Dedicated to the memory of Max Anacker, global citizen with a distinguished career in Chemical Engineering, denizen of Climate Etc and Serf Under-ground Journal, witty and wise.

While laughter and the nature of the comic have been the subject of many earnest studies, I do not propose to burden the reader, or myself, in their detailed pursuit. Rather a selection supported by illustration from the cornucopia of comedy, examples from film, the cartoonist armoury and from the litera-chure.

Extracts on Laughter.

# ‘The most striking thing about the people of the Western Desert was their ready laughter.’The neighboring Aranda men used to say of them, ‘They are always laughing. They can’t help it.’
(Carl Strehlow in ‘The Songlines’ Bruce Chatwn,  (Picador) P305.)
# ‘That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitations, sinners that we are  …Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.’
(Blind prophet The Venerable Jorge in ‘The Name of the Rose,’ Umberto Eco. (Picador) p 474.)

# ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’
(Mr Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Jane Austin, (Penguin) p 343.)

Theories on Laughter.

# The Superiority Theory of Aristotle focusing on the darker side of comedy, specifically that we laugh in response to our elevation over others’ unfortunate situations or social standing. Tsk!

# The Relief Theory of Sigmund Freud that focuses on laughter and humour as a form of  emotional release, funneling energy away from pent up emotions and, you guessed it, sexual repression.

# The Incongruity Theory of Immanuel Kant in which something funny revolves around derailed expectations or an effective, unpredictable punchline that takes us by surprise.

Then there’s Henry Bergson’s theory in his essay, ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic,’ which includes some of the above, particularly the incongruous, and more, ‘with no aim of imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition,’ instead seeking ‘a practical acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship.’ …  Say, I like that.

So what does Bergson’s long acquaintance with the comic uncover? Herewith some extracts and let’s see how they fit with the divine comedy, well ‘human’ comedy actually.

Henri Bergson on Comedy.

‘The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly HUMAN. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it  – the human caprice whose mould it has assumed.’

‘Here I would put out a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE of FEELING which usually accompanies laughter, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.’

… Hmm, more of this later.

‘To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all, we must determine the utility of its function, which is a SOCIAL one.’

Say, could laughter, as an evolved instinctive response, be linked to social survival, kinda’ like the zig-zag dance of the Stickleback in me previous edition on ‘Virtue and  the Selfish Gene?’  Jest askin’.

James Thurber Cartoons ‘The Overt Act ‘and ‘The Battle on the Stairs.’

1 + 2

James Thurber ‘The Thinker.’


So what do we laugh at? Seems what makes us laugh is a rigidity of attitude, ‘closely akin to mere absentmindedness. …The rigidity is the comic and laughter is the correction. What life and society require of us is a constantly close attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequences.’

Maxwell Smart, always good for a laugh concerning a comic inelasticity of mind. Take his calling for the ‘Cone of Silence’ in his private talks with the Chief.You might almost consider it a fetish.



The Maxwell Smart single dimension character demonstrates a difference between comedy and tragedy in presentation of character, the generic in comedy, compared with individual decisions in tragedy. While the vices in each may be similar, ‘the vice capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. We do not render it more complicated, on the contrary, it simplifies us.’

Think Jane Austin’s cannon of comic characters, Mr Collins, Mary Bennet, Mrs Elton, deficient in self awareness, defined by self satisfaction.

‘The whole party were assembled … and Mrs Elton  in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting or talking. Strawberries and only strawberries, could now be thought of and spoken of. “The best fruit in England – everybody’s favourite  – always wholesome. – These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for one’s self – the only way of really enjoying them .Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort good – hautboys very scarce -Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London – abundance about Bristol – Maple Grove – cultivation – beds – when to be renewed – gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only  too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – currants more refreshing  – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade.’
(‘Emma’ Ch17. The Strawberry Picnic.)

Many comedies have a generic name as their title whereas ‘drama, even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten., their general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all, but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated, hence the title of a drama can seldom be anything else but a proper noun.’

Well yes, ‘Oedipus,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Medea’ versus ‘L’Avare,’ ‘The Miser,’  ‘Le Misanthrope,’ or maybe butcher,  baker, lawyer, thief, characters defined by prescribed behavior and habit, so moving us to laughter where tragedy may  arouse in us emotions of pity, fear or sympathy.

In Moliere’s L’Avare, the actions of the miser, Harpagon are so controlled by his avarice that it is no sooner repressed than it goes off again like a spring. When Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong that he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she does not love, then points out the character flaws of this man that Harpagon would compel his daughter to marry, Harpagon  exclaims, ‘No dowry wanted!’ as a repeating burst every few minutes.’No dowry wanted!’ His exclamation, recurring so repetitively suggests a machine set going by an automatic mechanism.

Of Comedy in Movement.

‘A man running along the street stumbles and falls; the passers by burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary … A RESULT IN FACT OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the muscles continue to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else …’

‘The victim of a practical joke is in a position similar to that of a runner who falls – he is comic for the same reason. The laughable element in both cases consists of a certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY just where one would expect to find the wide-awake  adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.’.

In life, movement never halts but is ever-changing. In comedy movement becomes gesture. The more unconsciously the gesture is repeated, the more puppet-like, the more striking the comic effect.

(JacquesTati ‘ Playtime.’)

Of Comic Physiognomy.

‘When we speak of expressive beauty or even expressive ugliness, when we say that a face possesses expression, we mean expression that may be stable, but which we conjecture to be mobile. It maintains in the midst of its fixity, a certain indecision in which are obscurely portrayed all possible shades of the state of mind it expresses, just as the sunny promises of a warm day manifests itself in the haze of a spring morning. But a comic expression of the face is one that promises nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent grimace. One would say that the person’s whole moral life has crystallized into this particular set of features. That is why a face is all the more comic, the more nearly it suggests to us the idea of some simple mechanical action in which its personality would be forever absorbed.’

‘We shall now understand the comic element in caricature. However regular we may imagine a face to be, however harmonious its lines and supple its movements, their adjustment is never altogether perfect: there will always be discoverable the signs of some impending bias, the vague suggestion of a possible grimace, in short some favorite distortion to which it seems to be particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency,  in rendering it visible to all eyes by magnifying  it.  He makes his models grimace, as they would do themselves if they went to the end of their tether. Beneath the skin-deep harmony of form, he divines the deep-seated recalcitrance of matter.’



Take Off That Mask, Cape, Hat!

In contrast to living supple behavior, Heni Bergson likens comic situations to the mechanical actions of a child’s toy, a marionette or a jack-in-the box.

‘This view of the mechanical and the living dovetailed into each other makes us incline towards the vaguer image of  SOME RIGIDITY OR OTHER applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness. Here we perceive how easy it is for a garment to become ridiculous. It might also be said that every fashion is laughable in some respect. Only, when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we are so accustomed to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form one with the individual wearing it. We do not separate them in imagination. The idea no longer occurs to us to contrast the rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered.’

‘Suppose, however, some eccentric individual dresses himself in the fashion of former times: our attention is immediately drawn to the clothes themselves, we absolutely distinguish them from the individual, we say that the latter is DISGUISING HIMSELF, as though every article of clothing were not a disguise! – and the laughable aspect of fashion comes out of the shadow into the light.’

Heh, remember those flared trousers and weird hair styles of the nineteen seventies?

‘Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case at hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So by analogy, any disguise, any masquerade, is seen to become comic, not only in a man, but in a society also. See James Thurber, ‘Battle of the Sexes’.


‘Let us go on to society. As we are both in and out of it, we cannot help treating it as a living being. Any image then, suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable. Now such a notion is formed when we perceive anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the surface of living society. There we have rigidity over again, clashing with the inner suppleness of life. The ceremonial side of life must therefore always include a latent comic element, which is always only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view. It might be said that ceremonies are to the social body what clothing is to the individual body: they owe their seriousness to the fact that they are identified, in our minds, with the serious object with which custom associates them, and when we isolate them in imagination, they forthwith lose their seriousness. For any ceremony, then, to become comic, it is enough that our attention be fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and then we neglect its matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form.’

(Fellini ‘Roma’ Costume Parade.)

The Language of Comedy.

For the language of comedy we must make a distinction between the comic expressed   in language and the comic created by language itself. The former could possibly be translated into another language whereas it is generally impossible to translate the latter.

The comic created by language, ‘owes its entire meaning to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of words. It does not set forth, by means of language, special cases of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of attention in language itself. In this case it is the language itself that becomes comic.’

‘It would seem that what is called wit is a certain DRAMATIC way of thinking about words. Instead of treating his ideas as mere symbols, the wit sees them, he hears them and, above all, makes them converse with one another like persons.’

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less.”
“The question  is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
(‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Lewis Carrol.)

And for an isolated phrase to be witty, it must bear some sign within itself of evident absurdity, either a palpable error or contradiction. Take for instance the remark by one of the characters in a play by Labiche, ‘Only God has the right to kill His fellow-creature.’

‘A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS FITTED INTO A WELL ESTABLISHED PHRASE FORM. ..Sometimes too, the effect is a complicated one. Instead of one commonplace phrase form there are two or three  which are dovetailed into each other … This Reciprocal Interference of two sets of ideas in the same sentence is an inexhaustible source of amusing varieties.’

‘Cecily:  You, I see from your card, are Uncle Jack’s brother, my wicked cousin Ernest.’
Algernon:  Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily.You mustn’t think that I am wicked.
Cecily:  If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.’
Algernon: ( looks at her in amazement.)  Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless.
Cecily:  I am glad to hear it.
Algernon:  In fact, now you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way.
(The Importance of Being Ernest. Act 2.)

A comic meaning is also achieved by a process of inversion, by putting the object in place of the subject, for example, in Lewis Carrol’s ‘ Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter poses a riddle: “Why is a raven like a reading desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
” Do you mean that you think that you can find the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.”
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least    -at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.”
“You might just as well say,” said the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe.”

‘TRANSPOSING THE NATURAL EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA INTO ANOTHER KEY,’ is another potent source of comedy. ‘The means of transposition are so rich and varied … the comic is here capable of passing through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid buffoonery up to the loftiest form of humour and irony’ Transpose the solemn into the familiar, the result is parody, … make small things large,…exaggeration, is always comic when prolonged and especially when systematic ….

The divine Chaucer, the little to the big, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a farmyard drama.



Tsk, I haven’t even mentioned the Marx Brothers or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers!’ 9  … Or Eddie Cantor!



