The Five Blogs of Christmas IV – The Art of Ambiguity

My muse takes me to the subject of architecture, psychoses and the joy of leaving people guessing

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Readers of this blog may have noticed that I delight in the equivocal; indeed I find some of greatest artistic genius to be where the audience cannot quite nail down what it is they are supposed to be interpreting from something – or better yet, where several viewers will argue vociferously that they do understand it, but they cannot agree on what it is.

History of Art was, as with any non-science undergraduate at Oxford, a pastime one was shamed into knowing something about. Architecture in particular, given our surroundings, was a prime amateur concern: we had, after all, buildings spanning a period of eight centuries through which to decide that, of course, the University’s prime of life had been several hundred years ago and nothing constructed since Keble had any merit at all. I marveled regularly at the vista along Catte Street from the King’s Arms, a view which took in the Clarendon Building, the Bod, Hertford, All Soul’s, St Mary’s and of course the crowning centre of Oxford (and the closest answer tourists have to the question “where is the University?”), the Radcliffe Camera.

When studying this building as a dilletante, I learned that, apart from being Gibbs’ masterpiece, it was filled with traces of his Italian Mannerist heritage. Supposedly this was reflected in the complexity of cascading lines from one level to another, which were never straight and direct but staggered. And this was all very interesting, but to me, as I stood there occasionally breathing it in from the corner near Brasenose, there was something altogether more genius about it: I could never work out whether it was wide or tall.

Buildings and their designers aspire to something. Verticality is clearly a feature of modern urban skyscrapers; three centuries ago, breadth was more in vogue. But depending on the angle, the Rad Cam would be either imposingly tall or strikingly broad. It poses the onlooker an artistic and intellectual question which they cannot answer. Moreover it demands of you an emotional response which cannot be easily defined – and your response depends not only on your perspective, but on your mood, on your psychology, and on who you are.

For some time I had supposed this was an illusion of my own creation. Perhaps only my own deep-lying schizophrenia led to this. But over the years, as the internet came to catch more and more of our collective lives, I realised that you could see this in others too. If I were to Google “sketches of the Radcliffe Camera”, it turns up dozens of pictures; and within these casual drawings one can discern the same uncertainty and lack of consensus amongst everyone else.

To take these six at random, one can see all sorts of Freudian influences in the proportions observed. The “wide” school revels in grandeur, but is at the same time intimate and close; the “tall” school is aspirational, but distant and cold. Do these characteristics reflect something about the artists? Do the “tallists” have intimacy issues, or are the “wideists” overly deferential? Who knows. But one would be hard pressed to imagine that these sketches tell us nothing.

So much for other people. Above all, this reflects for me the occasional brilliance – inadvertent perhaps – of James Gibbs. He may not have achieved this in any other of his works – St Martin-in-the-Fields is a fine church, and the Fellows Building at King’s splendid – but neither of them had ambiguity. None of them left the observer with more questions than answers. But in the Rad Cam, the glorious and unanswerable paradox perceived in the eye and the mind are on full display. Many others, including Wren and Hawksmoor, arguably never surpassed it.

To not know what you think yourself is unfortunate; but to leave other people not knowing what you think – that is genius.

The Five Blogs of Christmas I – Humble Servants

Since I have been rather remiss in updating my thoughts, and since blogging should be a discipline, in this week between the holidays I will attempt to collate some of the more idiosyncratic thoughts keeping me awake – most of which are unrelated to politics, economics of football. Like apples for health, I will aim to serve up one a day.

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A subject that has always fascinated me is that of the “humble servant”: figures in history who are merely subjects of a dynastic line, but whose dedication to that dynasticism is unfettered, pure and often more intense than the dynasts themselves. These are people serving an institutional cause, rather than either their own or even that of a nation or group. They are the behind-the-scenes powers, the civil servants and private secretaries, the bureaucrats, the imperial governors and administrators, the statesmen, the grand chamberlains, the chancellors. Often, they are the most ideological and committed members of a regime. They are what royal and imperial longevity are based on. They are also the touchstones of the “Great Men” theory of history, for which I have much time.

