For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes
A passage from Hamlet's to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy, rightly the most famous monologue in history. Shakespeare´s uncanny excellence in poetry, drama and reflection is enigmatic. I have often thought about what Hamlet says about the insolence of power. The rude arrogance of the mighty is a sickening disease that makes life difficult for many people.
When you have lived for more than sixty years and done so in different environments, in different contexts, it is natural to ponder about power. How you exercise power and, possibly even more obvious, the control and domination you and others have suffered. We are herd animals. Our existence is marked by relationships with others and this relation is seldom equal. Every moment of our lives we have suffered various forms of subjugation - under our parents, teachers, friends and classmates, executives and government officials. At the same time, we have been forced to admit that we also have been guilty of abusing power, bullying and condemning those who have been weaker and less powerful than we have been - children, colleagues, students and many more.
Some persons I have been my more or less familiar with and who have ended up in powerful position have changed completely, poisoned by their elevation above others. Many of them imagined they earned their position though their intelligence, hard work, or charm, outstanding qualities that distinguished them from other people, especially those who ended up in a position of dependence to these admirable personalities. Power provides endorphin kicks stimulated by appreciation, or even fear, from those who live in the shadow of authority. Feelings of well-being increase the body's level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter controlling appetite and general mood. Low serotonin levels tend to be combined with elevated levels of stress hormones. High-ranking people whose well-being means that large doses of serotonin are pumped through their bodies and excite their brains, often experience a refreshing exhilaration. Naturally, they want to protect this euphoria from attacks by inferior wretches, whose blood and brains have been acidified by lack of serotonin and the build-up of stress hormones. It is common that people who courageously have revealed machinations of power mad despots are defused by accusations of hypocrisy and labelled as incurable grumblers.
Unfavourable descriptions of whistleblowers´ habits, appearance and opinions are heaped upon them. Something that has occurred in all ages, from ancient Egypt to our contemporary Edward Snowden. A variety of almost unknown persons who have made people pay attention to foul play by mighty ones have been relentlessly slashed by those in power and their minions. In Homer´s Iliad we meet Thersites:
The ugliest man who ever came to Troy. Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, both shoulders humped together, curving over his caved-in chest, and bobbing above them his skull warped to a point, sprouting clumps of scraggly, woolly hair.
Since he did not hesitate to tease them and thus expose them to public ridicule, Thersites was despised by mighty heroes like Odysseus and Achilles. Thersites could rarely keep quiet and during a deliberation he rose amid the handsome, brave, Achaean leaders, pointing an accusing finger towards the king of them all, Agamemnon, and addressed him in his shrill voice:
Still moaning and groaning, mighty Atrides – why now? What are you panting after now? Your shelters packed with the lion´s share of bronze, plenty of women too, crowding your lodges. Best of the lot, the beauties we hand you first, whenever we take some stronghold. Or still more gold you´re wanting? More ransom for a son of the stallion-breaking Trojans might just fetch from Troy? – though I or another hero drags him back in chains … Or a young woman, is it? – to spread and couple, to bed now for yourself apart from all the troops? How shameful for you, the high and mighty commander, to lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter! Sons? No, my soft friends, wretched excuses – women, not men of Achaea! Home we go in our ships! Abandon him here in Troy to wallow in all his prizes – he´ll see if the likes of us have propped him up or not. Look – now it´s Achilles, a greater man he disgraces, seizes and keeps his prize, tears her away himself. But no gall in Achilles. Achilles lets it go. If not, Atrides, that outrage would have been your last.
In the Iliad, Thersites is called a coward, gifted with a wicked tongue. However, his speech appears to be a fearless and powerful act of resistance by facing an inept and greedy leader. Therefore, it may seem strange that the Achaean nobles, who instead of supporting him poured invectives over Theristes, while the handsome, widely admired Odysseus snatched Agamemnon's scepter form him and to the assembly´s cheerful acclaim tore the clothes from Thersites, flogging him mercilessly with the spire. The skin of Thersites´ back swelled and cracked, his eyes filled with tears as he cowered in a corner, from which he helplessly and sobbing watched the guffawing, high-spirited macho men surrounding him.