Say, why are there so many of us out there drawn to the novels of Jane Austin or to the television series, ‘Foyle’s War,’ revisiting them again and again? Seems ter me it’s our fascination with the characters and their emotions, especially the main characters, in the context of the moral world depicted in each, a world where good sense and individual integrity are important.

In Jane Austin’s novels, Socrates’ dictum,’Know thyself,’ underpins the misunderstandings and romantic coming together of the main characters. It gives emphasis to the flaws of the comic characters whose intensely revealing conversations suggest no likelihood of self-knowledge. In ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ there’s the vulgar Mrs Bennet looking for wealthy husbands for her daughters as in Jane Austin’s ironic opening lines in the novel, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ and there also the pompous and unaware Mary Bennet and Mr Collins. In the novel,’Emma’ there’s the revealing comments of two social climbers, The Reverend Elton and his wife, and in ‘Persuasion,’ Anne Elliot’s unfeeling, narcissistic family. They won’t change.

The romantic involvement of the main characters depend on their capacity to learn by their mistakes. Without resolving their misunderstandings about each other, no happy ending, letter required from Mr Darcy to Elizabeth, and recognition by Elizabeth of her own mistakes:

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried; I who have prided myself on my discernment! … How humiliating is this discovery! yet how just a humiliation! … Till this moment I never knew myself!’

 For a happy ending, shocked self awareness required from Emma:

‘How improperly had she been acting by Harriet. How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! … How to understand the deceptions, she had been practising on herself and living under! The blunders, the blindness, of her own head and heart!’

In the most painful of the romances, the broken engagement of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in ‘Persuasion,’ it is not Anne who needs to grow into consciousness but Captain Wentworth. Fated to be the regretful observer of other people’s folly, Anne must wait for Captain Wentworth’s  process of reappraisal, the famous letter:

‘ You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late  … I would not have waited these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.’

And then there’s the attraction for us of Foyle’s War, set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Britain under the threat of invasion. You’ve got Chief Inspector Foyle and his team, second in charge, Milner, and Foyle’s driver, Samantha Stewart upholding law and order on the home front.

You might say here at Hastings Police Station, the perceptive Christopher Foyle is the guardian of civilized values. ‘Thou shalt not cheat or murder thy neighbor.’ And people do, cheating their neighbors or profiteering from the war, stealing fuel, art works, secrets and killing for passion, revenge or to conceal other crimes. Foyle and Milner, himself a casualty of war, an amputee, and the sympathetic Sam Stewart, in an understated way, are all deeply committed to the moral world they work to uphold. When Foyle is ordered to overlook a serious crime by someone important to the war effort, he resigns in protest. Thank goodness, for a very good reason, he agrees to return to duty in the next episode or things would likely have got a lot worse in Hastings.

So what about this moral virtue thing?

Selfish Genes and Such.

Sometimes yer get tired of the dismal selfish gene and prisoner’s dilemma game theories telling us serfs, evolving as we have from the animal kingdom, ter fergit altruism and ethics, they’re really jest us fooling ourselves, a light show of convenient  mutual benefit scenarios concealing what’s below, the wired in mean and nasty self. Tsk, there’s that Charles Darwin, in himself a model of reliability and altruism, coming out with his evolutionary bombshell that existence is nothing but a universal struggle between living organisms competing for existence. Cooperation? There’s that Richard Dawkins telling us that group behavior has little to do with cooperation. The behavior of ants and  bees and the  behavior of our nearest genetic relatives chimpanzees and ourselves, evolved to benefit our selfish genes.

Any chance that sometimes, some of us humans just may act without benefit to ourselves, put trust and altruism before personal gain? Hmm…In his book, ‘The Origins of Virtue,’ Matt Ridley presents from a socio-biological view point, the arguments surrounding the development of human morality, exploring how genetics can be used to explain certain traits of human behavior, in particular, human morality and altruism.

Say, the argument from evolutionary inheritance doesn’t begin well. On cooperative behavior in the animal kingdom, for the fore-mentioned ants, bees and the chimpanzees, selfishness rules, helping your sister ants or bees or the relatives in your primate tribe though Dawkins may call it kin-altruism, really amounts to helping your self …

And Animals R Us – aren’t they?

So what about us?  Animal behavior has profound implications for the study of the human mind, as Helena Cronin in ‘The Ant and the Peacock,’ (1991) argues,  that ‘to erect a biological apartheid of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘ is  to ‘cut  ourselves off from a particularly useful source of  explanatory principles .’

Ridley’s book abounds in case studies of animal and human behavior regarding those four great drives of living species, drives of hunger, sex, fear and aggression. One case study he presents, from the 1970’s and 1980’s involves Arnhem chimpanzee politics.  In 1976 a chimp called Luit became the dominant alpha male in a study group by dominating the previous alpha male, Yeroen. Prior to the take over, Luit had tended to join forces with the chimpanzees that had just won fights but once he became alpha he switched allegiances to the underdogs to stop fights  and keep on top of any potential rivals. However Luit was soon toppled by a conspiracy between an ambitious but not so strong young chimp, Nikkie, who formed a coalition with Yeroen. Nikkie and Yeroen had a deal that Nikkie could have the power if Yeroen, as the power behind the throne. was allowed a large share of the sexual favours of the female chimps. But then Nikkie started reneging on the deal. After several such incidents Nikki was no longer alpha male and Luit was back in power.

Matt Ridley sees a parallel with human alliances in history, the chimp scenario uncannily like events in the War of the Roses with the English queen, Margaret of Anjou, (married to henpecked Henry V1,) as Luit, Edward 1V as the usurper Nikkie and the wealthy Earl, Warwick the Kingmaker, in the part of Yeroen. Following his initial support for Edward, the increasingly disenchanted Warwick formed an alliance with Margaret to drive Edward into exile. Edward later killed Warwick in battle, captured London and had Henry V1 murdered. The theme of kings and leaders reined in and dominated by individually weaker coalitions is a common one in human history all the way up to the American Constitution.

In chimpanzee troops, the most important coalition is the one between adult males of the same group against all adult males of the enemy troop when danger threatens ‘abroad.’ Aggressive group defense of territory and raids against rival chimpanzee troops, is nothing more than an extension of the coalition building we see in Nikkie and Yeroen. When Luit became alpha male he supported losers against their persecutors. Matt Ridley argues that alpha males thereby play an important pacifying role, the reason possibly being to prevent the break up of the group. When a troop of chimpanzees go on a raid, the alpha behaves as if he must get the backing of his coalition partners before launching an attack.

Ridley compares this behavior to groups of closely related men living together as a social unit. In the same manner as chimpanzees, feuding and raiding between groups is chronic.
The historical enmity of the Scottish clans, territorial fights between France and Austria, Russia and Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia, hey, Europe’s map is shaped by battle between neighbors. As Geoffrey Blainey observes in ‘The Causes of War,’ most of the European wars of the last four centuries occured between near neighbors. The Manchester Theory that increasing foreign travel and cultural exchanges promote peace is not borne out by the evidence.  Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who lived among the ‘fierce Yanomamo people of Venezuela in the 1960’s observed the almost routine   warfare and raiding between villages. So highly is aggression valued in the culture that Chagnon observed that of six feast ceremonies intended to build war alliances, two of the six ended in fighting between guests and hosts.  (Chagnon ‘Yanomamo’.)

And what is the significance of all this fighting? Well Darwin’s expression, ‘the struggle for existence’ is sometimes erroneously interpreted as the struggle between different species. As Konrad Lorenz observes in his book ‘On Aggression,’ that fight to the death you see in movies between a tiger and a python or the python and a crocodile isn’t what Darwin had in mind. A struggle between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word.  From many excellent photographs it can be seen that a lion, in the moment before it springs on an antelope, is in no way angry, not growling, ears not laid back or showing other well-known expressive movements of fighting behavior. The counter-attacking by prey, on the other hand, such as crows mobbing a hawk, is more related to aggression.

The selection pressure of contests between different species, contests between predator and prey, may influence evolution selection of functions like swiftness of prey or leaping ability and sharp claws development of predator but in reality, as Lorenz notes, the struggle that Darwin was thinking of that drives evolution forward, is the competition between near relatives. ‘What causes a species to disappear or become  transformed into a different species is the profitable ‘invention’ that falls by chance to one or a few of its members in the everlasting gamble of  hereditary change.’ ( Lorenz, Chapter 3.)

Darwin raised the issue of the survival value of fighting. He concluded that it is always favorable to the future of a species if the stronger of two rivals takes possession of either the territory or the desired female. And so often, says Lorenz, the truth of the past is still a truth but only a special case. Ecologists have recently demonstrated another essential function of aggression, that is, that unless the special interests of a social organization demand a close aggregation of its members, it is expedient to spread its members as evenly as possible over the available habitat and avoid exhausting its sources of nutrition. Lorenz’ studies of coral reef opportunities for niches of specialized, poster-coloured fish and the fighting reactions elicited against interlopers wearing the same poster colours has the effect that each species keep measured distances from nutritional same group  species. The signals of song birds proclaiming territories serve the same purpose.  (Lorenz, Ch 3.)

Concerning us being jest a vehicle fer our selfish genes, what about our prevalent  groupish and generous  behavior of sharing food with others of our species?

Huntin’ and Fission.

Well other primates do it too, predominantly sharing meat, it’s about hunting as a cooperative male enterprise and the payoff involved. Chimps do it for sex. Meat is not a large item in their diet and their favored prey, small colobus monkeys, when shared in the troop, seem scarcely worth the effort of the hunt.  A study of the chimpanzees in Tanzania, shows that whether a male troop of chimpanzees decide  to hunt their favored prey or not depends on the presence in their party of a female chimp in oestrus. If the hunt is successful, the hunters will preferentially give some of the catch to the receptive female. And surprise, surprise, the receptive female is most likely to bestow her favours on the males that are the more generous with meat.

Matt Ridley considers that it’s not unreasonable to assume that human hunting started for the same reasons as for chimpanzees and may still be a factor in big game hunting. In modern hunter gather groups, there does appear to be a connection between the number of hours a week a tribe hunts large game and sexual promiscuity of the group. Studies of keen hunting tribes of South America, the Ache and Yanomamo and the African Hadza tribe compared to the  intermittent hunting groups, the puritan Hiwi and largely faithful !Kung suggest that keen hunters have more affairs. In their studies of the Hadza tribe and big game hunting, Kim Hill and Kristen Hawkes argue issues of reciprocal generosity, Hawke argues intangible rewards of social generosity for the hunter who kills the giraffe. Hill claims that with so much meat, no one’s going to notice the successful hunter passing on a choice cut to the nubile wife of a neighbor. (Ch 6, Ridley.)

