pseudopodium
. . . Machiavelli

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1

That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894

History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.

... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.

- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905

Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.

The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.

Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.

History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.

. . .

Homage to Basil Bunting

WHY NICCOLÒ SERRISTORI DID NOT LOOK

(personally into rumors of a lawsuit being brought against Machiavelli but instead had other people look around) according to Serristori:

What I promised to tell you above is this fine business that you will hear:
I was planning to tell it to you more or less in brief,
but I have changed my mind and shall tell you the entire story,
in order that,
following my example,
you may better confirm how very foolish it is
        to deal with asinine men
        and to talk with them,
        because anyone who is asinine is,
        after all,
an ass in every way and turns everyone who stoops to look at him,
        much less anything else,
        into asses.

Around three months ago,
Piero del Bene and I were talking,
        seated on his bench,
        that is, outside,
        where people sit.
Antonio Segni came walking by there:
we invited him to sit down,
        I moved over,
        he accepted,
we put him in the middle.

So Piero del Bene takes out a coin struck by the new minters,
        for you must know that the Fuggers have the mint
        and no longer Antonio Segni,
and he praises it.

Then, after Antonio has talked to both of us
and we have asked him several things concerning the money profession,
he makes a digression,
        saying that the popes,
        because of either too much saintliness
        or greater concerns,
        do not think of the welfare
        or the hardship
        of the people.
And I said,
"Maybe they do not want to think about their welfare,
but they do think about the opposite,"

and he said that it was not the pope's doing,

and I spoke in the third person, saying,
        "Others
        are of the
        opposite opinion,"
so he incites me to listen to the reasons by which
I would see that such people were in error.

I answered that I would listen willingly.
He made his argument quite properly,
and I praised him
and gave him my reply.

He answered,
I again replied to his answer.

He re-answers, I reply again,
still speaking in the third person,
        that is,
"They say, &c."

Then he said, smiling,
"The fact is that,
if the reflection of most people is good,
those are not things for lawbooks and judgments."

I replied that lawbooks and judgments are a trade like the others,
and that I was not speaking according to them
but according to what I gathered from men
        who make a calling of such things
        and who know about them,
and that I also had spoken on my part,
and that I did not think that lawbooks took away men's brains.
I said these things, too, with a smile,

and he, also smiling, said,
"As for what I said about talking on my part,
        &c.,
the primary thing is whether you can get yourself to understand it."

On the subject of lawbooks and brains,
I said that I have known a dozen
        judges, lawyers, and attorneys
        who were fools.
I said that I did not think that they were all like that,
        because I had known just as many
        merchants who had become brokers
and yet that had not happened to all merchants.

Then he said,
        but softly,
        "So you see,
brokers know more than your kind do."

        I said,
        "Antonio,
let us not become enemies over this:
you know a lot about your trade,
        which you make your calling.
Whatever I know about mine
        or I feel I know about it
does not take away from you
        nor does it add.
It suffices
        that what I tell you
        I am not basing on my trade."
He answered me
that he knew more about his trade
        and mine
than I do.

To cut the discussion short and not to seem to be leaving in anger,
I said that I was speaking to him neither with his trade nor with mine
        but with my brains,
and that everyone considers he has brains to spare,
and that I felt that I had been born with as much of them as he had.
So I acted as if I was thinking about something else,
        although I remained seated next to him.

Staying that way for a while and looking toward the bridge,
so that my back was turned toward him,
I felt someone give me a punch in the cheek.
        I turned around,
        amazed,
and saw that it had been Antonio,
because he was still standing,
and he wanted to show me that at least,
since I had gotten together with an asinine man,
I should give his asinine words their due with a slap,
because he would have been satisfied and not want to consider:
        what will people say?
Whereupon I got off the wall to send him to Kingdom Come.

So I reached for a bread knife of mine,
        a fairly big one.
        Seeing that,
he ran into a shop next to Beni's,
        where a beltmaker works,
        and he picked up a marble
        pressing-block
to defend himself.

I knocked it out of his hand,
        and finally,
        after he had run around
        into a corner of the shop,
I took him by the chest to kill him,
and just as I unleashed the blow and the blade was already at his coat,
I was grabbed from behind on the arms by someone and pulled back,
and someone else grabbed my knife hand,
so that there was no way that I could make use of that.

        And so,
fearing that Antonio might reach for his weapons,
        which I felt that he had
(and at first he acted as if he wanted to draw it and could not
because of the speed and force I used),
or he might grab some other blade from the shop,
I pulled Antonio along by the chest,
        so that,
        hanging on to him,
        I pressed him against the wall,
and he flung his hands down on the knife out of fear,
and they say he cut himself a little
because the knife was not very sharp.

Then, after we had remained hanging on tight to each other for a while,
seeing that I was held too strongly by those two,
I decided to make an effort to get loose,
so that, between pushing and being pulled,
held so tightly a prisoner as I was,
I got out of the shop with my knife in my hand and he remained there.

And so, out of fear that the court may hold me to more than I would want,
I am not leaving sanctuary
        until certain little matters are cleared up
        and I get back to Florence,
        where I want to stay for a while;
if it were not for this business, I would have arrived two months ago.

I send my regards to you, to Messer Niccolò, to the prior,
        and to our cronies,
        although the term is faulty
because with men of honor words change their significance
or their manner of signifying.

. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part III

(Also at The Valve, with long comments)

No government which executed so many citizens could be called "limited," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.

Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.

Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:

I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.

What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.

The addition, of course, is Barabas.

In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.

In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.

Who're missing are the English.

Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.

Such awkwardness has its uses.

Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are us'd to lead;
And reason too, for Christians do the like.

Or:

It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews....

No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.

By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.

These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.

Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.

But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher was ever stricken by remorse at the memory of the insane killer in Laura. And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins doesn't undo medieval anti-Semitism or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism so much as anticipate nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism.

Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatizing profiteers faced while constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....

And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.

* * *

I began this essay in an approved New Critical monogamous literary relationship: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.

By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.

And problematic.

Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. And so to solve it I had to broaden the scope again, to my own to the reader's political and economic context.

In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.

* * *

Some time ago CultRev requested "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." This one wasn't very brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and particulars take a while.

Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (OK, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.

However, I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. In the case at hand, if I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.

And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.

There are other roles for "politics", I know maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....

I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.