My favourite example is that of Eumenes of Cardia, Alexander the Great’s private secretary, a lone Greek amongst Macedonians and – sort of – a member of the Diadochi. Eumenes fought against the odds to carve out his own power in in the Hellenistic world, but did so due to his commitment to not just Alexander III but the Argead Dynasty more broadly. He understood well, more so than many of the Σωματοφύλακες (whose rank he, as a Greek, could never join), the necessity for both continuity and integration in the newly created empire, in order for it to remain tenable. On some level, he recognized, rather as elements of the British establishment did of America in the decades after 1918, that the civilizational propagation of the Greek world, even under the semi-barbarian auspices of the Macedonians, was preferable to its decline. To his very end, Eumenes proclaimed the rightful rule of Philip III and Alexander IV, infuriating Antigonus even as he commanded his adversary’s respect. Meanwhile, the Argead’s themselves were far from covering themselves with glory, undeserving in many respects the services of such a dedicated figure.

The other name which springs to mind is that of Armand Jean du Plessis, the Cardinal Richelieu. One of a number of cardinals serving the then-nascent House of Bourbon (Richelieu was to be followed over the next century by the Cardinals Mazarin and Fleury as chief ministers to respective Kings), Richelieu is commonly known as the villain in The Three Musketeers. Yet in fact, Richelieu played a crucial role in consolidating the power of the French monarchy under the weak and ineffectual early reign of Louis XIII, effectively inventing the modern Westphalian diplomatic system, coming out on top in the Thirty Years War and displaying the kind pragmatism – with regards Protestants for instance – which keeps kingdoms functioning. Ironically, it is in the BBC’s unfaithful adaptation of The Three Musketeers where Richelieu’s commitment to the institution of Bourbon monarchy are conveyed with most nuance; and despite the slander of Dumas, he never harboured dynastic ambitions of his own, instead being the target of various conspiracies on his life. Richelieu’s vision of Bourbon rule, and of the country’s pathway to greatness vis-à-vis Spain and Austria, makes him in many ways the father of modern France.

Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu - Wikimedia Commons

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Having solicited my various learned friends, including through a WeChat group dedicated to obscure topics of historical interest, I have compiled a longer list of those who fit the bill of the noble “humble servant”. The qualifications have to include having a clear, identifiable dynastic regime to serve (rather than merely a nation or people – this is not about “patriotism”); being clearly non-dynastic themselves; and ideally their credentials resting not simply on high-profile military laurels, but rather that of being the power behind a desk. If they died for their troubles, that is an added bonus. The fact is that all institutions, be they political regimes or parties, institutions such as schools or universities, sports clubs and associations, and even corporations and work places, need these selfless and tireless counsellors and ministers. The lucky few have had them.

A dozen more humble servants (in somewhat historical order):

  1. Li Si 李斯 (3rd century BC)
  2. The Prophet Daniel (arguably 2nd century BC under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes)
  3. Seneca the Younger (1st century AD)
  4. Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (3rd century AD)
  5. Yelü Chucai 耶律楚材 (13th century)
  6. Tokugawa Ieyasu (16th century)
  7. Thomas Cromwell (16th century)
  8. Pitt the Younger (18th century)
  9. Talleyrand (19th century)
  10. Metternich (19th century)
  11. Bismarck (19th century)
  12. Zeng Guofan 曾國藩 (19th century)

Honourable mentions: Stilicho and Belisarius, two great generals keeping the Western and Eastern Roman dreams alive through difficult times. However both purely military men, as was Prince Eugene of Savoy. Others, such as some of my personal favourites the Earl of Bute and his influencer Henry St John, the Viscount Bolingbroke (both for their services to George III), or Jacques Necker did not achieve quite enough in their own life times. By the time of democratic politics of the 20th century, statesmen no longer really qualify as humble servants since they are mostly no longer sustaining dynasticism, so De Gaulle, Churchill and Roosevelt are out. No room here for Dominic Cummings, either. Good men all, but not quite on the list.