Be that as it may, there are other reciprocal benefits of hunting for humans involving division of labour between men and women and the bonds of marriage. Sexual division of labour is part of virtually all societies and it’s noticeable that men and women segregate their jobs even when they share them.

So why did male hunting change from a seduction device to being part of a deal with one or two wives?  Out on the grasslands where we originated, division of labour was a survival benefit. The high protein supplied by the hunter was high energy food but there was always the risk of the failed hunt. The women’s gathering of tubers and plants was less high energy but a reliable food security so sharing meat and vegetables meant both were better off. Then there’s sharing with the tribe. Meat represents luck. The hunter who catches two armadillos today and shares with the men who failed to kill anything at all, which is likely to happen 40% of the time,  is a sort of reciprocity in which one man trades in his current good luck for an insurance against his future bad luck. And of course there’s the cooperation required in hunting really big game. Even free loaders get some of the kill.

So the gist of our genetic inheritance would seem to be a blend of individualist
aggression and groupishness based on self interest. Is that it? Animals r us? Well not exactly.

Alike but Different … Viva la Difference!

Deriving lessons from nature can be a tricky business as Matt Ridley notes. You need to steer your craft carefully between the Scylla of direct animal parallels and the Charybdis of emphasis on human uniqueness. Nature doesn’t rule, culture does. Even Dawkins claims that ‘Man’s way of life is largely determined by culture.’ ( ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Oxford 1977 p 177.)

A surprising theory has begun to emerge in recent years that the human brain is not just better than other animals’, it is different in fascinating ways. It is equipped with special faculties to enable it to explore reciprocity. Reciprocity in society may be an inevitable  part of  our natures – an instinct, we don’t need to be taught it against our better judgement, natural selection has chosen it to enable us to get more from social living.

Heh, if life is just a competitive struggle, why is there so much cooperation around and why are so many people such eager cooperators. We live in towns, work in teams, our lives are a web of inter-connections, families, friends, colleagues, we seem unable to live without each other.

Matt Ridley describes an agricultural society in North America, the Hutterites, as an example, rather like bees, of cooperation and interdependence. The Hutterites praise selflessness and mete out harsh penalties against acts of selfishness. Unlike bees, however, the Hutterites are not all related. Ridley observes that in most human societies, as in the Hutterites, altruism is praised and nepotism frowned on, our cultures, for all their differences, are comprehensive at the deepest levels as expressions of love, loyalty, jealousy and hierarchy. We define virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behavior,’we are all Hutterites at heart.’ ( R Ch 2.)

Those Big Game Theories.

Well we still have to explain that Hutterite behavior which exhibits reciprocal altruism.
The well known Prisoner’s Dilemma theory suggest some answers. The original form of the dilemma depicts two prisoners charged with a serious crime, each interviewed separately, and offered a deal if they confess. If a prisoner confesses, he is imprisoned for just six months, the other gets 20 years. If both confess, they each end up with 10 years imprisonment. Logic of the situation is to confess since neither prisoner can trust the other. However, when people are asked to play repeat games of Prisoner’s Dilemma they start to cooperate.

In 1979, political scientist Robert Axelrod, set up a tournament of fourteen variations of Prisoner’s Dilemma in which the cooperative ‘nice strategies, especially the game of Tit-for-tat came out on top.  As Axelrod explained, Tit-for-tat’s success is its combination of being naive retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents its actors getting into unnecessary trouble, its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation and its clarity makes it intelligible to opponents, thereby bringing about long term cooperation.  Trouble is with these games, including Tit-for-tat, all strategies are defined in advance unlike responding to real world problem situations. So Martin Novak and Karl Sigmund designed a new tournament where, as in the real world, uncertainty prevails, and came up with a new winning strategy, Pavlov, (misnomered, as its behavior is the opposite of reflexive.) Pavlov is nice, establishing cooperation like Tit-for-tat, but also has a vindictive streak that enables it to exploit naïve cooperators such as ‘Always Cooperate.’  Thus it does not allow a cooperative world to lapse into a too trusting Utopia where free riders flourish.

Pavlov had originally been unsuccessful in the earlier tournament where all strategies were defined in advance, but in this new and more realistic tournament allowing for probability and learning, Pavlov quickly adjusted its probabilities to the extent where its supremacy could not be undermined by ‘Always Defect’ strategists. It was, says Ridley. a truly evolutionary stable strategy . ( R Ch 4.)

So do animals and humans use Pavlov? Seems they do, and not just Hutterites and some other primates. Sticklebacks venturing out on predator inspections choose partners that are consistently good cooperators. This indicates that sticklebacks are able to recognize each other and remember which fish can be ‘trusted.’ Pretty remarkable considering that  only the higher mammals are generally considered  to have sufficient brain power to recognize each other  as individuals and have memory of  outcome of past behaviors.

And we as humans as a species, and in whatever culture, appear to be uniquely aware of cost benefit exchanges. According to test responses to social contract puzzles like the widely administered Wason Test, people are not so good at looking for rewards and losses when these are not illicit in some sense, but are very good at detecting cheating. ‘The Wason Test seems to tap into a part of the human brain that is a ruthless and devastatingly focused calculating machine.’ (R Ch 7.)

To Bond or not to Bond. What are the Questions?

There’s a fascinating chapter in Lorenz ‘On Aggression’  called ‘The Great Parliament of Instincts,’ in which he  argues that ‘it is an error to assume that the big four instincts – hunger, sexuality, flight and aggression -are irresistible tyrants whose commands brook no contradiction.’ ( L Ch 6.)  Lorenz describes studies of ritualized response fixed motor pattern in animals which he calls ‘little servants of species preservation.’ ( L CH11.)

The zig-zag courtship dance of the male stickleback is a conflict of two drives, aggressive protection of territory and desire to mate with the intruder. Other aggression channeling rituals he describes are the appeasement dance of cranes and the bonding triumph ceremony of greylag geese. The graylag geese triumph ceremony rules the lives of the geese more than any other drive, and is performed throughout the year involving not just pairs of geese but whole groups of individuals. In all these bondings, even stickleback, personal recognition in varied environmental situations is essential. With herd formation as a means of protection from predators, recognition of individuals is not required, all that’s necessary is to be able to get lost in the crowd.

Humans have not only developed rituals but rich cultures to promote human bonding and exchange contracts. Neurology and situation tests indicate that our complex brains have  propensities for empathetic bonding and the ability to assess violations in our exchanges with one another. Religious practices are an example.  When we experience bad luck we are prone to attribute it to the anger of the gods because of something we have done. Trade mutual deals are other major exchange practices.

Curiously, in recent years economists, who have founded their discipline on the question of ‘what’s in it for the individual,’ have begun to reconsider. Much of the innovation in recent years has been based on a discovery that people are motivated by something other than self interest. Robert Frank, an economist looks at the part played by emotions, what Adam Smith called ‘moral sentiments,’ in our problem solving. Frank calls this  the commitment problem.  (L CH 7.) Emotions are profoundly irrational forces that Frank says cannot be explained by material self interest though they have evolved, like everything else in human nature, for a purpose.

We use our emotions to make credible commitments for example two friends making a deal to start a restaurant, one as chef, the other book keeper. Since each has the opportunity to cheat, a rational person would not choose start the restaurant, so losing,  as Frank says, the opportunities the enterprise could represent. The entrepreneurs risk trusting each other based on perceived shared emotions of shame and guilt regarding cheating. Similarly a farmer fences in his cattle knowing that his neighbor’s rage and obstinacy may lead him to sue, even at the cost of ruining himself in the process.

And love commits us to a relationship. A Dutch ornithologist discovered that if the male  of a pair of breeding blue tits is wounded, the female will quickly seek another male to mate with, behavior we regard as callous. Another observation is of a pair of breeding storks that don’t recognize each other at each annual reunion but simply return to the same nesting site. In humans, ‘our emotions,’ as Frank has put it, ‘are likely guarantees of our commitment.’ ( R Ch 7.)

So where are we now? What Game Theory indicates is that reciprocal altruism, a provisional altruism, is an environmentally stable survival strategy and is therefore as genetically based as is aggressive self interest, two diverse genetic instincts with two opposing drives, in humans processed by our complex brains, ( don’t forget that the human brain is different from the brains of other animals,) and reacting within complex cultural environments. What other living species are able to create cultures, reflect on experience, imagine new scenarios or empathize with the experiences of others, as we do?

What emerges as the bottom line, of course, is that we are stuck with an altruism that’s linked to genetic self interest, but as a biological species, could we realistically expect anything else? And what if, say, as children of the gods, we had been created as perfect beings, where would be the virtue in that – we couldn’t help being good.

More worthy that we humans hafta’ struggle seems ter me. And sometimes, as Robert Frank observes,’The honest individual is someone who values trustworthiness for its own sake. That he might receive a material payoff for his behavior is not his concern.’  (R Ch7.)

Jumping in the Deep End.

Well we’ve heard what he said, she said, so what do you and I think regarding the shifting sands on which we fallible humans build our value systems? Herewith a serfs leap in the dark.

Take friendship. There’s Michel de Montaigne, the most skeptical of men, who made a
life-time study of his own behavior but could find no motive for his friendship with Steven de la Boetie, – ‘that unspotted friendship which we have so sincerely, so entire and inviolably maintained between us … whereas there is no commerce or business depending on the same but itselfe … because it was he, because it was my selfe.’  (Montaigne Essay ‘Of Friendship.’)

Hmm … sounds like altruism ter me.

Then there’s that historic figure Socrates who died for his principles. Charged by the Athenian Senate with corrupting the youth of Athens through his teachings, Socrates refused to escape when urged to by his friends:

‘I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident has happened to me … Do you imagine a city can continue to exist  and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force but  are nullified and destroyed by private persons?’  (Crito, Plato.)

Sacrificing yer life fer yer principles …altruism, I’d say.

And then there’s those acts of sacrifice you occasionally read of in the newspapers where someone attempts to rescue a total stranger from drowning or a burning building, actions where the altruist sacrifices his or her life for others. Schopenhauer has something to say about this:

‘There is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is nevertheless of common occurrence, and everyone has had the experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard hearted and self-interested. Examples appear everyday before our eyes of instant responses of this kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than the other is in peril of his life.’ (S.1840.)

And something else that’s really mysterious. I’d say, is the pursuit of the sublime that we find in great art. You know the feeling you sometimes get when you see the moon suddenly emerge from behind clouds, or hear a sudden call of a bird in the night, a kind of, well, rapture, the kind of experience you get from great art.

In ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ James Joyce examines this response to art, a feeling of unimpeded lyric life beyond the feelings of desire or aversion experienced in daily life. James Joyce observes that great art is ‘static’ unlike advertising art that moves you to desire, which he calls pornographic art, or proselytizing art,  which is didactic, evoking aversion. The elements of great art are its wholeness, its harmony, and what Joyce describes as its radiance.

When you listen to great music like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

or view a great art work like Rembrandt’s etching, ‘Christ Healing the Sick,

the harmony of the parts to the whole, the perfection of the form, resonate with something inside us. Ego seems dissolved, as suggested by the famous lines of Henry Vaughan’s poem, ‘The World:’

‘I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
As calm as it was bright:’

In great Greek and Shakespearean tragedies we witness the ego driven responses of an Oedipus or a Macbeth with composure, our human understanding is enlarged beyond the merely didactic by this unified experience with its plenitude of values. The emotions invoked by great literature are our most generous and insightful regarding the human condition, pity, terror and empathy rather than loathing or aversion. And then there’s comedy, we laugh at our human weaknesses, so Jane Austin-ish, so uniquely a human attribute. Have yer heard the joke about the ….. ?

Can the striving for perfect form and its majestic or comedic achievement by a great artist be explained by the theory of the selfish gene?  I do not know but I’d be surprised if it could. Can we find on the record, examples of selfless behavior that we recognize as truly altruistic? I’d say so, don’t know what you would say.



All the world’s a stage …






Because Greek tragedy and comedy
originated with a chorus that danced
and sang at the Theatre of Dionysus,
a reading of the Orestia, Oedipus, Medea,
or a modern on-stage re-enactment,
can’t recapture the power of those early
dramatisations of human foolishness,
acts of adultery, ambition, anger and
the gods interference in these affairs,
leading on to disaster or, at  least,
satirical jokes, – performances by a chorus
of young men trained for military service,
singing and dancing at maximum intensity,
bet they had the Athenian audience
sitting on the edge of their seats.






She wasn’t going to
put up with it, and her
a mere girl, defying
the State, Euripides
tragedy, ‘Antigone,’
possibly the first debate
on separation of Church
and State.






Masks, like the spots and stripes of
tigers or leopards lurking in undergrowth
may be a cover up for sinister intent,
for a Macbeth, say, who smiles and smiles,
yet may, behind that smiling mask, be  
a damned villain waiting for nightfall
to carry out an undercover
nefarious (or murderous) event.

Just as likely though, wearing a mask
may be concealment for a shrinking self
the donning of a protective covering
like the turtle and the whelk, or as in classic
drama, putting on the mask of an Achilles,
now there’s a way for an un-heroic actor
to become a hero, just for one day.






In the Bard’s pantheon of villainy
I suppose Macbeth and Richard the third
run neck and neck. Same motive
prompted each, naked ambition
requiring the violent removal of king
and kinsman, double default in the
overturning of the heavenly order,
an order intended for duplication
here on Earth. ‘Fair became foul,’
indeed, and ‘foul fair, for this
nefarious and duplicitous pair.

Macbeth’s crimes, from murder of king/cousin
then chain reaction on to assassination of
a trusted friend, regressing from bad to worse
with the slaughter of Macduff’s innocent wife and
children, even Lady Macbeth couldn’t come at this.
Richard destroys brother/king, does this make it worse?
Little princes, trusting nephews, murdered in the tower,
does it make it less heinous that Richard is crippled?
Perhaps his hunch back set him apart,
froze human sympathy from his heart,
the heart has its reasons, perhaps?

Then there’s Iago, I’m placing him in the pantheon
though he didn’t actually murder anyone
until Act Five, and one of them was but a knave,
the other only a wife who wouldn’t back him in
his calumny. Do these count against the catalogue
of killings by the other villains? Maybe not if you
leave out Iago’s other malevolent actions at a distance,
his machinations to spread doubt and confusion in
Othello’s mind.That’s what Iago’s about, not ambition
but all embracing malice, spreading misery
and mayhem wherever he gets the chance.

It’s difficult, isn’t it, making these fine
distinctions regarding murder and mayhem?
Numbers’game? Maybe motivation ? So many
ways of assessing assassination in the canon.
Macbeth’s hot ambition, thinking he’d get away
with just one crime, he and Lady Macbeth
thinking they could handle the guilt. Richard,
pathologically icy, forget guilt, had his reasons
via dissembling nature, read his opening speech.
With Iago, it was malice, that’s it, pervasive
malice against the world and everybody in it, acts
of malfeasance for kicks, helping him wile away
the weary hours …tomorrow and tomorrow and …






There’s a play that makes me laugh, written down
under – that’s Australia, name of ‘Miss Tanaka,’
a kind of musicale,  kabuki,  drama mix set in Broome.
Opens with a witty meeting, beneath a tropic moon,
between the Jewish manager of a pearl shell business,
he’s newly arrived from Europe, nineteen thirty-nine,
and the son of an old pearl diver crippled by the bends.
From the start there’s misunderstanding but underneath,
a subtle understanding, between the two young men.

“Charles – Charles Alanquon Rubin Mott –
The Mott family? The Anglo-Oriental Pearl-Shell Company?”

“Kaz -u – hi – ko.”

“No speaka da English?”

“It’s my name.”

“A thousand pardons.But you’re – ?”  

“Japanese father.”

And when the Japanese father, Mr Tanaka, pursued
for gambling debts promises his several debtors
each the hand in marriage of his beautiful niece,
supposedly arrived from overseas, the son’s obliged to
take on the role of Miss Tanaka, try to solve the mess.
You can guess the rest – everyone falls in love with the
oh – so enigmatic and attractive Miss Tanaka including –
you guessed it, the Jewish manager – witty conversations
between the two, as before, but now compounded by
Miss Tanaka’s flirtatious charm, all this taking place
against a background of kabuki staged-fights by suitors
and a cherry blossom dance, that climax in
a proposal of marriage and an almost-acceptance,
so Shakespearean, and you could say, bitter-sweet,
all this just as a predicted violent typhoon hits Broome,
… and I won’t tell you the rest …






The tempest (?) –  reality or apparition(?)

All within a play of course, nice play
on how we human actors create our
own living dramas that clash with,
or sometimes catch an intimation of,
a mysterious reality out-there, perhaps.
Why the play’s very theme’s ‘deception.’  
The very events we witness here on
Prospero’s  island – used to be Caliban’s
but now it’s not –  we view because of it.

Everyone’s landed on the island because
of a take-over deal between Antonio,
Prospero’s brother, and Alonso, king
of Naples, that robbed Prospero of
his dukedom in Milan, Alonso and
Antonio now brought to shore and
judgement by a seeming tempest, dire
spectacle of storm and shipwreck that
Prospero has ordered with his magic.

The play’s the thing, of course, to catch
the conscience of the king and perhaps
of Antonio, planned by that master
manipulator, Prospero, and ministered
by his airy servant Ariel. Nothing
but transmogrified scenarios from
beginning to end, masques, and music
that sends the actors into dreaming sleeps
like tricksy Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:

Full fathoms five thy father lies …
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Magic’s in the air and in the language too
that resonates with strange conjunctions
like ‘sea-change’ and ‘sea-swallowing’
and ‘heart-sorrow’ and ‘spell-stopped.’

Not that the actors need much confusing
when you see how easily they deceive them-selves.
Do Gonzalo and Antonio describe the same island?
One describes a place advantageous to life,
the other ‘as’twere perfumed by a fen.’
Then there are the case studies of confused identity,
Stephano mistaking Caliban for a moon-calf,
Caliban thinking Stephano fell from heaven,
Miranda seeing Alonso and Antonio for the first time,
marvelling at beauteous man-kind and exclaiming:
‘O brave new world that has such people in it.’

And just to confuse the audience, consider the
final scenario where Prospero addresses us
across the stage proscenium, breaking the magic,
you’d say, except that he’s asking us to release him
and his acting crew, asking us to breath air into the
sails of his craft and send him on his way back to Milan.
What are we supposed to do? Any wonder that
 the audience departs the play still held in a kind
of waking dream.






Neolithic tribes began it to invoke fertility,
stave off famine. Egyptians on the Nile
continued mimicking the sun in a ritual dance.
Visigoths and Greeks and Gauls also did it,
sliding in a circle round some focal symbol,  
maybe fire, or idol, or tree, or may-pole,
while chilly Lithuanians and Letts up north,
likely imbued it with a bit more energy,
tempo multo-vivacissimo.

Meanwhile down south, leaping high as the corn,
tribal Africans surpassed them all by their riotous,
mimetic and ecstatic variation.






Scent of tea roses wafting
in the air, coupes of sparkling
champagne at the bar, art deco
lighting creating a golden
atmosphere for the tea dance.
Tinkling piano, ‘I’ve got you
under my skin,’ couples gliding
across a parquetry floor,
doing their best to emulate
Ginger and Fred’s perfect






Dancing the tango, slow uncoiling,
moving to the pulsing, breathing music
in unison with his black eyed partner
all gravitas and grace. On the dance floor
he’s a god.

The last tango, it’s over, he hurries home,
needs a clean shirt, tango shoes
polished to the utmost gloss …
and he’s out of there
in a rush.





‘Technique,’ Fokine said,
‘is mere means to expression,’
if you don’t know that …






Height of the cold war, I remember
in one of those bleak news reels
my father used to watch on T.V,
in the middle  of filming troop movements
and views of subdued people in grey
industrial towns, the camera moves in
to focus on soldiers, a smiling Cossack.
Suddenly he’s down on his haunches,
in a puddle, does the famous
Cossack  improbable movements, defiant
dance against the elements, O Kalinka,
 – and everyone’s entranced.






The Final Act in classic drama
is when the hero gets the girl,
(in comedy) or at least attains
some understanding, (in tragedy)
while in both, (comedy and
tragedy) the villain gets his or her
come-uppance. Whereas in real life,
lacking an author’s direction, a finale
likely ends in a less-ordered, well,
messy really, (non)-resolution.



In me very first edition of Serf Under_ground Journal  I referred ter Plato, up-there on the hill, advocating  a political system to arrest all change, a system  to create a society of equilibrium, a ship of state steered by a philosopher king.

Nassim Taleb, in his book ‘The Black Swan,’ questions the possibility or desirability of this, given that out-there, black swan events abound, those Hume’s thanksgiving-turkey-events that are impossible ter predict.

In his next book, ‘Anti-fragile,’ Nassim Taleb takes ‘The Black Swan’ to its natural and prescriptive conclusion. Since black swans dominate society and history, Taleb’s problem is how to avoid interference with things we do not understand, what he calls the complex fourth quadrant zone, avoid the errors made by men in suits, the ‘experts,’ who think that what they do not see is not out-there, or what they do not understand does not exist.

