La mort de Condorcet

The guard open the door to the dank, but light cell. One of the men inside was holding on to the bars of the window, calling out for help.

-‘Here, here, I’m here. Why you going and making that racket for ? Want to wake the dead?’ And as he said this he noticed the other man, lying inanimate on the floor and recoiled.

-‘How long’s he been like that ?’ The other man, who’d moved away from the window and edged as close to the door as he could without actually getting out, replied : – ‘I don’t know. I just woke up, and he was dead. It could have been any time in the night’

The guard took in the scene. The man’s breeches were wet, as was one of his stockings. The other one was torn, but that was from two days ago, when they’d dragged him in here. His wig was knocked sideways, uncovering a thin layer of red hair turned mostly grey. A book was sticking out of the inside pocket of his vest, and near his right hand, a signet ring, opened and empty.

– ‘The bastard’s gone and offed himself then, before we could find out who he was’.

The guard had been hoping that this one would turn out to be a good catch, some runaway aristocrat that he could bring back to Paris and receive a small quantity of gold and short lived glory for. He leaned foward towards the corpse and grabbed the book. Shoving the other man back in, and ignoring his pleas to be let out, he locked the cell and stepped outside the station, taking in the morning air of Bourg-La-Reine as was, or Bourg -l’Egalite as was supposed to be.

He opened the book in the middle and swore : all latin. And no matter how much more attention he should have paid in school, there’d be no way he could read that many words crammed together on one page. The most he could find out was that the book was by Seneca. A rich man who’d killed himself to avoid justice, was what he remembered. Maybe the book was a manual on suicide for aristocrats.

The shouts from inside the gaol were getting louder and more desperate. He figured he’d better check it out again, and went back in.

He opened the narrow door again and saw that the live prisonner was shaking like a leaf, and that much like the dead one, he’d wet himself. Oh well, he thought. If he has any money I’ll ask Mary or her sister to wash his clothes. They won’t mind the work. He turned his gaze to the corpse, which seemed to be the source of the other man’s terror. Except it wasn’t a corpse. It was moving. Twitching, rather, and making a noise too, a sort of coarse, low crackling sound. He recoiled first, but forced himself to take a step forward. The prisonner’s eyes were open, but turned inside, leaving the white, shot with more red than would be right in a healthy man.

– ‘I’d better get the doctor’ stammered the guard. The other prisonner grabbed on to him : – ‘Are you out of your mind? Don’t you actually know what’s happening ? Have you never seen it before?’ – ‘No. Have you?’ The prisonner took a deep breath : – ‘Well, not as such. But my brother’s nurse knew a man who had a turn just like this a few months ago, and he got up and attacked his family. I didn’t see it myself, but I’ve heard other such reports’. -‘Well, if you didn’t see it yourself, what do you know ?’ replied the guard, somewhat a little more unnerved by the other man’s apparent madness. ‘I’ll get the physician, he said. You wait here.’ And he closed the door on the man’s face once more.

When the guard and the physician on cal for Bourg la Reine returned an hour later or so, having just stopped for a cup of coffee at the guard’s sister’s house, they found the dead man sitting up and finishing a hearty but messy breakfast of the other man’s leg. The other man did not appear to be in any pain, but had started to moan and groan like the first one before him.

The Marquise de Condorcet was informed of her husband’s suicide in a prison cell several months after the fact. He had given a false name but been identified by a book he was carrying, and a signet ring, in which he carried the poison that killed him. Condorcet was subsequently buried in the Pantheon, as a mark of respect for his work, and his dedication to the liberty of the people of France. But the casket was empty, as his body was never found.


Letter from Lou Andreas Salome to Martha Freud, on the subject of Nietzsche’s flesh eating sickness.

1 February 1889, Jena

Dear Martha,

I trust you and little Mathilda are doing well, and that she does not keep you up too much at night. I have just returned from visiting our patient with Frau Nietzsche. He is doing as well as can be expected. I think we have hit on the right degree of sedation, and he can now be sufficiently awake to play the piano, but not so much that he is a danger to himself or others. We will need to reassess in a few weeks’ time, but for now, we can can rest in the knowledge that he and those around him are reasonably secure. Throughout my visit Frau Nietzsche has been a model of graciousness to me and kindness to her son. Now that Fritz is no longer in a position to aggravate her every attempt at caring for him, she is finally able to act like the mother she never was, and it suits her personality well. To me, she almost apologized for her behaviour six years ago, and told me that she was happy that I did not accept her son’s proposal of marriage, because I do not have to bear the burden of his disease now.

