Malcolm Bull

Malcolm Bull’s On Mercy came out from Princeton in May.

Thanks to the work of behavioural economists there is a lot of experimental evidence to show what many of us would have suspected anyway: that people are not the rational, utility-maximisers of neoclassical economics, but loss-averse sentimentalists who, faced with even the simplest cognitive problem, prefer dodgy short cuts to careful analysis. Behavioural economists generously...

InThe Passions and the Interests, published in 1977, Albert Hirschman revisited the 18th-century argument that the pursuit of worldly self-interest might be the most effective way of controlling destructive emotions like anger. The pursuit of interests that are constant and predictable potentially offers an escape from the see-saw effect of trying to curb one passion with another. And...

Great Again: America’s Heidegger

Malcolm Bull, 20 October 2016

From 1930​ until the end of his life, Heidegger kept a private philosophical journal in a series of black notebooks. He intended it to be published as the very last of his collected works, but his executors, recognising its importance, have allowed it to appear ahead of schedule. When the first three volumes were published in Germany in 2014, they caused the expected controversy, and...

Pure Mediterranean: Picasso and Nietzsche

Malcolm Bull, 20 February 2014

‘There are the Alps,’ Basil Bunting wrote on the flyleaf of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, ‘you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.’ T.J. Clark is an Alpinist of distinction: Courbet, Manet, Pollock, Poussin, no foothills, no detours (apart from Lowry). And now Picasso. There are the Alps.

‘They don’t make sense,’ Bunting claimed....

Help yourself: Global Justice

Malcolm Bull, 21 February 2013

Global inequality has become one of the forms of the statistical sublime. There is a strange pleasure to be had from discovering that the top 0.5 per cent of the world population owns 35.6 per cent of global wealth, while the bottom 68.4 per cent controls a mere 4.2 per cent; or that the richest thousand or so billionaires are worth more than one and a half billion of the world’s...

For the benefit of anyone who has spent the past decade or so on a different planet, the most frequently asked questions about climate change on this one are as follows. Is it getting warmer? Yes, surface temperatures have risen by 0.8°C from pre-industrial levels. Are humans causing it? Almost certainly. The gases produced by industrialisation and agriculture are known to have an insulating effect, and their concentration in the earth’s atmosphere has increased in line with rising temperatures, while natural causes of global warming have remained constant. Will it get warmer still? Very probably, though no one can accurately predict when or by how much.

The Whale Inside: How to be a community

Malcolm Bull, 1 January 2009

No man is an island; unless, Donne might have added, he becomes a whale: ‘Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.’ But even if the whole feels the loss of a part, the part may not feel the loss of the whole. It is what happens to the clod or the promontory that counts, and...

‘It is not too fanciful to suppose that “posterity”, in the year 2032, will be celebrating the events of November 1917 as a happy turning point in the history of human freedom, much as we celebrate the events of July 1789.’ Not too fanciful, in 1932, for Carl Becker, the American historian who first cast a quizzical eye over the utopian designs of the Enlightenment in

Ultimate Choice: Thoughts of Genocide

Malcolm Bull, 9 February 2006

Waking to find myself a touch genocidal, I would, I imagine, be uncertain how to proceed. An unprovoked attack on my target group with whatever weapon came to hand might take out a few of them, but also bring my venture to a premature end. Reflecting that few are lucky enough to be in a position to do the job themselves, I could either confine myself to advocacy, or else embark on the difficult and protracted business of getting into a position in which I could expect others to obey my orders.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben does not want his fingerprints taken and, unlike like most European critics of the evil empire, he has been willing to forego an academic visit to the United States in order to prevent it happening. What is at stake, he explains, is the ‘new “normal” bio-political relationship between citizens and the state’. Fingerprinting makes...

Forget Bob Geldof, Bono and the other do-gooders, Genoa’s only significance was as the latest battle in the war of Neoliberalism. It was a clear victory this time for the ‘anarchists’. Damaging property and street fighting proved the most effective forms of protest, and provoked an over-reaction from the police: they shot a man armed with a fire extinguisher and raided the...

Hate is the new love: Slavoj Žižek

Malcolm Bull, 25 January 2001

Get into the car sometime and drive out of town. Once you have got past the suburbs, and the industrial estates, and the home-made signs (‘Buy British’, ‘Our Beef With Blair’) that mark the transition, you will find yourself in another England, barely inhabited, tranquil, timeless. It is easy to see yourself in this world; its unruffled surface seems to reflect a...

