Stalin the Turntablist

July 21, 2008

From Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2001)

The humiliation and threats that Stalin used to cow his foreign allies and Russian subordinates emerges from a description by Jakub Berman (a Pole) of a meeting in Moscow:

Berman: “Once, I think it was in 1948, I danced with Molotov.”

Interviewer: “You mean with Mrs. Molotov?”

Berman: No, she wasn’t there; she’d been sent to a labor camp. I danced with Molotov – it must have been a waltz, or at any rate something simple, because I haven’t a clue about how to dance – and I just moved my feet to the rhythm.”

Interviewer: “As the woman?”

Berman: “Molotov led; I wouldn’t know how. He wasn’t a bad dancer, actually, and I tried to keep in step with him, but for my part it was more like clowning than dancing.”

Interviewer: “What about Stalin, whom did he dance with?”

Berman: “Oh no, Stalin didn’t dance. Stalin turned the gramophone: he treated that as his duty. He never left it. He would put on a record and watch.”

Interviewer: “He watched you?”

Berman: “He watched us dance.”

Interviewer: “So you had a good time?”

Berman: “Yes, it was pleasant, but with an inner tension.”

Interviewer: “You didn’t really have fun?”

Berman: “Stalin really had fun.”


St. Augustine and ibn-al-Salt

September 13, 2007

From Peter Watson, Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud (London, 2005), pg. 314.

Augustine turned into a great writer (113 books, 200 letters) but he is famously known to history as ‘a great sinner who became a great saint’. According to his own confessions, he was a sinner until he was thirty-two, when he turned to Christianity, but even after that he was unable to live up to his hopes because of a ‘weakness in dealing with sexual temptation’. (‘Lord, give me chastity,’ he used to pray, ‘but not yet.’)

From Peter Watson, Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud (London, 2005), pg. 366.

One of the most important poets of the seventh and early eighth centuries was a Christian, Ghiyath ibn-al-Salt, from near to Hirah, on the Euphrates, who was even taken to Mecca by his caliph. Though appointed court poet, he refused to convert [to Islam], or to give up his ‘addiction’ to wine, or to stop wearing his cross. He divorced his wife, married a divorcée, was often seen with prostitutes and drank ‘to saturation’, claiming that was the only way he got ideas for his poetry.

Nietzsche on Walking

July 23, 2007

Clichéd as it is to use a Nietzsche quote…

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.

Friedrich Nietzsche


The Man Who Killed Santa Claus

July 15, 2007

From Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia: The Middle Way 1942-1988.

Under J. J. Dedman as minister and H. C. Coombs as director-general of rationing, the distribution of resources was generally efficient and fair, although Dedman, a glutton for criticism, was derided as ‘the man who killed Santa Claus’ when he tried to damp down demand by banning that most popular symbol of advertising for Christmas shopping.

Sartre’s Day

July 14, 2007

From Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind.

Nowadays, the image of the French intellectual is invariably of someone wearing a black turtleneck sweater and smoking a harsh cigarette, a Gauloise, say, or a Gitane. This certainly owes something to Sartre, who like everyone in those days smoked a great deal, and always carried scraps of paper in his pockets. The various groups of intellectuals each had their favorite cafés. Sartre and de Beauvoir used the Flore at the corner of the boulevard Saint-Germaine and the rue Saint-Benôit. Sartre arrived for breakfast (two cognacs) and then sat at a table upstairs and wrote for three hours. De Beauvoir did the same but at a separate table. After lunch they went back upstairs for another three hours.

Rorty and Quine

July 12, 2007

Mark Edmundson remembers Richard Rorty (from Slate)

I was a colleague of Richard Rorty’s for 15 or so years at the University of Virginia. We taught three classes together: one on Freud; one on Romanticism and pragmatism; and one on the sublime and the beautiful. We shared a lot of meals and also a fair amount of gossip—though a diffident person in some ways, Dick dearly loved to talk. He took an interest in my children—a mark of a true friend—and often came back from trips with gifts for them. I remember a number of stuffed animals and books about birds, which were a passion of Dick’s. It was funny to see my 3- and 5-year-olds tickled and teased by the most famous philosopher in the world.

The passage reminded me of this introduction to Peter Wilson’s A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern World

In the mid 1980s, on assignment for the London Observer, I was shown around Harvard University by Willard van Orman Quine. It was February, and the ground was covered in ice and snow. We both fell over. Having the world’s greatest living philosopher all to myself for a few hours was a rare privilege.

Communists Headed for Ouyen

July 11, 2007

From Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford History of Australia vol. 4: The Succeeding Age 1901-1942

On Friday 6 March a rumour passed around the little wheat town of Ouyen in the Mallee district of Victoria: the communists had seized Sydney and even now their counterparts were advancing on Melbourne from Mildura. This was a remarkably indirect route but as Ouyen lay in its path, the farmers and local businessmen turned out with firearms, dug trenches, laid sandbags and kept watch all through the night.