Monthly Archives: June, 2013

Kepler, Koestler, Kuhn and Kudos

Magris’ choice of Kepler as an archetypal intellectual hero is not quite as obscure as his Salgari citation, but it may also fail to resonate. For an English-speaking audience, the tutelary deity (the word “genius” is often abused in this context) of the era in which the high scientific renaissance tipped over into The Enlightenment, was, is, and shall forever be, Sir Isaac Newton.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail2However, there are other ways of ordering the pantheon. Those who seek to downplay Newton’s achievements argue that, towering intellect though he clearly was, his strength lay in finessing the ideas of others.

The controversy, for instance, over who invented The Calculus (the other contender is Leibniz) rumbles on in some of the dustier corners of academia. And there are, likewise, those who take greater pleasure in Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, published in 1609, than they do in Newton’s Principia, which arrived three generations later in 1687.

In more recent times, Kepler’s cause in Britain was hardly helped by the publication in 1959 of Arthur Koestler’s The Holbein-ambassadors_detail1Sleepwalkers. And yes, it’s true that Koestler was a star (of sorts) in the British literary firmament. This was his adoptive country (he’d arrived after the fall of France in 1940); his most famous work, Darkness at Noon, had been first published here; and he was now writing almost exclusively in English.

Yet he was regarded with barely concealed suspicion. Not because he was a Hungarian and a journalist by trade; and not entirely because he was a Hungarian journalist with a dubious political background and the sort of colourful personal life that is often assumed to be the diagnostic indicator of low moral fibre.

After all, he was eventually accepted as a national asset when, in 1972, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Holbein-ambassadors_detail3Empire. No. Koestler’s crime was of a simpler sort: The Sleepwalkers was a dazzling contribution to the history of ideas. His primarily audience (then as now) is suspicious of so-called (or even self-styled) intellectuals.

And be in no doubt, The Sleepwalkers is a dazzling book. It is one of the most important books of the 20th Century, a book not just about scientific enlightenment but also, figuratively, about our broader cultural and political fumblings (semi-conscious, groggy, befuddled) out of darkness.

It is arguably far more important than Thomas Kuhn’s more celebrated, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published three years later – the book, incidentally, that brought us the notion of the paradigm shift.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail4And of course there is no greater paradigm shift in the history of human ideas than the one delineated in The Sleepwalkers. Billed as “the whole history of cosmology from the Babylonians to Newton,” its cast list includes Copernicus, Brahe and Galileo as well as Newton – but, although Koestler is more than generous as regards Newton, in the book it is Kepler who takes most credit for mankind’s greatest intellectual leap forward.

Kepler was the first man to understand (and derive a mathematical model for) the orbits of the planets in our solar system. To borrow another of Kuhn’s cutesy formulations, if Newton invented gravity, it was Kepler who discovered it.

As for Koestler, he would almost certainly have admired Magris’ book about Danubia. They share not just an Austro-Hungarian Holbein-ambassadors_detail5sensibility but also the melancholy that comes from acknowledging that there is an elusive mischief in all things, no matter how serious or dark.

Koestler knew a thing or two about darkness – and the twilight too. And yet he was one of the most energetic and colourful characters of the mid part of the 20th Century. He resisted the rise of Hitler as a member of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, was imprisoned by Franco during the Spanish Civil War, rendered service to British intelligence agencies during the 1939-45 war and was an intermediary between British power brokers and Menachem Begin prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

He was a bit like the Woody Allen character, Zelig – popping up where history was being made and generally weaving himself into Holbein-ambassadors_detail8the cultural fabric of the times. He was, for instance, the only journalist aboard the Graf Zeppelin’s fabled Polar Flight in 1931; was co-author of the first explicit sex manual; was an earlier experimenter (alongside Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary) with hallucinogenic drugs; was a prominent campaigner against capital punishment; and was a surprisingly credulous believer in the paranormal – for instance, he founded the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University.

Koestler committed suicide in 1983. In 1998, following the publication of a biography claiming that he had raped several women during his lifetime, female students at Edinburgh University succeeded in having a bronze bust of him removed from public display.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail6During the current century he has dipped even further into obscurity; and his hero Johannes Kepler has fared only slightly better. In 2009, NASA’s Kepler space telescope was launched into orbit around the sun in a $600 million mission to discover new planets. Back in May 2013, it was announced that Kepler was broken and could not be fixed.

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And Zeppelins (and other flying machines) are a recurring theme, for instance, here


Tiger Lily, Rupert, Dan Dare, frozen peas and the planet Pluto

Whenever I find myself at the pergola on the West Heath I find myself immersed in the 1930s. By the 1930s, I of course mean Rupert the Bear, Tiger Lily and autogyros, those bizarre hybrid flying machines that were the precursors of helicopters. For me, those two characters and that one machine are pretty much the heart of the matter where the 1930s are concerned. Don’t ask me why.