Tick-Tock: Three Cheers for Apocalypse

Malcolm Bull, 9 December 1999

It was in 1982 that the artist then still known as Prince first invited us to ‘party like it’s 1999’, and in those days everyone quickly grasped what he meant. The Cold War made people edgy (‘Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?’) and it seemed quite possible that we might wake up one morning and find that we were ‘out of time’. But now? Well, ‘it’s here and I like it,’ as Will Smith says in his greeting card to the new year ‘Will 2K’. There isn’t much anxiety in this song, it’s time to celebrate. What exactly? The ‘Willennium’, he helpfully suggests, ‘the party of a lifetime … resolution: get the money’. Future historians looking for evidence of the ‘terrors’ of the year 2000 aren’t going to get much mileage out of Will Smith, or indeed any other area of popular culture. The Western world is unthreatened, some people are enjoying great prosperity, and governments are more popular than at any time in living memory. The End has become a marketing opportunity; it sells anything, even (in the TV ads) Uncle Ben’s rice.‘


Malcolm Bull, 23 March 1995

They want him back. They always have, but now they want him more than ever: living in Rome for almost his entire career was one thing, posthumous residence in England is another. That the artist ‘qui incame le XVIIe siècle français’ should have become (as Olivier Bonfait’s essay in the Paris catalogue describes him) ‘un objet totalement “anglo-saxon” ’ is seen as a source of national shame. Interviewed in Le Monde, Jacques Thuillier of the Collège de France complained that, ‘à l’étranger’, Poussin’s reputation had been dulled if not sullied; the quatercentenary of his birth was an opportunity to clean and polish his image to its true lustre, to show the world that the artist was (in the words of Thuillier’s colleague, Marc Fumaroli) ‘at heart ever more loyal to that noble simplicity of form that Frenchmen in the 17th century were quick to recognise as one of the … distinctive characteristics of their own kingdom’.…

One and Only

Malcolm Bull, 23 February 1995

Each person who dies has attributes that are shared with others, and almost every death can be ascribed to a cause that gives rise to multiple mortalities. Some deaths, like that of the Turkish hunter who was recently shot by a snake coiled around his gun, are freak accidents unlikely to be repeated; most are easily categorised by the identity of the deceased and the cause of death. In this way, the numberless dead can be corralled into conceptual villages – female victims of domestic violence, executives with heart attacks, starving refugees and so on. Although epidemiologists and insurance companies use these categories to map the landscape of the dead, their boundaries are rarely sealed. There are diseases endemic to particular populations and certain logical limitations on the possible combinations of personal attributes and causes of death; but the dead, like the quick, usually have multiple identities, and their departure is often over-determined. The spectral geography of the underworld is remarkably fluid; it is a place of shifting populations, constantly moving to fit the categories that the living impose on it.

It’s the Poor …

Malcolm Bull, 26 January 1995

Roberto Calasso is an Italian publisher who writes erudite works of non-fiction so elegantly self-indulgent they can be marketed as novels. He is working on a trilogy, or perhaps tetralogy, of which The Ruin of Kasch is the first part, and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (which preceded it in English translation) the second. According to the author, the former deals with history, the latter with myth. But whereas The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony was a delightful recreation of the lost art of mythography, The Ruin of Kasch does nothing comparable for historiography, and isn’t really about history at all.

Oedipus was innocent

Malcolm Bull, 10 March 1994

During the high tide of theory in the early Eighties, René Girard was the critic who received most honour in his own country and least in the Anglo-Saxon world. As early as 1981, the year before the publication of Le Bouc émissaire (The Scapegoat), his most accessible book, Girard, a professor at Stanford, was at number 14 in the magazine Lire’s hitparade of French intellectuals, while Derrida and Baudrillard were not even in the top 40.


Malcolm Bull, 6 January 1994

If Haile Selassie, whom some remember as a bit of a biker from his days of exile in the West of England, had been stretched to 6’3” and given a part in Easy Rider, he would have looked rather like Tom Coraghessan Boyle as he appears on the front of the Collected Stories – an improbable confection of soulful eyes, hollow cheeks, frizzy facial hair and black leather. But although the impression that Boyle is a low-life lion of the interstates is strenuously maintained by his publishers – who report that he was a child of the Sixties, ‘a maniacal crazy-driver’ who ate anything he could lay his hands on, bought heroin for £5 a bag and listened to music with Linda Lovelace – his writing suggests an altogether less exotic and more wholesome milieu. Boyle studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches at the University of Southern California, and his fiction often relies on the kind of farmboy irony that may come naturally to Ross Perot, but which appears to have been institutionalised in some American creative writing programmes. In such stories, the setting is the affluent suburbs: the Mercedes is in the garage, the National Geographic is on the table, and the jokes are about new-fangled technologies that don’t work or have unexpected consequences – security alarms, genetic engineering, research on primate intelligence. The implication is always that back on the farm, no one would have been fooled in the first place.

