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The Charm of London’s Travellers Club, in Praise of Auberon Waugh, and a Literary History of Davos

Also: The truth about Ruth, when Diderot met Voltaire, and more.

What does modern representative democracy owe the Catholic church? Quite a lot, Jørgen Møller argues, and this shows that certain “religious doctrines” are not “inherently supportive of certain political principles”: “As the English sociologist John A. Hall puts it when describing the great universalist world religions, ‘These belief-systems are loose and baggy monsters, full of saving clauses and alternatives that can be brought by an interested group when occasion demands.’ The story about the Catholic invention of representative government reminds us that religious doctrines are multivocal: Catholicism contributed both to constitutionalist theories and to theories about absolute monarchy, just as Protestantism was later to do.”

Auberon Waugh’s praiseworthy prose: “Like all great writers, it was a combination of style and substance. He had a lovely way with words — he could write a shopping list and make you want to read it — and his libertarian diatribes were wonderfully unorthodox, lambasting pompous humbugs on the left and on the right. Yes, he could be outrageous (and often gloriously rude), but even his most outlandish opinions contained a grain of truth. Above all, he was funny. His humor was absurd but it was underpinned by logic, and his savage assaults on the not-so-great and not-so-good were redeemed by some excellent jokes at his own expense.”

A literary history of Davos: “More than a century before Elie Wiesel, Nadine Gordimer, and Mario Vargas Llosa shook hands with Bill Clinton and George Soros at the Davos Congress Centre, however, it was here that Robert Louis Stevenson overcame his writer’s block and finished Treasure Island; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started skiing in the Alps; and Thomas Mann thought of the idea for The Magic Mountain. In striking contrast with Davos’s reputation today, the city has played a major role in the history of ideas, be it in the field of medicine or literature, its Alpine air proving oddly inspiring for great thinkers on several occasions.”

When Diderot met Voltaire: “In mid-December 1776, the eighty-three-year-old Voltaire pulled out a piece of paper and dashed off a note to Diderot. Having been exiled from Paris for more than twenty-five years, the now wizened and virtually toothless philosophe lamented the fact that the two men had never laid eyes on each other: ‘I am heartbroken to die without having met you … I would gladly come and spend my last fifteen minutes in Paris in order to have the solace of hearing your voice.’ Fifteen months later, Voltaire rolled into the capital in his blue, star-spangled coach. Quite ill with prostate cancer, the famous humanitarian, essayist, and playwright nonetheless organized a feverish schedule for himself. In addition to finishing work on a five-act tragedy—he lived long enough to attend the premiere—Voltaire spent most of his days holding court in a friend’s hôtel particulier on the corner of the rue de Beaune and the quai des Théatins. Here, for hours at a time, Voltaire received visits from a long list of adoring friends and dignitaries, among them Benjamin Franklin and his son. Sometime during Voltaire’s three-month stay, Diderot also came to pay his respects. Journalists who wrote about the meeting hinted that some relationships are best conducted solely by correspondence.”

Pierre Bonnard’s beauty and sadness: “Bonnard painted what he remembered not what he saw, and his enigmatic pictures are ripe with the immanence of decline.”

The truth about Ruth: “Like Gatsby, Babe Ruth was born poor, got rich, and retained a stubborn streak of vulgarity. He was one of the ‘celebrated people’ at Gatsby’s gaudy summer-evening parties on Long Island, or could have been, as I came to imagine halfway into The Big Fella, Jane Leavy’s monumental biography of the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash, a baseball grandee too illustrious for a single title to do him justice. With the help of his shameless business manager, Christy Walsh, Ruth cultivated and grew his celebrity and cashed in on it big-league. It was extraordinary, of a magnitude unprecedented for an Ameri­can athlete. Ruth was shameless too, so blush not for him, and more amoral than immoral, so temper your head-shaking at his Rabelaisian over­indulgence in food and sex.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Times Literary Supplement, A. N. Wilson writes in praise of the charm of London’s Travellers Club:

“Field Marshal Lord Bramall, a hero of the Second World War, is one of the oldest members of the present club, and the most distinguished Chairman in recent times. He quotes for Dr. Robinson one of his predecessors, George Webb, who said that it ‘may seem unbelievable, but I think the gentleman’s club does have a future into the next century. We are a very conservative country’. Well, up to a point. When a male public figure is found to belong to one of the single-sex London clubs he usually finds it easier to resign his membership than to justify what appears to be an insultingly exclusive institution. The present Archbishop of Canterbury resigned when he was ‘outed’ as a member, though his grandfather, Lord Portal, had been one of the most illustrious pre-war Travellers. Over this issue, Robinson draws a distinction between clubs such as the Oxford and Cambridge and the Athenaeum, ‘where it would have been perverse to have excluded female members of the universities after they were admitted to men’s colleges’, and the all-male clubs, which in his view had ‘their backbone stiffened by a reaction to Cool Britannia and all it stood for’. He sees the Travellers as ‘a bit in the middle’, since the club has been, among other things, the ‘Foreign Office Canteen’ and might therefore be expected to admit female diplomats to its membership.

“This is in some senses a side issue, though for many people clubs remain troubling. Witness the rumpus, every few years, when the Garrick – a much flashier club than the Travellers – revisits the question. Lady Antonia Fraser and Dame Edna Everidge are among the revolutionaries who have stormed the Members’ Table there at dinner, to make the point. The reassuring thing about the Travellers is that, were such a demonstration to take place there, few would notice. Someone died at the long central table in the Coffee Room once when I was having dinner there, an event that remained unobserved until he was offered some Stilton at the end of the meal. On the whole, the Travellers retains the quiet atmosphere it has enjoyed since the nineteenth century.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Davos

Poem: James Valvis, “Mail Call”

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