The Anti-fragile is beyond resilient.

Taleb describes the anti-fragile as the opposite of fragile, not just dealing with volatility but learning from it. Anti-fragile is beyond resilient, it’s the process of benefiting from shocks in evolution, cultures, technical modifications, it’s the examples of economic and corporate success in dealing with the unknown. Becoming anti-fragile, Nassim Taleb says poetically, is learning how to love the wind, how to domesticate the mysterious and the opaque.

He presents a chart, a triad mapping:  (F) fragile domains in human affairs, (R)  Robust domains in human affairs  and (A) Anti-fragile. For example:
*Knowledge: (F) Academy. (R) Experience (A) Erudition.

*Errors: (F) Hate mistakes.( R) Mistakes are just information. (A) Love mistakes since they are small.

*Education : (F) Classroom. (R) Real life. (A) Real life and libraries.

*Political Systems: (F) Centralized Nation State. (A) Decentralized Federation of City States.

*Biological and economic systems: (F) Efficiency optimized, ( R) Redundancy (A) Degeneracy.(Functional redundancy.)

Stressors are cool.

That which is inanimate, when subject to stress either undergoes fatigue or breaks. That which is living is both fragile and anti-fragile. A human body, to a point, can benefit from stressors and self repair though we eventually wear out, hopefully leaving behind genes or a book etc.

Stressors are information. Your body is a complex system that gets information not via logical apparatus but through stress via hormones or other messages we haven’t discovered yet. In small children, pain is risk management.

In our ancestral habitat we humans were prompted by natural stimuli, fear, hunger, desire, that made us work out and keep fit for our environment. Taleb relates a story about Mithridates, King of Pontus, who ingested measures of toxic substances to build immunity, practicing hormesis, which was well known to the ancients, the  knowledge that a little bit of an otherwise harmful substance can benefit an organism by triggering resistance and other healthy effects. Things that are anti-fragile benefit from volatility, suppress volatility and they will weaken and die. We all know how our muscles atrophy after a long illness. Comfort can also weaken us via physical disuse and modern diseases.

Taleb’s book ‘Anti-fragility’ is about how not to be the thanksgiving turkey or even how to be a turkey in reverse, figuring out the difference between true and manufactured stability. Volatility is information. Variations can act as purges, for example, small forest fires compared to conflagrations that do extreme damage. For similar reasons long periods of economic stability are not good for the economy. Firms become weak during long periods of prosperity and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate under the surface. The longer one goes without a trauma the worse the damage when it occurs. A volatile market doesn’t let people go such a long time without a clean-up of risks, thereby preventing such market collapses.

Denying hormesis, the natural anti-fragility of organisms, comes from top-down government playing conductor. We fragilize systems by denying their randomness, putting them in the procrustean bed of cushy and comfortable – but harmful moderation. Taleb notes the irony of  Lenin, creating his project of the great top-down centralist State, spending much of his time writing in Switzerland, the most robust small government State on the planet.  

Modern States – Blind ter Opacities.

Say, those politicians, economists and academics out-there err when they think they can confidently predict and control complex events even a little way into the future. Tsk!  Why we can’t even predict the stock market a few hours from now. Much of our modern structured world has been harming us with top-down policies, subject ter what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Soviet-Harvard’ delusions, over estimations of the scientific knowledge of a phenomenon,  which try to do precisely this.  

Taleb identifies the top-down problem as hubris. The largest fragilizer of society and greatest generator of crises is the over confidence of platoists with absence of skin in the game. Bureaucrats, bankers and academics have too much power and no real accountability, They get the upside and the citizens get the downside when the nerds make errors. Think Erlich, Sachs, Stiglitz and Greenspan. Some amnesiac ‘experts,’ like Stiglitz, forget their errors in judgement and later write I- told-you-so-books telling how they predicted the crisis they actually helped bring about.

A main source of the economic crisis that started in 2007, Taleb identifies in the iatragonics of the attempt by the uber fragilista ‘expert,’ Alan Greenspan, to iron out the ‘boom-bust cycle’ causing risks to go hide under the carpet and accumulate there until they blew up the economy. The same naïve interventionism was also applied by the UK government of fragilista Gordon Brown whose own grand mission was to ‘eliminate’ the business cycle.

Artificia docuit fames, Sophistication is born out of hunger.

Volatility is information as Taleb notes, yet we tend to focus on post traumatic stress disorder while ignoring post traumatic growth, how persons harmed may surpass themselves. Innovation comes out of trouble, problem situation trial and error.

Artifia docuit fames. : The excess energy from over reacting to setbacks is what motivates innovation. Think of those uneducated tinkerers that initiated the Industrial Revolution, Arkwright developing the water frame, Kay inventing the flying shuttle, Hargreaves inventing the spinning jenny.

Hmm even a serf understands this. Necessity is the mother of invention. Innovation doesn’t come from putting someone through the Harvard Business School class taught by a highly decorated Professor who has never innovated anything. Matt Ridley, in a well-known TED TALK, ‘When Ideas Have Sex, ‘ recognized the unforeseen beneficial consequences that free exchange of goods and ideas through human trading may bring about. It’s another argument for black swan effects since you cannot forecast collaborations, direct them or see where they’re going… not top-down, but bottom-up innovations that have changed the world.

Some Nassim Taleb Handy Hints fer Non-predictive Decision-making.

By grasping the mechanisms of anti-fragility we can build a guide ter non-predicting decision making under uncertainty says Nassim Taleb.

Get out of the fourth quadrant top down- decision making and inter looking at yr options.
In face of lack of knowledge, first do no harm.  So if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, eschew noble intent meddling. Tsk! Let volatility hold sway. Procrastinate. Keep yr options open and keep outta’ debt, yr more resilient that way. There’s lots more in Nassim Taleb’s stimulating book but that’s enough fer now. Enough ter remind yer that the open society is cool.


Big Wind. Theodore Roethke.

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Cracking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.



On the littoral uncertainty prevails.

Herewith a serf’s synthesis of previous editions of the Serf Under_ground Journal, expanded by a collection of serf poetry concerning living on the littoral.

If yer’ve read ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb, regarding uncertainty and humanity’s poor record in prediction – demonstrating how prediction is influenced by confirmation bias and black swan events coming out of left field to surprise us – n yer don’t need a serf ter tell yer that we can’t be certain what the fuchure holds.

One of history’s early observers of confirmation bias, Michel de Montaigne, in his essay, ‘Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received,’ recognized how easily we succumb to the tyranny of old tribal views, nothing so outlandish that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world.

So what of the predictions of doomsayers, Thomas Malthus, Paul Erlich et al?  Well, it’s all there on the record. We know how The Reverend Mister Pessimist, Thomas Malthus, argued in his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1798, that a golden age in the future could never be attained because population had a tendency to increase more rapidly than food. In the interim it didn’t happen but that didn’t deter other predictors of catastrophe like Paul Erlich in ‘The Population Bomb,’ 1969, or members of The Club of Rome with their ‘Limits of Growth,’ 1972.  Despite the best seller status of the books, their predictions were a flop.

This from Max Anacker on Judith Curry’s blog, ‘Climate Etc,’ 20/06/13 @ 4.23am:

‘Population increased in a whopping 1.7x from 1970 to 2010 at a compounded rate of over 1.6% per year. But at the same time, agricultural output, i.e. crop yield of major crops, (rice, corn wheat,) increased by 2.4 x.’

Something the doomsayers did recognize, however, even though they were wrong about predictability, was that – naychur – is – dangerous.

And so another aspect of life on the littoral – Nature is dangerous and don’t you forget it.

Consider how precarious was life fer the average peasant living in Europe, Asia or Africa during the 40,000 years, prior to the Industrial Revolution. For all that time, daily life centered on gathering or producing enough food jest ter stay alive. In the West, as in Asia, whether in 1500 or 1800, yer typical family lived close to the bread-line. Grain provided more than 80% of the family diet, in Asia, rice, in the West, bread and porridge, soup or in hard times, thin gruel. Famine was a widespread and common occurrence. The great famines of India, 1022-1033-1052, wiped out entire provinces, the 1064 famine and out-break of the plague in France killed 100,000 people.

Seems climate has always been variable and unpredictable. The period of the 1600’s, was a bad time fer serfs. Advancing glaciers in Europe were an object of terror. Glaciers swallowed up French, Swiss, Italian and Austrian farms on the foothills of the Alps. Sometimes processions of villagers, led by a priest, would journey to the edge of a glacier to pray that it would halt.

Historian, Tony Brown’s research, ‘The Long Slow Thaw,’ documents events of this period, known as ‘The Little Ice Age,’ and evaluates and reconstructs the Central England Temperature record from its beginning in 1659. This highly scrutinized temperature record is the oldest instrumental record in the world today. In his study of CET, Tony Brown incorporates in his study the cooling of the LIA, and a prior Medieval Warming Period, both identified by Hubert Lamb, first director of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. (CRU.)

The wealth of cross referenced historical data, temperature records, almanacs, diaries, that Tony Brown presents, support Lamb’s research and the European Chronicles of LIA periods of intense cold, of glacier advances and harvest failures.

Hmm … weather is variable, maybe that’s the only certainty in climate studies.

Living on the littoral as we do, better adapt and try our best to be anti-fragile.


Let’s begin with cheap energy, the back-bone of the anti-fragile economy, its contribution ter human welfare can hardly be exaggerated.

Once upon a time all work was done by humans using their own muscle power. Then came a time when some humans, pharaohs ‘n such got other people, the serfs, ter do the work for them, building pyramids, digging ditches, trampling grapes and so on.

With the Roman Empire came the age of oxen, then horse power, each a major step fer human kind. In turn, with the invention of the water mill, yer getting’ the introduction of inanimate power. Later, in the low countries, where water power was not an option, the invention of the windmill, along with the burning of peat, enabled Holland in the 1600’s to become the workshop of the world. But it was the invention of the steam engine, triggering the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s, and the use of stored fossil fuel energy in coal  keeping it going, that gave us economic lift off.

Fossil fuels were a game changer. For while renewable technologies are self replenishing, when they become exhausted overtime, their renewal is too slow ter meet demand. And while fossil fuels are not infinite, coal is sufficiently abundant ter allow an increase in both economic activity and population to a point where they generate sustainability without hitting a Malthusian ceiling.

