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Tolstoy on power, logic, and pathological self-belief, 100 years ago:

But, even though he was convinced that he had acted as he ought, he was left with some sort of unpleasant aftertaste, and, to stifle that feeling, he began thinking about something that always soothed him: what a great man he was.


Despite the fact that the plan of a slow movement into enemy territory by means of cutting down the forests and destroying provisions was the plan of Ermolov and Velyaminov, and the complete opposite of Nicholas's plan, according to which it was necessary to take over Shamil's residence at once and devastate that nest of robbers, and according to which the Dargo expedition of 1845 had been undertaken, at the cost of so many human lives -- despite that, Nicholas also ascribed to himself the plan of slow movement, the progressive cutting down of forests, and the destruction of provisions. It would seem that, in order to believe the plan of slow movement, the cutting down of forests and the destruction of provisions was his plan, it would be necessary to conceal the fact that he had precisely insisted on the completely opposite military undertaking of the year forty-five. But he did not conceal it and was proud of both his plan of the expedition of the year forty-five and of the plan of slow movement forward, despite the fact that these two plans obviously contradicted each other. The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.

Hadji Murat, 1912
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Ute Lemper is best known for her cabaret and Kurt Weill interpretations. She has a huge, throaty, theatrical voice, with tremendous range and an obvious delight in characterisation and irony. This song, Scope J, comes from an album called Punishing Kiss, of covers and songs written specially for her by contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Neil Hannon. As might be expected this is a very melodramatic album about breakups, whores, bars, Berlin, drinking, cobblestone streets, and murder.

And then at the end is Scope J. Most of the album is backed by The Divine Comedy and arranged by Jody Talbot. Most of the album is about concrete characters and familiar cabaret situations. But Scott Walker wrote Scope J, and Scott Walker arranged arranged Scope J. It contains a bizarre bridge in which she mutters Herbert Ponting's The Sleeping Bag. It is, very darkly, funny, and it is, unsurprisingly, Fucking Weird. It is the Scott Walker of Tilt and The Drift. Most reviews of Punishing Kiss singled it out either for high praise or for mystified what-the-fuckery.

Lemper, who is a "theatre uber alles" kind of gal, and loves Scott Walker for his theatricality, has confessed that even she doesn't know what this avant-garde piece exactly means. It was very difficult for her to perform, and a very internal song. A very still and chilly song in which sunlight glints off of snowbanks in the high tinkle of windchimes and violins scream about death.

Lemper has a huge range, and could convey a Walkerish, baritonish feel if she wanted -- like on The Drift's Jesse, perhaps. But she has the power and control to hit the clouds, competing with the violins and guitars without sounding in the least shrill. She sounds, frankly, like she's come from another realm.

What realm? With its references to Russia we are put not as much in mind of Ponting's Arctic but Tolstoy's snowblind Russia of Master and Man, in which "snow fell from above and at times rose up from below"; the kind of other-space on which meaning and objects either dissolve or overwhelm in their significance, and you come up hard against the limits of physical and metaphysical experience:

Vassily Andreich rushed after him, but the snow was so deep and the coats on him were so heavy that each leg sank over the knee, and, having gone no more than twenty steps, he got out of breath and stopped. "The woods, the wethers, the rent, the shop, the pot-houses, the house and barn with the iron roofs, the heir," he thought, "what will become of it all? What is this? It can't be!" flashed in his head. And for some reason he recalled the wind-tossed wormwood, which he had passed twice, and such terror came over him that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. He thought: "Isn't it all a dream?" and wanted to wake up, but there was nowhere to wake up in. This was real snow that lashed him in the face, and poured over him, and felt cold on his right hand, the glove for which he had lost, and this was a real waste, in which he now remained alone, like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and senseless death.


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