Homer provides no comments to the incident. The Iliad expresses admiration for men like the “man of twists and turns”, an epithet for Odysseus and the brutal, ego-tripped Achilles. Odysseus, who also despises Agamemnon, actually does not dare, unlike the "cowardly" Thersites, to give voice to the misgivings of the war weary heroes, instead he flogs the man who openly expressed what everyone was thinking. However, note that Odysseus did not hit Theristes with his own hands, he used the dictator's sceptre to flog the soothsayer. Perhaps Homer thus implied that Odysseus' initiative made him a servant of the power, as well as all the other mighty warriors who Thersites had mocked as cowards. By Odysseus use of the king's sceptre to punish the despised cripple he relieved the mighty heroes from the shame Thersites had bestowed upon them.
According to the myth, Thersites was finally killed by a blow from Achilles, the same man he previously so courageously had defended in the People's Assembly. To point out deficiencies and failures of powerful men has always been a very dangerous undertaking and there is no guarantee for any support from fellow sufferers, not even from those who without fear or hesitation might venture life and limb on the battlefield and during other dangerous endeavours.
Power-drunk men and women are rarely thick-skinned when it comes to themselves and their own shortcomings. Just think of Trump´s pathetic twittering whenever anyone questions his actions and personality, filled with contempt for and threats against those who doubts his excellence, threats that incidentally may be realized. This tendency to overreact is something Trump shares with countless other executives. A stinginess that can be traced far back in ancient times.
The Greek authors Arrian and Plutarch, who lived hundreds of years after the event, tell us how Alexander the Great's divinity was denied by Callisthenes, nephew and student of the philosopher Aristotle. After Alexander had celebrated his wedding with Princess Roxane in Baktra, now Balkh in northern Afghanistan, he organized a sumptuous banquet during which the orator Anaxarchos claimed that Alexander, since his outstanding achievements far exceeded what Hercules and Dionysius had done, should be worshiped as a god. Callisthenes ventured to disagree, pointing out that worshiping Alexander as a god would do injustice to him, since Alexander achieved what he had done through his personal, human abilities and not by virtue of any inherent divine power. Moreover, Callisthenes added, a man was greeted with a kiss on the cheek, no Greek should humiliate himself by crawling before any man, like the defeated Persians now was doing in front of Alexander. Even if Callisthenes speech was applauded, Alexander rose his wine goblet and toasted as Persian princes were wont to do, meaning that he took a swig of wine and then sent the goblet on to a minion of his, who took a swig, went up to the throne, returned the chalice to Alexander and then prostrated himself before him. Greeks and Persians did as Alexander expected them to do. However, Callisthenes drank the wine, but refused to crawl before Alexander.
The young despot kept a good face, but during a hunt a young Greek nobleman, Hermolaos, killed a huge boar that furiously attacked Alexander. Instead of showing gratitude Alexander claimed that Hermolaos had humiliated him by killing a game he himself ought to have killed. He flogged Hemolaos and took away his horse. The humiliated nobleman later tried to assassinate Alexander and after failing to do so he was savagely tortured before being stoned to death. Under torture Hemolaos was asked about Callisthenes, who had been his teacher. Had the daring philosopher ever said anything bad about Alexander? No, he had never said a bad word about the Great Leader. Then Hermolaos was asked if Callisthenes had said anything derogatory about powerful men. No, that had not been part of his teaching, though Hemolaos recalled that when he once had asked Callisthenes what he could do to become a famous man, his teacher had jokingly answered: "You could always kill a famous man." This was taken as proof that Callisthenes was inciting the murder of Alexander. He was arrested, mutilated, chained and thrown into a pit with wild beasts that attacked him, but before he died from his wounds Callisthenes was pulled up again and hanged.
Why would anyone want to be God? Perhaps to be worshiped. Adoration is a kind of surrender. True believers do not question the god they believe in, but accept what they believe to be the god's omnipotence. Powerful individuals seldom want to be challenged, only obeyed. Often they believe themselves to be beyond good and evil. Doubts lead to anxiety and uncertainty, if you are worshiped such dangers disappear. For a powerful person subordinates are easily transformed into figurines or androids that may be used for various tasks and services, it is easy to forget that they are individuals in their own right, with emotions and pride.
At one point I asked one of my bosses if there was something she did not appreciate about me. Her answer was astonishing: "That I am not your role model.” I was taken aback, and since I like Therites have problems being silent I mindlessly declared something that was not true, just to annoy her: "But dear X, how could I have you as a role model, a middle-aged lady, the same age as me? John Wayne and Marlon Brando, for sure." John Wayne is far from being any role model for me, though unfortunately I sometimes have a tendency to express opinions just to create an effect. I admit this is stupid and I would obviously not have said what I said, but I do not have any complete control of my thoughts and tongue. In all honesty, I must admit that this particular person, who was the worst boss I have ever had, nevertheless could be able to utter at least some words of wisdom, like: "Jan, you have to edit yourself.”