Even today problems of storage and intermittency limit the efficiency of renewable energies. Peter Lang, a geologist and engineer with more than 40 years experience in energy projects throughout the world, including R&D and policy advice to governments, reviewed and costed a University of NSW study  ‘Simulations of  Scenarios with 100% Renewable  Electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market.’ (Elliston et al 2011a) While the NSW University study provides no costing of the renewable scenarios it did recognize that even with highly optimistic assumptions, renewable energy has insufficient capacity to meet peak winter demands, no capacity reserve and is dependent on a technology, gas turbines running on bio-fuels, that exist only at small scale and at a high cost,’

Peter Lang costs the four scenarios of the Elliston study and a fifth scenario, nuclear powering his paper, ‘Renewables or Nuclear Electricity for Australia – the Costs.’ Peter Lang  28th April 2012. ( Ref Serf Under_ground Journal, 3rd Edition. ‘Energy’s A Staff of Life.’)

Peter Lang’s costing is done on the basis of * CO2 emissions intensity, * Capital cost,
* Cost of electricity and * CO2 abatement costs. He finds compared to the four scenarios, nuclear is roughly ¼ the cost in relation to CO2 emissions intensity, 1/3 the Capital cost. 1/3 Cost of Electricity and 1/3 CO2 abatement costs. Of the four renewable scenarios the fourth has the lowest cost electricity but has CO2 emissions that are 2.8 x higher than nuclear.


Classical economists considered innovation belongs outside the system of economics like earthquakes, climate or war. Joseph A. Schumpeter argued, on the contrary, that innovation and entrepreneurship, moving resources from old and obsolete to new and more productive employments, is the very essence of economics. For Schumpeter the basic fallacy was an assumption by John Maynard Keynes and other economists that the healthy economy is an economy in static equilibrium whereas Schumpeterr argues that a modern economy is always in dynamic disequilibrium. Schumpeter’s economy is not a closed system, but is forever growing and changing.

As soon as one shifts from the axiom of an unchanging self contained economy to Schumpeter’s growing, changing economy, what is called profit becomes not something stolen from the workers, but the source of capital formation to defray the costs of the future, the costs of maintaining jobs and of creating new ones. Profit is the cost of staying in business, the cost of a future in which nothing is predictable except that today’s profitable business is tomorrow’s white elephant.  

Liberty of the Individual And Free Speech.

When the Athenians became a maritime society coming in contact with different laws and social customs, a strange thing happened. They began to recognize that laws and social customs were man-made and were therefore able to be criticized and changed.

In sixth century BC Athens, Pericles expressed this recognition in his great Funeral Oration delivered after the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, when he used the occasion to celebrate Athenian democracy:

‘We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as a preliminary to acting wisely.’ And ‘while only a few may originate policy, we are all able to judge it.’
In the Athenian society of Pericles Funeral Oration, justice is sounding particular to individuals and not simply for the good of the state. Must say serfs like the idea of individual freedom and democratic guvuhmint, not top-down authority with its siege mentality censorship laws and ‘we will tell you what you need ter know.’

And living on the littoral where uncertainty prevails, serfs also favour policies by guvuhmint that foster productivity and adaptability ter what ever tsunami comes ter land. Regarding uncertainties, this from Faustino, former economic and policy adviser to both the UK and Australian governments and also to the Queensland government:

‘As a policy economist, I’ve often said that we can’t sensibly make long-term economic forecasts or projections, and that it is not possible to base policy on them. …  I have seen, time and time again, the dangers of high spending, long-term government projects.  …  
A system which allows decentralized decision-making by those with skin in the game and relevant knowledge and expertise is likely to produce far better results and will be more adaptable when forecasts inevitably prove wrong.’

(Posted on Climate Etc 16/05/13 @11.45 a.m.)




‘They were never wrong,
the old masters,’ says
Auden, ‘about suffering,’
when someone, Icarus say,
is falling from the sky,
near-by revelers, heedless,
in their pleasure – boat,
just sail on by.

Then there’s the old masters
on survival, Shakespeare’s Lear,
out in all weathers,
Dostoevsky on tenement life
in the raw, and more,
Roethke on what goes on in
root cellars, all life’s rich variety
explored in the litera-chure.


Naychur is dangerous and don’t
you forgit it. That speckled thrush
that chortles so sweetly has
just devoured a worm. You yrself
might escape harm if you
remind yourself, often, that
‘Nay – chur – is – dangerous!’

Dangerous. as the tiger, burning
bright, that even in sleep is
likely to overlay its cubs, or
dangerous, as voracious fire,
devouring all before it, spitting
out the charred remains, oh so
contemptuously, as it leaps
upon a forest glade, gullies
and all that lie therein,
animal and vegetable, nothing
vegan about fire … or
in contrast, there’s ice, some say
it’s worse than fire. Remember
poor Otzi, Bronze Age traveller,
snap-frozen in the Tyrol
in a sudden storm, swallowed
by one of those hungry
glaciers that engulf whole
villages, churches where
praying congregations seek
insurance from the elements
to no avail. Nay-chur has its way.


At the ocean’s edge, glittering crustaceans
And shelly treasures mesh,
Like a Chanel garment that’s beaded at the hem.

Today she wears her palest satin robe
That dips and dimples as she moves,
Swishing like a Venetian princess
Who glides across the marble floor of her palazza
To the deep accompaniment of a muted cello.

Don’t be fooled. Beneath that civilized exterior
Lie Freudian depths, fathoms of instincts blind,
Kelp coiling, slithering serpent entwined.
And like Medusa she rises up,,
Naked save for a necklace of whale bones
And the smashed hulks of ships,
To glory in, recoil from, and glory in,
The savagery unleashed.


Splash! In he goes.
finesse there’s none
but in pelican measure -
meant success -


Plans go awry
the centre (usually)
does not hold.
Just when you
think you might
seize the day,
turns out something
(usually) gets in the way.
Oh well, keep saying
‘you live to fight
another day,’ whatever
catch phrase that
suffices to ward off
melancholy or
despair, don’t
go there.


Within the stone – walled hive
the rustling of cardinal silk,
while on the slopes outside,
peasants scrabble
for scraps from the priests’ table.


Newcomers have moved into
the tenement tree. Epigone,
lorikeet interlopers asserting
gangland claims on its clusters
of winter flowers. Upper story residents,
a pair of crested doves, are already
moving out, can’t stand the noise.
‘Ours!’ shriek the new tenants, ‘It’s ours!’
They’ll defend the tree, or even
one blossoming branch, if need be,
against all comers, as long as
the seasonal flowers hold out.
Then, like itinerant workers when
the seasons change, they’ll move on.


The rift valley changes in the fading light, and
In deep caverns the Prince of Darkness stirs.
Against the night, the small band make
A circle at the fire, its yellow flames
Reflected in their eyes. Night falls, beyond
The fire-lit circle the big cats prowl.

The tribe survive dark nights and living in
An arid land. A stray thunderstorm creates
A brief oasis – follow the lightning – on
To greener pastures – be always on the move,
What’s next? The shaman’s rain dance, then
After ancient wells and boat construction
-    aquaducts.


In ancient  Mediterranean ports
Phoenician trading craft, triremes, fishing boats,
Carrying exotic goods
And seditious thoughts.


O, we are creatures of the light, of enlightenment,
Drawn by the light flickering on the river,
The riffling silver threads disturbing its opacity,
Drawn to the litter of stars that spark
In the dark abyss of night, to the harvest moon,
Palpable as a globed fruit, forgetting that
Its light’s reflected from the sun,
Shine on, O shine, harvest moon.

Seeking through poetry and science to probe
The secrets of the heavens and deep abyss.
We yearn for honey from the golden hive,
Enlightenment – O.


Across the antique crowd at the antique fair
I see her face so vulnerable and young,
Enclosed in the antique silver frame
She seems to ask, “Why am I here?”

Cherished daughter held in the silver frame,
A whisp of Venetian lace caught at her throat
With real pearls, she seemed secure within
The family walls, but here she is, alone without a name.

What sad event has brought her here,
A childless marriage, perhaps her early death?
Uncaring grandchild? Relatives from overseas
Selling the estate, don’t know or care?

We all seek certainty but there’s none,
Except the certainty that things must change.
We collect antiques, shore up the family home,
But dynasties fall, plans soon come undone.


A nest has fallen to the ground.
Though so cunningly made it could not withstand
The sudden Spring storm that brought it down
From its niche in a tall pine.

See how meticulously its maker has woven
Each separate blade of grass in and out, each
Blade brought in by air and stitched together
With cob-web by the small beak, the nest
Then shaped by the bird’s round breast and
Inlaid with its feathered down. Already
Ants are investigating the broken
Egg-shells scattered on the ground.



Every year the forest creeps closer,
Small pines encroaching in the meadow,
Tiny outposts in enemy territory.

Seems to the aging couple, days and years
Are also changing, days seem shorter, nights darker,
Does the harvest moon wane faster than before?

Tonight there’s a frost. Against the cold he selects
Another pine log from the pile, lifts it firmly
With his strong forearm, throws it on the fire.

The fire crackles and sends out sparks. In its glow
His wife looks like the girl he married long ago, hair
Glinting, shadows concealing lines around the mouth.

Shadows too, hide his stooped shoulders,
Bowed by years of doing battle with
The elements. In the dark forest, the bark of a lone fox.

Early morning, sun’s already melting the frost.
The postman calls, bringing a letter, a rare event. Foreign
Postmark, the couples daughter arriving from France,
Grandchildren in tow, they’ll spend Easter on the farm.

Outside, the day grows warm,
In the budding plum tree
A thrush bursts forth in song.


Beside the highway
Stands the old tree.
Last of its line,
Rough monument to space and time,
Holding in its crown the sky’s light
And a few white birds,
Then a circlet of stars
As the Earth turns.


‘This rock I hold
in my hand,’ the
geologist said,
‘was here before
Columbus crossed
the Pacific,
even before
Gondwana Land
broke up, this rock
was here.’


You could say
That she was on a quest
Through forests miniature
And dense as any
Hidden valley of the Amazon.

You could say
That hers’ was not a test
Of courage but of skill,
Of learning patterns and
Particulars of living plants.

On her knees she peers
Into another world,
Where hurrying ants follow
Scented trails, and mantids
Lurk in thickets, like ancient beasts.

She has learned that in these forests,
Like Darwin’s archipelago
Where species are distinct,
The banded and the spotted
Clover do not mix.

Knees reddened on hard ground,
Fingers separating lolling plants,
She has found a patch
Of unmarked clover yielding
The mutant talisman.

Ah! She finds another four leaf clover,
Then two more. These
Will protect her family from
Chaotic forces that prevail
Beyond the ordered world of plants.


