Anniversaries and their Curses

Christmas and the New Year have come and gone again. And each reminded us of certain things: when our father was still with us; the laughs that Christmas day when the turkey caught fire; the New Year’s eve when you got really drunk and made grossly embarrassing remarks; the bitter annual argument between John and Peter.

Such moments may not entail that many days and nights each year but certain anniversaries hit us all, as individuals, families, nations and even as global citizens. They resurrect memories, happy, sad, bitter, full of love, regret, anger, fury or bitter-sweet nostalgia. And we can’t avoid them, even if we attempt to remove ourselves. They are portable, they follow you anywhere. Accordingly, whether we plan to or not, we re-live moments of our past lives and even, simultaneously, re-commit ourselves to moments of our future lives.

All for good or bad. And on some of these occasions only a few of us will know and tell and re-kindle complex matters – our gentle mother, for example, will once again be canonised and her stories will be repeated once more. On other occasions whole nations may stop and wonder and share a certain togetherness despite their many differences. And other parts of the world will ricochet off these sentiments and sympathise or curse or shudder.

Foolish people think life is one long straight line of development to the very end. As if every day were a new start. Wiser people know that despite all the novelties along the way, time and again we are pulled back to things of our past, which we may or may not remember; and we repeat certain symbolic gestures which may or may not harm ourselves and others. We have no chance to shape those moments; we are in fact shaped by them.

Life is splattered with such repetitions. We are the old as well as the new.
Think of 9/11. Will it ever end?

Don Miller


Spies Doubt Deception

Spies Doubt Deception

I suspect many people at the moment are dusting down their old copies of John le Carre’s masterful novels of Cold War espionage. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy about to be released on the big screen (and memories of the fascinating TV series with Alec Guinness in our minds) it’s time to revisit the likes of Small Town in Germany and The Spy who Came in from the Cold, and feel, as I do, the warmth and pangs of nostalgia – the joys of experiencing tension, stress, fear, ambiguity, confusion, deception and counter-deception, paranoia, uncertainty, reality as it slips into illusion and delusion and treachery and then back again – it is all there for us to live vicariously, without the danger of getting shot or of being unacknowledged. And perhaps as the novels’ characters anxiously puzzle who is friend and who is enemy, we may emphasise with them and ask ourselves, perhaps for the first time, profound questions of trust and distrust, naivety and doubt – and understanding.

What is life, and reality and how best we live it, nay, survive it – all the fundamental questions are there for us to wallow in and even learn a little about ourselves and our relations with ‘others’.

In an early book called The Postcard the French philosopher Jacques Derrida discussed the many ways a message may not get through – it may end up in the wrong hands, it may be misunderstood, it may be lost among other messages, it may be subverted. No form of language, including the philosophic, is immune from such inherent aberrations. Communication is basic to mankind – yet nothing is guaranteed, despite our implicit assumptions. Espionage, in a way, propagates this so-human question of communication and its vicissitudes.

In yesterday’s Age (17-01-2012) two related items appear thanks to, one senses, the imminent appearance of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Neil Ascherson, the (British) Observer newspaper correspondent, tells of his time in Eastern Europe in the sixties and his frequent brushes with spies.

Having enjoyed his quixotic memoir, I turned the page to discover, much to my surprise, an obituary of Gevork Andreyevich Vartanyan who (I quote) “worked for Soviet intelligence for more than half a century and played an important role in thwarting a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, at the Tehran Conference in 1943” where they were discussing the strategy of opening up a second front, in Western Europe (an uncommon Melbourne obituary I’m sure you’ll agree).

With complex spy-work, parts of which are mentioned in the obituary, the plot was foiled.

Among a few quotations from Vartanyan the rest of the obituary was written by—who knows. No name is provided, simply Telegraph (London) as service source. I quote one paragraph by the unknown author.

“The fact that the two (sic) nations were allies did not, of course, preclude espionage. During the Tehran Conference, Stalin observed Roosevelt passing a handwritten note to Churchill, and instructed his head of intelligence in Persia, Ivan Agayants, to get hold of a copy. Agayants succeeded. It read ‘Sir, your fly is open’.”

I laughed, and then began to speculate – being now in cynical spy-mode. Obviously this is not a Vartanyan story. Likely a British one. A true one? Possibly, yes. But also possibly no. I can see at least two feasible scenarios. Let’s say the British (and American?) agents discovered Stalin’s concern and instruction (how?); the British could have then decided to have fun at Stalin’s expense, and so concocted a ‘fly’ story, then ‘allowed’ it to be ‘obtained’ by one of Agayant’s boys. Moves like that were/are run of the mill in spy quarters.

But, on the other hand, if the handwritten message actually contained potentially embarrassing material like, for example, “For Christ sake Winston stop being so rude to fucking Stalin; after all he’s been proposing a western front for two years now. Of course he mistrusts us. We’ll have to do something. It’s a pity I know: the two bastards could have destroyed each other if the eastern front continued just one more year. And do look a bit less arrogant, if you can.”

