Quack, quack !

Leonard Woolf, Quack, Quack! London: Hogarth Press, 1935.

My copy of this book was a hand-me-down at one remove from Rose Dornbush, who had arrived in Australia from Germany in 1889 at the age of six. She had been a concert pianist and later a music critic writing for the newspapers. As an adult she had lived at times in England and on the continent. She was at least acquainted with Olaf Stapledon, a prolific author in various modes of what might be called philosophical science fiction – the book is inscribed as swapped with Stapledon for another book. This may place her in the Bloomsbury set presided over by the Woolfs (Leonard and Virginia) trading as the Hogarth Press Tavistock Square, or at least moving in literary circles in London may have provoked her interest in this polemic, or there was indeed no thread of connection beyond that of author and reader. For the purposes of this essay, I connect (one time) book owner with its contemporaneous author.

Music education seems to have been Rose Dornbush’s central avocation: she had been a music teacher in leading girls’ schools, and gave numerous lectures on her educational theories, which she published in 1947 under the title “The Art of Listening to Music”).

In conversation, she was stricter than her pedagogical writings might suggest. She defended the classical tradition, which she believed had been undermined by syncopation, notably at the hands of Beethoven. She was one of the “lame ducks” – typically single women of high intelligence cut loose from professional life – who were welcomed in our suburban home. She was handicapped by poverty, old age, and a shortage of social support. Her domestic arrangements were shambolic. She had an aura of serious cultural intellect, or perhaps just strong opinion, out of sorts with Sydney in the 1950s.

As to Quack, Quack!, it is unlikely to have had a large run, with its target audience probably not extending far beyond Tavistock Square. Hogarth Press was an outlet for Woolf’s literary work: (auto) biography, poetry and tracts, to begin with a cottage affair, but grew into a commercial publishing house under Woolf’s control. Quack quack! appeared while Woolf was writing a major trilogy ‘After the Deluge’, on the back of writings from 1917 on war and empire, economics and politics, The last published in this line is ‘War for Peace’ (1940). His contribution to English letters appears overshadowed by writing by and about his wife, and particularly surrounding her mental illness and suicide in 1941, yet he kept writing into late old age with a succession of autobiographical works, the last appearing in 1969, the year of his death. His memory is kept alive in Sri Lanka – where he served as a judge in the 1920s, and in North America, where his papers, notably extensive correspondence with public figures in England, can be consulted

Quack, quack! is an entirely serious diatribe, mixing anthropology, psychoanalysis, polemics, and modern history. Its centrepiece, for those not prepared to navigate its limpid prose, is 2 pairs of juxtaposed photographs showing a sober, uniformed and belt-tugging Herr Hitler, and a capped Mussolini in full oratorical flight each with a mimicking image of the Hawaiian War-God Kūkaʻilimoku, the one reproducing the famous scowl, the other a full set of teeth and a crest.

While a polemic, the book – in 1935 when war was seen as increasingly likely – builds a case around the nefarious use of language to justify war, to motivate an otherwise peaceable and indifferent population to support the total destruction of others; in effect the betrayal of public discourse by forces that saw war as a rational and desirable end.

This intellectual atmosphere had allowed the rise of totemic movements to power, and justified the crushing of humanistic values in the name of higher beliefs, and for Woolf not a far removed historical remnant, but an emerging danger for self-consciously civilised or liberal societies.

He builds this argument around archetypes – and labels. There is quack quack history and metaphysical quack quack. This percussive invention captures the nonsensical or fraudulent nature of underlying concepts and stretched beliefs. When translated to mass audiences, and with skilful and entirely ruthless operators these same ideas and diction become dangerous.

What is striking is how fertile this framework is when applied to current events. A state of being at war sustains a permanently dislocated system of government that will resist settlement of claims and the forward movement of society. This was as true for Bismarkian Germany as it is now with the leadership of the West challenged by shadows out of imperial pasts; as it was in 1935 as imperial plates shifted and power began to leak through to ordinary folk. Woolf is chiefly interested in what is driving events in Germany at that time, and sheets home blame for its descent into totalitarian war lust to 19th century influential thinkers, in fact to just one:

Spengler… may justly claim the honour of being taken as the archetype of this new European breed of intellectuals who, betraying the traditions of two thousand years, place their learning, their minds and their souls at the service of the political quacks, magicians, witch-smellers, persecutors and scapegoat hunters. He has an international reputation as the most considerable historian and philosopher now providing a theoretical basis for political magic and policies of war, violence, intolerance, persecution, mass fear, and mass hatreds… [pp159-160]

German historiography post war, through the influence of Fischer, has paid close attention to the same line of intellectual descent from Spengler. Woolf elaborates on this argument, 25 years ahead of such agonised repositioning.