‘… and they lived happily ever after …’

In grim fairy tales – ‘Yes.’ Despite the harsh
realities of ogres ‘n similar malevolents
turning up in unexpected places, nevertheless
true romance exists, hero and princess get to meet
and all ends well.

… whereas, out on the littoral,
lasting romance is probably a fiction.
Look at all those true stories in the mags,

Likely it won’t last a hundred sleeps,
yet we keep hoping against hope.
Hope springs eternal, look at
the enduring popularity of
T-V soaps.


Rose, do not be destroyed in your heart by the worm
that flies in the night in the howling storm, for rose,
you are a symbol of hope eternal, more
permanent than a stone monument buried in
sand, you speak to us more compellingly than
the passion deferred of a Grecian urn – your
soft, unfolding, cusped perfume speaks to us of
human joy, of the one, the true, the everlasting love,
of the minstrel’s song, of Romeo and Juliet.


A flicker of embryonic dust
In the primordial void
And then …

Eons on from the singularity
An imploding core of
Gaseous cloud explodes, strafing
The fledgling universe with starlit galaxies ….

The wind from the steppes
Shakes the thorn bush in the cleft of stone,
Blowing away the footprints
Where homo habilis has trod,
Singing the stanzas of the world’s creation  ..

Lit by the rays
Of an electric globe,
Like a dusty opal the canvas glows.
The painter loads his brush
With cobalt, to create
A universe.


Across the great continents, drifting
Shadows brush the plains with
Fugitive mist. Distant
Mountains, ridges of lapis lazuli
Rim the sky that lifts
Across latitudes from somber
Indigo to brilliant azurite.

Earth is the water planet,

All its great continents shifting
In a world awash with seas,
Crested waves rifting its shores.
Noah’s flood is with us yet,
Its opal waters inundate the land
With mirrored pools,
Lakes that love the sky.

Water planet,

Viewed from space, like a snap shot
From the gods, a shimmering orb
Netted in a cloud haze.



The shining river mingles with the land
Where bees and trilling birds sound
The old harmonies. Echoing their song
In lifting arpeggios the river reeds respond.



Welcome ter the 13th Edition of Serf Under_ground Journal. Say, hope yer not superstitious.

Apropos the above heading I wish ter put forward a modest proposal with reference ter reading literature, and it is this: ‘that literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’

Now I know yer likely ter disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating with real people out there, difficulties in decoding their language, in reading their expressions, interpreting their actions, and much of the time they, us (?) are practising a certain amount of obfuscation, how much more tricky then, the problem of communication from books. – mere squiggles on a page, word things representing non-word-things, tsk!

Regarding interpreting written documents of history, in me 5th Edition of Serf Underground, ”History’s Chequered History,’ I argued that contextual studies and identifying problem situations of protagonists can help overcome present bias and the tyranny of distance. I concluded that a study of real people in the past, studied in context, can be a feasible and rich and chastening experience, enlarging our understanding of human behaviour. Yer could say, someone did, that ‘the proper
study of mankind is man,’ so studying history is okay.

But what about studying literature? A second question yer might ask is ‘how can the papery whispers of fictional characters mimicking real life expand human experience, offer, as Inga Clendinning describes it, ‘an indexed guide  to life,’ adultery, anger, ambition, angst, even sometimes altruism? My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment again and again, a canon that includes many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved in a particular aspect of human experience.

So do we read literature for instruction? I don’t think so. Is it written to teach virtue? Generally no, long sermons do not make for engrossing literature. Do we feel that literature is authentic communication that expands our experience so that we may appreciate, however precariously, something even of a society separated from our own by more than two millennia? As a reader this is what I feel …  So dear reader, let’s take a walk through literature, an indexed study, adultery ter angst, and see what we will see.

When it comes to big drama regarding adultery and anger, the Greeks did it well, not too much introspection but lots of big effects and grand panoramas befitting the consequences of revengeful and treacherous behaviour, and these enhanced by seductive patterning, making sure we’re caught up in the action.


In The Iliad of Homer, here the adulterers, Paris and Helen, speak with Hector, hero, brother of Paris, pretty boy, who is later killed defending Troy. Hector rebukes his brother:
‘ Strange man! It is not fair to keep in your heart this coldness.
The people are dying in the city and round the steep wall
as they fight hard; and it is for you that this war with its clamour
has flared up about our city….

Paris replies:
‘ It was not so much in coldness and bitter will toward the Trojans
that I sat in my room, but I wished to give myself over to sorrow…
Come then, wait for me while I put on my armour of battle.
or go and I will follow, and I think that I can overtake you.’

Helen addresses Hector:
by marriage to me, who am a nasty bitch evil-intriguing,
how I wish that on that day when my mother first bore me
the foul whirlwind of the storm had caught me away before all these things had happened.
Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is,
one who knew more modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter: for that I think he will take the consequences.’

(Bk 6, lines 326-354. R. Lattimore Translation)

Helen here acknowledges the repercussions of her actions, whole armies battling , families destroyed, and as we know, after the fall of Troy, dangerous homecomings, the wily Odysseus taking all those years to make it back to Ithaca … Agamemnon, say, we won’t go into that! All this echoing down the ages told in poetic tributes to the beauty of Helen of Troy. In Yeat’s poem ‘Long-Legged Fly,’   we see Helen practising the perfections of her dance, part of her  legendary allure that will become one of the great myths of Western literature:

‘That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall the face,
move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child.,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up in a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.’

Helen is perhaps the first femme fatale adulteress in literature, for another where the focus is her own destruction, Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina.’

… Indexed guide ter life, up ter ‘Anger.’ Hmmm, concerning revenge, Euripides’ Media is hard ter beat.


A little context is required. To interpret the plays of the great dramatists of the 5th century BC in terms of modern theatre or modern political or social movements is likely to lead to a skewed reading of the action. The three tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays in a period of great political and social experiment. Their plays were presented at Athenian festivals that took place in an open theatre accommodating around 1,700 spectators. The Athenian audience witnessed ‘a cycle of dramatic performances presented amid high civic splendour and religious ritual.’ These festivals were considered more than mere entertainment. The competing dramatists had a solemn responsibility, as E.F. Watling points out. Their dramas were expected to ‘touch the deepest centres of man’s individual and corporate consciousness.’
This is what Euripides aimed at in his play Medea. In the heroic tradition, Euripides makes Medea the central figure on stage, the tragic hero whose violent actions and rescue by the gods, (the play’s ‘deux ex machina’ ending,) must have presented some puzzling features for its Athenian audience.  

When Euripides wrote his tragedy, he had many variants on the Medea legend to choose from but chose to create a more shocking version than any of the old stories. The play’s exploration of Medea’s psychological states, her actions and language and the surprise ending which implies that the gods are on her side, do not fit with any narrowly defined role, ‘evil witch,’ woman scorned’ or ‘barbarian outsider.’

Medea’s first speech describes her as a loyal wife to a self-serving husband. In describing her own plight to a sympathetic chorus of women, Medea relates how all women are oppressed in a society controlled by men, how a husband is bought with a woman’s dowry and she must go into her husband’s home, not knowing how he will treat her. And should:
‘a man grow tired:
Of the tediousness at home, he can go out and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only.’

The women’s chorus are on Medea’s side. They consider she should punish Jason and even support her planned revenge on Creon and his daughter. Only when Media commits infanticide are the chorus repelled:
‘ O miserable mother to destroy your own increase.
Murder the babes of your body, stone and iron you are, as you resolved to be.’

Stone and iron Medea has become. Euripides presents her in the play in heroic terms reacting to dishonour like Sophocles’ Ajax:
‘Let no one,’ she says, ‘think of me
As humble or weak or passive; let them understand
I am of a different kind; dangerous to my enemies,
Loyal to my friends. To such a life glory belongs.’

In this tradition Medea overcomes all obstacles to carry out her terrifying plan of revenge. For breaking his marriage vows, Jason will be denied all family, new wife, powerful father in law, and his own two sons will be taken from him.

As Medea is about to murder her children the audience witnesses the psychological struggle between her maternal feelings, ‘…don’t, don’t do it! and her grim resolve, ‘ I must steel myself to it,’ Medea’s language reflects her  uncompromising determination to act which is the mark of the tragic hero. In the scene where we might expect Medea to pay for her hubris and crime against her children, she is rescued by the gods. Seated in the chariot of the sun god she addresses Jason like a god. ‘Go,’ she commands him, ‘and bury your wife.’

When Jason dismisses his oath breaking as insufficient cause for Medea’s acts of vengeance she replies:
‘And is that injury
A slight one, do you imagine, to a woman?’

Medea does not doubt that the gods do not find it a slight injury. In the final scene where they rescue Medea, Euripides is posing a challenging question for Athenian individual and corporate consciousness at the festival: Should a society in which men have the power to carelessly break a solemn marriage oath with impunity be surprised if moral chaos and social disintegration follow?

… Could hardly stand writin’ this … On a lighter note, fer a good novel on revenge yer might like ter try Alexandre Dumas’  ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ :(


Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth,’ is a psychological drama exploring through metaphors of darkness and light, themes of moral order and disorder, betrayal and guilt, and a descent into darkness by Macbeth and his wife, which is brought about by their overriding ambition.

Although the play is set in Medieval Scotland, it reflects the Christian tradition and politics of Elizabethan England, the belief that society reflected God’s heavenly harmony. As God ruled in heaven, the natural order on Earth mirrored this harmony and included loyalty to king and kinsmen, protection of women and children and guests in the home.

In the play’s opening scene an incantation by three witches from the underworld introduces the audience to the central metaphor of the play:
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
I think we are seduced by this metaphor, not only by the paradox expressed, how has ‘fair’ become ‘foul,’ but also by the patterning in the language, the alliteration and the rhythmic balance, at odds with the negative message. Say, it’s off key, warning of things ter come.

At the beginning of the play, believing the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become king, Macbeth and his wife, planning to murder the king, welcome darkness. Darkness allows them to conceal the enormity of what they intend to do, and allows them to commit the crime without being seen. When Macbeth first considers killing Duncan the king, he invokes darkness:
‘Stars hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.’

Listen ter Lady Macbeth’s violent incantation when she considers killing Duncan herself. It could have been an incantation by the three witches, ‘thick’ night,’ ‘fog’ and filthy air':
‘ Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunniest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold’ ‘

After Duncan’s death, as Macbeth is planning to murder his friend Banquo, we are able to respond to what his psychological state by his words as he looks out into the gathering dusk waiting for darkness:
‘Light thickens
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.’