It has often been said that if a powerful man loses the respect he enjoys, he becomes more despised than others. A priest who has sinned is generally considered to be worse than an ordinary sinner. Likewise, those worshiped by their subjects - like executives of large corporations or government agencies - as soon as they lose the aura and glamour of their office generally turn into ordinary mortals. It may be one reason to why they usually demand exorbitant severance payments. If you are wealthy you are generally well respected, even if you no longer rule over the destiny of others. An urge to safeguard power and respect is probably also a reason to why powerful people struggle so hard to keep their influential positions and executives strive to get re-elected, while political leaders even may want to become dictators for life. This in spite of their complaints about enormous workloads and the huge responsibilities they have to shoulder. A complaint that reflect a perception of themselves as being superior to others, a feeling that can escalate to such a degree that they may come to believe that their organizations, the entire country, or even the whole world could not do without them.
When I worked for the Swedish international co-operation agency (Sida) I once ended up with a group of high-ranking Cuban government officials at a luxurious restaurant in Stockholm. At the table I had a person from the Cuban Finance Ministry, I do not remember exactly who he was. He could even have been the Minister of Finance, since he told me that he met with Fidel Castro at least once a week. I asked him jokingly if Cuba had given up the plans to spread revolution around the world.
- Yes, unfortunately.
- How come? Has it turned out to be too expensive for you?
- No, no, that's not the reason. The reason is that there is no Fidel to be found anywhere in the world.
- Is he so unique?
- Oh, yes! Cuba could not do without him.
The assertiveness of those in power can sometimes reach absurd proportions, as when a former colleague of mine before s/he (no names mentioned) ended up at a decision-making/controlling level would seek out linguistic advice and expertise from an English-speaking colleague, only a few days after her/his ascension s/he began correcting the colleague's English. He turned up in my cubicle showing me a memo filled with corrections and sour comments, telling me:
- Look at all these corrections, it is amazing how fast s/he became an English prodigy. Leadership must be the fastest and easiest language course available.
Of course, it would be a liberating feeling if I could pour bile and frustration over power-drunk bullies who occasionally have made my and other people's lives quite miserable. If I revealed their names and positions, I could unreservedly tell you all about how they have hurt and damaged mainly friends and colleagues and to some extent even me. However, it does not feel right to complain, at least not yet. I do not want to appear as a whining quibbler and when it comes to me there are always some dregs at the bottom of the beaker and bosses have for sure been correct in several of their complaints about me. I am far from being one of God's best children.
A sense of inadequacy and gnawing awareness about their own mistakes and shortcomings make many persons forced to suffer in secret - the suspicion that their superior's constant whining and criticism may be justified is mixed with the additional fears that if they ever raised their voices against their tormentors it could only lead to harsh reprisals. In the worst scenarios, the mighty ones may perceive grievances as an attack on the entire hierarchical system and thus an assault on their power position. The result of questioning authority, abuse and self-justification may often result in isolation, decreased salary, limited tasks, libel, dismissal and perhaps even psychological disorders leading to depression, psychotherapy, drug - or alcohol abuse, and maybe a nursing home as end station.
Controlling people´s means of expression and creating an atmosphere of insecurity and exploitation is not an efficient method for fomenting enthusiasm, innovation and well-being. I consider it as a sign of self-doubt and anxiety, in line with what a good friend once told me when I asked him about a senior member of higher management:
- A very uncertain and accordingly dangerous person.
This remark has become a warning sign for me. It applies to almost all people who have tried to control and silence me and furthermore have had the power to do so. However, to be quite honest I must admit that I also have had the great joy of depending on straightforward, kind-hearted and generous mentors, though my friend's words have made me trying to avoid ending up as some kind of leader and they have also boosted my efforts to discern power abuse by realizing that it actually is based on concealment of weaknesses. I have even been able to pity power poisoned individuals who have made life sour for me and/or my friends. Or, as another friend once observed:
- Now he walks around and feels sorry for some noxious idiot again!
Many powerful persons have a tendency to crawl in the dust before those who are even higher up in the hierarchy and in worse case scenarios these minions, who control others beneath them, expect the same behaviour from their underlings. Has a manager chosen a paltry underling to a position of responsibility s/he must defend her/his prestige by defending the bad choice to others and accordingly have a tendency to forgive the glaring incompetency of a chosen one, doing nothing about a subordinate manager's deplorable acts and behaviour. Power often means a sickening game of adoration upwards and kicking downwards.
