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Sun Jul 21, 2019, 02:59 PM

The Ham of Fate: Fintan O'Toole on Boris Johnson

An insightful essay on Johnson by a good Irish commentator, writing in the New York Review of Books:

In his only novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, published in 2004, Boris Johnson uses a strange word. The hero, like Johnson himself at the time, is a backbench Conservative member of the House of Commons. Roger Barlow is, indeed, a somewhat unflattering self-portrait—he bicycles to Westminster, he is unfaithful to his wife, he is flippantly racist and politically opportunistic, and he is famously disheveled:
There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed. Maybe he wasn’t a genuine akratic. Maybe it would be more accurate to say he had a thanatos urge. [Emphases added]

The novel is a mass-market comic thriller about a terrorist plot to capture the US president while he is addressing Parliament in London. The Greek terms stand out. In part, they function as signifiers of social class within a long-established code of linguistic manners: a sprinkling of classical phrases marks one out as a product of an elite private school (in Johnson’s case, Eton) and therefore a proper toff. (Asked in June during the contest to replace Theresa May as Tory leader to name his political hero, Johnson chose Pericles of Athens.) The choice of thanatos is interesting, and the thought that he might have a death wish will ring bells for those who have followed the breathtaking recklessness of Johnson’s career. But it is akratic that intrigues.

The Leave campaign that Johnson led to a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum of June 2016 owed much of its success to its carefully calibrated slogan “Take Back Control.” Akrasia, which is discussed in depth by Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the contrary of control. It means literally “not being in command of oneself” and is translated variously as “weakness of will,” “incontinence,” and “loss of self-control.” To Aristotle, an akratic is a person who knows the right thing to do but can’t help doing the opposite. This is not just, as he himself seems to have intuited, Boris Johnson to a tee. It is also the reason why he embodies more than anyone else a Brexit project in which the very people who promised to take back control are utterly incapable of exercising it, even over themselves. “Oh God, oh Gawd,” asks Barlow in a question that now echoes through much of the British establishment, “why had he done it? Why had he put himself in this ludicrous position?”

Via Michael Carlson, who adds:

But there was one small bit of literary criticism he missed, which I find irresistible in the lack of subtlety of its sub-conscious revelation, and not exclusively about Johnson's private life. His alter ego in Seventy-Two Virgins is named Roger Barlow. Roger is British slang, still used (especially by the upper classes) to mean penetrative sex or by extension, so to speak, being dominated to someone else's advantage, as in 'he was well and truly fucked by that'). Roger, then, with the Bar set very Low: does that not describe perfectly both the 'romantic' Johnson as well as the political one?

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Reply The Ham of Fate: Fintan O'Toole on Boris Johnson (Original post)
muriel_volestrangler Jul 21 OP
tblue37 Jul 21 #1

Response to muriel_volestrangler (Original post)

Sun Jul 21, 2019, 03:16 PM

1. The metaphor of the Crystal Palace in Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground"--

and, in fact, the character of the underground man himself--seems apropos here.

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