The End

Malcolm Bull, 11 March 1993

Four angels held back the winds of destruction. Until the redeemed had received the seal of the living God, nothing could be harmed. But now the servants of God are sealed, and the seventh seal has been opened. Six trumpets have sounded. A third of the trees have burned, a third of the sea has turned to blood, a third of the heavens has been darkened, and a third of mankind has been killed. Another angel comes down from heaven and cries out. Seven thunders reply, and the angel swears by ‘him that liveth for ever and ever … that time should be no longer’ (Revelation 10.6).

Although the modern has been with us since the end of antiquity, it has, at least until recently, always avoided becoming antique. As early as the 17th century, some were arguing that by virtue of longevity, the moderns must already be more ancient than the ancients themselves; but unlike the true ancients, who remained trapped in undying senility, the moderns seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, and for another three centuries they grew younger as their predecessors aged. Of course, such blessings are mixed, and the modern was fated to anonymity: being merely the veil of a present awaiting its apocalypse, modernity served to conceal identity and not to claim it, and the ‘modern’ would always eventually be revealed as something else the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque. The pattern might have been expected to continue indefinitely, and yet it has not, for with the appearance of the oxymoronic prefix ‘post-’, modernity has been exiled from the future and consigned, perhaps irrevocably, to history. In return, modernity has gained the right to use its own name, and so the modern, like the man in the iron mask, is now remembered for, and not through, its disguise.

How smart was Poussin?

Malcolm Bull, 4 April 1991

When Bernini saw Poussin’s Landscape with the Gathering of the Ashes Phocion, he pointed to his forehead and said: ‘Poussin is a painter who works from up here.’ Subsequent commentators have almost all endorsed this view, and the history of Poussin’s critical fortunes can be read as an elaboration of the sculptor’s telling gesture. The 17th-century critic Bellori noted that Poussin had the ‘most prized gifts of intelligence’. A few years later, the Comte de Brienne said of him that he ‘was endowed with a great deal of reason and a fine mind, a lively and strong imagination, a very accurate memory and very sound judgment, coupled with natural good sense’. By the end of the 18th century the artist had picked up the title of Pictor philosophus, and at the beginning of the 20th he was co-opted into a trinity of French Classicists along with Corneille and Pascal. But on what uncharted seas was Poussin’s great mind voyaging? No one really had much idea until the publication of Anthony Blunt’s monograph in 1967, which argued that Poussin ‘thought in terms of Stoicism’, set forth ‘his views on ethics … with clarity and vigour in his letters’, and ‘applied his philosophy to the practical conduct of his life in the most exact manner’. One might have supposed that this was enough for anyone not professionally engaged in intellectual pursuits, but there have since been studies of the artist which explore his interest not only in Stoicism but also in Jesuit theology, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Parisian libertinage and Renaissance biology. It is no wonder that the Comte de Brienne thought of Poussin as a kind of philosopher-king who might have governed the nation.

Hot Dogs

Malcolm Bull, 14 June 1990

In recent years, nothing has done more to reinforce the European sense of cultural superiority than the sight of America’s televangelists. Easily stereotyped as politically reactionary, sexually hypocritical, intellectually retarded and financially dishonest, the televangelists confirmed every prejudice about American society. That such men should be allowed, not only to appear on television, but to run for the Presidency of the United States, is taken as proof of the immaturity of the nation’s social institutions and the inherent gullibility of its people. Whatever the weaknesses of European civilisation, it has been possible to take comfort in its relative secularity; Europe, at least until the Rushdie affair, seemed immune during the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism – the one place where religious fanatics remained at the margins of public life.’

Alex Danchev is wrong to suggest that the only evidence of Braque’s reactionary political tendencies is Douglas Cooper’s table talk, as relayed by John Richardson (Letters, 3 April). Others said the same thing. Max Ernst complained to his son that the world was full of the ‘pimps of fascism’: ‘Poor Dalí, he pretends that he is insane and that this entitles him to...
Evan Riley claims that John Rawls ‘plainly rejects’ the idea that it is legitimate to ‘threaten to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations’ (Letters, 9 March). Yet, in The Law of Peoples, Rawls writes that ‘so long as there are outlaw states … some nuclear weapons need to be retained to keep those states at bay and to make sure they do not obtain and use...

Despite their diversity, it is possible to discern a figure in the carpet of Malcolm Bull’s books. They are all about what one might call lessness: the emancipatory power of weakness, failure, diminishment,...

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Malcolm Bull has written a formidable handbook, for which, I predict, many scholars and lovers of Renaissance art will never forgive him. What he has to say in the end about the revival of the...

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