November 20, 2019

1. Victoria

I saw the British TV series Victoria, which has completed three seasons (three more seasons are planned). It’s a good blend of domestic drama and historical events. It prompted me to read Lytton Strachey’s short biography of Victoria, which I discussed in this e-zine four years ago. E. M. Forster praised Strachey’s biography to the skies, saying that it “revolutionized the art of biography.” I wouldn’t go that far, though I would say that it’s a well-written, readable biography, a good introduction to the period.

Strachey’s biography pays short shrift to historical events, like the 1848 revolutions and the Crimean War. Strachey’s strength is psychology, as Forster pointed out. He sketches the characters of Victoria and Albert, and of several prime ministers — Melbourne, Palmerston, Disraeli, etc.

Strachey says that Victoria wasn’t distinguished for intellect or learning. She had a moral strictness that endeared her to the middle class. “For more than half a century no divorced lady had approached the precincts of the Court. Victoria, indeed, in her enthusiasm for wifely fidelity, had laid down a still stricter ordinance: she frowned severely upon any widow who married again.” Victoria’s own husband, Albert, died at 42, and Victoria remained faithful to him for her remaining 40 years, even laying out fresh clothes every night, and putting water on his night-table.

Victoria had a tendency to cling to the past, to build statues honoring the dead. She even built “a granite slab in the shrubbery at Osborne, informing the visitor of ‘Waldmann: the very favorite little dachshund of Queen Victoria; who brought him from Baden, April 1872; died, July 11, 1881.’”

As she aged, Victoria recovered from the death of her beloved Albert, and started to smile again. She took a keen interest in her numerous grandchildren, and kept abreast of what was happening in the lives of her servants. “A gentle benignity flowed from the aged Queen.... Over all who approached her — or very nearly all — she threw a peculiar spell. Her grandchildren adored her.”

Strachey says that Victoria had aristocratic manners and a regal bearing. But her most fundamental quality was

a peculiar sincerity. Her truthfulness, her single-mindedness, the vividness of her emotions and her unrestrained expression of them, were the varied forms which this central characteristic assumed. It was her sincerity which gave her at once her impressiveness, her charm, and her absurdity. She moved through life with the imposing certitude of one to whom concealment was impossible — either towards her surroundings or towards herself. There she was, all of her — the Queen of England, complete and obvious; the world might take her or leave her; she had nothing more to show, or to explain, or to modify; and, with her peerless carriage, she swept along her path.

And not only was concealment out of the question; reticence, reserve, even dignity itself, as it sometimes seemed, might be very well dispensed with. As Lady Lyttelton said: “There is a transparency in her truth that is very striking — not a shade of exaggeration in describing feelings or facts; like very few other people I ever knew. Many may be as true, but I think it goes often along with some reserve. She talks all out; just as it is, no more and no less.” She talked all out; and she wrote all out, too. Her letters, in the surprising jet of their expression, remind one of a turned-on tap. What is within pours forth in an immediate, spontaneous rush.

Victoria published several popular books, about her daily life at Balmoral, etc.

Undoubtedly it was through her writings that she touched the heart of the public. Not only in her Highland Journals where the mild chronicle of her private proceedings was laid bare without a trace either of affectation or of embarrassment, but also in those remarkable messages to the nation which, from time to time, she published in the newspapers, her people found her very close to them indeed. They felt instinctively Victoria’s irresistible sincerity, and they responded. And in truth it was an endearing trait.

In addition to her integrity and sincerity, Victoria had courage, appearing in public despite numerous assassination attempts. In 1900, a year before she died, she traveled to Ireland, apparently to express her gratitude for Ireland’s contribution to the Boer War. “She stayed for three weeks in Dublin, driving through the streets, in spite of the warnings of her advisers, without an armed escort; and the visit was a complete success.”

Forster praises Strachey for getting inside his subject. Forster quotes Strachey’s last sentence, in which he describes what Victoria may have been thinking in her last moments:

She herself, as she lay blind and silent, seemed to those who watched her to be divested of all thinking — to have glided already, unawares, into oblivion. Yet, perhaps, in the secret chambers of consciousness, she had her thoughts, too. Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions of that long history — passing back and back, through the cloud of years, to older and ever older memories — to the spring woods at Osborne, so full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield... and Albert’s first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver uniform... Lord M. dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees... and Uncle Leopold’s soft voice at Claremont... and her mother’s feathers sweeping down towards her... and the trees and the grass at Kensington.1

Strachey suggests that Albert died because he didn’t have a will to live (in earlier issues, we’ve often discussed willed death). Albert had grown up in Germany. Perhaps he would have been happier if he’d stayed in Germany, and occupied a humbler position. He was never popular in England, perhaps because he was too serious, too remote, too foreign. “Victoria noticed that her husband sometimes seemed to be depressed and overworked.” Albert suffered from insomnia, and often rose before the sun to begin the day’s work.

Albert played a significant role in state affairs. In late 1861, Albert was trying to avert war with the U.S. (civil war had broken out in the U.S., and the northern states had quarreled with Britain).

On a cold and drenching day towards the end of November, [Albert went] to inspect the buildings for the new Military Academy at Sandhurst. On his return, it was clear that the fatigue and exposure to which he had been subjected had seriously affected his health.... He had always declared that he viewed the prospect of death with equanimity. “I do not cling to life,” he had once said to Victoria. “You do; but I set no store by it.” And then he had added: “I am sure, if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once, I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity of life.” He had judged correctly. Before he had been ill many days, he told a friend that he was convinced he would not recover. He sank and sank.

Strachey’s depiction of Albert’s death shows his knack for psychology. This knack for psychology, combined with his literary gifts, make Lytton Strachey one of England’s great prose writers. I recommend not only his Queen Victoria, but also his Elizabeth and Essex, his Eminent Victorians, etc.