How does a ruler go about to hide her/his ignorance, shortcomings and uncertainty? I do not know, but an acquaintance of mine, an elderly man who worked at a renowned African research institution once told me that during his long professional life he had personally met several dictators and claimed that what they all seemed to have in common was to use inaccessibility as a kind of protection, but if you happened to end up working for them you would soon find out that their favourite mode of governing was to express themselves through shallow verbosity, platitudes, criticism of others and above all – micromanagement. A behaviour that meant they avoided crucial decisions, leaving those to minions who could be criticised and chastised if they turned out to be wrong and instead concentrate themselves on correcting pointless details.
This ridiculous window dressing could have been laughable, had it not been for the fact that it often has dire consequences. While I was writing this I read a novella by Amélie Nothomb Fear and Trembling, well written and quite hilarious it deals with the adventures a well-intentioned and smart young Belgian lady within an immense Japanese corporation. Even if she is fluent in Japanese she is confronted with unfathomable situations originating from the preposterous, prestige-ridden sensibilities of her superiors. She is gradually degraded until she ends up as a rest-room attendant. The quoted press blurbs praised the book as “a vituperatively funny attack on an alien culture”, describing the “age-old divide between East and West”. Most absurdities might probably be traced to Japanese peculiarities, though my own experiences within big organisations made me inclined to consider this delectable little book as an appropriate description of the power induced craziness that reigns in many huge workplaces, all over the world.
The central message of Fear and Trembling is that Fubuki Mori, the narrator´s stunningly beautiful and unmarried closest supervisor who makes her life miserable, herself is a bullied and utterly frustrated victim of the hierarchic and patriarchal system. The downtrodden make those below them suffer, like the brutal Afro-American men in Alice Walkers The Color Purple who through internalized oppression have become rapists and wife beaters.
Power dazzles its prey and, like other intoxicants, easily results in addiction and demands for increasingly stronger doses. It happens, for example, that people have voted for millionaires with the hope that their wealth would be sufficient to hinder them from becoming corrupt and enrich themselves further. A hope squashed by leaders like Berlusconi and Trump, who use their power to become even richer and benefit both themselves and their minions.
A tale of a continuously escalating desire for obtaining more and more power is told by the brothers Grimm - The Fisherman and his Wife. A tale about an old fisherman who pulls out a huge flounder from the sea. The fish can talk and asks to be thrown back into the sea, something the fisherman does. When he returns home and tells his wife about the strange event, she becomes furious and wonders how he could have been so incredibly stupid that he did not asked such a strange fish to reciprocate him for having saved it´s life. She demands that her husband immediately returns to the beach, calls for the fish and asks for repayment for his merciful act. Reluctantly the fisherman walks down to the seashore, calls upon the fish, which against all odds reappears and wonders what the old man wants. Humbly he replies with a chant:
Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will.
The flounder asks what Ilsebill wants and the fisherman answers that she wants a real house instead of the miserable hut they now live in. The fish feels sorry for the hen-pecked man, telling him to return home. To his great astonishment he found his wife sitting by the fire in a cosy, stone house. When Ilsebill found that her husband´s connection with superhuman forces worked miracles she could not be impeded. Now she wished for a castle and the old fisherman obediently went down to the seashore, where he repeated his chant and the flounder turned up to once more grant Ilsebill´s wish. However, she was now unstoppable. She did no longer asked for immaterial things, she wanted power and consequently became king, emperor and pope.
Every time his wife expressed a desire the fisherman went down to the seashore and called on the flounder, but the more unreasonable his wife's wishes became the more he angered the fish. The sky darkensed and the sea rose. Climax comes when Ilsebill asks to be God, then the earth shakes, the wind roars and rocks plunge into the roaring sea. For the last time the flounder rises up from the depths and shouts to the fisherman that he has to return home, where he finds his power-crazed wife sitting glum and despairing by an extinguished fire within their previous, miserable shack.
What may be surprising with this story is that it is a woman and not a man who becomes king, pope and eventually wants to be God. Indeed, it has generally been men who have tried to attain such positions. Oppression of women, combined with an exaggeration of the excellence "male" characteristics and abilities, seems to be what in social anthropology has been described as a "cultural universal", i.e. patterns of life and institutions common to all human societies. There is, despite several romantic feminists´ assurances to the contrary, no definite proof that matriarchy really has existed, neither in history, nor in so-called "primitive" societies. Although there are several examples of how kinship and heritage have been determined in accordance with maternity, as well as the fact that women in certain societies have had the right to be consulted on laws and government. Nevertheless, actual power has always rested with men, even if this cannot be taken as a pretext for men´s superior intelligence or abilities, but rather as a sign that brute force and a deeply rooted gendered prejudices have been the God-given basis for universal patriarchal power structures.