Faced with a possible public embarrassment, and knowing a Soviet attempt to obtain a copy would not weaken over time (Roosevelt had noticed Stalin’s impassive – yet revealing? – look as the note was being passed), MI6 had the tricky task of satisfying both Stalin’s curiosity to see the note, as well as his confidence that he had in fact read the genuine message. Any note fabricated around strategic scenarios for example would lead to further questioning why it was sent secretly from Roosevelt to Churchill. The ‘final’ note clearly had to appear both innocuous in content, and plausible as a private missile in the middle of a meeting. The solution was a clever one. It may have succeeded.

However the possibility should not be ignored that the entire story was a spontaneous figment over drinks at the bar one evening by several of the chaps. And by the third subsequent re-telling it had morphed into a ‘true account’ of one ‘delicate’ moment at the Tehran Conference. How would we know whether we know the ‘truth’ or not? And that, even before we concede that a forgery also has its ‘truth’. In a way that’s the secret life of espionage and what keeps it alive – forever. There is never completion; never a time for self-congratulations and end of doubt; never the moment to finally relax.

It is also, in a way, an allegory of life. And all that may also be the ‘truth’ of Derrida’s book.

Why do so many people revel in spy fiction? Are we, perhaps, obsessed with it? And possessed by it? I have a suspicion I could be.

Don Miller


Google’s Glass Ball

Google’s Glass Ball

“Can we live without it?” “Can we live with it?” Two pervasive questions dividing Google users these days. However “is it for real” is the question that intrigues me, initially raised implicitly and unintentionally by Amit Singhall, Google’s nominated ‘Visionary’, on talking about the Future.

The future is beyond information and into ‘knowledge’. The new ‘thinking’ computers will ‘synthesise’, for example, a PhD thesis of three hundred pages ‘into an easily understood but objective precis’. And this in a nano-second, because for Google everthing valuable needs its speed component. As Singhal says, appropriately economically, “Knowledge to me is how much you can learn in the least possible time.” Actually an efficiency of speed is perhaps the only virtue of pre-Google modern life that Google respects and retains.

We are then hence into the world of knowledge. Presumably (it is not raised) Shakespeare, Proust, Plato and Einstein and a modicum of other thinkers will also be efficiently synthesised for immediate ingestion by the millions.

And then ultimately this knowledge inexorably leads to the final stage, ‘Wisdom’, where there will no longer be wars, hunger, or poverty. Our knowledge will eliminate all such ‘wickedness’.

When such a thinking computer has been assembled and is operating, I would like to ask it two questions: ‘As what stage of Google thinking on the future can or ought we determine that its worthwhile imagination has turned psychotic and has become entirely divorced from reality?’ and secondly, ‘In the light of Google’s clipped slogan ‘Do no evil’ is it conceivable that unwittingly it may be seeding a disposition to do such that?’

Note: a longer article, titled ‘Google World – an Interim Report’ appears in Melbourne Centre for Ideas Enewsletter, No 63, December 2011.

Don Miller


Music as ice-cream

“If you give people the chance they will rise to whatever level is required of them but if you wont give them the chance, they wont.” (David Walsh, the remarkable founder and director of the most unusual art gallery possibly in the world, MONA, Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart after its first very successful year).

It might be possible that people given the chance will come to accept modern art in all its various wild forms conceived over the last century. It might, I don’t really know.

But there is abundant evidence that the same people have not responded to modern music with comparable enthusiasm. Far from it. But let me clarify: I am referring to so-called classical music only; popular music from jazz to rock and all their variations are not under consideration here.

The latest evidence is the results of the recent ABC survey/opinion poll on “your favourite twentieth century music”. Bit by bit the results were revealed and played starting with the top hundredth and ending with the first. Schoenbergs of the last century eat your heart out. You have never been forgiven.

Of the top five chosen, four were Anglo-Saxon. Enough said. England has never been significant f music since Elizabethan times. But here today we honour in order
Edward Elgar (cello concerto), Gustav Holst (The Planets), George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue) and Ralf Vaughan Williams (Lark Ascending).

Squeezing into ninth and tenth places are the first substantial representative composers of ‘modern music’ (as distinct from modern remnants of nineteenth century Romantic music): Igor Stravinsky (Rite of Spring) and Sergei Prokofiev
(Romeo and Juliet Suite).

Why could this be so? Perhaps people have not, in the words of David Walsh, been given a chance; both live performances and radio productions tread warily in the choice of music offered because they know, correctly, they will be offending their potential audience and losing money were they to perform unfamiliar music too often. For safe diet it is best to repeat the Beethovens, Brahms, Schuberts, Schumanns.

Frequency of repetitions is necessary to acquire a habit, a ‘fixed idea’ of something correct, proper, right, satisfying – as I have often stressed in discussing habits of thinking, reinforcing its practice and making difficult the possibility of entertaining let alone thinking new ideas. And so with music. Occasional playing of a Bartok, Poulenc or Berg will hardly change established habits of listening. They remain, when occasionally heard, unpleasant, challenging, strange, discordant, distasteful.

Music is understood as light entertainment, as something to be enjoyed and readily digested on first hearing. It is something to be taken with instant pleasure, a flavour to be relished and looked forward to. It is a sweet, a dessert. Music – an adult ice-cream.

Don Miller