Camelot Episode 8: Excessive Desire and Fragmenting Identities

A report on Camelot (the Starz television series, headed by Chris Chibnall) episode 8.  It continues from the last episode in its status as build up to whatever action is the climax of season one, in the two remaining episodes.  It appears from the end of this episode that the big action will start with Camelot on fire.  

As we saw in the last episode, Arthur’s half sister, the sorceress Morgan (Eva Green) has transformed herself in appearance into Arthur’s mother Igraine (Claire Forlani), giving Green a rather quiet time as an actress in this episode.  The Igraine persona is maintained throughout the episode  At the end, the real Igraine, who has escaped from Morgan’s Castle Pendragon, and galloped through the night to Camelot, enters Camelot and encounter false Igraine setting up a problem for the next episode of how Arthur’s party will recognise the real Igraine.  Morgan’s Igraine is a real double who acts on Igraine’s desire to seduce Merlin (Joseph Feinnes).  Merlin, defined as reserved and wily, makes the biggest possible error as he fails to notice that fake Igraine is a fake and lowers his guard to make love after what appears to be a long gap in such relationships.  

This relationship has many aspects, all of which will be highly disturbing to Merlin when he realise what has happened.  Before the seduction, he bonds with Igraine when they act as surrogate parents to an orphan boy of Camelot.  Merlin declares that day is the boy’s birthday and gives him toy armour for playing as a a champion of Arthur.  He also gives the boy a toy soldier for a model castle.  It is this castle that fake Morgan-Igraine sets fire to at the end of the episode to start a fire in Camelot proper.  The boy has died by then, because Morgan-Igraine was trying to stop the boy telling anyone about a moment in which she is in great pain and struggling to avoid reverting to the appearance of Morgan.  Merlin declares the killer, unknown to him at that moment, to be beyond all limits and to be someone who should be burned.  Add to that, the previous sexual tension between Merlin and Morgan, so that in some way he has had an orgy with both Igraine and Morgan; a realisation of his desires in a form that he will presumably find extremely disturbing on discovery, given that he is portrayed as someone who very much would not want to give way to their most extreme fantasies.  

The real Igraine has an even more disturbing sexual experience in her dungeon at Camelot, but an experience that enables her to escape.  She talks to her guard through the door of her dungeon and shows him that she remembers his name, from the time she was the wife of Arthur (and Morgan’s) father Uther, and was the Queen of Castle Pendragon.  She offers to make a deal if he will help her escape.  He overlooks the chance for material and social gain, and gives way to his extreme fantasy, having sexual relations with the Queen.  In no way can that moment be described as love making.  It is ended soon when Igraine stabs him in the middle of what quickly turns into an obvious rape, in addition to the rape inherent in bargaining with an imprisoned person to make her consent to sex, in a rather weak sense of consent.  Vivian (Chipo Chung), a servant at Pendragon before Morgan’s take over, and who is adopted by Morgan as a leading servant, shows her lack of loyalty by Morgan by ignoring Igraine’s escape.  It is unclear at this point whether she is motivated by moral concerns, old loyalty, or by resentment that a mysterious nun (Sinéad Cusack) has taken over from her as Morgan’s principle confidant.  

Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), and his man, are mainly shown in this episode as hunting on an overnight trip.  This shows a lot of masculine banter and bonding, emphasising that Arthur is in a largely equal relation with his main knights.  The democratic spirit is expanded in a discussion of a future senate containing champions-representatives from the villages of the kingdom.  Either the knights or the script writers appear to confuse the Roman senate (a gathering of the aristocracy) with a representative assembly.  The more precise comparison would be with the Gerousia of Ancient Sparta which was partly elective in principle.  During the night, while on guard, Leontes (Philip Winchester) sees a mysterious wolf which appears and disappears in front of him, without attacking.  Leontes himself is too surprised to drive way or kill the dangerous animal.  As we see in other scenes the wolf is linked with Morgan, and the opening “previously on Camelot” sequence of the episode reminds is that Morgan was visited by a supernatural looking wolf in an early episode.  The wolf appears to be linked with Morgan’s magic powers, as is the nun.  Presumably more of this will be explained in the last two episodes of the current season, the only two left.  The last major incident of the episode is that Morgan-Igraine hints to Leontes while he is praying (he is portrayed as the most religious of all the characters in Camelot, particularly in contrast with the completely sceptical character of Merlin) that Arthur and Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton).  Leontes is very distressed, but it is not clear that he has come to believe that Arthur and Guinevere made love.  We just see him waking up in the morning with Guinevere and looking at her with deep curiosity.  Another area of suspense regarding what will happen in the concluding episodes.  One possibility must be that Arthur and Leontes fight until the death of Leontes, Arthur marries Guinevere, and then has a new champion called Lancelot, leading us into the well established Arthurian story of the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere.  Or maybe not.  

