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This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Exactly Where We Are, Roughly Frederic Raphael
The Pope delivers blessings to an empty St Peter’s square. The Archbishop of York talks with lengthy admiration about a rabbi who said something worth listening to. Churches are closed; clerics offer the pious no priority channel to the strait gate. Reliance on God’s mysterious ways is not prescribed. Before science became the measurer of all things, the plague and/or Black Death could be blamed on the you-know-whos who poisoned the wells etc., thus saving St Augustine’s claim that God favoured Christians. The stiffening of theology, in the Middle Ages, into hierarchical orthodoxy chimed with lethal epidemics. Centralisation of the creed and the Vatican’s treatment of the Albigensians rallied the apprehensive to Mother Church.

Isolation promotes heterodoxy. Sequestered in his Girondin château, Michel de Montaigne, soon an indexed heretic, advanced singular notions of tolerance while the plague decimated late sixteenth-century Bordeaux. Since he had just ceased to be the city’s mayor, it became convenient to accuse him of cowardice, if not devilish complicity, for remaining outside the city walls. Reluctance to endorse the sentence of death by incineration on dissenters was taken as a slur on the Holy Office. A century later, Blaise Pascal recommended betting on Christ while you still had time; he also invented the wristwatch so you could always have it on you. His contemporary René Descartes avoided being stigmatised by an appendix to his cogito which made God the guarantor of appearances, thus proving His existence and averting the Inquisition. Intelligence and accommodation with power have long gone together.

Carved on the beam above Montaigne’s work table, NIHIL HUMANUM A ME ALIENUM PUTO [I consider nothing human foreign to me] advertised broadmindedness. God and His Trinity are uncited among its author’s familiars. Montaigne’s observation that one had better be very sure of being right when burning human beings alive smacked of lèse-majesté, if not levity. ‘No hope for them as laughs’, said the Aberdeen Calvinist preacher to the smirking young George Gordon, later Lord Byron. Once humour is admitted into the godhead, ritual loses potency, doctrine trenchancy. Montaigne’s wife is said to have been from a family of conversos, if not marranos. Aha, said the pious. Women and Jews are recurrent scapegoats: this-worldly, averse to killing, apt victims. Domestic animals only were sacrificed in ancient religious rites; they made no fuss. The gods’ favourite cuts have come to sate human appetites. Who eats lions?

The British are now called on to venerate a trinity of initials. The NHS enjoys the credulity once attached to the king’s touch. No one, unless cracked, has suggested that COVID-19 is heaven-sent or a monitorial sign of the wrath to come; it has come, pointless and pitiless. Holding everything until some human agency comes up with the right medicine implies the irrelevance of the divine. The sick are consigned to temporal forms of resuscitation or, if old, abandoned to what have been revealed to be, in political calculations, Don’t Care Homes. Anthropologists will recall which savage tribe was found to have no respect or use for the aged and jettisoned them with disgust.

For the lumpen laity, television pumps channels of reminders of the way we were; the present is dosed with crowned yesterdays and crash bang wallop tomorrows. Repetition supplies a crass substitute for resurrection; the media’s diurnal supply of courses from the same visual menu, gossip as side-dish, TV, film, the net, generate addiction to placebos. Endless killing, staged or reported, renders actual deaths narcotic. Who cares that the carnage in Iraq and Syria, primed by the powers, has killed many more than the pandemic?  


Everything passes, Théophile Gautier declared, with unbeatable brevity; and is liable to return, he did not say, rebranded. Gods change and, like Bottom, can be translated; Jehovah was exalted by what threatened to discredit Him: His central Temple burned, the Trinity was its Phoenix; up He went, soon to be universalised. Edited by the Evangelists, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was depicted as tactfully concessive to Caesar. The Roman emperor, then the pope, becomes the deity’s vicar. Judas, Robert Graves’ disappointed zealot, was declared the agent of the anti-Christ. Gospel truth, like the elevation of the Virgin, came from an Orwellian ministry. Christianity was a construct for survival.

The Redeemer’s Petrine establishment outlasted the Nazis thanks to the non-committal diplomacy of the Vatican. The Trinity’s legate toppled its singular, silent Other. In celebration, Cardinal Glemp raised a triumphant cross at Auschwitz. Its removal was as close as the Poles came to remorse, the Church to shame. Christianity re-ordered itself as slightly penitent, if doctrinally unreformed. When abolition of the Latin mass eased access to the sacraments, unmasking the liturgy was accompanied by a precipitous, continuing fall in churchgoing (see L’archipel français by Jérôme Fourquet). The faithful are not always grateful for latitude. Tolerant religions make few converts: how many Muslims join the amiable, all-embracing Ba’hai? Militant servants of the Truth prefer to kill each other and dispossess infidels.

