Flowers of the Mind 8.

In preparing my podcast on Beowulf this week I had an insight about a quality I appreciate in literature, culture, history, and music. Polyphony. Polyglossia. Creating an ark that can hold many voices, many languages, many perspectives and many streams of culture. Beowulf does this by presenting a pagan world despite Christian eyes, and by turning from the funeral of the great hero to the keening of the Ghent woman.

Mikhail Bakhtin found this quality in Dostoevsky’s novels: “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices”.

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Elena Shvarts writes of St Petersburg; and I think on my lost paradise of Melbourne.

What that street is called – you can read it on the sign,
For me its name is paradise, my lost paradise.
What the whole town’s called you can ask a passer-by,
For me its name is paradise, my lost paradise.

Black rats nest over the shining river, in undergrowth
They’re permitted, welcome, nothing can ruin paradise on earth.

Elena Shvarts, “What that street is called”, Paradise: selected poems, p. 17

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At some point on the blog or podcast I am going to write/talk about the extraordinary RussiaGate – what do you call it: hoax, conspiracy, hysteria, delusion, scandal? This week news broke of the indictment of a minor figure, Igor Danchenko, in the fabrication of the “Steele Dossier” which deranged American politics, and world thinking about international relations, attitudes to Russia, Trump and the multipolar world. One commentator has said that the investigator, John Durham is moving around the outer web, slowly trapping the main spider or spiders within. We will see. The details of the indictment, including the documents, are well covered at John Solomon’s Just the News. Don’t expect to see any of these truths reported at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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For a while now I have followed Peter Frankopan – his books, his podcast, I’ve Been Thinking, and on twitter – but with some ambivalence. He can be impressive and insightful, and his perspective on Eurasia and Silk Roads is illuminating. But something has always troubled me about Frankopan since I tuned into his podcast, which started a month or two after mine. First he interviewed the discredited former FBI Director, James Comey on his second podcast. He makes too many casual repetitions of security state cover stories. He does a show on Russia – but makes it about Alexei Navalny. He interviews former chief British spy, and relays such convenient stories about the January 6 event. He retweets material from the discredited intelligence propaganda operation, Bellingcat. I have suspected this “rock star” popular historian of Eurasia to be intelligence adjacent. This week I stopped following him after he promoted that participant in Russia Gate, witness in the cursed impeachment, self-mythologizing working class hero (something to be) and crazed Russophobe – Fiona Hill. Sorry Peter and Fiona, your cover is blown.

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I am week by week studying the rules in Jordan B. Peterson 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order. This week JBP advises me not to hide my mess in the fog.

Sometimes all that learning, impossible without the failure, leads you to see that aiming your ambition in a different direction would be better…. because … what you seek is not to be found where you were looking, or is simply not attainable in the manner by which you chose to pursue it.”

Jordan B. Peterson, Beyond Order

I am slowly training my ambition to aim for another target. I am slowly breaking the spell of power.

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Elena Shvarts writes of the sale of a historian’s library. How could I not respond. How could I not see myself in this mirror, here in Thucydides’ Tower.

What he loved still more was to find in the archives
a name that time had forgotten for good
how strange it was to sit in the lamplight
and look on the blind, gummy eyes of the dead,

but he knew they were grateful. There wasn’t much chance
that he himself would survive the past;
a tide of souls eddies where we come in
and we draw our names from a hat, like straws.

Elena Shvarts, “Sale of a historians library” from Paradise: selected poems

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In London there have been a series of lectures given in memory of the great Roger Scruton. The lecture by the former High Court Judge, Jonathon Sumption, speaks to the great issue of the day: “When fear leads to tyranny: democracy is quietly being redefined“. It is a fine and constrained essay that looks at both the institutions and the culture, or should I say cultures, that looks without fear at the abyss of our democratic malaise.

Sumption shares the insights of a legal lord who has moved among the political and cultural elite for decades, and seen their hollow institutions and frayed culture. Democracy is a delicate symbiosis between institutions and culture. It is perhaps like the paltry old man of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium: “a tattered cloak upon a stick/unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ for every tatter in its mortal dress”. Sumption seems to think the institutions are still strong; I would differ. But he certainly believes the culture that inspires democracy with rowdy claps has fallen. The pandemic has demonstrated the viral destruction of “freedom of thought, speech and association, uncontrolled access to reliable information, and a large tolerance of political dissent.”

So, Sumption sees a political order similar to that I have described as post-democratic: “The democratic label is still on the bottle, but the substance has been poured out of it by governments, usually with substantial public support.” In the year ahead, this writer will be essaying ways to survive the potentially long winter of this post-democratic order.

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