Sunday, 2 January 2011


Following yesterday, you can tell I'm reading Faerie Queene Book II. It's good; better than Book I, I think. But ... but. I keep thinking of this Clive Crook FT op-ed piece, which I read (there was a Crooked Timber link to it) a little before picking up the Spenser. The context: our hero Sir Guyon is the embodiment of temperance, picking the middle way between deplorable backsliding and equally deplorable hot-headed Puritanical overzealousness. Fair enough, except that:
Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.

… I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough? Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof. In a system that requires opposing sides to deal with each other – and a divided Congress is one such system – a polite exchange of views certainly helps. But there is no reason to think that the mid-point between fundamentally irreconcilable positions has any merit, even if you can say what the mid-point is, which you usually cannot.

US centrists, if any still exist, need some policies and a willingness to defend them, not rules of etiquette. The middle is not an ideology-free zone, where you see “what’s best for America” the moment you take off your partisan goggles. Nothing is resolved by asking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Centrism needs an ideology, too – the more strident, the better. Without one, it is empty. It is No Labels. What does such an ideology look like? Strange to say, but the US might need to look to Europe to remind itself. The classic form, and the template for subsequent variants, is the celebrated “social market” model of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his disciples, which produced Germany’s postwar economic miracle: in a nutshell, it is social insurance plus economic liberty. It is a fundamentally pro-capitalist worldview, with an ambitious though narrowly defined role for government.
There's something more important than party-political jostling in this, I think: it's the old Spinal Tap insight that a 'compromise' between fire and ice is, in its lukewarmwatery way, hugely inferior to either.

In Canto II, Guyon visits a castle in which live three sisters: one Elissa who has too little rectitude, another, Perissa, who has too much, and a third ('Medina') who has just the right goldilocksy amount:
second sister, who did far excell
The other two; Medina was her name,
A sober sad, and comely curteous Dame;
Who rich arayd, and yet in modest guize,
In goodly garments, that her well became.
So far, so obvious. Perissa is courted by the cranky Sir Hudibras, and Elissa by the evil Sans-loy, whom we remember from Book 1. They fight amongst themselves, until they see Guyon:
...themselues at discord fell,
And cruell combat ioynd in middle space:
With horrible assault, and furie fell,
They heapt huge strokes, the scorned life to quell,
That all on vprore from her settled seat
The house was raysd, and all that in did dwell;
Seemd that lowde thunder with amazement great
Did rend the ratling skyes with flames of fouldring heat.

The noyse thereof calth forth that straunger knight,
To weet, what dreadfull thing was there in hand;
Where when as two braue knights in bloudy fight
With deadly rancour he enraunged fond,
His sunbroad shield about his wrest he bond,
And shyning blade vnsheathd, with which he ran
Vnto that stead, their strife to vnderstond;
And at his first arriuall, them began
With goodly meanes to pacifie, well as he can.

But they him spying, both with greedy forse
Attonce vpon him ran, and him beset
With strokes of mortall steele without remorse,
And on his shield like yron sledges bet:
As when a Beare and Tygre being met
In cruell fight on lybicke Ocean wide,
Espye a traueiler with feet surbet,
Whom they in equall pray hope to deuide,
They stint their strife, and him assaile on euery side. [II.ii.20-22]
What this passage does, though, is place in question the ethical premise of the whole text. In a work predicated upon the idea of temperate 'compromise' (to use the modern term) between opposite extremes, we're entitled to ask: what is the middle ground between a bear and a tiger? 'Lybicke Ocean', which means 'Sahara desert'. This in turn touches on the uneasy, debateable quality of middle material. The ladies' castle is 'built on a rocke adioyning to the seas' [II.ii.12]. But rocks and seas do not 'ad-join', except in the sense that rock + water = mud.

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