellectual historians but hardly for the general reader.

[This is an edited and abridged version of an essay of mine which was posted recently at The Electric Agora.]