The most important aspects of this issue concern desire that overwhelms and destroys, linking with confused and multiple identities, themselves linked with the confusion brought out by desire breaking bounds.  Morgan is a huge mess of desires for magical power, political power, intimacy with Merlin, destroying big buildings, and controlling people which are associated with a split within her identity between being power mad resentment driven Morgan, and the more relaxed giving identity of Igraine.  The craziness has now inflected the real Igraine, who has half submitted to rape and killed the perpetrator, and now faces her fake self.  The mystery of Merlin’s past and inner identity, is itself further confused by the liaison with Morgan-Igraine.  Leonties’ assumptions about himself, his life, his wife, and his king are on the point of collapse.  

Praise for Henry Kissinger’s Latest Book: Why I want to Read it, and Why I Think He’s Deeply Flawed.

Henry Kissinger was  National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for Presidents Nixon and Ford.  Before that he had been in a variety of academic, military and political positions.   During his time with Nixon and he is generally thought to have played a role in Pinochet’s rightist coup that over threw the elected Socialist-Communist government of Chile in 1973, and which used a strategy of arbitrary arrest, torture and murder to terrorise the Chilean left, and even arranged the murder of leading military men who did not approve of Pinochet.  I believe that because of this Kissinger is not able to travel in Europe, due to the possibility of arrest and trial for human rights crimes.  He is also associated with a secret policy of bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam war, so that it could not be used as a rear base by Vietnames communists,  This is widely believed to have been an illegal policy, and some think it had a to to do with the ‘Khrmer Rouge” (Cambodian Communists) coming to power, and their particularly fanatical form of totalitarian rule, far more extreme than in Vietnam.  These and other events of Kissinger’s time in power have made him a villain for the left, and a dubious character for anyone who would like to see a strong role for law and human rights in international relations. He also has the aura of a brilliant and cunning, if amoral, master mind of all the tricks of diplomacy, international relations, and power politics.  

Nevertheless, he has the reputation of a serious scholar and a real thinker with regard to the history of diplomacy.  This has not led me to read anything by Kissinger since I generally take the line that books by politicians are not worth reading, and certainly are never major contributions to thinking about anything, even as in Kissinger’s case politics was preceded by a successful academic career.

 In the last couple of days, I’ve seen two very favourable reviews of Kissinger’s latest book On China.  One by Jonathan D. Spence in the New York Review of Books, a publication aimed at left-liberal American intellectuals, and their equivalents abroad; another by Simon Schama in the Financial Times, which is also an interview with Kissinger.  Schama is an American based British historian, known as a ‘public intellectual’ in Britain with left leaning politics.  Both articles suggest considerable intellectual depth and historical knowledge on Kissinger’s part combined with his personal experience of participating in Nixon’s policy of establishing relations with Mao’s China.   Schama refers to qualities of modesty and openness in Kissinger.  Of course some of this could have been put on for Schama’s benefit, but as he points out Kissinger’s flattering remarks about replying to Schama’s comments on his earlier book Diplomacy, are borne out by the text of On China.  

I aim to read Diplomacy and On China, when time allows, as the unusual achievement of a former politician in writing serious books about topics, where I have some interest.  Should we  judge Kissinger less harshly because of his intellectual achievements, and what sounds like a very genuine commitment to ope minded discussion and intellectual engagement?  Probably not.  My impression of Kissinger;s political career, and his pronouncements on international relations has too many negative aspects.  The obvious comparisons are with the two great Germanic statesmen of the nineteenth-century: Otto von Bismark in Prussia then the German Empire he created, Prince Metternich in the Austria Empire.  Few doubt the great personal and intellectual qualities they brought to state affair, their genuine devotion to what they understood to be their duty, and that they tower over their successors in their respective systems.  However, the genius was in stabilising through short term ruthlessness what could not last. In Bismark’s case he did not believe in what he created.  He despised German nationalism, and created the German Empire to reinforce Prussian power (that is of the monarchical state based in Berlin which had its territorial core in an area stretching from Brandenburg to what is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad).  He hated and mistrusted Catholics, liberal, leftists, Poles and southern Germans.  Though he was a pillar of the European state system, it was heading towards a disaster in any case, as the major powers were constantly trying to isolate and over take each other, and were always ready for a war.  The period of European peace outside the Balkans from 1870 to 1914, should not lead us to regard World War One as a mere accident.  The ‘accident’ could not have happened in a genuinely stable state system.  Bismark’s use of war to settle issues until 1870 itself established precedents later German governments would use.  The survival of political institutions which were obviously backward compared with France, Britain, and the United States, meant that when democracy came after World War One, it did so with the stigma of defeat, and entrenched anti-democratic forces in the background.  And we all know where that led.  Metternich preceded Bismark and failed in the more obvious sense that he had to resign from government and go into exile during the 1848 movement of liberalism and nationalism across Europe.  As he continued to advise the new Emperor, we could say that he was part of the renewed Habsburg Austrian system.  This was a system which accommodated democratic, liberal, and national feelings far too slowly to survive the crisis of World War One.  The immediate cause of that war was Austrian expansion into the Balkans (leading a Serbian anarchist and nationalist to assassinate the heir to the Habsburg throne in Sarajevo).  By that time, the Empire was not in a state of fight in a war against other major powers, and disintegrated at the end of the war.  The post Habsburg nations did not establish viable liberal democracies, with the exception of Czechoslovakia (though even there ethic Slovaks and Germans were never entirely happy with the state).  Austrian democracy itself gave way to a quasi-fascist Catholic Corporatist state even before the Nazis came to power in Germany.  This dismal post-Habsburg history leads some.even now, to regard the end of the Habsburg Empire as some great disaster of European history, that the victorious World War One powers, should have kept it in existence, and that the Habsburg statesmen going back to Metternich must have had the right idea.  If their ideas were so right, we really have to wonder how the Habsburg state was unable to contain rising nationalism of most groups in the Empire, with conflicting demands, demands that could not be met through liberal-democractic institutions because the conservative Hapsburg leaders were afraid of the weakening affect such institutions, and were far too slow to work on them.