Women's social roles within community and family have in general rather been those of underlings and even victims. As in John Lennon's controversial song Woman is the Nigger of the World (an expression originating from Yoko Ono).
We make her paint her face and dance
If she won't be slave, we say that she don't love us
If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man
While putting her down we pretend that she is above us
Woman is the nigger of the world ... yes she is
If you don't believe me take a look to the one you're with
Woman is the slaves of the slaves
Ah yeah...better scream about it.
It was of course somewhat unfortunate that it was a man who wrote that song. There is the suspicion that if someone who constitutes a part of a repressive system is criticizing it, there might somewhere be the smell of a rat. John Lennon was certainly no saint, something his neglected son Julian has noted:
I have to say that, from my point of view, I felt he was a hypocrite. Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces - no communication, adultery, divorce? You can't do it, not if you're being true and honest with yourself.
John Lennon's second son, Sean, to whom he devoted considerably more attention and love than to Julian, is also to a certain degree condemning his father, albeit he is far more appreciative of him than his half-brother is. Sean was only five years old when his father was murdered:
He was a macho pig in lots of ways, and he knew it. I think his greatest accomplishment was recognizing that he was a macho asshole and trying to stop it. […] His saving grace. He tried to overcome it. […] People forget how easy it is to overglorify human beings, to mythify them. The reality was, he was my dad. Sometimes he would yell at me for no fucking reason, scream and shout, and I would cry hysterically. If there's anything the public doesn't understand, it's that he was a human being. That when he died, he left a real family behind. And that I miss him every day. I don't miss John Lennon the persona. I miss my dad.
Men who write about women have to be prepared for the fact that their sex by certain people may be regarded as a liability. They may turn into the lop-sided concept of "man" and thus lose their individuality as a specific human being. I experienced it when my good friend Bernth invited me to the Department of Literature at Lund University. He had written a, in my opinion excellent, master's thesis about signs of anorexia nervosa in the Danish author Karen Blixen's writings. The seminar was dominated by a group of aggressive young women who appeared to be furious at Bernth for his outrageous suggestions that a prominent female writer like Blixen might have suffered from a mentally conditioned ailment.
Why do men always have to apply mental disorders to intelligent women? What did a man like Bernth know about women's minds and bodies? While being confronted with such unexpected and ferocious attacks the decent and rather taciturn Bernth became speechless. His interest in Karen Blixen was based on a thorough assessment of her writings and he was well prepared. Not for a moment had Bernth been able to imagine that he would be attacked for having found signs of anorexia nervosa in Blixen´s writing. Bernth had not even paid enough attention to Blixen's particularities as a female writer.
The day before the incident, I had been to the movies and seen a, in my opinion quite excellent, movie by Fellini, though the critique had scorned it – City of Women. It was generally interpreted as a macho infested, old man´s portrayal of the women's liberation movement. Personally, I found that it was Marcello Mastroianni´s bewildered, women chasing character, Professor Snáporaz, who in his pathetic search for a mother figure within a grotesque dream world populated with all kinds of women, appeared as a pathetic and ridiculous figure.
City of Women begins with a masterly rendered scene on a train, where Professor Snáporaz, observes a beautiful fellow traveller. It is not spelled out, but it appears as if the professor falls asleep and we enter a sumptuous dream world depicted in Fellini´s most exuberant manner. Snáporaz does simply not understand women. For him, every woman is a mystery and by his excesses and foolishness he transforms the women he meets into abstract archetypes. He provides them with masks that hide their individuality. For Snáporaz every woman turns into a fantasy of the ideal woman, something that prevents him from encountering women as fellow human beings, to understand that they, just like him, are unique persons.
I considered City of Women to be an imaginative indictment of machismo and misogyny, but while talking to my friends I found to my surprise that I appeared to be alone with that impression. At the same time, I read Günther Grass´s The Flounder and also came to regard that novel as a portrayal of men's limited and contemptuous view of women. In The Flounder, like City of Women, man appears to be a loser in the sexist struggle.
