Well, actually a few things that struck me in the course of my customary haphazard reading.
This autumn we will be bombarded with news about the US midterm elections. Fair enough. These are significant elections in the world's most powerful country. But if we are to be intelligent and rounded beings we also need to be well informed about and engaged with elections in places much nearer to home, and especially those that arguably have more to tell us about the temper of the times in our part of the world – like those in Sweden next month – above all.
But that is not going to happen as long as we are voluntarily imprisoned in the Anglosphere. Yesterday, once again, the latest generation got fewer A-levels in French, German, Russian and Spanish than the generation before. Next week, there will be fewer GCSEs in modern languages too. The trend is inexorable. We are cutting ourselves off from the world. Another New Yorker cartoon, this time by Robert Mankoff, comes irresistibly to mind. A woman is talking to a man at a cocktail party. She asks: “One question: if this is the information age, how come nobody knows anything?”
The answer is simple. They are speaking to us from outside the Anglosphere but we no longer understand them. The internet – on which we all spend so much of our time, as Ofcom reported this week – is in danger of becoming Britain’s staycation of the mind.
“It is something to do with the light, I suppose, and the airiness and bareness and frugality of life in the Midi, which induces a simplicity of thought, and a kind of whittling to the bone whatever may be the matter in hand. Sunlight reflected from red-tiled floors on to whitewashed walls, closed shutters and open windows and an air so soft that you live equally in and out of doors, suggest an experience so sweetly simple that you wonder that life ever appeared the tangled, hustling and distracting piece of nonsense you once thought it. Your mind relaxes, your thoughts spread out and take their shape, phobias disappear, and if passions become quicker, they also lose their power of deadly strangulation. Reason wins. And you are released from the necessity of owning things. There is no need to be cosy. A pot of flowers, a strip of fabric on the wall, and your room is furnished. Your comforts are the light and warmth provided by nature, and your ornaments are the orange trees outside.”
This week, interior minister Thomas de Maizière sided with Google. Mr de Maizière, who has a reputation for thoughtfulness on technology issues, called a summit of consumer advocates, cyber law specialists and “geo-data” services such as Google, to be held next month. He does not seem that worried about Street View specifically. Google’s images do not differ in obvious ways from postcards, he thinks. A “Lex Google” of the sort Hamburg envisions could throw out the high-tech baby with the privacy bathwater.
Maybe so. Maybe the information Google makes available is only a streamlined version of what we had in the past. But the quantity and velocity of information can effect a qualitative change in privacy. It was in response to the camera, the penny press and other 19th-century inventions that the American jurists Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren first formulated the idea of a “right to privacy” in 1890. Something similar will be necessary with Street View.
Technology has advanced to the point where similes (“It’s like you have a postcard of everything!”) no longer capture what is going on. Imagine if, 20 years ago, an unfamiliar person appeared on your street with a camera, and began patiently photographing everyone’s front garden. He would explain that, no, he was not an artist. He had been sent by a large American corporation to make a faithful photographic record of your street. What’s in it for the corporation? Who knows? People would be suspicious, even alarmed.
Image-taking confounds one of the conventions on which our social order rests – the demarcation between public and private space.
But the apostles of austerity, sometimes referred to as “austerians”, brushed aside all attempts to do the maths. Never mind the numbers, they declared: immediate spending cuts were needed to ward off the “bond vigilantes,” investors who would pull the plug on spendthrift governments, driving up their borrowing costs and precipitating a crisis. Look at Greece, they said.
The sceptics countered that Greece is a special case, trapped by the euro, which condemns it to years of deflation and stagnation whatever it does. The interest rates paid by major nations with their own currencies – not just the US, but Britain and Japan – showed no sign that the bond vigilantes were about to attack, or even that they existed.
Just you wait, said the austerians: the bond vigilantes may be invisible, but they must be feared all the same.
This was a strange argument even a few months ago, when the US government could borrow for 10 years at less than 4% interest. We were being told that it was necessary to give up on job creation, to inflict suffering on millions of workers, in order to satisfy demands that investors were not, in fact, actually making, but which austerians claimed they would make in the future.
But the argument has become even stranger recently, as it has become clear that investors aren’t worried about deficits; they’re worried about stagnation and deflation. And they’ve been signaling that concern by driving interest rates on the debt of major economies lower, not higher. On Thursday, the rate on 10-year US bonds was only 2.58%.
So how do austerians deal with the reality of interest rates that are plunging, not soaring? The latest fashion is to declare that there’s a bubble in the bond market: investors aren’t really concerned about economic weakness; they’re just getting carried away. It’s hard to convey the sheer audacity of this argument: first we were told that we must ignore economic fundamentals and instead obey the dictates of financial markets; now we’re being told to ignore what those markets are actually saying because they’re confused.
It’s hard to believe that grown adults can act on such idiotic, contradictory beliefs. But they can. As Krugman puts it, “As I look at what passes for responsible economic policy these days, there’s an analogy that keeps passing through my mind. I know it’s over the top, but here it is anyway: the policy elite – central bankers, finance ministers, politicians, who pose as defenders of fiscal virtue, are acting like the priests of an ancient cult, demanding that we engage in human sacrifices to appease the anger of invisible gods.”
Yep. I’m reminded of a recent New Yorker cartoon which shows two bloated capitalists sitting in their club smoking cigars. “I really approve of the way the government is mismanaging the economy”, says one.
He himself liked to complain, ruefully, that “there are no Kermodians”. FR Leavis had his servile Leavisites, Paul de Man had his “Yale School”, Christopher Ricks (with whom Kermode boxed and coxed) had his Ricksians. Frank Kermode stood alone.
The fact is, he didn’t want disciples: any more than Tiger Woods, when he was at the top of his game, wanted them. The analogy is apt. Kermode loved sport – more particularly the virtuosic skill displayed by sporting competition at its highest level. It was a thing of beauty to him. So too, when it was done best, was literary criticism a thing of beauty. It wasn’t a pit-stop job on books, with wrenches and tyre-irons; it was Ayrton Senna.
When asked, as guileless undergraduates sometimes did, what was the point of studying all these dusty texts, he would fall back on the sport-game analogy. After three years in my department, he would promise, you will play like a master. If, that is, you have the right stuff. If not, try somewhere else.
The literature he himself liked best to play against, and master, was complex. He had little time, for example, for Thomas Hardy. Why? Because he felt Hardy gave up his meanings too easily. The modern poet Kermode most respected was Wallace Stevens – never a writer who yields to the reader without a struggle. Once at Edinburgh in the 1960s (I was there), he mischievously asked the audience if they wanted his easy or his difficult lecture on Stevens. We stuffily opted for “difficult” and tried, desperately, to keep the bamboozledom off our faces over the next hour. Kermode was hard to keep up with in those days.
When, at University College London, Kermode was given a whole department to play with, he created a syllabus which was the curricular embodiment of his belief in the primacy of the difficult.