It’s a big step from Bismark and  and Metternich to Kissinger, and both the earlier figures were in power much longer than Kissinger and with powers far exceeding his (which was part of the problem).  Kissinger had a shared obsession with stability and alliance, with doing whatever it took in the short term to preserve and expand existing areas of influence.   He evidently sees this as historically informed long term thinking, but what long term good did Kissinger’s policies do?  His policies in Vietnam did not prevent Communist take over of all of Indochina. His policy in Chile stained America as the instigator of coups against elected government.  Allende’s Socialist-Communist government was divided in itself, was in conflict with the extra-parliamentary left as well as the hard right, completely alienated the moderate right and centre, never controlled the army in reality, and was an economic disaster. It never had majority electoral support in the country, or in the national assembly.  It  would have failed and been over thrown by a coup of some kind without American involvement, a reality Kissinger’s tricks obscured.  His policies in China did not prevent China from continually moving ever towards a more assertive and historically resentful foreign policy position in the region, and in the world, and if their example of international relations was Kissinger type of tricky ‘realism’ then who can be surprised?  International relations cannot be conducted on the basis of moral purity, of Wikileaks style exposure of all information,  but the Kissinger type naive cynicism is simply unable to see the long term costs of a policy in which power is always devoted in an extreme way toward defending any friend or any enemy of any enemy,  asserting America’s naked power, without regard for the later consequences.  It’s not surprising that Kissinger has written a book about China since this is his best claim to a constructive legacy, and it was a success of some kind, but not in a way that has led China to put cooperation before festering historical resentments and a growingly evident desire to dominate its neighbours and its region. How do I know?  The reviews of Kissinger’s book certainly support that view.  

 

Nietzsche’s ‘Nasty’ Thoughts about Politics: Caught between Sparta and Athens

I’ve emphasised Nietzsche’s ‘nice’ thoughts about politics, that is where he leans towards liberalism, republicanism and democracy, on various occasions when blogging.  So it’s time to talk about ‘nasty’ Nietzsche, and I’ve just been looking at a passage which is as ‘nasty’ as any he wrote, which I found in Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks (translated by Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge University Press, 2009), Notebook 10 [1], 1871.  Click here  to go to the online German text at Nietzsche Source.  

The nasty thoughts in that note, which is an extension of Birth of Tragedy (according to both editions mentioned above).

Slavery was necessary to the great art of the Ancient Greeks and is necessary to art now.

Slavery is necessary to society and war is necessary to the state.

The state is the necessary condition for art, as it provides a focus and direction for genius,

The state emerges from violence and must be a hierarchy, in which slaves at the bottom labouring to live enable those at the top to develop the need to create art.  

Liberalism, like Communism and Socialism of which it is a pale version, are all against art.

Compassion is against art.

Direct anti-French nationalism and German chauvinism in attacks on French Enlightenment and Liberalism.  

Implicit anti-semitism in his attacks on rootlessness and societies based on money.

 

First, it must be emphasised that Nietzsche dropped the German chauvinism, Gallophobia and anti-Semitism by the end of the decade.  The rest could probably have been said by Nietzsche at any time, particularly as my summary has stripped out the Shopenhauer influences very evident in early Nietzsche, and the emphasis on the Dionysian and the Apollonian.  