The novel deals with an immortal man's moving from life to life, during each time of his life on earth he has a relationship with a female cook. Among other things, the fact that the novel portrayed women as cooks subjected Grass to feminist criticism. How could Grass be so presumptuous that he assigned the women to their traditional role as cooks? What did such a portrayal has to do with women's liberation? Furthermore, the novel was a lush tribute to the physical love between man and woman and furthermore packed with exciting recipes for dishes created by attractive women. Could one imagine a more chauvinistic wallowing in female stereotypes?
Grass published his novel in 1977, a time when feminism experienced its so-called "second wave". After the European women's movement´s tough fight for suffrage, participation in decision-making, access to higher education and more extensive social rights, radical women wanted to correct abuses in the private sphere - unpaid housework, sole responsibility for children, gender based violence, economic dependency, limited freedom of movement, circumscribed rights to their own sexuality, their bodies, etc. They also began to scrutinize the patriarchal discourse that had characterized culture, science and politics and furthermore suppressed female expression in the arts. Feminists followed women back in time in search of the Mother Goddess and matriarchy, powerful women in myths and fairy tales. It was pointed out that in ancient farming communities and among nomads, it had often been women who sang and told stories for children and to each other. In Germany, there was talk of a feminist Märchenwelle, a wave of fairy tales.
Grass's novel was inspired by these developments. He took the fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife as the foundation for an intricate story about a talking, male flounder that was captured, or rather let itself be caught, by three lesbians feminists. It proves to be the fairy tale’s wondrous fish which offers himself to promote the cause of women, instead of as previously giving his advice to men. The flounder is tired of men´s misrule, which has ruined and destroyed the world. He now wants to serve the women instead. However, the three feminists do not accept his offer and instead imprisons the Flounder in an aquarium and convenes a feminist tribunal, called the Womenal and accuse the talking fish of all the patriarchy´s crimes.
The story alternates between the narrator's many lives and his dealings with the Flounder and the Womenal. The Flounder is also a description of Prussia´s history from the Stone Age onwards. It begins with the Flounder teaching the prehistoric fisherman who first caught him to count with his fingers, examine the surroundings outside his village and how the men of his clan may gain power by oppressing women. Along the time line, which continues up until our present time, we learn how men are building a world based on their power over women, excessive violence and a ruthless exploitation of natural resources. All the time there is an alternative view provided by different female cooks and their contributions to development. The last in a line of nine cooks is a canteen cook working in the kitchen of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, where Solidarność was born, becoming the final nail in the coffin of communism.
The story is lush, raunchy and filled with exciting recipes, like when the members of the Womenal ceremonially bury the failed and violence-obsessed patriarchy with a feast on flounder:
eleven good-sized specimens ranging from four-and-a-half to nine pounds each (at wholesale prices the bill came to 285 marks) were promptly sautéed in tarragon butter, deglazed with white wine, covered with stock, simmered, seasoned with dill and capers, and finally, along with the roe and milt, which are well developed in June, placed in preheated serving dishes, covered with aluminium foil, and (along with boiled potatoes and cucumber salad) […] Lemon slices had been bedded on lettuce leaves. Chilled Riesling stood in readiness. The steaming dishes were brought in.
The Flounder contains some rather heavy didactic elements, though those are mitigated by the pure delight in telling tall tales. The immortal "narrator" is now married to the rabid feminist Ilsebill, who in a blustering, whiny, illogical and hypocritical manner leads a faction that within the Womenal is engaged in attempts to a hostile takeover of the proceedings and prevents the creation of the feminist utopia the Flounder advocates, this while the narrator is seducing all of the Womenal´s members. Had Grass´s Flounder praised feminism from a "female" angle and the novel been relinquished from its author´s inventiveness, folly and the voice of a male, rather narrow-minded narrator, I assume it would constitute a rather boring reading. Nevertheless, I have some understanding of the feminist critique of Günther Grass and his book.
Of course, it can be frustrating for women to constantly be forced to submit to the bullying of self-glorified men, who have taken the liberty to interpret women´s feelings and innermost thoughts. It can probably be irritating to constantly listen to the praise of world literature's acclaimed male descriptions of women like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. In their The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe how literary female characters of the 1800s, by both male and female writers, generally were described as either angelic, or rebellious, unkempt and crazy. This was as a result of women being locked up within a patriarchal context that deprived them of their true personalities, turning them into objects of male desire, disdain or veneration. The discomfort arising from such conditions have convinced some of my female friends that it is only worthwhile to read books written by women, and they can not avoid a sense that there probably might be a misogynist dog buried somewhere when a male writer tackles, or even worse writes, novels about gender issues.