She is very glad of our decision not to put an end to his days, and is asking me constantly to give her details of Bertha’s recovery, last year, from the same condition. I do not want to give her hope as I am far from convinced that Fritz’s disease is not more advanced than Bertha’s was. Bertha’s violence was always easily contained. Also, I beg you to remember that we do not know as yet what effected Bertha’s recovery. Though I am only your agent abroad, while you make the decisions based on your studies of all the cases, I ask you to bear in mind that I do observe these people first hand, whereas for the past eighteen months, you have been confined in Vienna, relying on others’ testimonies to build up your cases. Still, I bow to your superior knowledge and abilities, and I am yours, ever,

Lou Andreas Salome

PS: If you hear from Andreas, could you please repeat to him that I am visiting a sanatorium for the purpose of research and that he is not to worry? Give my best love to the little one and yourself.


Walking with Cave Women, Flying with Ospreys.

I found our old DVD of the BBC’s Walking with Cavemen the other day, and I decided to watch it with Max. He’s supposed to study prehistory this year, so I thought it might help. Also, I loved the Walking with Dinosaurs.


It was beautifully done, and I learned a lot : I’d had no idea there’d been so many different kinds of Ape Men , nor that they’d been around for so long and evolved so slowly !
But I wasn’t entirely impressed. A lot of the narrative was needlessly sexist. No, I don’t mean that Baron Winston was oggling the naked ape girls. He did, however, assume that the males of the tribe regarded them as the sexual property of whichever one of them was strongest. There was a lot of talk of alpha males, leaders, and mating priviledges.


The BBC series was supposed to be controversial in that it formulated hypotheses about why certain species survived longer than others, and in particular that the reason the Homo Sapiens are still around is their powerful imagination which enabled them to adapt and survive climate changes. But the kind of sexist discourse which sees females as mates is not new. In fact it has long been typical of theorizing about prehistory, and never regarded as particularly controversial, simply because no one bothered to look for proofs.


Yet, it is incredibly harmful for an educational program to portray our ancestors as such. Of course, we all know that we’ve evolved, that it’s no longer the case that the stongest man around has the right to shag all the females. And yet many of us still look to our roots in order to understand our behaviour : what our ancestors were like is seen by many (because it is presented as such) as a clue to the problems we face now.


So a little girl may have great difficulties dealing with the thought that a few million years ago, women were just sexual property, and reconcile this with modern feminism. It’s almost like saying that millions of years of civilisation have covered us with a veneer that means we  all look a bit more like each other but that our true nature is deeply unequal. How are children supposed to deal with that ?


Children, of course, do have to deal with unpleasant facts of life : there is no point pretending to them that life is rosy when it is not, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rewrite prehistory so as to made life easier for little girls. Except that no one has presented us with any evidence that this was a good way to write prehistory in the first place. How do we know that males fought each other for copulation priviledges ? What evidence for this can there possibly be ? Did Ape Men and Women leave around little black books, with the names of their conquests ? Or did they scratch out the numbers of sex slaves they acquired on the trees they lived in ? All we have from them is bones. And later tools. Surely that’ s not enough to go on about their sexual habits ? Sure, we can tell which females gave birth, but not who the father was, nor how the father was chosen.


Why are prehistorians so unquestioning about this to the extent that such comments are allowed to be made on an educational, wide-reaching, BBC program ? Well, they might say, ape men were little more than animals, and we know that this is how animals choose their mates.


Except we don’t. We are just as sexist in our interpretation of animal life as we are in our theorising about our ancestors. Feminist biologists and animal scientists have shown convincingly that most evidence of male domination in animal life can be overturned by a little scientific scrutiny.


I’m not a biologist, but it’s quite clear that males do not always get to pick their mates in the animal world.


I give you Monty, the Dyfy Osprey. Monty appropriated a nest by the river Dyfy in 2007. He then spent a year doing it up and for two years, shared a nest with his male friend Scraggly. In 2011, he started a family with Nora, a young female Osprey. She found him and the  nest when she came back from her winter travels. They fished together, had a lot of sex, until it was time for Nora to lay an egg, then two, then three. Nora then settled herself down until the chicks were born, relying on Monty to fish for her, and take over when she needed to stretch her wings. Once the chicks were ready to go, Nora left before Monty.