Without I hope merely covering up ‘nasty’ Nietzsche, it is well worth thinking about how Nietzsche’s argument unravels, deliberately  or otherwise, when studied closely.  I’m not going to to do an explication of the text here, but I think and hope the points I make would seem justified to most, if not all readers, on careful study of the text.  The unravelling does not lead to a ‘nice’ Nietzsche, but it should lead us to think about what is being communicated when Nietzsche seems to be in ‘nasty’ mode, again the emphasis is on the consequence of reading, not speculating on Nietzsche’s intentions.  The two activities can not be completely separated, but some effort should be made in that direction.

The enslaved lower orders are themselves poetic, particularly the complex legal and moral relations of Medieval serfs with their master, and in the narrowness of their lives.  This idea of the aesthetics of the complex unity of society is itself part of German liberal tradition, at least in its more philosophical-aesthetic aspect, which was its most notable aspect in its early years.  Certainly in the comparisons Friedrich Schlegel makes between chemical relations, poetic creation, philosophy, and political republicanism; also in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s thoughts about the beauty of social interaction and of long sustained self-contained rural communities.  The aestheticism of Schiller’s understanding of freedom, and Goethe’s tendencies to a romantic Medievalism of free heroes, are all consistent with this.  As Carl Schmitt (arch authoritarian conservative) argues in Political Romanticism, this had a strong tendency to end up in conservative enthusiasm for maintaining organic complexity and and continuity in society.  Nevertheless, it also fed into all of 19th century liberalism through Kant and then through the reception of Humboldt, particularly in John Stuart Mill.

So maybe Nietzsche is  producing a kind of proto-Schmittian argument for the inevitably of a strictly ordered society and an authoritative state.  There is certainly an element of that.  But if we look at how he relates all this to the Ancient world, he takes it back to the Spartan, with reference to Lycurgus, the legendary founder of Sparta’s laws.  It is not Sparta though that produces the art that Nietzsche suggest was produced by, and was justified by the Greek state.  it was Sparta, where the hierarchy and the state was under challenge in the greatest period of aesthetic and philosophical creativity.  We should also note that Pharaonic Egypt, which Nietzsche gives as an example of a society where religion stopped art, is an example of a slavish society and a very ordered hierarchical society.  

The oppositions he establishes keep unravelling.  Particularly when we consider that the Birth of Tragedy is concerned with the struggle between the Apolline, linked with the Spartan state, and the Dionysian, linked with mass movements.  The unity of the Apolline and the Dionysian is found in its purest form in the tragedies of democratic and commercial Athens.  Nietzsche also suggests that the decline of tragedy in Euripides and in Socrates, is part of the democratic spirit, but this is a distinctly ambiguous suggestion since clearly tragedy comes from democracy, and it does not look like Socrates was an enthusiast for Athenian democracy, though possibly he was less critical than his student Plato.  Nietzsche makes Plato, who is a major antagonist in Birth of Tragedy and later, the writer who catches the spirit of hierarchy and authority in the Greek state in its purest form.  So the slavish hierarchical Greek state is given an essence by Nietzsche’s major object of criticism.  Some of that comes from Plato’s dislike of war, but then he equates war with democracy, and again the opposition Nietzsche sets up has become blurred.  

Nietzsche refers to poetry and art as the products of an aristocracy in a slavish society, where the slaves exhaust themselves in order to live so that the aristocracy can live for art.  But, what Nietzsche says also suggests that the aristocracy do not admire art and poetry.  It is a form of production, and therefore a life of far less value than that of a god or a hero (obvious idealisations of the antique aristocracy).  The artists can only be a minority in the aristocracy who come close to the slaves in their subordination to production.

On a contextual historical issue, by the early 1870s the life of industrial workers had improved substantially over the conditions of the earlier stages of industrialisation and urbanisation, and continued to so, on the whole, during Nietzsche’s life as a writer (since we must acknowledge that the last 11 years of his life were spent without writing, or as far as I know verbal communication of any kind).  So Nietzsche’s suggestion of the necessity of slavishness was already being modified by an external reality in which the ‘slaves’ had improving living standards and education.  A tendency over history that had already been noted in the 18th century.  Did Nietzsche write in complete ignorance of this?  I doubt it.  Did he reject this process?  I have not seen any indication that he disliked living standards though he did early on express scepticism about the benefits of increasing education.  

Before determining how much of a fan of slavery and rigid hierarchy Nietzsche was, and I’ll leave that aside for the moment, I would say that a major thought in Nietzsche is the value of tension, opposition and difference, of the value of a unity which rests on opposing forces.  This in itself undermines any doctrinaire system in Nietzsche of productive slaves and artistic aristocrats.  