The Womenal asks the Flounder if it can come up with examples of some beneficial results from male power, in spite of the wealth of such examples the Flounder only mentions the Strasbourg cathedral and the car engine. The Womenal´s accuser cries out:
"We know you. You are the destructive, life-negating, murderous, male, warlike principle!" To which the Flounder replied: "Yes. That's how it is. That's how it has been up to now. Given the male view of morality and power — for the one follows from the other — men have always been able to supply logical proof that their cause is just, that the enemy attacked first, that they themselves misjudged the situation but acted in good faith, that they want nothing so much as peace, but that conspicuous weakness, pacifism, and suchlike childishness only provoke aggression, that, suffering and sorrow notwithstanding, it is pleasant and noble to die for the fatherland or for an idea, sprung in all likelihood from a male mind, and finally that we can't expect to live forever.
The Flounder wanted the women to rule the world. Personally, I remain dubious if matriarchy would be a solution to world problems. It is not the belonging to a certain sex category of those who govern and decide the fate of the world that determines whether a system will be fair and beneficial for everyone, but if power will unchecked and allowed to corrupt them. I have had both female and male bosses and among the worst of them I have not been able discern a greater benevolence and aptitude for the job among the women than among the men, both sexes have proved to be just as inept. Both genders may be susceptible to corruption and those who have abused their staff, while being poisoned by their own power, have been so regardless of their gender.
What is the connection between humans and power? Several researchers have been looking for the origin of and desire for power, as well as our inclination to submit ourselves to persons considered to be strong and influential, in the constitution of the human brain. Human herd behaviour has been explained by our "social brain”.
Neocortex, the outermost layer of the cerebral cortex, exists only among mammals. This membrane is constituted by multiple layers of neurons and has in all mammals the same depth, though multiple folds make the size variable. It is the neocortex that controls voluntary, mental processes, like knowledge, learning abilities, language use and the processing of information. Small mammals, such as mice, have a neocortex with a smooth surface, while whales, and primates, such as monkeys and humans, have a neocortex with corrugated surface. The human neocortex has a thickness of less than 5 mm, though its weight constitutes more than eighty percent of the total brain weight, whereas in other mammals it is between ten and forty percent of the weight of their brains.
Since the neocortex controls conscious choices and our relationship with other creatures, anthropologists like Robin Dunbar have assumed that the human brain evolved in a context of survival and reproduction within complex social groups. Our consciousness has gradually been adapted to our socializing, to altruism, compassion and cooperation, but it has also become inclined to manipulation and fraud.
Power and leadership seem to adapt to the size of the groups that are likely to come under their spell. Dunbar assumes that the first humans, the hominids, liberated themselves from their original habitats by joining groups that were large enough to effectively defend themselves against predators, at the same time as their members were able to share their food supply among themselves. When people learned to work effectively together and move around in groups, they could forage further and further away, covering vast, flat areas like savannahs and steppes where they were much more vulnerable than in the jungle areas they originated from.
Contemporary groups of hunter/gatherers seldom exceed more than thirty members. A platoon generally consists of thirty soldiers. The crew of a whaling ship was never more than thirty-five individuals, or less than sixteen, depending on the size of the vessel. Core groups of bandits rarely exceeded thirty men and Che Guevara wrote that an effective guerrilla unit should not be less than thirty men and certainly not include more than a hundred. When I worked for the Swedish Development Co-operation Agency (Sida) my department consisted of thirty colleagues. As a teacher, I have found that the pain threshold when it comes to control and more or less effectively teaching a class was around twenty-five pupils.
Through the study of herd animals and different human groupings it has been found that if a person will be able to closley know and understand each member of a group it cannot exceed eight members. Perhaps one reason to why powerful people tend to surround themselves with family members and often provides them with great political powers (nepotism). Really good friends whom you assume you can trust completely on are seldom more than fifteen. Groups working together effectively and more or less equitably sharing resources and food, consist of between thirty and fifty individuals. The upper limit for effective leadership is ideally eighty group members and a maximum of one hundred and fifty. If groups are bigger than that they require fixed rules and individuals who on the leader's order control and discipline the group members. The number of soldiers within a company varies between eighty and a hundred men.
The number of individuals in a management group presents similar patterns. A leading clique of decision makers rarely includes more than five individuals, often supported by and cooperating with a board of up to fifteen persons. These people generally have great power over people who are below them in the ranking scale and split in similar sub-groups.
