Absurdism, Books, Law

On Defenestration

On 12th December 1969 a bomb exploded at a bank in Milan killing seventeen people. There followed a roundup of left-activists that included the arrest of an anarchist railway worker called Guiseppe Pinelli. As it happened Pinelli had an alibi and was innocent of the crime, but the police interrogated him for three days and nights before he fell to his death from a window on the fourth floor of the Police Headquarters. Controversy has raged ever since as to the circumstances of how and why he tumbled to his death:

  • The Italian left accused the police of being responsible for Pinelli’s murder.
  • The police claimed Pinelli has committed suicide because he was deeply compromised in the bombing. At a news conference Milan’s Chief of Police asserted that Pinelli after confronted with the irrefutable evidence of his complicity leaped from the window crying ‘This is the end of anarchy’.
  • The first judge to carry out an enquiry ordered the case to be shelved in May 1970. He heard the original blast from his office a mile away: ‘No, I don’t think that was a boiler exploding. I think that was a bomb, and it sounded to me like an anarchist bomb’.
  • The original police explanation was abandoned and replaced with: Pinelli went over to the window to smoke a cigarette, fainted, and fell out.
  • Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who had interrogated Pinelli just prior to the defenestration, sued the editor of a newspaper, Pia Baldelli, for defamation after Baldelli had alleged murder. There was a libel trial in 1971.
  • In the light of contradictory police statements about the affair the Italian Ministry sent a second judge to open another criminal inquiry.
  • A new left wing version widely circulated after examination of the site of injuries on the body: Pinelli was killed by a police karate chop and was already dead when he was tossed out of Calebresi’s office window. Pinelli’s wife Licia sued Calabresi for her husband’s wrongful death.
  • Calabresi was shot and killed in front of his house in 1972. A huge crowd attended his funeral to honour him.
  • By1975 there was a judicial finding on the case: “The air in the room was heavy, oppressive. The window was open [Pinelli] went over to the balcony for a breath of fresh air, he felt dizzy, he put out his hands in the wrong direction, his body falling over the railings…all the evidence points in this direction”. In other words Pinelli had neither committed suicide nor been murdered but had suffered from what the judge called an ‘active affliction’. This ruling of accident satisfied nobody and was the subject of ridicule.
  • Three neo-fascists were convicted (not confirmed on appeal) of the Milan bank bombing, one of whom, called Giannettini, turned out to be a police agent-provocateur who had played his part in instigating the bombing. This theory was that neo-Nazis intended to destabilise Italy making it ripe for a right wing coup. On this view the state, trying to suppress left wing dissent with a spy embedded in the anarchist group, was able to organise the massacre, manufacture the public outrage, denounce the innocent, eulogise the dead and coin medals for the widows and orphans.
  • Three left wingers were arrested and later convicted on the flimsy evidence of pentiti of murdering (or ordering the murder) of Calabresi (not all confirmed on appeal).

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Absurdism, Books

On Lear

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”
King Lear

King Lear at the outset of the play is a commanding figure, an imperious monarch. With pomp and circumstance he deploys imperative words to bend the world to his will. But his position of power makes him suspicious of the spontaneity of others’ love. A King can never be sure if professed love at court is deceitful flattery or genuine affection. In the vanity of his dotage, and with a craving for affection, Lear stages an abdication ritual in the opening scenes of the play. He divests himself of his kingdom based on an expression of love by his three daughters. Goneril and Regan, who do not love him, conjure a surfeit of language of love and are unjustly rewarded with land. They have a mouthful of words but nothing to say ‘Sir I love you more than word can wield the matter’. In a bout of hyper linguistic inflation they seek to over articulate that which does not exist. Cordelia, his youngest daughter who genuinely loves him, refuses to play her sycophantic sisters’ game by seeking to verbally outdo them. Invited to be more opulent in her praise than they she replies ‘nothing’. Lear is dismissive ‘Nothing will come of nothing’’ and divests his land in favour of the other two and banishes Cordelia from the kingdom. Continue reading

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Absurdism, Books, Film

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

‘Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness

A J P Taylor

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) a US General is so upset about the fluoridation of water he starts a nuclear war and destroys the entire human race. It is on one view an excessive reaction. The paranoid and zealous Brigadier General, Jack D. Ripper, who thinks that communists are conspiring to pollute the precious bodily fluids of the American people becomes unhinged and (without authority) orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. ‘I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the International Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids’.

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Film

We played with life and lost

Jeanne Moreau, one of the iconic French actresses of her generation, has died today in Paris. She had the fortune to be at the peak of her powers during one of the great ages of cinema. She acted in films made by some of the best post-war directors: Antonioni, Welles, Truffaut, Bunuel, Fassbinder. I want to write about three of her films (all shot in black and white): Lift to the Scaffold (1958, Louis Malle), Jules et Jim (1962, François Truffaut) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964, Luis Bunuel).

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Books

Austenian irony

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.

The new £10 note, shown for the first time today, displays a drawing of Jane Austen by her sister on the cover and has this accompanying text from Pride and Prejudice. Social media has condemned the words and the Bank of England for their cloth-eared choice. The phrase is spoken by the supercilious Caroline Bingley when Elizabeth Bennet is suffering the condescensions of the women at Netherfield, as Jane lies ill in bed with a cold. Miss Bingley exclaims the words after being ‘quite exhausted by her attempt to be amused with her own book’ in a failed attempt to draw Darcy away from his. The line therefore purports to be in praise of reading but is from the lips of a deceitful character with no love of books as she pretends to read. Austen is skewering a snob with characteristic irony. Miss Bingley knows the price of a book but not its value. But irony is capable of cutting is many ways; is this sly irony on Mark Carney’s part, an unhealthy emphasis on crass materialism at a time of late stage capitalism?

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Books, Film, Rhetoric

Rats in a cage

Question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good?

The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed that human behaviour was determined by environmental variables rather than free will, and that by systematically altering those variables human behaviour could be modified. In this way humans could be conditioned to display good, rather than bad, behaviour. He developed his theory of applied behavioural analysis from experiments he conducted in the 1930s on rats. He invented and constructed an enclosed soundproof cage with food dispenser that a rat could operate by pressing a lever, called a ‘Skinner box’. Continue reading

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Absurdism, Books

The Tin Drum

Oscar Matzerath bangs a toy drum through the Germany and Poland of the Nazi years, in Gunter Grass’ 1959 comic novel The Tin Drum. Oscar is an ambiguous complex figure, childlike but not innocent, vulnerable and untouchable, three foot high with an adult brain, intellectually developed and morally stunted. He uses his drum to summon a narrative into existence. Oscar is a first person narrator, aged thirty, looking back to his childhood and writing his life story. He explicitly tells us he is using his drum in lieu of memory. “If I didn’t have my drum, which…recalls all the details…I would be a poor fellow with no known grandparents” and “today I drummed away a long morning putting questions to my drum, wanting to know if the lightbulbs in our bedroom were forty or sixty watts”. He claims to be literally drumming up the details of his back story for his narrative. This percussive prose is written from his bed in a mental hospital where he has been found responsible at a trial in 1951 for the murder of a nurse. A visitor to Oscar’s room brings him a replacement drum and as she “prepared to depart, she took along the old drum I’d battered to death during my description of [the previous chapter]”. This is his confession and he is drumming up excuses.

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