Camelot Season One, Episode 7: A Long Night’s Journey into Day

I’ve just seen episode 7 of the first season of the Starz television series, Camelot, and I’m commenting on it as I have for all episodes so far.  This episode seems very much like a transitional episode bridging the development episodes of mid-season and the climatic season ending.  There are three episodes left, and I would guess that episode 8 would leading is into big action battles between King Arthur at Camelot and his sister Morgan at the Castle Pendragon.   There are only ten episodes, and I’m hoping that the next season will have the 22 customary in a full length season on American television.  It’s certainly the most interesting thing on at the moment, to my mind, though there are two other very series I plan to discuss: The Borgias (I have recemntly reacted to what I consider to be a very poorly reasoned review); Game of Thrones.
Appropriately for a transitional episode, this focuses on a long and rather shapeless night, and I think it is rather brave of the makers to make an episode which will probably be sen as confused and drifting by some.  It’s tied together by exploration of characters, itself heavily oriented to Morgan’s desire to know more about the inner relations at Camelot, and Morgan’s plan to take England, or that part of England governed from Camelot, away from Arthur.  She has invited Arthur, and his companions, to a banquet at Castle Pendragon.  The normally wary Merlin accepts as he wants to find out more about Morgan.  We have two sides trying to interpret the other side’s personalities, social shape, and plans.  Morgan’s investigation is more purposeful though.  Her plans involve a subordinate plot about perverse desire, as one of the principles in her plotting is a knight at Castle Pendragon she finds spying on her in the bath, leading to a relationship of sado-masochstic dynamics in which the knight proclaims his submission to Morgan, and willingness to carry out her desires regardless of reward.  This acts as a counterpoint to the more obviously romantic tangles of desire at Camelot, particularly in Arthur’s love for the wife of his champion.  The knight’s submission to Morgan, deliberately or not, has resonances of Medieval courtly love, with the sado-masochistic subtext made more text like.
The night of confusion includes a faked attack on Castle Pendragon with appears to be the aim of discovering the military methods, and the psychological dynamics of Arthur and his men.  The importance of fighting as a unit comes to the force in contrast with Gawain’s wish to run away on his own and kill the eastern king who is supposedly attacking the castle.  The belief of Arthur and his champion Leontes in unity triumphs over Gawain’s individualism, but we can expect the tension to return.  The desire of Arthur for Leontes’ wife Guinevere itself threatens that unity.  The fake attack is preceded by an orgy of Arthur’s knights with Morgan’s dancing girls, itself raising the issue of the threat posed by lust of an unromantic kind to the discipline and unity of the knights.  The hours of confusion in the castle include some revelation about Leontes’ background.  His strong Christian faith, which is in marked contrast with Merlin’s scepticism about religion, and everything, is shown as its roots in guilt.  Leontes’ reveals that he killed a 12 year old boy in battle in front of the boy’s mother, and that his desire to be a perfect knight and servant to Arthur is rooted in his desire to atone for that incident.  He is similarly idealistic in his attitude to Guinevere, setting up audience sympathy for Leontes, and establishing increasing tensions about the consequences of the so far largely restrained desire between Arthur and Guinevere.
The main result of the night for Morgan is the discovery that Arthur’s mother, Igraine,  who displaced Morgan’s mother as Queen, is the emotional centre of the Camelot interpersonal network, and that she is a mother figure to everyone.  Morgan has already been shown as able to get into Igraine’s mind and see what she sees.  The final scene shows that Morgan has kidnapped Igraine and magically assumed her appearance, so that she can ride off with the Camelot knights in the morning, and penetrate their world.  We are left to wonder wether Merlin has noticed anything strange, he has been defined by his scepticism and his intelligence, along with his willingness to open up to Igraine more than anyone else.  This must be a prelude to Morgan’s assault on Camelot and the end of her pretence at friendship with her half-brother.  At this point she can only be an unsympathetic character, though previous episodes have indicated that Morgan and her associates have some good reasons for contesting the power of Arthur.  Besides the tension of impending war, we are left with the tension of how these characters will come to appear.
The idea of an episode which is long night’s journey into day is done well, and takes full advantage of the depths and complexities of a castle, to develop the mood of uncertainty, mystery and emerging conspiracy.  We will be able to judge the show properly after the tenth episode.  If this inaugural season does have a strong ending, then we are looking at a show of great distinction.

Alexander Nehemas Kicking Derrida Around (while discussing Nietzsche) When He Used to Know Better and Should Do So Now.