The imagery suggests that Macbeth has become other than human. Tsk! He has become one of night’s black agents. By the end of the play, Macbeth has not only violated the natural order by murdering his king and kinsman, and then his friend, but by brutally murdering Macduff’s wife and children as well.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believed that they could overthrow the moral order without suffering the consequences. Later, as they begin to feel their guilt, darkness is no longer valued but feared and becomes a metaphor for guilt and despair. Lady Macbeth, maddened by guilt must keep a candle by her bed. She walks in her sleep, symbolically washing her hands. ‘What, will these hands never be clean?’
As Macbeth watches the army of Macduff approaching, he learns of his wife’s suicide.

A digression before the drama’s finale, concerning Shakespeare’s innovations with blank verse. Blank verse and the iambic pentameter as a medium for drama was less than fifty years old when Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. An insightful study, ‘The language of tragedy,’ by Russ McDonald, analyses Shakespeare’s exploration of its rhythmic possibilities to signal or underscore the emotional and psychological moods of his protagonists.  For example, in Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking speech, the disjointed monosyllable and broken repetitions communicate her agitation:
‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? -
What, will these hands ne’er be clean? – No more o’ that,
my lord, no more o’ that. You mar all with this starting.’

While Macbeth waits to confront Macduff, believing the witches’ prophecy that he will not be killed by ‘man born of woman,’ he gains no joy from his powerful position.
The famously reiterated polysyllables of his last soliloquy:
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day’
To the last syllable of recorded time,’
communicate to us how interminable life has become for Macbeth.The surprise break in rhythm with ‘the acoustically matched, monosyllable doublet, ‘struts’ and ‘frets,’ ‘  and final stress falling on the word, ‘nothing’ give a feeling of Macbeth’s inner darkness.  .
‘Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
And yer know the  rest  … Those witches with their ‘man born of woman,’  are as duplicitous as Macbeth himself. Now on ter Angst.


When it comes to insight into a protagonist’s state of mind, no idiom does it better than a well written novel. Here the stage soliloquy is by-passed fer a reader’s god-like access to a character’s thinking, and sometimes varied perspectives, significant events revisited by other actors in the drama.

‘Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant’ by Anne Tyler is this kind of novel, a witty, okay a wise, exploration of angst, the anxiety, pain and guilt experienced in one family, the problem situation seemingly the cost of parental truancy.

The novel is more subtle than that.The initial focus on the central character, Pearl Tull, aged eighty-five years and dying, her drifting remembrances partly focus on the moment, thirty-five years ago, when her husband, travelling salesman Beck Tull, suddenly announces he is leaving for good, partly on the years that follow, the struggle to make ends meet and  on the mystery of her children’s development …

‘Something was wrong with all her children – attractive, likeable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way ….she wondered if her children blamed her for something.’

 The novel opens with Pearl recalling her first son, Cody, a difficult baby, born late in her life, developing croup, that was in 1931 when croup was serious. Her frantic efforts, alone with Cody, trying to restore his breathing. Telling Beck they needed to have more children : ‘I don’t know why I thought just one little boy would suffice.’ Pearl’s anxiety about her children remains central to the novel, but gradually the focus expands as we see the family’s life through her children’s eyes, the unexplained absence of their father, the episodes which shape each child’s relationships with Pearl and with each other…

‘Their mother was on one of her rampages. “Pearl has hit the warpath,” Cody told his brother and sister. He always called her Pearl at such times. ” Better look out.” he said. “She’s dumped Jenny’s drawers.”…”Jen?” Cody asked her, “What did you do?’
“Nothing. Jenny said in a wavery voice.’

They file downstairs. In the kitchen Pearl is slicing a brick of Spam. The recriminations begin, … not enough that she works till five, comes home, chores not done …tales from her customers about Cody’s disreputable behaviour, … Pearl over hearing Jenny on the church steps last Sunday, … makes her voice shrill, ” Melanie I just love your dress. I wish I had a dress like that.” your sister says so everyone thinks, “Poor Mrs Tull, she can’t even afford a Sears and Roebuck dress with artificial flowers …”

Cody says:
“But that was Sunday.”  … “This is Wednesday, dammit. So why bring up something from Sunday?”

‘Pearl threw the spoon in his face. “You upstart,” she said. She rose and slapped him across the cheek. “You ugly horror.” She grabbed one of Jenny’s braids and yanked it ….”Stupid clod,” she said to Ezra and she took the bowl of peas and brought it down on his head.’


Cody suffers from obscure guilt, ‘ Did I make my father go away?’ But mostly feels anger, directing his anger at his mother and his brother, ‘his mother’s favourite.’ the theme of Cody’s remorseless recriminations. Cody constantly teases Ezra, finally stealing and marrying Ezra’s fiance and later subjecting her and his son, Luke, to jealous protectiveness from Ezra and his mother. Cody becomes a wealthy time study expert. In his personal life he is dissatisfied with the present, revisiting past slights, and is always making plans for the future.

Jenny, a pediatrician, always feels unworthy. Abandoned by her second husband, lashing out at her young child, she seems destined to follow her mother’s path. Ironically, it is her mother’s visit that rescues her:
‘Pearl stayed two weeks, using all of her vacation time. The first thing she did was call Jenny’s hospital, arranging for sick leave.Then she set about putting the world in order again. … Becky, who had hardly seen her grandmother till now fell in love with her.’

Adversity instructs. Jenny marries a divorcee with a large family and becomes a loving and cheerful stepmother. The eldest stepchild, looking at a photograph of Jenny, aged thirteen, sees a “concentration camp person.” “It’s somebody else, he told her. “Not you, you’re always laughing and having fun”

Ezra, always the most selfless of Pearl’s children tries to keep the peace. He inherits a restaurant from a friend and turns it into the Homesick Restaurant, a place for lonely people. He regularly arranges reunion dinners for his family at the restaurant. Pearl in her veiled hat, fretful, spending much of the time in the powder room, Cody resentful, Jenny toying with a lettuce leaf, none of the family except Ezra enjoy food. They never finish one of his dinners, fighting and stamping out halfway through, or sometimes not even managing to get seated in the first place.

There is one dinner they do finish. In the novels insightful ending, Pearl’s funeral dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, with all the extended family present, Beck Tull appears.There’s a revelation, particularly for Cody.

But before that another insight. In Pearl’s last years, almost blind, she asks Ezra, who never married and lives at home, to read the diaries she’s kept from her youth. She’s looking for something:

“I hitched Prince and rode downtown for brown silk gloves and an ice bag. Then got out my hat frames and washed my straw hat. For supper fixed a batch of -‘

“Move on,” his mother said.

He riffled through the pages, glimpsing buttonhole stitch and watermelon social and set of fine furs for $22.50. “Early this morning,” he read to his mother, ” I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration running down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment  I am absolutely happy.”

His mother stopped rocking and grew very still.

“The Bedloe girl’s scales were floating out her window,” he read, “and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on a beautiful little green planet.
I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.”   

That was the end of the entry.”Thank you, Ezra,” his mother said. “There’s no need to read any more.”

Heh, so many ways of viewing situations in fiction and er …the real world. Novelist
Henry James created an insightful metaphor regardin’ literary creation, his ‘house of fiction,’ how writers create their fiction from different vantage points, some in the house of fiction’s upper story, balconies all around – you know who I mean – lower down, windows some large, others small, some mere slits, some jest gouged out chinks low to the ground.

Regardin’  the last item in  our indexed guide ter life, ‘Altruism,’ altruism, we saw it in
Ezra, now fer Cervantes’ Don Quixote.


Pierre Ryckmans has written a perceptive essay, ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ in which he argues that Cervantes’ novel transcends Cervantes conscious intention  Ryckmans’ essay explores how in a novel’s deeper meaning, authors, like the characters they create, may sometimes fool themselves.

Ryckmans tells us that Don Quixote was written for a practical purpose, to produce a best seller that would make its author lots of money. Cervantes, prior to ‘The Don’ was a hack writer and soldier of fortune, captured by pirates, sold as a slave, and after years in captivity returning destitute to Spain. With Don Quixote intended as  lampoon against the literature of chivalry and knight-errantcy, but which became a work of art, suggests that it is unlikely that Cervantes had full control of what he wrote.

The novel begins with Cervantes describing Don Quixote:
‘This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do, which was the case for most of the year, – gave himself to the reading of books of knight-errantcy … and so, from
little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.’

Don Quixote resolves to turn himself into a knight. The conflict between his lofty ideals and trivial reality become the subject of the novel, the series of preposterous mishaps that take place, mostly as the result of cruel practical jokes that others play on him. In the end he wakes up from his dream and realises that what he has chased with such absurd heroism  is an illusion and  he literally dies from a broken heart.

On the subject of Cervantes unsympathetic treatment of his protagonist, Ryckmans  
cites Vladimir Nabakov’s distaste for Cervantes and his admiration for his creature:

‘Don Quixote has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought-and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’

Ryckmans points out that that when we reproach Cervantes for his lack of compassion the more we believe in the reality of the world he has created and his creatures.

So was Don Quixote mad? Ryckmans refers to another essay ‘Don Quixote’s Profession,’ by Mark Van Doren regarding  Don Quixote’s illusion .Van Doren argues that the don was not mad and was not under a delusion that he was a knight and does not play at being one, what he undertakes is a ‘profound apprenticeship, the true way of learning.and key to understanding.’

In Chapter X1, Don Quixote says to Sancho Panza:
‘ I will no longer conceal my design from thee. Know then my faithful squire, that Amadis de Gaul was one of the most accomplished knights-errant; nay, I should not have said he was one of them, but the most perfect, the chief, and prince of them all …In the same manner, Amadis, having been the Polar star and sun, of valorous and amorous knights, it is him we ought to set before our eyes as our great example, all of us that fight under the banner of love and chivalry; for it is certain that the adventurer who shall emulate him best, shall consequently  arrive nearest the perfection of knight-errantry.’
Van Doren observes that we talk of Cervantes’ protagonist now ‘because we suspect that in the end he has become a knight.’  

‘He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’  (VN)


Well we’ve come ter the end of our walk through literature, So many ways in literature narratives are created, narratives confirming ways that characters perceive their world. So many ways, yer might say, that we livin’ on our green planet, also reconcile  ‘facts’ to our fictions with consequences not generally good. You might also say, that life fer those not Socrates, wisest of men,  or Michel de Montaigne, arch skeptic, or Jane Austin, in her character portrayal, mistress of the Dunning Kruger effect,  (say, if yer haven’t read her, no hope fer yer) … is by and large, created narrative.

So we revisit the modest proposal : ‘that literature in mysterious ways expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’ Let each and all of yer decide … I would not expect a unanimous decision.