The current plague kills without regard for religious affiliations, social standing or racial denomination. So did all previous plagues? Perhaps, but they were not read in that light. The Egyptians were said to be stricken for maltreating the Hebrews; the Athenians to be paying the price for sustaining Pericles, from a family contaminated by miasma (sacrilege), as their leader. Today’s sequestration of the sick and dying bars dignified passage from the living to the dead. Where Christianity promised that death was a junction, it is now a terminus. Ask not for whom the bell fails to toll. COVID-19 delivers people to the morgue as if to the rubbish dump. Abbreviation of rites of passage implies that we are going nowhere. Politeness has descended into noli me tangere nodding; Byron, greeting Colonel Stanhope at Missolonghi, reached out to take ‘that honest right hand’; today knocking elbows is a gesture that recognises and fends off the other. The French no longer exchange bises. Singularity disjoins society. The new stoicism is a code without celestial prospects. Mortality rebooted in a scheme too busy for metaphysical riders, there is no salvation save, in England, the NHS, an institution of noble intent and questionable efficiency, ritually applauded in spaced communion.


The Christian God survived the Holocaust because its prime victims were traditional bogeymen, women and children; since when was there anything unholy or disconcerting about murdering Jews? G.B. Shaw, an old dog whose tales wagged for Britain, had already, in the 1930s, deemed governments, including fascists, entitled arbiters of who should live or die within their boundaries. Mass murder enhances the self-esteem of the exempt. Christianity has rare digestive powers when lodging heartlessness within the divine scheme. Carl Gustav Jung thought it missed a trick by not having a four-sided Trinity, the Devil an integral part of it. Why not? The vocabulary of Christendom already embraced what reason ruled out, in line with Tertullian’s bravado ‘Certum est quia impossibile est’ [It is certain because it is impossible].

Christian factions, jostling for primacy more than for reconciliation, shared the presumption that God was on their side. He just might intervene on their behalf, if worthily implored, but His granting of human free will dispensed Him from responsibility for mundane misfortunes; Mammon reciprocated by having ‘acts of God’ exempt insurers from paying out. Saints are sanctified in Rome only if it can be shown that they intervened against nature on at least three occasions. Spinoza’s formula deus sive natura declared such acts logically impossible in the shortest possible order. Yes, yes, we need scarcely rehearse all that fine print. Sophisticated theologians have always sighed at sceptics’ quibbles and jibes. Infinite subtleties have been devised to preserve the machinery of the sacraments and shore up the vanity that God will, in due course, recognise His own and roast the rest for their entertainment.

Co-opted from Plato, the incorporeal, sexless soul, sprung from its mortal moorings by death, was held to enter the faithful in a school of pure spirits, provided baptism had put them down for it and no mortal sin intervened. In Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, the character of Scobie trumps God and disqualifies himself from having a heavenly mansion by laying down his soul for another. ‘Grim Grin’ the French used to call the man who managed to have his faith and eat it too. I have always preferred Larry Durrell’s transvestite Alexandrian police chief, a Scobie whose catchphrase ‘C’est de la grande bogue, old man’ trumps most known pieties, Greene’s not least.

Each European generation is liable to be inculcated with the communal vanity which recruits it to Christian soldiering until scandalous appetite or unmerited misfortune fractures faith. Clergypersons, in waning numbers, are primed to wait patiently for the prodigal to return to Mother Church. Even Giuseppe Belli, after composing a thousand obscene and blasphemous Romanesco sonnets, when dying, found his way to a metaphorical Canossa.  God will, no doubt, once again be thanked when, panic over, antidote or palliative in good supply, worshippers are sanctioned to congregate to hear fancily dressed spokespersons’ undaunted afterthoughts.

The divinity’s present absence, during a pale parody of the lethal horrors of the Second World War, seems more damaging to doctrine for want of any deliberate human source to be loaded with the blame. Nevertheless, veneration of Nature, advocated by televised pundits or virgin prophetesses, seems naïve. Playing nature’s friend offers no guarantee of charity: loving his dogs, Hitler was a vegetarian who consigned only human beings, by the million, to the abattoir; Henry Williamson was at one with otters and endorsed the Führer. Fawn on her as we will, nature is as ingenious as she is heartless; neither friend nor colleague, man is no more than an unduly prolific form of her progeny. We are incited to respect and conserve, as if they were the same thing, our common mother as the source of terrestrial blessings.