Woolf then moves on to the character of those beliefs: “by metaphysical quackery I mean the abandonment of and contempt for reason as a means to truth in non-political speculation and the substitution for it of so-called intuition, magic and mysticism.” And furthermore, “the more difficult the truth is to supply, the more passionately have people insisted that it should be supplied in the most absolute and indisputable form” [p161].

For his demolition of quackism of the metaphysical kind, Woolf undertakes to unpick the magical thinking in their respective repertoires of three arch-quacks of his day: Hermann von Keyserling, Henri Bergson and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. He does not dismiss intuition or magical thinking, or religious belief per se, but aims at the wielders of false certainties who exploit, or refrain from questioning, the seductive destructiveness and falseness of the resultant programmes.

He is careful to point out that systems of knowledge based on science could be as dangerous and backward looking as systems of belief focused on absolute truths. Modern quackery did not offer room for scepticism or doubt; it is as hard edged and miraculous as cosmologies of the past that explained the place of people in the world, who they should marry, what they should look like, what was important and not to know. The caricatured indoctrination through symbols, shapes, mass orchestrated events, chants and so on, translate to more familiar manipulative language of present times. We have not left such charlatanery behind.

Metaphysicians of the past – he cites Socrates, Plato and Jesus – gave people reasons to believe in the merely imaginable. They argued from what people understood of their immediate worlds of which they were the master, to another world beyond their power, whose awfulness could crush the spirit otherwise, substituting for panic, despair, rage, violence or confusion a potent imaginary order, infused with benevolence, grace and reason.

The realities offered up in scientific advances: in fantastic cosmological narratives; in the existence of unrepresentable atoms and the dawning knowledge of their properties, in the dispersion of doubt in the triumph of the fittest offered by neo-Darwinism: gave platform for a new metaphysics, a belief in destiny around securing transformational sources of power – at the head of armies; harnessing properties of materials; securing access to mass consciousness through emerging media, inventing and deploying weapons of mass destruction, operating systems of mass and targeted surveillance, controlling the flow of trade.

The intellectual backing for this project relies on quack quack metaphysics, just as political quack quack clothes its delusional justification, and defends against detected dissent. While Keyserling’s systems will collapse under their own weight, and Radhakrishnan sold rubbish mysticism in a revival of academic philosophy for the man in the street, Woolf traces a more subtle thread in dismissing Bergson. It is, nevertheless, the latter, ‘a civilised man’ of whom he warns:

In a time like the present, when there is a struggle in the very heart of a civilisation and a savage reaction towards savagery, when a wave of superstition and unreason sweeps through men’s minds, victory and defeat depend ultimately ..not on the savages in our midst but upon the civilised. If the civilised stand firm for reason, tolerance, scepticism, the savage and his superstitions and his absolute truths is powerless. It is only when the civilised men begin to yield often unconsciously to the wave of unreason that the end is near. … Civilisations are not destroyed by the … Herr Hitlers; they are destroyed when the M. Bergsons have to be numbered among intellectual quacks. [p193]

The book, in its tatty brown paper wrapping is a reminder of the delights and traps of the life of the mind, and an example of economical prose wielded with accuracy. Its incisiveness is echoed in James Meek’s review of How Civil Wars Start – and How to Stop Them, by Barbara Walter (London Review of Books, vol44 Number 10, 26 May 2022). There is indeed these days much humbug around, much of it originating in universities – in this case the University of Chicago, but really almost anywhere.

1 June 2022

Dornbush, Rose.  (1947).  The art of listening to music.  Sydney :  Les Editions du Courrier Australien


Woolf, Leonard. (1935). Quack, Quack!, London: Hogarth Press


Complementing the work of the so-called “house” artists, G.H.Horton & Co Ltd. also engaged the services of a wide variety of local and visiting celebrities. By the time Mastertouch took over the QRS label in Australia the list of eminent recording artists was a most impressive one – Lindley Evans, Frank Hutchens, Alexander Hmelnitsky, Paul Vinogradoff, Henry Penn, Ernest Truman, Rose Dornbush Victor Arden, Frank La Forge, and Howard Brockway are but a few names selected from the original recording schedules. Frank Hutchens and Lindley Evans, duo-pianists, are best remembered now in association with the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and the famous ABC Community Singing Concerts held at the Sydney Town Hall. Lindley Evans also endeared himself to many children as the Musical Director for the Argonauts on ABC Radio. Ernest Truman was the second and the longest serving City of Sydney Town Hall organist. His rendition of “The Storm” on the mighty Town Hall organ used to rattle the pressed metal ceilings and rumble the windows throughout the entire building, much to the delight of the packed audiences who attended his “Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Concerts”! Rose Dornbush was an expatriate Australian who had spent a considerable time in Germany before the First World War. She was employed by the company because she became the victim of the “anti-German” feeling prevalent in Australia after the war, and so could not get any work at all, despite her great talent.

from https://mastertouch.bookproduction.org/the-artists-of-mastertouch.htm


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