Recently I’ve started working my way through Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks  (edited by Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehemas, translated by Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge University Press, 2009).  First thing, anyone with any interest in Nietzsche has to read it, get hold of it now and study it properly, if you haven’t already.  Second, very decent job by Nehemas on the Introduction (which he is in his name only though he acknowledges useful comments from Geuss).  Unfortunately, he includes a stab a Derrida, which does not contribute to the Introduction in substance, but does add to a genre of very lazy attacks on Derrida.  This is particularly sad as Nehemas is in terms of institutional affiliation (he is a Princeton Professor of Philosophy), and in terms of his publications, has done a lot to spread understanding about the importance of another French philosopher, Michel Foucault.  In general, Foucault has been better served by prominent anglosphere philosophers than Derrida, though are certainly those who lash out at Foucault from that direction.  Gary Gutting (Notre Dame), Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley), and Ian Hacking (Toronto) are other examples of friendly commentators on Foucault at notable North American universities, and who are not generally speaking Continental European Philosophy in approach (that is do not write like Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, etc for whom arguments cannot be separated from the style of writing) .  C.G. Prado  (Queen’s University, Ontario) and Barry Allen (McMaster) have said a lot about Foucault and are perhaps between the Analytic (way of writing philosophy in which concepts are objects of analysis, or scientific psychological investigation, rather than embedded in strategies and styles of writing) and Continental styles of Foucault and Derrida themselves.  Sadly there is no similar body of philosophers who taken up Derrida in this way, though a few Analytic (or at least not Continental European philosophers in style) anglosphere philosophers have said some respectful things about Derrida, including Thomas Baldwin, A.A. Moore, and David Cooper, but it does not go very far.  

Nehemas’ superfluous swipe (pages xi to xii) refers to Derrida’s essay ‘Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles’, which he published in book form.  There Nehemas focuses on Derrida’s suggestion that e take Nietzsche’s remark ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ in his notebooks as a model for interpreting Nietzsche.  I won’t attempt to summarise Derrida’s argument here, but what I take from it is that the meaning of any piece of writing depends on context, and that context is more than the obvious surrounding text, and circumstance,  The obvious itself is a matter of debate, and the meaning of writing necessarily includes all the meanings it can be given in all the possible contexts we can find for it.  In ‘Spurs’, Derrida was specifically targeting Heidegger’s reading of Derrida, as Nehemas notes, in order to question the way that Heidegger wants to see a question of ontology (being) everywhere in Derrida.  Derrida’s point is that we can finally and unquestionably unify even a short piece of text around any particular interpretation, including an interpretation focused around the ‘meaning of Being’.  

Where Nehemas goes wrong, as is usually the case in critics of Derrida, is to take this as an argument for ‘anything goes’.  Its worth noting here that the philosopher who most promoted the idea that ‘anything goes’ was not Derrida or any similar French philosopher, but Paul Feyerabend, the LSE philosopher of science, whose thought was shaped by early interests in Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Getting back to Derrida, he certainly did not think that ‘anything goes’ in interpretation.  He identified himself with Michel de Montaigne (the sixteenth century humanist and author of Renaissance masterpiece The Essays) as someone concerned with interpretations of interpretations, with the idea that any activity of interpretation rests on the interpretations we already have of our world.  

Nehemas makes a lot of Derrida denying context, when it is the case that one of Derrida’s best known essays ‘Signature Text Context’ (John Searle’s bad tempered and worse argued attack on this essay sadly succeeded in setting the tone for analytic discussion of Derrida) addresses this issue, and while rejecting the idea that any final interpretation can be given to a text by immediate context, certainly does not deny the importance of immediate context, as Nehemas suggests that Derrida does.  Derrida’s point is that the first context has a context, and that has a context and so on.  There is no end to the nesting of contexts.  That does not stop us interpreting texts, including those of Nietzsche.  Derrida has a lot to say about what Nietzsche means, in the sense of what Derrida finds to be the best way of moving through linked passages in Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s views on friendship are a major topic of Derrida’s book Politics of Friendship, for example.  Derrida is always concerned with how meaning conflicts in philosophical and other texts, broadly speaking how they tend to unify around a theme and disperse around its points of articulation and the inevitable ambiguities that arise.  The tendency for philosophy, culture, and thought to polarise between opposites, to pluralise and unify and also constant themes of Nietzsche.  

Nehemas attacks a parody, like many others who wish to preserve a ‘sensible’ approach to Nietzsche and other selected favourites in the Continental European tradition.  This includes those who like Brain Leiter (who has strongly influenced analytic views of Nietzsche with his suggestion that we look at Nietzsche as primarily holding to a cognitive psychology explanation of human actions and beliefs) who attack Nehemas as being too concerned with Nietzsche as stylist, as being too like Derrida.  This is an endless game of attacking those who have allowed themselves to be contaminated with an interest in style and the interpretations of interpretations of philosophy.  I believe that Nehemas is extremely unimpressed by Leiter’s position, and his polemics against those who do not share his own view of Nietzsche (that is the overwhelming majority of Nietzsche commentators and scholars), how sad that he should use what are to large degree the same arguments against Derrida.  

