In Balzac’s The Finger of God, our favourite accident-prone French realist recounts how he watches from a Paris bridge while a jealous seven-year old girl pushes her little brother into the Bièvre River, drowning him. As the mother realises what has happened (but not necessarily who has perpetrated it) we leap forward an untold number of years. The mother and her remaining children have just come back from the theatre, downcast. All go their separate ways except the youngest son, a bawling baby at the time of the accident, who stays and recounts to a family friend how they had all fallen silent upon witnessing a scene of the play where a man drowns his son. The mother and daughter then re-enter the room and the girl flashes her mother a frightened glance, worried that ‘these remarks would aggravate the punishment hanging over her’. It is a mischievously ambiguous phrase. Punishment for the current embarrassment, or punishment for the long-ago events? Has she never been punished? Does her mother even know of her guilt? Intriguingly, as time passes, is the potential punishment increasing or decreasing?
I thought of this moment of fearful anticipation today as I read about the fate of Sir Peter Viggers, MP for the constituency of Gosport since 1974. A few days ago it was gleefully reported in the press that he claimed on his MP expense allowance £1,645 for a duck island in an act utterly within spirit and legislature of the rules as they existed at the time, and yet he has subsequently been forced to retire. That the rules need to change goes without saying; what struck me was that this bombshell came fourteen days into the series of revelations. I wonder what the last fortnight of Sir Peter’s life have been like?
In the early days when it seemed like it would all blow over, did he revel in the embarrassing Labour revelations – as the Telegraph certainly did, like the Heather Graham character in Boogie Nights, kicking the bloodied, helpless but admittedly obnoxious and morally bankrupt Labour frat-boy in the gutter until the screen goes blurry (and the fact that in this metaphor The Daily Telegraph is a roller-skating porn star makes it all the sweeter) – or was Sir Peter consumed with fear that he would be among the most persecuted when the Conservative revelations came?
Did he know how bad his expense claims were? Or more to the point, how badly would they play? Did it even matter back then? In the first days, MPs were contrite-bullish or smarmy-bullish depending upon their own preference – note Alan Duncan’s stomach-churning display on HIGNFY on 8th May for an example of what now seems like a spectacular misjudgement of public mood, but in fact wasn’t at all jarring at the time. But a week of revelations went by and the tide was turning. Suddenly party leaders were falling over themselves to act more decisively than the rest, a false moralism swept through Westminster (yanking the Speaker out by his flannel trousers as it departed) and the landscape had most definitely changed. And the Telegraph continued to keep Sir Peter’s expenses out of the public domain.
I get the impression that what seems to frustrate many people now is not the expenses scandal (they already assumed all politicians were on the take) or that early indignation from the MPs that the information was released (they already assumed all politicians were self-righteous, arrogant, iniquitous despots who sit down to pee). Instead, what was upsetting was the full-face change of line about five days into the drama. Suddenly ‘The system has to be changed...It’s an absolute outrage.’ This is something they were outright bullishly defending until twenty minutes ago. Do they think we’re all stupid?
The fact was that their reaction yesterday and how much hilarity it generates when juxtaposed with their reactions today didn’t matter, they had to change. They realised public opinion on this issue was stronger than they thought, and so they adjusted their policy to better suit the public emotion. Hell, populist democracy. But how could they be so openly two-faced? That’s clearly NOT really what they think, so how can they say that it is?
Honne and tatemae. There is no direct translation from the Japanese, but in essence, the first is our informal personal reality, the way we act when we are at our most open and pared down; the second is reality as filtered through social parameters, with all its social constructs for the sake of politeness, political correctness and all those things which are actually great that no-one seems to like. But the Japanese do – tatamae is explicitly not a lie, it is a different way of acting, just as real and true as you are with your lover in your most private moments. Just two sides of life.
When we ask one another how we are doing, we may not mean it but we do mean something, and what we mean is not less valuable than a 'straight' question would be. It is about acknowledging that there are two kinds of honesty. The truth of telling our grandparents how much we liked the socks they sent us is a lie, but it is also an ineffable, cavernous expanse of a truth. Similarly, a politician’s overnight personality change is a function of the voice of his constituents (even the ones who didn’t vote for him) and a manifestation of the contemporary power of the public and the press.
In January this year, Bahamian Parliament opposition MP Kenyatta Gibson crossed the floor to join the Government. He justified his move eruditely by saying that the Government would help his constituents the most: what else was there to it? He was a representative of his people’s will, nothing more. ‘I recognize that this is not a PLP seat, nor is it an FNM seat. This seat belongs to the people of Kennedy. All of the people of Kennedy,’ he said. The public think their politicians are the worst in history, more distant and more arrogant, but in fact Parliament is more dependent on the public than it has ever been. The press is so sickly that it will need to body-hop to another host or it’ll die within the decade, but it can certainly still set the agenda for its own ends so long as it has some cash and a narrative arc. Naturally then, politicians don’t always say what they believe, but that doesn’t make what they say untrue.
