Monday, 11 September 2023

'Phineas Finn' and 'Phineas Redux' by Anthony Trollope


So without working deliberately at it over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Trollope but this is my disordered venture into the Palliser series. First I read ‘Phineas Finn’ and directly afterwards ‘Phineas Redux’.  They are big novels, serialized and therefore with dramatic nodes, shifts in the pace, side bars and disquisitions.  Trollope is a master of maintaining narrative tension and moving the story around so that the illusion of the absent for the moment characters are always there in the wings being busy and about at any moment to inflict themselves.

It would be silly of me to tell someone who reads a bit that Trollope is mandatory.  If you are about to find that out then I will restrain myself from urging him on you like a big friendly dog. Here I will just offer some points about Phineas Finn which may escape the British or American reader.  He is an Irishman and a Catholic and therefore an outsider.  In the circles in which he moves in he is also a commoner and that counts for a lot.  Unlike the other Irishman in the novel, Fitzgibbon, he is not of the landed gentry class even if his family is regarded as sound stock by that Anglo-Irish class.  He is an exotic bird, very handsome, affable, witty, charming and with a touch of gallantry which appeals to the members of that element in English society, the Barbarian; huntin’, shootin’, fishin’; and if you get involved in a duel with them they will try to kill you. The other Arnoldian categories of the Hebraic and the Populace are supplied by Robert Kennedy and Bunce his landlord.

I found him at first a bit of a cipher.  Where’s the politics, will there be sticking points, will he turn balky over the Irish Land question or disestablishmentarianism? There is envy at his rising to minor office but he shows his capacity for work.  However he is unlucky in love or unrealistic about his chances as a poor man and a commoner with aristocratic women.   The portrait is limned in over the two novels and life’s tragedies and injustice hew the block closer to the finished man.

Another outsider and exotic is Madame Max, the rich young widow, a Jew by marriage, from somewhere out there where abroad is bloody, Vienna.  Excellently drawn as are all the women.  Lady Laura and Lady Glencora are political kitchen cabinet types promoting, through the blandishment of dinner parties, their policies.

That’s all I have to say about that.  I have no key to the characters of the political drama in the House of Commons.  It is a time of great change and reform.  Votes for all, the position of the Church established by law, the scurrility of the popular press, libels and injunctions.    Good speeches and some comedy to temper the stateliness.

Friday, 11 August 2023

William Edward Hartpole Lecky: his 'Rationalism in Europe', his lands and the strange story of his birthplace Cullenswood Hous.


There can’t be many universities in the world who have a statue showing him sitting with an open book of an alumnus who escaped with a pass degree and a second class divinity testimonium.  A fine monument of William Edward Hartpole Lecky is in the front square of Trinity College Dublin.  After his student days (1856 -60) he spent some years on the continent enjoying a species of literary vagabondage which culminated in a rather remarkable two volume study of ‘Rationalism in Europe’ pub.1865..  This at the age of 27. It runs to over 800 pages of small but quite readable font.  I have it before me now in the authorised edition of 1910. He writes in Vol.II on Persecution:

"is to determine the judgment by an influence other than reason; it is to prevent that freedom of enquiry which is the sole method we possess of arriving at truth. The persecutor never can be certain that he is not persecuting truth rather than error, but he may be quite certain that he is suppressing the spirit of truth.”  (The gravamen of the charge of persecution and the inculcation of blind faith falls on Roman Catholics)

Prior to this observation he discovers the milder forms of encouragement that can wrought a change of belief:

"he firmly resolved to make any sacrifice rather than profess what he does not believe, yet still his affections will endow their objects with a magnetism of which he is perhaps entirely unconscious.”

Have we not seen this recently with those who have donned the white alb of science, the lab coat, to promulgate doctrines which are without foundation? Farther down:

"Indeed, the simple fact of annexing certain penalties to the profession of particular opinions, and rewards to the profession of opposite opinions, while it will undoubtedly make many hypocrites, will also make many converts. “

I wonder if this may not reflect on his own ancestors who first came to Ireland in the 17C. as Quakers and who as dissenters would have suffered debilities. Obviously lightened by the time of William Edward who ended up owning 721 acres at Aughanure, Bestfield and Kilcock and via the Hartpole side 1,200 acres at Shrule Castle, Co. Laois.  The Hartpoles remained Catholic until 1640.  It seems that part of the plantation of Munster was not aligned to religion.