I must also note that I heard podcast by Nehemas about friendship a while back (Google: Alexander Nehemas friendship).  He picked up on what has become a well established recent discussion of friendship in philosophy, going through Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and others.  Where does this discussion come from?  To a large degree from the book I have already mentioned by Derrida, Politics of Friendship.  Nehemas’ swipe at Derrida is even more strange if we consider that he discusses the same bit of Derrida’s ‘Spurs’ in much more sympathetic terms in his 1985 book Nietzsche: Life as Literature.  Why he has decided to join the Searle-Lieter beat the life out of Derrida tendency since I do not know.  Nehemas’ 1998 book The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, ignore Derrida, who did have things to say about Plato and Socrates, and is very sympathetic to Foucault.  Though Nehemas’ way of being sympathetic to Foucault is not far from his late way of kicking Derrida about, since he goes a bit too far in seeing Foucault as a subjective almost solipsistic thinker, criticising Foucault respectfully along those lines.  

Nehemas has made very worthy contributions to the discussion of Nietzsche, along with Foucault, Plato, Montaigne and others.  A shame about what happened to his view of Derrida, moving from briefly sympathetic to briefly brutal.  He really should know better.  

The Stupidity and Pomposity of Ingrid D. Rowland on ‘The Borgias’ in The NYRB; and Getting Machiavelli Wrong

I’ve just read Ingrid D. Rowland’s ‘review’ of the television series, currently in the middle of its season one run, The Borgias, in the New York Review of Books blog.  The review starts with an average level of stupidity, criticising the television series for not being close enough to historical reality.  The mark of a lazy useless review of a television program or a film is to complain that is it not close enough to the literary original, if it it is a an adaption of a literary text, or to complain that it is not close enough to historical reality if it is historical basis.  This is pure stupidity, a fiction film or television program is not the equivalent of a book report, or a historical documentary.  By that reasoning, we would have to condemn Homer and the Ancient Greek Tragedians for their inaccuracies about Greek history.  

Rowlands adds insulting chauvinism to stupidity by attributing things she does not like to the Irish Catholic background of the ‘director’ Neil Jordan.  Jordan is in reality credited as as the executive producer.  Rowlands tries to refer the reinvention of Fifteenth-Century Italian history to Jordan’s background and does not even try to explain how that would produce the reinterpretation in question.  

Her ‘review;’ is no more than showing off of her knowledge of the various ways in which the series differs in historical details from known history.  Apparently she is some kind of specialist in Renaissance art history.  Her academic scholarship is expressed in at least one bizarre claim, with regard to Machiavelli, the political thinker and historian, who was a Florentine civil servant and diplomat for a period.  Rowland claims that Machiavelli was an adviser to Cesare Borgia, the famous and notorious Renaissance prince, conspirator, and son of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia).  It is it true that Machiavelli was a Florentine envoy to Borgia for a few month, but that is hardly the same as adviser, and while I am no specialist in Renaissance history, or in the biography of Machiavelli or of Borgia, I have read quite a lot about Machiavelli and Renaissance republican theory, and I can safely say that Machiavelli is not normally described as an adviser to C. Borgia, or as an influence of any kind on him, though he certainly relates some of Borgia’s ruthless methods for pursuing power with his usual grim relish.  Rowland does not say anything directly about Machiavelli as a political thinker, but she indirectly adds to the black legend of Machiavelli the advocate of cynical tyranny.  It seems the struggle to rescue Machiavelli from this image will never end, but I will say a few words about why this is wrong.  Machiavelli was the admirer or the Ancient Republic of Rome, and wished to take that as a model for a modern state, including all the most democratic elements of Ancient Rome.  Evidently there is a part of Machiavelli that relishes dirty deeds done to further political ambition, and state interests, but then so are most of us.  That is why programs like The Borgias are made.  Other historians and political thinkers have emphasised the need for violence where political actors live in a violent world, without acquiring Machiavelli’s demonic reputation.  The Ancient Athenian general and author of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides springs to mind; as does the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who aimed for universal peace, and based political principles on ethical principles, but who also believed political action should be based on pragmatism not moral principles.   Machiavelli, himself, believed that the state and its leaders are only justified if they serve law and the common good.  A careful reading of The Prince (which Machiavelli clearly indicates only represents one part of his political thought, as it applies to principalities rather than republics), will show that he is trying to constrain the princely figures he is partly addressing in this way; and this becomes even more clear in his longest book, Discourses on Livy, which refers to the Roman Republic, and republics in general.