The following year, Monty was the first back and waited for Nora. She came, had had three more chicks, only one of whom survived the dreadful Welsh summer. Then this year she didn’t come. Monty waited, looked around, but either Nora had tired of him, or she had died. Then another female came. She stuck around a few days, played around, let Monty impress her with his fishing skills, and left. Then another one came. She left too, then came back. A third came, and the two females had a bit of a fight, but eventually, both decided to look elsewhere. Finally, a young female, who had not laid eggs before decided to give Monty’s nest a try. Glesni has just laid her first egg. Monty, who has had to work very hard to impress all these females so as to convince one to stay is no doubt relieved that his nest is now filled. Hopefully Glesni will come back next year and he won’t have to work so hard.




Tits ‘n all

I was going to write an insightful post on the aesthetics of vampires vs zombies (guess who wins?) but events overtook my intentions, and I now find myself compelled to add my grain of strychnine to the debate on FEMEN’s topless jihad day.

The ukrainian feminist activists who demonstrate topless, with protest messages written across their chests reacted to Amina Tyler, a Tunisian member of the group, having being threatened, and put under house arrest after she posted a picture of herself topless, with a message of protest against her perceived islamic attempts to control women’s bodies, on her facebook account. Her messages were: “Fuck your morals” and “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour”.

Femen protesters called out for a massive demonstration in support of Amina and asked their members to go out, topless, with similar messages written across their chests.

Of course, FEMEN being an extremist kind of group, some of the messages went further – some directly attacked Islam, in ways that would be offensive to believers. This is what they do: during their protest against the Catholic groups who sought to prevent the new law for gay marriage in France, some FEMEN members dressed as topless nuns with ‘In Gay we trust’ spelled on their breasts! Not the way to win friends and influence people.

FEMEN’s slogans are sometimes offensive, but whereas FEMEN demonstrators are often manhandled by the police, and beaten by members of the public, they are not themselves violent. Nor do they force anyone to join them. One Egyptian member called out for all Arab women to join in the protest, under the assumption that none of them thought it was right to threaten to stone a woman for showing her breasts on the internet. However, this particular response may well have been over enthusiastic: just because you do not condone stoning, and are ok with other women baring their breasts does not mean you will want to bare yours. Nor does it mean you will want to turn against your religion.

It’s not the case, however that all Muslim women were encouraged to join in the protest, nor that anyone said that Muslim women were all oppressed and needed to strip to become free. There is a big difference between thinking that Islam is your liberation, your source of empowerment, as some Muslim women are saying in response to the topless jihad, and thinking that it’s ok for a young woman to be forced into hiding (which is the best interpretation of what’s happen to Amina) because extremists are threatening her and no-one is standing up against them. Some of those extremists are her relatives. So presumably her female relatives are Muslim too. Should Muslim women think it’s ok for a young woman to be threatened in this way? Will it vindicate their religious beliefs if they allow it to be so? I doubt whether Amina’s mother, aunts, sisters, if she has any, are first and foremost worried about whether they have offended god, right now: more likely they are fearing for Amina’s life.

I also fail to understand how FEMEN’s act of solidarity, started as it was by French Muslim members of the group, is in any sense racist or colonialist. FEMEN regularly turns agains any group who attacks women – the Catholic church, last year in Paris, and the group’s country of origin, Ukraine, to protest against sex tourism. I’m also not entirely sure that we can ask Ukrainian women to ‘check their priviledge’, or indeed, the Egyptian member who called out for arab women to join in, or Amina, who started the whole thing.

It seems that if you take away the sometimes offensive messages which are no more offensive than many you see in newspapers, movies, tv news, etc., all that there is left to be angry against is breasts.

The man pictured below, kicking the FEMEN activist is coming up from behind her. He’s not upset about the message which he can’t read from where he stands. He’s not upset about the headgear – only secularists are and only in the context of schools and other public buildings. He’s upset about the breasts. And the curious thing, is that the person posting it, along with many others writing about Femen online, also seems to find the breasts insulting. They’re blacked out! (The first part of the message, the word “Fuck” written just above the breasts, is blurred).


But what on earth can be offensive about breasts? To religious people, they’re not even supposed to be part of the sexual act! (Sex being simply the insertion of the penis in the vagina, for the purpose of reproduction). Yet we do act as if breasts were offensive, in muslim, christian and atheist circles alike. Women who breastfeed their babies have to do so ‘discreetly’, or hiding in a toilet. Women whose breasts show through their clothes are judged ‘slutty’ and, if they are at work, ‘unprofessional’.

I have personally never seen anyone hurt by a breast (save perhaps Woody Allen in “All you ever wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask”). But judging by the constant prejudice against their exposure, and the violent reaction against FEMEN, it seems that what Femen members say must be true:

“Our breasts are more dangerous than your stones!”

