Born Toulouse, Continued
The waitress in the hilltop fortress town of Cordes seemed
astonished that Elizabeth and I had so many children. I had no idea at the time — but not having children was once a defining characteristic of the whole Cathar region.
Cathar castles lie ruined on hilltops all around the Toulousian region. They were looted and destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century.
We look at them now through the romantic fog of time. But the Cathars, I have been informed, posed a threat — not only to the temporal and religious authorities…but to human life itself.
The Cathars had embraced a form of Manicheanism and extended it to its logical, absurd conclusion. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, a lunatic is one who has lost everything but his reason. The Cathars were reasonable…but preposterous. The Manichean heresy maintained that God was not fully in control. Instead, evil was an equal and opposite force. Life was a struggle between good and evil.
Man, however, was essentially evil. Therefore, the triumph of good depended on the elimination of man. The Cathars, like the American Shakers, believed they should have no children.
People today are quite ready to forego having children. The “Washington Post” reports that young Japanese women are living with their parents with no intention of getting married or having children. And an earlier report said the same thing of Italian men. Birth rates are falling. But the reasons for modern childlessness have nothing to do with the triumph of good over evil. Instead, people have no children so they can save money, have more free time and live better. It takes a powerful imagination to understand childlessness in abstract Manichean terms.
We can only see the past like we see the bridge over the Garonne-through our own eyes…reflected on the surface of our own illusions and prejudices. Try as we might to understand the mind of the Cathar…imagination fails. All we have is the historical record of what people said and what happened.
I have been reading Robert Conquest’s “Reflections on a Ravaged Century.” He refers to our own century — the 20th — not the 13th. Yet there are interesting parallels. The established order — including the first capitalist enterprises-was threatened in the 13th century — at least in southern France — by the Manichean heresy. It was internally consistent — but looney. It was an aberration from the evolved system of rules, customs and beliefs that guided life in those days.
In the 20th century, the evolving order was challenged by two competing aberrations — National Socialism and Communism. Both were reasonable — within their own frame of reference. But they were also profoundly reactionary…attempting to undo the progress of liberal capitalism and bring all of life under the control of political authorities. The two battled it out in Spain…and then in Eastern Europe. The Nationalist strain was defeated in WWII. The Communist variety collapsed 45 years later.
But Conquest points out how difficult it was for Westerners to believe the evidence of their own eyes. They simply couldn’t imagine that Hitler and Stalin were as bad as they actually were.
Even as late as 1984, leading economist John Kenneth Galbraith reported that the “Soviet system has made great economic progress in recent years…One can see it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people in the streets.”
If Galbraith had been able to see beyond his own illusions, he might have noticed that the Soviet system was crumbling.
Not noticing was the modus operandi of Western Soviet sympathizers. George Bernard Shaw visited Russia at the height of the famine. Though the famine — ordered by Stalin — killed at least 5 million, Shaw, says Conquest, “reported an overfed population.”
H.G. Wells had been a Fabian, but not a communist. He regarded Stalin as a dictator. Nevertheless, after a personal meeting, Wells said that he had “never met a man more candid, fair and honest…no one is afraid of him and everyone trusts him.”
These men were not merely hoodwinked by a clever, corrupt politician. Communism accorded with their intellectual prejudices. They were incapable of seeing what Stalin and the Soviet Union really were. The level of evil surpassed their imagination.
That was Neville Chamberlain’s problem, too. His experience was limited to the sort of person one might find on the Birmingham City Council. His historical knowledge included the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Bloody Sunday — events in Britain during the 19th century. But they did not prepare him for what was to come. Six people had been killed in the Peterloo riots; the Tolpuddle Martyrs were exiled, not killed…and only one person was killed on “Bloody Sunday” — and that was an accident!
Chamberlain could not imagine that Hitler did not share the basic ideas and attitudes with which he was so familiar — the desire for material progress, peace and fair play being predominant.
Neither Hitler nor Stalin had any desire for peace. Fair play was a silly bourgeois affectation to them. And material progress? That was produced by heavy machinery…and factory-like discipline — which were not compatible with the gradualist, compromising spirit of Anglo-Saxon culture.