At the far end of the pergola you look out onto the intricately patterned bark of a gnarled old tree standing ten feet or so from the balustrade and if you’re in a certain sort of contemplative mood, you can stare at the patterns in this bark for hours. They are like the sweepingly precise pencil drawings of smokeflow or turbulent water torrents. They’re frozen and yet they course vigorously, grown from the seeds of time.

And then you look to your right and there is the pond. Rectangular in shape, its surrounds paved, it’s the centrepiece of an ornamental garden… or rather it’s the sort of pond that could well be designed to be the centrepiece of an ornamental garden. Along one side there’s a sort of municipal shelter type structure that somehow hints at art deco. But despite this hint of south coast seaside, there’s a slightly oriental feel to the place. Maybe it’s something to do with its peacefulness. And also to do with the fact that the pond is a lily pond and sometimes there are koi carp in it.

Yes, obviously the lilies are important.

Shanghai too, obviously. I say obviously but I haven’t a clue why Shanghai. Except maybe that sometimes thinking of Tiger Lily makes me think of Shanghai. A place of oriental intrigue.

I don’t know. The decline of the Gold Standard. Flying machines — not just the autogyro but Zeppelins and speed record machines like the Supermarine, the aeroplane that was to evolve into the Spitfire. All sorts of fast machines. Trains and cars too. The Queen Mary.

Art deco and Poirot. Baggy suits, kipper ties and Raymond Chandler. The Wizard of Oz. All sorts of Hollywood camp in garish colour. Walt Disney cartoons.

Dan Dare, frozen peas, the planet Pluto.


And uncle Tom. Definitely uncle Tom.

Uncle Tom more than my father, though father was born in 1929 so the 1930s were his first decade. He had a fort and tin soldiers and a clockwork motorboat as streamlined as a Supermarine Spitfire. So father has always been wreathed in the faintest of wisps of the 30s.

But yes, uncle Tom more than my father.

Saddling Mahmoud by Sebastian Bell, chapter five

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There is a Zeppelin, too, in Kepler, Koestler and Co
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Why everything you thought you ever knew about Scotland is wrong.

Few “nations” have generated as much fake history and counterfeit culture as Scotland has.

There was no such thing as the “clan system”; tartan was invented (actually, the patterns were Flemish) by two Welshmen to please a German; Bonnie Prince Charlie was more Polish than Scottish and was defeated by a British Army comprised largely of Scots; the Stewart dynasty was Anglo-Norman, established post-1066 in Shropshire; William Wallace was, as his name suggests, a Welshman; Edinburgh is now and has always been an Anglo-Saxon city; most Scottish “Highlanders” actually live at sea level; there was no “golden age” of Scottish agriculture before The Clearances; and the 1707 Act of Union was a generous gesture from one nation to its feckless and economically bankrupt neighbour.

Book pitch, contents disclosed on request.

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The naming of the tiger

The Tamil Tigers have arguably carried Salgari’s freedom-fighting brand into (just about) the 21st Century.

Here, however, are some marginally more interesting Tigers.

macbeth1. The Tiger of Macbeth. Much falls through the boards of Shakespeare’s plays but little is lost. It drifts down, dusty, golden, through a rogue chink of subterranean sunlight. Think of Browning’s Childe Rowland, Tennyson’s Mariana – or, more recently Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. One day, too, almost certainly, someone will construct a whole play out of Hamlet, act iv, scene iv, forces marching on a Danish plain. For my part, I want merely to acknowledge a shadowy ship. Aleppo is much in the news these days as a battleground in the Syrian civil war; but in Shakespeare’s era (and, even more pertinently, in the 11th century, the temporal locale for his Macbeth), Aleppo was the western end of the Silk Road. Do we infer from this that the Scotland of the 11th century (or, rather, Shakespeare’s conception of the Scotland of the 11th century) imported a significant amount of silk? Does he actually conceive of Lady Macbeth (the woman of highest social status in the play*) as a slinky sophisticate?
HMS_Tiger_(C20)2. HMS Tiger, cruiser. Few economics dons have any practical knowledge of economics – and in this respect Harold Wilson was unexceptional. (For instance, his thesis analysing the causes of the downfall of the Labour government in 1931 is riddled with instances of breathtaking stupidity.)  Thus it was almost inevitable that, within months of taking office as prime minister, he would lead Britain into dire economic crisis. And so it transpired. But if Wilson knew less about anything than he knew about economics, it was foreign affairs – as he showed in his handling of the Rhodesian UDI affair. This ineptitude was more than amply illustrated by his surreal decision to conduct talks with Ian Smith, the Rhodesian premier, on a rust bucket of a ship off Gibraltar in December 1966. (Though it might have made some small sliver of sense if the Tiger in question was a ghostly revenant of Shakespeare’s ship.) Macmillan may have sown the winds of change – but Wilson it was who reaped at least some of the hurricane. Not that he ever knew.
tiger_who_came_to_tea3. The Tiger Who Came to Tea. For many years, this was my daughter’s favourite bedtime book. It is a savagely incisive modern morality tale. The Tiger arrives one afternoon uninvited, yet succeeds in being asked in for tea. This Tiger proceeds to eat and drink everything in the house before leaving rather abruptly. So that, when daddy (capitalist stooge that he is) comes home later, there’s nothing left for him. So he takes the whole family out to a cafe, where they eat, inter alia, French Fries. The family then undertakes to make provision for a similar train of events in the future – but as we learn at the book’s conclusion, the tiger never, ever returns. Thus we are invited to ponder the pitfalls of a falacious reasoning (paper tigers, indeed, that we are) whereby we seek always to make provision for the crisis just gone rather than looking ahead to forestall crises yet to come.
4. The Tiger moth. The archetypal biplane, with (I freely admit it) emotional attachments stemming from the fact that it is an aircraft with a peripheral yet poignant role to play in A Hidcote Midsummer Mystery.
blake's_tyger5. Blake’s Tyger. One summer, when working in an office near the Old Street roundabout, I sometimes took my sandwiches to Bunhill Fields and sat eating them on a bench near Blake’s grave. There’s less causality in play here than you might suspect. I don’t think I thought very often about Blake as I sat there. I’ve always struggled to admire his verse. It is, I might humbly suggest,  Romantic poetry at its sentimental worst. On the other hand, I do quite like Blake’s inept drawing of a startled, nervous divvy of a tiger that looks a lot like a bear.
tigerlily_lrg6. Tiger Lily. No, not the plant. As a child captivated by Rupert annuals, the character of Tiger Lily gifted me my first awareness of the sort of exotic otherness that the female could embody. As such, she will ever be, in my mind, an archetype. Strangely, even as I write, another Rupert (Rupert Murdoch) has decided to part company with his Tiger Lily.
* In both Shakespeare and Shakespear’s primary source, Holinshed, Duncan’s wife is conspicuous by her absence.