Human depredations become a godless way of explaining what is going wrong. This appeals to the young, who are happy to accuse their elders of greed for having preceded them to the trough. Somerset Maugham, in his eighties, was advised by his doctor that the best thing to do about some affliction was to ‘let nature take its course’. Maugham replied, ‘At my age, that’s the last thing I want’. Nature will consume and recycle man without pity or purpose. All sorts of animals and plants will be extinguished if we go on as we are, or if we do not; Nature has neither feelings nor intentions; Spinoza’s terse equivalence can be glossed Deus CV Natura. Caute, carefully, was Spinoza’s rider: alternatives furnish distinctions. Man may be supplanted, but any rectified model will also perish before he, she or it – might a ‘natural’ biped mule come to stall over-population? – can pillage the earth’s entire resources. Humanity can be survived even if it fails to survive itself. Nature’s creativity has no morals.


Theology’s retreat, from doctrinal ordinance to descriptive analysis, goes along with the degradation of language, though neither causes the other. All proofs of God are circular? Then blessed be the circle we are squared in, some say. Under popular renovation, language descends into cliché, literature into pap. The formulaic usage of ‘difficult time’, ‘tragic death’, ‘sadly died’ and the like, supplants ritual with platitude. Tout passe/ tout reste pareil, sort of. All previous ladders to heaven or to hell (Heracleitus implied them one and the same) have been renamed with mollifying tact. Cities, relieved of dictatorial or alien tenants, revert to antique nomenclature or modern camouflage, Leningrad to St Petersburg, Stalingrad to who knows what, without either being entirely purged of ideological ghosts. Language loses its innocence, never its hold.

The callous comedy of all reform oscillates under the influence of what Empedocles, in the fifth century B.C., called philia and neikos, affection and disaffection/strife. The eclipse of one deity or religious system calls for its replacement, if of seven devils for one, hence Genet’s ‘Nous ne sortirons jamais de ce bordel’. In today’s decree-dominated societies, sects dedicated to antique observances are willing, if not determined, to flout commonsensical edicts to refrain from close contact.  Faith in death renders prudence cowardice.

Pious superstition resolves men tenter le grand peut-être, to which the non-swimmer Shelley resigned himself when caught in a storm on Lake Leman. Byron, more agile in water than on land, proposed to save him. Already apprehensive of the other’s genius, Shelley said, ‘better save yourself”, preferring death to debt. Both survived, pro tem. Britain’s minorities, however marginal, because marginal, declare their fearlessness by declining to exercise civil caution. The holy fool, defying Wittgenstein, holds death a part of life. Viva la muerte, the Falangistas’ slogan, stung Unamuno to death in Salamanca in 1936. That Christian gentleman Francisco Franco, applauded by Cardinal Hinsley, Evelyn Waugh and other party-lining Roman Catholic purists, imported Moors into Spain to act as slaughterers of common infidels. Montaigne? Who he?

Language cannot arrive at a destination outside itself. However many stations of elegant construction he may position along a line alleged to lead to a terminus beyond oblivion, man’s little train of thought goes round in Hornby 00 (model train) circles and loops. If theology were any kind of genuine queen of the sciences, as it may be some kind of art, or aesthetic, it would by now, as would its lay cousin philosophy, have come to unarguable, rather than methodical, truths. As it is, it may conclude; it never convinces. Hence the Inquisition’s use of putting men to the question as answer. ‘Eppur si muove’ muttered Galileo, as little boys once crossed their fingers in furtive disclaimer. The Church’s secret police set the fashion for ideological terror, not least in its zeal for tabulating the details of its own mercilessness, boastful confession.

Christendom’s evaporating hegemony, St Peter’s emptiness its foretaste, offers small prospect of drawing a promising moral from its old triple crown. Insolence may amuse or appal; it is seldom constructive. Satire, like prejudice, flatters what it derides, deconstruction its straight-faced cousin. Lord Melbourne, speaking of the Church of England, said that he was not so much a pillar as a buttress; he supported it from outside. On what would satire rely without a firm establishment? It is always liable to have a more sophisticated or lofty style than the culture it mocks and depends upon: cf. Junius, Bernard Levin, Tacitus and other stylish tailors close to the wind.