Two realities on equal footing, neither morally superior, is certainly not something European realists like Balzac would have found palatable: it is wholly oriental. But everywhere, people are interacting with others their entire lives with some silent mutual agreement to limit themselves to tatemae.
In The Finger of God, the sword of Damocles never falls on the young girl, but Sir Peter was spared such indistinct conclusions yesterday when his expense claims were published and he was forced to retire. It was just garden work, it was no moat, but like the equally toxic swine flu it appears that it’s best to get a Telegraph revelation good and early before it turns into something more vicious. And the extent to which the rules have been broken really doesn’t seem to matter, because Peter is broadly bad and Peter has gone and that’s that.
Damocles is an especially apt precursor for Sir Peter: the original Damoclean story has one aim, and that is to warn of the natural burden of positions of power. Cicero picked it up a couple of centuries later and twisted it, with an ambition that may seen more than familiar in the press at the moment, and used it to condemn the wealthy full-stop. He argued that the story of Damocles was a parable to stoicism and a life of humility and virtue. The press now wield the same cowardly scythe, merrily ripping through the old guard of British politics in an undoubtedly dangerous situation. Distortions printed – how many times can you fit ‘Gordon Brown’, ‘£6000’ and ‘brother’s housekeeper’ into an article without any explicit accusations of wrongdoing? – which may be retracted the next day but they can’t ever be taken back. Laura Brown, the aforementioned World Leader’s brother’s wife wrote a piece for the Guardian last week, and what came across for me was feeling utterly powerless against this tidal wave of News, and it just flushes over you one morning and immediately sets. It solidifies around you and instantly starts becoming History, before you’ve ever had the chance to straighten it out and pick up all the trash floating in it.
In Balzac’s story, a blustering clerk of the family asks the little boy the name of the play that they have been to see, and the clerk splutters when he is told that it is ‘The Valley of the Torrent’, since as a title it doesn’t even make sense. Then he sighs: ‘In these days the principal attraction lies in the scenic effect, and [in that way] the title is a capital advertisement.’ When the first strike of the story and the marketing value of it is the most important thing, we all have cause to fret. Everything becomes less valuable when nobody cares about what’s in that tide and who’s sending it down.
The debate about the Telegraph’s motives and responsibilities is too vast to address now, but I would like to mention that Martin Salter, Celia Barlow, Geoffrey Robinson (Labour), Adam Afriyie, Richard Benyon, Philip Dunne, Anne Milton (Conservative), and Rob Wilson and David Howarth (Lib Dem) live outside London and claimed none of the allowance that they were utterly entitled to. That’s far more than should - and hopefully will - be forced to resign by this marauding lynch mob, and so the simple mathematics of the situation is that there are some good eggs, some bad ones, many mediocre ones, and in about the ratios one would expect. That story won’t sell newspapers, fine, but it also won’t help get centrist parties elected.
As usual, Balzac gets florid at the beginning of his story and enthuses over the vast beauties of central Paris. But in Finger of God he’s in a militant mood, and launches an assault on the city’s small-minded critics: ‘I thought bitterly of the scorn with which even in our literature we affect to hold this land of ours, and poured maledictions on the pitiable plutocrats who fall out of love with fair France, and spend their gold to acquire the right of sneering at their own country, by going through Italy at a gallop and inspecting that desecrated land through an opera-glass.’ And that’s it: sneering at the countryside through an opera-glass on a galloping horse. What better way is there to describe the selective eyesight of a press insidious, self-congratulatory and built upon in-house perks, spewing fake vitriol over their pages over an accidental claim for the likes of 78p worth of cat food by people who have spent upwards of thirty years doing jobs for which they are vastly over-qualified and over-worked because when they were young they thought it would be cool to be a part of how things work?
Their job is certainly to tell the 'truth', but the term is just so loaded. Ten years after Balzac published The Finger of God in its serialised form, he collected it together with a few other pieces, and with some minor rewrites republished it as a novel, A Woman of Thirty. Our story, The Finger of God, found new life as Chapter Four, unchanged but for the names. Balzac is rightly lauded as a founding father of European, salt-of-the-earth realism; even his lesser characters are dense, problematic and flawed – he makes Dickens’ minor characters look cut from paper – but the truth is found in his product, not his processes, and the same should be said of the modern MP. There must have been a strange sense of familiarity when, a decade later, those who had read Finger in the newspaper were to pick it up in novel form. I would think that everyone but The Daily Telegraph will be hoping this is one newspaper tale that never returns with a new cast.
(I used the Ellen Marriage Translation of 'Une Femme De Trente Ans', 1842)