An investor in a 13th century mill on the Garonne might have had the same problem with the Cathars. Capitalism was oriented towards the future…and towards material progress. The Cathars’ intentions might have been so remote from these concerns as to have been incomprehensible. Why invest in the future if your goal in life is to extinguish yourself and all humanity? Who could have imagined such a daffy idea as Catharism? But generations of future historians will ask, “Who could have imagined such a crazy thing as Communism? Or National Socialism?”
Ouzilly, France February 15, 2000
P.S. I think I left out a number when giving the phone number of Madame Fieux. It is (5) 61 84 22 02. She is a charming woman and would welcome more guests.
*** Most investors still have a strong bullish bias. They buy the dips. This is a great way to play a bull market, but it’s murder in a bear market.
*** Bullish investors rushed into the market on Monday morning…eager to take advantage of last week’s weakness. They pushed the Dow up — but feebly, compared to last week’s decline.
*** The Dow rose 94 points. But more stocks still fell back than advanced — 1,551 compared to 1,453. And the number of stocks hitting new lows on the NYSE overwhelmed the new highs — 255 to 55.
*** Lynn Carpenter of the “Fleet Street Letter” points out that the only thing keeping the Dow from even more serious losses is the two tech leaders — Intel and Hewlett Packard. Apart from a tiny gain in Wal-Mart last week, they were the only two in positive territory. http://www.fleetstreetletter.com
*** The Nasdaq rose 23 points yesterday. But the Internets were down. AOL is down to 55. We reported a rumor…that the merger with Time Warner would collapse if AOL’s stock fell below $50. We may soon test that rumor.
*** “Disruptions Possible as Demand Rises, But Inflation Not a Threat,” explains the headline of the “International Herald Tribune.” Oil rose above $30 on Monday. It’s a long way from the $12 or so it was a year ago.
*** Oddly, the oil companies have not done well. Like the gold producers when the price of gold shot up — the oil companies have gone down. Phillips is at a three-year low, for example. What’s the problem? Bill King guesses that the oil companies hedged their oil production just like the gold producers. What’s more, their just-in-time inventory attempts have reduced the advantage of higher prices. They have smaller inventories to market.
*** Gold fell a little yesterday. Bonds rose a little.
*** And Berkshire Hathaway dropped another $2,100. Buffett was invincible 10 years ago. Hard to imagine — He that did ride so high doth now lie so low.
*** Dan Denning’s anti-hacker stock recommendation is up 47% already and looks like it has a long run ahead. See ad below…
*** The papers are still buzzing about the significance of the hacker attack on Amazon, et al. One of the most moronic comments comes from Douglas Rushkoff in, where else, the “International Herald Tribune.” A veteran of the old Internet days, he complains that “corporate America has been getting a free ride on a civic highway…” which was built with “public funds.” “Instead of looking for ways to shore up their defenses,” he asks in the manner of a teetotaler to a drug addict, “perhaps these companies should consider why they are under attack.”
*** Hmmm…the 7-11 sits on roads built with public funds, too. But a clerk would do better to consider measures of self-defense than wonder why a stick-up man is holding a gun to his head. What is Rushkoff’s point? Who knows?
*** But I was feeling masochistic last night…so I read the “Herald Tribune’s” editorial page. The tone of high- mindedness is almost nauseating. Could anyone take these people as seriously as they take themselves? Another favorite subject: Joerg Haider. And again, the familiar stance: Flora Lewis tells us that Haider is a “sickly two- tongued leader.” Pretty mean charge. You might expect at least a little evidence — say, an eyewitness, maybe a character witness, a police report, expert testimony…some shard of physical evidence. Did he once kick a dog? Did he slap a child?
But it is not O.J. or Bill Clinton who is charged — it is Haider. And apparently, evidence is not needed. Instead, Ms. Lewis condemns without even bothering to present a case and then praises the European Union for agreeing with her. It is, she says, “fully agreed,” that the choice of Austrian voters “is unbefitting a respected, active EU member.”
*** Elsewhere in the “Herald Tribune” we discover, masquerading as news, how these “ultra-right” parties have gained ground by “calling for checks or bans on immigration, crackdowns on crime and welfare cheats, and repudiation of the pan-European institutions and ideals.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
*** While the Eurolanders were worrying about Haider, the Russians solved, for the moment, their problem in Grozny. They destroyed it. “Nothing is left,” said a native of the town.