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The Tigers of Mompracem, Viscount Grey of Fallodon and the Baghdad Express

To an English-speaking audience, this is a terribly obscure reference – but in many parts of the world, not least in Italy (and of course Claudio Margis is indeed an Italian), Emilio Salgari is regarded as a towering figure in the literary pantheon.

200px-Salgari_mompracemThe Tigers of Mompracem was first published in serial form in 1883 and 1884 in La Nuova Arena and it appeared in book form around the turn of the century. It was an instant hit in its homeland (it spawned a series) and its influence spread through the cultural gateway of Trieste into the Austro-Hungarian heartland of Mitteleuropa.

In time, quite naturally, it was also to find favour in India and in the colonised territories of the South China Sea.

It did so because it embodies that most potent of combinations: it’s a swashbuckling adventure yarn; and it draws extra energy from an emotive political dimension.

Its racy style easily outpaces anything that the English-speaking world was producing at the time (Boy’s Own adventure fiction, or the works of H Rider Haggard, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fennimore Cooper) – and there are those who argue that Salgari, in a rather roundabout manner, was a major influence on the style of the Errol Flynn swashbuckling films Hollywood started churning out in the 1930s.

The political impetus underlying the narrative is all about Empire and the fight for freedom. The Tigers are led by the son of a Raja of Borneo deposed by British colonisers (it is set in 1849: in the real world, the west coast of Borneo was secured for the Empire by Sir Rodney Munday in 1846, consolidating earlier outreach work by the entrepreneurial James Brooke). Thus, in the book, the Royal Navy sees The Tigers as pirates and common criminals; The Tigers see themselves as freedom fighters.

Thus, one might surmise, the book’s unpopularity among early 20th Century readers in the great maritime powers – not just Britain, but France, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and even the USA. For those brought up to believe in the civilising mission of Empire, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Historians with fanciful imaginations may read Salgari’s works as fictional precursors to the fall of Singapore in early 1942. Or, equally, begin to appreciate the viewpoint of German historians who tend to argue that the Great War was entered into by Britain not because of Viscount Grey’s handwringing over the plight of plucky Belgium but in order to curb German ambitions in Asia Minor – and beyond.

In Germany, the British Empire was (and is) seen very much as an Asian empire – an analysis that few British leaders (save for Churchill) shared in the 1930s.

But wait. We intended only to admire, from a distance, the stripes of a tiger. Now we seem to have boarded an express on the Baghdad Railway. Enough. We are not even in possession of a platform ticket. Time to detrain.

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The naming of the tiger
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“At present, there is little doubt that advertising, as well as being a mirror of the restlessness of our civilisation, actually increases that restlessness by the methods it uses. Much advertising thrives on discontent – with one’s pay, physique or environment – or may increase discontent where there was none before. It then offers an escape.

voice_of_civilisation“But however perfect the advertised life may be in the posters, it is a way of life which could satisfy no-one even if it were attainable. There cannot be contentment in a constant struggle for money to meet the demands of the advertisements, or in the suburban boredom which may be achieved when the gap between the ideal and the actual contracts.

“High-pressure advertising could only exist in a society which had created insecurity, anxiety, and neuroses on a large scale.”

Denys Thompson, Voice of Civilisation, 1943