10 reasons why you can’t solve all of life’s problem with a screwdriver.

  1. Children’s toys are screwed inside their box, as well as tied down with annoying metal and plastic strips, and sealed inside a plastic box that will cut you if you try and open it. But even if you can cut through the plastic by attacking it with your screwdriver, the screws that hold the toy down and cunningly hidden, so by the time you have liberated the toy from the box your child will be having a full blown tantrum. And then you realize you need batteries.

  2. You need to repair an electronic toy that your child has had for years and that has had way too much juice spilled on it. You unscrew it and then realize that the two parts are welded together. If you try and pull it apart it will break.

  3. Your laptop needs a quick fix, and you’ve got your screwdrivers handy. But if you take it apart, the warranty is not going to be valid. If you take it the shop that can fix it within the warranty, they will keep it for three weeks and then tell you that it cannot be repaired, because, clearly, if there’s one tiny bit that needs welding back in place, the whole motherfuckingboard needs replacing. So then you need to have it fixed by someone outside the warranty, which will cost you money. So next time you decide to do it yourself, and while opening the laptop you scrape something with your screwdriver, and then the whole thing is dead…

  4. Screwdrivers are never where they are supposed to be.

  5. If a laptop case won’t open properly, but you really need to get inside because your child has spilled juice on it, then you can try levering it open with some screwdrivers, so that you can insert an another screwdriver with a tissue wrapped around it in the place that needs drying out. But: the screwdriver will snap, in which case, you will find you have a bit of tissue and a screwdriver part loose inside your laptop.

  6. Tiny screwdrivers that are small enough to repair glasses are too small to see if your glasses are broken.

  7. Tiny screwdrivers are cute, especially when they come in a tiny pouch inside a Christmas cracker, and your children will fight you for them, especially if the Christmas cracker was theirs in the first place.

  8. If you have a screwdriver with multiple attachments, you will find that the one you need right now is missing.

  9. People look at you funny if you ask them whether they happen to have a screwdriver on them. They look at you even funnier if you happen to have one.

  10. If you don’t have a screwdriver on you, it sometimes works to use a penknife instead. Then you cut your fingers off.


Dead man walking in Turin, part 2

Franz Overbeck’s diary.

10 January 1889, Basel.
Dr Bettman advised for Nietzsche’s immediate removal from Turin. His situation could only worsen now, he said, and we would want him somewhere safe, where he could harm nobody. I asked whether we should not destroy him, adding that Fritz and I had often discussed this eventuality and that he had extracted a promise from me to end his days, should the disease take over. Bettman stopped me. There was still a faint possibility of recovery, he said. I must not lose hope yet. There was to date at least one case we knew of, a young woman in whom the disease had been significantly advanced, and who was now fully recovered and leaving a productive life in Frankfurt. If we could take him as far as Wille’s Sanitorium, in Basel, he would have chance of getting better. I agreed. The journey turned out  despite my fears to be fairly uneventful, but I could not have managed without the dentist. We injected Fritz with strong doses of bromide and chloral hydrate.  Bettmann was firm and confident in his every move and Fritz, sensing that, bowed easily to his authority. He could still talk a little but there was not the shadow of his former self in his mad discourses. When I dropped him off at the Sanatorium, this morning, I could not but help thinking that my good friend Nietzsche, despite what Bettmann says, is well and truly dead.

18 January, Jena.

Yesterday, having left my family again, I assisted the removal of my friend to a clinic in Jena. His mother, Fransizka, requested the move, so that she could be with him every day, and Martha approved it.  I am concerned that his new surroundings are not secure enough, as Fritz has become increasingly violent. In the train, he attempted to bite Frau Nietzsche’s arm. She had been warned not to let any contact take place and she escaped unscathed. But what will happen if another patient finds himself or herself in Fritz’s path? At least Wille knew what he was up against. He has written to the director of the Jena clinic, to tell him of precautions he must take, but I worry that this will not be enough. The last thing we need is an epidemic of the disease starting among the insane. Lou has promised that she will come to talk to Fransizka about daily routines and caution her more against physical contact. I am glad of it as I do not feel I have the strength to continue in this effort to  keep alive the monster that once was my friend. I return home today, and intend to devote myself to my wife and children and my work at the university for a good long while before I go out on Martha’s business again.

I still really don’t like football.

I wrote this post a year ago. But yesterday, a good friend very nearly did not invite me for dinner on account of a football match. So I feel the need to repeat myself. So here we go again.