The reverential applause of the British for the NHS at a set time of day makes Boris Johnson a caricature of the Muezzin; criticism of its administration into unpatriotic heresy. The promotion of governmental rigour is also convenient for those who made Brexit into a form of lay Protestantism; ‘Remoaners’ were adjacent to the Catholic recusants, honourable and done for. Who, apart from financially interested parties, now knows or cares whether the disunited kingdom is in or out of Europe? For three years and molti, molti mesi, a fatuous schism diverted funds and served the proles a big-endian, little-endian dogs’ dinner. If some minister were now to say that negotiations had been adjourned sine die for want of flights to take ill-briefed negotiators to untenanted offices and  that the liberated funds were to be devoted to masks and respirators, who would cry foul?

Only arrivistes advocate referenda. The greatest, if not the only, reason which inspired Johnson and Gove to play fervent little-Englanders is that no knowledge was required for windbaggery. There was no substance, but plenty of froth, a chance for dee and dummery in a twee battle between pseudo-enemies. Much Duke of Yorking up and down has led nowhere whatever, very expensively. It may be that, before the UK has abandoned the EU, the whole thing will founder. If that were to be attended, as is likely, by serious ructions between previous Euro states, it might well double with the disintegration of the various Christianities which have agreed, more or less, to differ ever since the end of the Thirty Years’ War. There will be nothing much to exult over.

The triumph of reason wins no laurels. The consequent nihilism is liable to lead to an everything-must-go clearance of antique pseudo-altar furniture. Can it ever be socially feasible to see God as an obsolete ‘summit concept’ and dump Him among the Olympians, fairies and other soppy or malign fictions? Humanity will never agree to be wholly law-abiding or uniform (reasonable and static, as Plato affected to wish) without becoming spiders, at once predatory and attentistes, a model so hermetic that it remains unreformed and unambitious down the millennia. G.K. Chesterton’s old line has holy washing pegged on it: without religion, men will not believe in nothing but in anything; enter Trumpery.


Ferdinand Mount, nothing if not disponible, like some lay Vicar of Bray, tells the TLS’ bourgeois readers that sentimentality is the bourgeois vice. He confesses (indistinguishable from boasts) that he was shocked to hear that Paul McCartney had said that sentimentality, like Michael Douglas’ Wall Street greed, was good. Might it be held preferable to the slogans peddled as revolutionary? John Lennon declared his daring by having his double bed serve as a work surface. It might have been cleverer for Mount to consider whether anti-sentimentality were not the post-bourgeois journalist’s realistic mode. What is more realistic than selling out?

The royal broadcast to the nation was greeted, in public at least, as some bold recension of the bulldog spirit poured in backbone-stiffening doses in 1940. Churchill’s chomped defiance became the patriotic mixture-as-before until, with a little help from dubious allies, the British won (or rather survived) the war, resumed their insularity and dumped their saviour. The appetite for socialism in 1945 was less obvious than a national failure of nerve: Franco (already heavily bribed to stay out of the war) was left where he was; chintzy curtains were drawn; the old familiar spites resumed parliamentary business as usual. The idealism of Sir Richard Acland’s radical Commonwealth party never won public support. Nye Bevan took on the gospeller’s role, health his machinery of salvation, specs and teeth for bread and wine.

Today’s sentimentalisation of the NHS, in the absence of celestial ambulanciers, is another symptom of England’s moral diabetes. The analogy drawn by the Queen, never without political encouragement, between now and our Finest Hour flatters the people, as if they were sheltering in a brave blitz, waiting for Henry Moore to sketch them, and makes criticism of governmental incompetence unpatriotic. The garrison in the front line is saluted, repeatedly, in lieu of having been properly equipped (an old story: the Tommies at Mons opposed machine-gunners with rapid fire from dated .303s). The Queen, dignified and well-spoken, has something of the durability of Franz Josef. In 1914, taken to be the immovable father of the empire, he made it seem patriotic to honour a call to arms indistinguishable from suicide. The dissolution of Austria-Hungary was accelerated by a parade of unity. The Queen sought, gallantly, to turn coronavirus into a means to keep the crown in its place, her kingdom united.  

The UK has but to be busy as usual for its fractures to widen. Meanwhile, we have a parody of Winston Churchill, never so fortunate as when at death’s door, affecting to redeem militant solipsism by a show of concern for those whom he would have forget his verbose negligence when the epidemic could have been stemmed. Johnson, Gove and their henchpersons now claim to rely on the intelligence of specialists whose colleagues, in the economic and social field, they were happy to disparage when it threatened their rise to power. As long as rhetoric served, they could promise to supply every course by cooking the books.