Power structures are based on the fact that a person has power over another one who finds her/himself in a position of dependence, which may be based on a variety of factors, social as well as economic, coercion and threats of violence. The more commands and threats of reprisals a powerful person subjects a subordinate to, the less popular, s/he becomes. Especially bad is it if the commanding and controlling person is found to be incapable of doing what s/he demands and expects of others. For a person in power it is accordingly important to cover up weaknesses, something that often means that s/he may be hiding behind structures and rules, referring to persons with even greater powers.
Attacks on power structures are often interpreted as a defence of an attacker's own shortcomings. Instead of admitting their own shortcomings powerful people tend to concentrate on those of their foes. Those in power tend to use the uncertainty of their subordinates to protect themselves and a fierce counter-attack on whistle blowers are generally harsher than necessary. If you are attacked by someone in power, or even worse - the system that protects her/him, it would of course be natural to seek the support of those who are stronger than your adversaries - but where are they to be found? Or to get help from friends and colleagues - but do they dare to help and defend you? And worst of all - alone is rarely strong in this world of herd mentality where people's well-being is dependent on alliances within power structures, which gradually have assumed the shape of a pyramid where the summit is occupied by a small group of individuals whose power rests on ever larger groups, which in turn control all those who find themselves further down. The leader of a senior management may find her/himself so high up in the hierarchy that s/he imagines her/himself as being worthy of worship due to her/his outstanding intelligence and skills and may thus easily come to nurture the idea that God, or fate, has elevated her/him to be better than any other living person.
Such power pyramids arose in places where agricultural systems based on joint work with planting, watering, harvesting and storage was developed, while more specialized social functions were created. As in ancient Egypt.
Pyramidal social system were later created in places in like Mesopotamia, India, China, Central America and other hierarchically controlled societies, based on the shared use of various natural resources.
In Europe, the ancient Roman, centralized government power was substituted by a feudal power pyramid and I assume that contemporary power structures and the division of labour within complex business structures, or global organizations such as the UN, continue to be characterized by similar hierarchical systems, where key decisions are made by a small clique of people with substantial powers.
Within every workplace I have happened to end up in, it seemed to exist a similar set of individuals - some ambitious, hard-working colleagues, an intelligent but rather lazy person. Manipulators, sycophants and careerists. Someone who was an expert on work simulating efforts - for example, by volunteering for non-onerous tasks that others for various reasons avoided to acquaint themselves with and thus gained general acclaim. Someone who was jovial and easy-going. Someone no one knew what s/he was working with. A stupid wretch who was supported by everyone. One who was a bore, another one a schemer, etc., etc. I am convinced that within each group of thirty individuals, at any position of the social ladder, you will find a similar assortment of individuals- in schools, academies, universities, municipal offices, mines, warehouses, construction sites. Accordingly, I do not believe those who claim that "smart" people should rule the world. I do not think there exist such a group of individuals. Idiots and geniuses, evil and good people are to be found everywhere, at all levels, in all contexts.
What worries me are the myths that certain individuals have greater value than others. Delusions about the ability of rich people, the worth of those who have acquired their talents due to better living conditions than others, through security, inheritance and health, or better luck.
Beliefs in superiority may intoxicate those who are hailed as superior beings, making them despise, enslave and exploit others. Systems based on inequality and privileges, which create spheres inhabited by powerful untouchables, who are excused from common responsibilities are often protected by religion or ideologies that preach difference between people.
Could it be that the human species´ peculiar tendency to unconditionally submit to power, especially power based on money, is the reason for the strange fact that most of us willingly accept such an incomprehensible absurdity as the fact that the world's richest 62 individuals (of whom 53 are men) between themselves control a joint fortune of 16 billion USD, equivalent to the amount of money shared by 3.5 billion of the world's poorest individuals, keeping in mind that the earth harbours an estimated 7 billion inhabitants. Another absurdity was that a single individual like Stalin could keep a country with 182 million people in fear, or that Mao could control a billion people.
Is humanity like a herd of chimpanzees, where a small group of alpha males controls the availability of food and through their power and strength are able to keep the others in place? If anyone in the flock would oppose a powerful male s/he is immediately put in place by brute force, while occasional fighting on life and death may erupt within the leadership.
However, there might be counterweights to this constant rat race for power, something that the National Association of Principals (NASSP) beginning in 1948 incorrectly has stated as coming from the English politician William Gladstone (1809 -1898) and that hence has been frequently quoted by New Age philosophers and even ascribed to Jimi Hendrix, namely:
We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.
Sorry to say so, but I wonder if such a time will ever come.
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OXFAM International (2016) An economy for the 1% https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/economy-1