So with the good weather the knitting season is beginning. Soon, there’ll be knitting on tv every weekend, and important knit-meets most Saturdays. I don’t knit myself, and unlike many of my friends, I’ve never really enjoyed watching knitting on tv either. My husband is lucky I suppose. Many of his friends end up spending several evenings a week alone because the wives are at the pub watching the knitting. Not to mention the big weekend meets when many husbands end up staying at home with the kids while the wives are out at a mate’s.

Still, it’s hard to see exactly what the men have to complain about. For one thing, it’s just not true that knitting is only for women. Whenever I’ve been at the pub to watch the knitting, (I go sometimes, you know, just to be friendly) there’s been a few men there. They cheer along with us, and we really don’t mind explaining the stitches and yarns (as long as they ask at half time). Also, some of us take the kids knitting sometimes, even the boys. Ok, it’s not great when we meet in a pub, or at somebody’s house where there’s smoking. A lot of the men prefer to keep the kids home for that reason. And I understand. But that’s not really our fault, is it?

So please, don’t bother me or my friends with your arguments that knitting is only for one half of the population. No one is stopping you from joining in.

Dead man biting, in Turin.


Franz Overbeck’s diary.

8 January, 1889, Turin.

I left Basel on the morning of the 3rd, leaving Ida and the children with promises to be back soon. I took the train to Bern and from there waited for the sleeping car to Turin. The journey was uncomfortable but uneventful. It was not the first time I spent the night in a Pullman wagon, so I was prepared for all the shaking and the noise, and I did not wake more than two or three times. In the morning I carried my bag – hastily packed, with a few items of clothing, and the medicines I had saved up for this very occasion – straight to the house on via Carlo Alberto where I was expected. The Finos were friendly and hospitable as ever but – unsuprisingly – greatly over-wrought. Senior Fino had put on weight since I had last seen him, and that, together with the current situation, seemed to have taken its toll on his health. His eyes were not as vivacious as they’d once been, and there was a distinct lack of joy about his demeanour. Seniora Fino was unchanged, her hair perhaps a little more unkempt than usual, her pinny tied a little less straight, but the same smile on her face and in her eyes. Both looked exhausted which I could not avoid putting down to the fact that Fritz’s behaviour had worsened over the past few days, and that he kept them awake most nights with his playing and chanting. They took my bag and sat me down with a cup of dark, oily coffee, and, while his wife went to order breakfast, Senior Fino informed me in hushed tones that on the previous night he had found my friend naked in the corridor, screaming wildly and chasing after the house cat. I understood then that he must want him out, and I begged him to let us stay a few days which he agreed to, provided I brought a psychiatrist to see Fritz and that I followed his advice to the letter. Continue reading

Hollywood and pregnancy.

Pregnancy is often portrayed either as a blessing, the promise of future happiness, life-giving energy, or, on the other hand, as an inconvenience, a difficult few months, or few weeks, an impediment to one’s life projects. Put this way, it’s not hard to see how the so-called ‘pro-life’ side of the abortion debate can lose. They are on the side of the angels, on the side of the positive, whereas the abortionists, the ‘pro-choice’ people, are on the side of management, five-year plans and time-tables. Of course, anyone who has been pregnant, or known someone who has, will know that this is bollocks. Pregnancy is never, or at least extremely rarely, just an inconvenience. Unless you are blessedly young and immature an unwanted pregnancy is an emotional and physical burden, something you cannot take a break from, until it is terminated – one way or another. I’ve seen two films recently, both Hollywood movies, that made this point rather nicely – if very differently. Continue reading

Mothers and philosophers.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about motherhood and academia on the web. There’s Amy Allen’s discussion of Badinter’s book about whether stay-at-home motherhood poses a threat to feminism. There’s Rose Wood’s argument that even though being a mother is often perceived by a colleague as a threat to her career as an academic philosopher, in fact, it positively contributes to it in a number of ways.

Then, there’s the latest findings, in Spain, which show that there is a bias not just against women scientists, but against mothers, so that with equal qualifications and achievements they get fewer jobs, and lower salaries. Curt Rice has a nice discussion of that here.

It’s tempting to try and find a connection between all these findings and opinions. After all, they share a conclusion: women, whatever they do, cannot do well at work and be mothers. The evidence seems overwhelming. It’s not even that you can’t be a good mother if you work, because you can’t spend enough time at home with your children, it’s that even if you’re the worst mother a conservative newspaper could dream up, you still won’t be as successful as if you’d never reproduced. Continue reading