Both the US and the UK have consigned themselves to men of solipsistic vanity and bogus heroism; their calls for unity rely on division. Is this an apt moment to accuse the bourgeoisie of sentimentality? Is it realistic for the punters to consign themselves to the embrace of mountebank blondies? The pseudo-ethics of modern public life are akin to the aesthetics of Andy Warhol and his epigoni, Tracy Emin for local instance, for whom beauty and success are so close that you cannot get a pen between them. What sells determines the emblematic art of our time. We may recall the Dr Campbell whom Dr Johnson described as the richest writer to graze the meadow of literature. The new old masterliness of Warhol can be said to lie in generating originals which might as well have been reproductions, and were. Any old Campell’s soup is more genuine than its Warhol double. Only fakes are now valuable.

What is left of Walter Benjamin’s once sage observations about photographic reproduction? Tease supplants aesthetics: a carcass in formaldehyde, encased in a museum, provokes as many visitors as any Rodin. David Hockney’s hand-made reiteration – oh all those flowering paths to nowhere! – has antique merit when compared with Emin’s ready-mades. The willingness with which mountebanks furnish, and journalists applaud, placebos serves to establish that there is no frontier between busking and expertise. Pseudo-belligerence is the mark of the columnist. It is never wrong and never dangerous to mock ‘the bourgeoisie’, a category to which nearly all readers belong, though few will own up to.


Simon Schama’s account of the golden age of the Dutch republic was conducted largely on the basis of objective evidence. If paintings are to be read as documents, so be it. Might there be some merit, in today’s fractured civilisation, in approaching imagery with care? By not presuming that Dutch painting can be rendered accurately into English lectures, it can be left with its secret. What is obvious can also be unspeakable. The Dutch sensibility is not necessarily translatable because the Dutch were, for a marked period, like the British, hence antagonistic to them, by virtue of common appetites for gold and of hostility to Rome (and the Spanish).

The distinction might be localised in the matter of sentimentality. Is there any sign of such delinquency among the Dutch? Their long fight for independence, without any natural moat to insulate them, allowed them and their arts small room for the complacency which disposed the British to poetic elaboration, sugar in their larder along with Anglican presumption of election. The Channel allowed the victors of Waterloo to discount the Prussians and hold themselves immune to pedestrian perils.

The duplicity ascribed to Albion is a policy, not a vice. The complacency with which a gentleman makes his word his bond distinguishes individual deal-makers from the operators of public policy. When hands were shaken on a deal, in the stock exchange for example, it was a matter of honour, never patriotism, to honour it as it almost always was, if a man hoped to remain a gentleman. International compacts carried no such obligation. Bismarck’s Prussia had all the probity of the hustler. How smart of Karl Marx to displace this characteristic onto ‘the Jews’! Mr Eliot, with the spirit of St Louis in his quasi-Bostonian wings, did the same. His idea of a Christian society made a point of barring more than a few ‘free-thinking’ Jews. As John Schlesinger used to say, ‘Not many laughs there, dear’! The Truth that is said to make men free comes with manacles. Eliot, like Heidegger (and Pythagoras before them), welcomed no insolent questions; ideologues can never be wrong, especially if they like cats.

The oddity of painting as of music is that it cannot be denied meaning but defies translation, even in pony form. An icon seems flagrantly to proclaim its meaning, but what it means (its use) in Russian or Greek culture has to be more than the historian or the cataloguer can fully declare: what something no longer means is also part of its meaning; what was celebrated is now mourned; what united the States or the Kingdom remains as a nostalgic memory. Britannia no longer rules herself with consistent dignity. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt fawns on her sacred isle. His historical Other set out to claim a throne in Spain.  

The fracture of Europe’s wished for solidarity, whatever external bogey provoked it, makes the internationalisation of art, as of humanity, abruptly questionable, except as auctioneers’ fodder. A decade or three ago, it seemed that Michael Ayrton’s insistence on the Englishness of insular art was a mistake in both the sublime and the careerist sense. So much of his own work was deliberately allusive to alien models that he appeared an exception honouring the rule. Now it seems that Isaiah Berlin’s estimate of Herder is due for a new hearing. Specificity is back: the assimilation of Nazism with Fascism can now be recognised as wilful inaccuracy; by collapsing the distinction, apologists could excuse the Germans from unique turpitude. The trick was to assimilate ideologies to viruses, crossing borders like invisible blights. If human ruthlessness has no one national source, its licensing of ideological schemes and the official form it then takes are trumped up by specific people with enough local power and revenue to make nightmares come true. A half-educated, self-validating elite, based on bluff and humbug, hobbles education, thrives on scapegoating, dismisses expertise and chooses to follow a Prospero indistinguishable from Caliban. How confident Brits and Americans were, a lustrum ago, of immunity from such a fate!

This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

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