Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fullers' soap

Revised for intelligibility 2/16/2014
Image by Cherie Goodpasture.
In the flush of excitement yesterday I missed noting that David Brooks had written yet another column, this one in his "Look what I just found in the Kindle" vein, on a new opus by Count Mikhail Georg'evič Ignat'ev, Fire to Ashes: How a Simple Nobleman Singlehandedly Destroyed an Entire Canadian Political Party (September 2013).

I really meant to let it go by—there's more to life than Brooks, you know—because I couldn't imagine how I could have any especially interesting opinions about Michael Ignatieff or Canadian politics, but then Driftglass happened by complaining about an angle of the column whose deep comedy had escaped me, his drawing a contrast between ideas of the pure-hearted, cozy refinement of the life academic and the frighteningly violent vulgarity of the life political, both taken entirely from fiction, as if Brooks had no personal experience of either:
In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.
Count Ignat'ev (I'm just joking, by the way, about the title, to which, as the eldest son of the fifth son of Count Pavel Nikolaevič Ignat'ev, minister of the interior to Emperor Alexander III, he is not in reality entitled) or Ignatieff, obviously, is the noted post-Canadian homme de lettres who was tapped in 2004 by a secret cabal of dissident Liberals, after 30 years of expatriation, to lead the party's transformation from being the country's "natural governing party", a political party that tended to win elections by representing Canadians' generally progressive, but not noisily progressive, point of view, into a postmodern machine for winning elections and made safe for capitalism, a kind of New Grits or Red Dog organization, flying free of its weighty old principles.
He started his career well enough. He was elected to Parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.
Sounds like a pretty good start. But this lengthy, six-year prelude gave way to a much more up-tempo tragedy between the end of March and the beginning of May 2011, when he finally succeeded in efforts to force a federal election and lost it with the most spectacular bellyflop in the party's history.
It was a humiliating failure, which ended his political career. Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir... in Brooks's view the silver lining behind this massive cloud. His vanity and fecklessness may have upended a national political system for no particular purpose, but it did generate a book His Humbleness likes.

The thing that outraged Driftglass, Brooks's curious insistence that he knows what life in the Groves of Academe is like, might be applied to the Count as well. Like Brooks, he makes his money as a writer (17 books including three novels) and intellectual-on-TV (especially for BBC) and uses university jobs as a kind of academic pied-à-terre, as if to help him choose a place, or places, to live (well, I've got a gig at the Kennedy School, so I guess I'll get a place in Cambridge). Unlike Brooks he does have a Ph.D. and his teaching responsibilities seem pretty real, but they're always part-time, normally multilocal, and it's very hard to conceive of him attending a faculty meeting or serving on somebody's dissertation committee (at least I can't find any evidence that he has ever done so: compare the results of googling "thesis advisor Michael Ignatieff" with "thesis advisor Noam Chomsky" and you'll see what I mean). Do I sound a little envious here? Oops. (But only because, as we will see, he happens to be a really terrible writer.)

The other thing that will infuriate Driftglass if he ever happens to feel like writing about it is the fact, unmentioned here, that what made some Canadians begin to think of Ignat'ev as a political quantity was his trip through the furnace of "everything changed after 9/11". Because while he may have been a bit of a Trudeau campaigner and Bob Rae's flatmate as a University of Toronto undergrad at the end of the 1960s, his emergence as the kind of person that shows up on American rather than British TV came after the World Trade Center catastrophe, the push for war with Iraq, and the foundation of America's secret detention and torture regime, when he began promulgating the idea of the United States as a "humanitarian empire" with a duty to build nations, by military means if need be:
America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The twenty-first century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy.
Free markets, human rights, and democracy are the appoggiaturas, trills, and other pretty little ornaments; the melody is "I'm better than you, dusky little brothers and sisters!" The count eventually bailed on the Iraq war, or at least on George W. Bush's conduct of it:
"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself," Ignatieff writes. "It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take care to understand himself."
But he never really disowned the "Empire Lite" thesis or the acceptance of
"lesser evils" like indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations,  assassinations, and pre-emptive wars in order to combat the greater evil of terrorism. (Wikipedia)
Fulling or "waulking" cloth in Scotland ca. 1770. Wikipedia.
Brooks titles his column (I don't think you can credit the editor for this one) with a phrase from a Messianic prophecy, Malachi 3:2-4:
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.
Not so much because Ignatieff "took care to understand himself" as because, like Brooks, he preferred to understand others:
Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.
So at last we have an answer to the age-old question:
Q: How is running for office like the Messiah?
A: Tainted but worthwhile.
Apparently, though, Ignatieff's book as it appears from the Kindle Preview is more about ashes than fire. When the Liberal conspirators came to visit him in Cambridge (Mass.) in 2004 to convince him to come back to Canada,
Alfred Apps, a Toronto lawyer, seemed to be the leader. He was voluble; ash flew from his cigarette, wine drained from his glass and he dominated the conversation.
Must have been hell on the busboys! I can't imagine why he wouldn't simply drink his wine, or at least ask for a non-leaking goblet. Anyhow,
I want to use my own story to extract the wheat from the chaff, to reach for what is generic about politics as a vocation, as a way of life.... I lived the life, I paid for what I learned. I pursued the flame of power and saw hope dwindle to ashes.
I guess the moral of that is for heaven's sake keep your hope out of the power, or insist that it wear some protective gear. Also, the wheat isn't in the chaff, and you will do better among the rural voters if you are aware of that, and if you reach for what is generic you will be a lousy writer.
Ash is a humble residue but it has its uses. My mother and father used to spade ash from their grate onto the roses against the west-facing wall of our house.... The ashes of my experience, I hope, will be dug into somebody's garden.
Perhaps you can cultivate a unique hybrid political rose and call it Ignatieff's Hope.

Also, he quotes the great old Québécois Liberal leader Jean Charest as recommending "la pérseverance" instead of "persévérance", an orthographical perversion that enrages me beyond reason. But honestly I'm just messing around here. I don't have anything special I want to say about the Count, who is back now in his own rarefied TV-star version of academia, with twin gigs in Toronto and Cambridge and all the writing gigs he can eat, while the Liberal party, which has gone back to being liberal, recently finally attained its first polls lead since Ignat'ev began his ascent and its downfall. All I truly wanted was to quote Brooks saying this:
In academia, a certain false modesty is encouraged; in politics, you have to self-dramatize a fable about yourself — concoct a story to show how your life connects to certain policies. In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.
I'm so in love with how false modesty is enumerated, by the William F. Buckley, Jr., Professor of Humility Studies, among the virtues!

Emma Kirkby, soprano; David Thomas, bass; and the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Fullers' soap, if you want to know, was a preparation of carbonates of potash and soda added in biblical times to the water in tubs where they stomped woolen cloth in order to bleach and "full" it, that is to make it thick and fluffy, like Count Ignat'ev's fulsome, white, waxy prose, for use on festive and sacred occasions. I think in preparing the libretto of Händel's Messiah Charles Jennens was quite wise to leave the soap out of this passage. As for the way the composer depicts the Lord's intention of shaking the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land, that's somehow exactly what I want to hear after reading a little Brooks. 

No comments:

Post a Comment