I was planning to write at least one post on The Borgias and its portrayal of Machiavelli, and I shall return to that without regard to Rowland’s piece of stupidity and windbaggery.  The only excuse I can find for it is that perhaps it is deliberately stupid in a provocative way to attract traffic and comments.  Traffic baiting is however an ignoble pursuit for the NYRB and the grand tone in which it implicitly claims to authoritatively synthesise current culture and thought for its readers.   

Camelot Episode 6 Cicero, Libraries. Power and Identity: Dualities and Pluralities

Another quotation from Cicero in the last episode of Camelot, episode six in season one.  I don’t have the script before me, but it was something like

For the life of the dead consists in the recollection cherished of them by the living

As spoken by Arthur to Guinevere with regard to the death of her father.  As with a previous quotation from Cicero, this looks like the writers were drawing on the Internet rather than deep knowledge of Cicero.  This is one of the popular quotes from Cicero online, and it has a context in Philippics IX.iii much more concerned with public mourning and commemoration than private grief.  It would be nice to think that the writers were playing on this, but I doubt it.  Still it’s great that they realise that Latin educated people know Cicero, and if some of the resonance is accidental, like a possible ironic contrast between Arthur’s private interest in Guinevere, married to his champion Leontes, and his public duty, the resonance is no less real.  

This episode shows Merlin driving Arthur’s knights to create a library for Camelot by rescuing the collection of Gawain’s dead father.  The knights are rather puzzled by this, and seem remote from Merlin the ‘sorcerer’ as they unkindly address him. Great shots of knights galloping across countryside, I can never get enough of that, particularly when they are sweeping in or out of castles.  This is a simple part of the innate energy and rhythm of Arthurian stories, and make them open to constant recreation.  By the end of the episode Merlin and the knights are closer as a mutual understanding emerges that the magical power Merlin fears within himself is like the violence warriors need, but must control.  Gawain finds the books hidden by his late father, because as we have already seen he is drawn to learning and literature.  They all unite on the journey back when Merlin uses gentle magic to help an injured knight, and when the library is set up.  The books look too much like printed books and not at all like Medieval manuscripts to me, but nevertheless the story of a united struggle to preserve literate culture is a well done, and adds to the perspectives of this great series.  We can presume that Merlin’s magic will get beyond his control and cause great damage at some point, and now the tension has been set in relation to the when and the how.  

Arthur’s part of the story revolves around his removal from affairs of the state to run after and then accompany Guinevere as she runs away from Camelot to find her dying father.  This removal itself emphasises that Arthur’s interest in Guinevere is likely to lead to conflict with his public role.  Shared dangers and emotions bring them closer and presumably the disaster that will result from expressing their love and Leontes discovering it.  As with the dangers of Merlin’s power, a tension  and an expectation has been established, and further deepened after earlier references.

In the shadow kingdom established by Arthur’s half-sister Morgan, she finds it necessary to burn the hand of the nun assisting her in order to maintain her power.  A woman with a fire scarred face arrives at the castle demanding justice for her scarring and the death of her daughter in a fire at the convent where Morgan met the nun.  It emerges that the nun was protecting the secrets of a pagan rites carried out by the nuns, and that this is in opposition to priests who are evidently more completely Christian.  The nun starts a fire to avoid discovery by a priest, which accidentally killed the girl and scarred the accusing woman.  The rite that was concealed appears to refer to young women and something that happened to Morgan.  Maybe this is how she was given magic powers?  Morgan insists on putting the hand of the nun in fire, but refuses to kill her, in order to find a balance between protecting her secrets, keeping the nun alive as her adviser, and maintaining a reputation for justice with the people.  These incidents build on earlier suggestions that Morgan represents a feminist perspective of some kind, though apparently mixed with grotesque resentment and unlimited desire to destroy male rivals to her power.  Morgan serves as dark side or double or feminine side to both Arthur and Merlin.  Arthur, because she rivals his political power, and seeks to destroy it; Merlin, because she rivals his magical power, though it is not clear yet if she wishes to destroy him.  Earlier encounters between Morgan and both Arthur and Merlin are full of sexual tension, so there is a strong series of tensions and expectations around magic, patriarchy, desire, revenge, Christianity, and political power in the relations between Morgan and the two male principles.  She appears to be constantly struggling with her identity, as she creates various strategies and new information emerges about her past.  It has earlier been suggested that she is particularly troubled by getting into the mind of her step mother Ygraine.  Like Merlin, she has to contain and sacrifice power, though unlike Merlin through imposing pain and scarring on a loyal associate.

So for this episode we have found Cicero serving as a way of understanding mourning, further power of books in the constriction of a library, the struggle to find and contain power through inner control and through cruelty, mysterious sources of female power, the dualities and pluralities of identity in Merlin and Morgan.