2. Andrew Yang

I read an essay by Andrew Yang, Democratic candidate for President. Yang argues that automation puts many people out of work. Automated vehicles, self-driving vehicles, will probably put Uber drivers and truck drivers out of work.

Yang says we shouldn’t look at metrics like GDP, the stock market, and unemployment. Instead, we should look at metrics that are more closely connected to quality-of-life, such as life expectancy, substance abuse, suicide, labor-force participation, and environmental quality. Yang would agree with Ruskin’s maxim, “There is no wealth but life.”2

One of Yang’s proposals is a Universal Basic Income of $1,000 per month, per adult. He notes that many Americans currently receive this income in the form of “disability” (SSD, Social Security Disability). Disability income is about $1,200 per month. In 2000, about 5 million people collected disability; by 2010, about 8 million; today, about 11 million, for a total cost to the federal government of about $160 billion per year.

Yang notes that disability claims spiked when manufacturing jobs fell — around the year 2000. Factory workers who were laid off sometimes applied for disability or other government programs until they were old enough for Social Security. Once a person begins receiving disability, it usually continues until he transitions into Social Security. As Yang says, “about half of the Michigan workers who left the labor force may have filed for disability and many might never get off it, as the rate at which people come off disability benefits is extremely low.”

Disability claims are reviewed by a state office, and about two-thirds are rejected. But if you appeal a rejection, if you engage a lawyer and go to court, your odds improve. “Once claims reached an administrative law judge... about 64 percent of decisions nationwide favored the claimant.”3 Much depends on which judge you come before.

Needless to say, the disability system is rife with fraud and waste. One advantage of a Universal Basic Income is that it’s simple, clean, and efficient, it sharply reduces fraud and waste.

I don’t deny that many workers are truly disabled. In an earlier issue, I wrote,

I recently met a roofer who knelt as he worked, and eventually injured his knees. I met a chain-saw operator who was missing several fingers. I met a plasterer who injured his shoulder lifting sheets of dry-wall over his head. A high percentage of working-people have work-related injuries, perhaps because they do the same job, and stress the same part of their body, day after day. Society may benefit from the division of labor, from specialization, but the individual who specializes often pays a price for it.

The plasterer took some time off while his shoulder was healing, then went back to work. He tried to become a general handyman, rather than a plastering specialist, so he wouldn’t stress one part of his body over and over. Perhaps the disability system should be re-designed as temporary assistance rather than permanent assistance, just as the welfare system was changed from “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC) to “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF).

But if 11 million voters are receiving disability, what politician would propose making it temporary? The more bloated the system becomes, the more politicians are inclined to leave it as is. What candidate for President would risk losing 11 million votes?

Perhaps the only reforms that are possible are those affecting future recipients, not current recipients. For future recipients, the disability program could be changed in two ways:

  1. Make it a temporary payment, so recipients would have to re-apply after three years; or have the person granting the payment determine the term of the payment
  2. Put a cap of 50% on the number of approvals that a judge can grant (currently some judges approve 80% of the appeals that come before them)

In earlier times, people who were disabled relied on their spouse and other relatives, but in our time, family bonds have weakened, and society has become atomized. Is this atomization exacerbated by government programs? What’s cause and what’s effect? According to Banfield, welfare “offers low-income parents strong financial incentives to separate.” True, Banfield was writing many years ago, but the basic point is still valid: if the individual isn’t dependent on relatives, he’s more likely to “go it alone.”

In earlier times, people sometimes saved for the future, but in our time, people seem disinclined to “save for a rainy day.” Our culture of advertising/consumption encourages spending. The “safety net” also encourages spending; as Banfield put it, “The more ample and dependable the provision that society makes for the individual’s future, the more encouragement it gives him to live only for the present.”

3. Miscellaneous

A. The New Yorker recently published a piece about the Shakespeare controversy. It says that John Paul Stevens, the recently-deceased SupremeCourt justice, was inclined toward the Oxfordian side, and Justice Scalia was “openly Oxfordian.” Other SupremeCourt justices also favor Oxford. Judges and lawyers can see the truth about Shakespeare because they’re trained to weigh evidence, and because they don’t have the preconceptions that English professors have.

B. Saw an acclaimed 2008 movie called The Wrestler, about an aging professional wrestler. It achieves “suspension of disbelief,” that is, you believe you’re watching real people. The wrestling scenes make painful viewing — it isn’t a great sports movie — but it’s a good depiction of “life struggle.”

C. Atonement (2007) is a powerful movie based on a popular novel by Ian McEwan. It grabs your attention, and it has some beautiful scenes, but I can’t call it a great movie. Art should have a certain simplicity/naivete. Atonement is too sophisticated, too clever.

D. I recommend the new animated movie Klaus, it’s intelligent and tasteful, “good for all ages.” It deals with the (fictitious) origins of Christmas traditions.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. “Lord Beaconsfield” is Disraeli, “Lord M.” is Lord Melbourne. For more on this period of history, consider Robert Blake’s acclaimed biography of Disraeli, Jasper Ridley’s biography of Palmerston, and Christopher Hibbert’s The Destruction of Lord Raglan: A tragedy of the Crimean War, 1854-55.

In an earlier issue, I discussed integrity, and quoted the Jungian Marie-Louise von Franz: “Integrity is more important than intelligence or self-control, or anything else.... The gift of guileless integrity is a divine spark in the human being.” Perhaps Victoria had “the gift of guileless integrity,” and perhaps Strachey deserves credit for underlining this trait. back

2. Unto This Last, Essay IV back
3. Crain’s Detroit Business. Though this article is dated, I assume the major trends are similar today. back