In a curious inversion of history Cullenswood House where Lecky was born in 1838  became Scoil Eanna set up by Padraic Pearse as a Gaelic academy.

“In 1833 Cullenswood House was bought from Charles Joly, the then proprietor, by John Lecky, grandfather of the historian. John Lecky was succeeded by his eldest son, John Hartpoole Lecky; and John Hartpoole Lecky’s son, William Edward Hartpoole Lecky, was born at Cullenswood House on March 26th, 1838. So our school-house has already a very worthy tradition of scholarship and devotion to Ireland; scholarship which even the most brilliant of our pupils will hardly emulate, devotion to Ireland, not indeed founded on so secure and right a basis as ours, but sincere, unwavering, lifelong.”( from an essay of Pearse -Pearse on Cullenswood

Pearse may have been a little charitable here for Lecky regarded Home Rulers as murderous ruffians and agrarian incendiaries.  In the end however it was the Black and Tans that burnt Cullenswood House.

It seems to have been repaired and in the 1990‘s was functioning as a Gaelscoil and again becoming delapidated due to neglect.  The story of its renewal and refurbishment is told here

as gaeilge

lios na nog

Nach Iomaí Cor sa Saol


Ps. Since blogspot decided to change its site html is awry and formatting is exasperating. 

Monday, 7 August 2023

von Hugel, the Mystical, Bergson, and Nisargadatta.

 Baron Von Hugel in his magisterial work ‘The Mystical Element of Religion’ considers the apparently inescapable dilemma of the Subjective versus the Objective.  How do you know that your ‘rapt to the highest heaven’ is not an illusion?  Can you ever know?  Are they those peak experiences breadcrumbs to find our way home or pebbles?  Can the illusory really be transformative or is that only an apparently deep question which evaporates like a puddle in the sun?  

“And this objection is felt most keenly in religion, when the religious soul first wakes up to the fact that itself, of necessity and continuously, contributes, by its own action, to the constitution of those affirmations and certainties, which, until then, seemed, without a doubt, to be directly borne in upon a purely receptive, automatically registering mind, from that extra-, super-human world which it thus affirmed. Here also, all having for so long been assumed to be purely objective, the temptation now arises to consider it all as purely subjective. “ (Mystical Element)

……And finally, this doubt and trouble would seem to find specially ready material in the mystical element and form of religion. For here, as we have already seen, psycho-physical and auto-suggestive phenomena and mechanisms abound; here especially does the mind cling to an immediate access to Reality; and here the ordinary checks and complements afforded by the Historical and Institutional, the Analytically Rational, and the Volitional, Practical elements of Religion are at a minimum. (op.cit. below)”

Are we stuck with this analysis or is it vyavaharika  (conventional/mundane/relative) rather than hewing to the ‘paramarthika’  (absolute) line as the Vedantin puts it?  As long as we think in terms of the usual accounts of truth as correspondence or coherence we will be trapped in an inescapable aporia.  We are stuck on that reef and no tide will lift us off.  Berkeley was right you know when he held that there need be no matter that is the cause of our representation if that was what we were relying  on for our experience of the world.  Representations beg the question. There had to be a way of allowing for the ‘external’ world, a way that was properly founded.  God keeps the game in play and when Samuel Johnson kicked the stone God underwrote the ouch.

But does all that really matter to the mystic who lives in the heart of being even when his epistemology is flawed.  As Bergson who is frequently referred to by von Hugel points out we move from intuition to conceptualization and not the other direction which is the path that philosophical inquiry takes.  Conceptual analysis is useful while at the same time being an engine of alienation.  It spawns paradoxes and oppresses us with mental fidget.  In that hedging  locution favoured by philosophers - ‘we worry’.

Nisargadatta the Sage of Bombay achieved self-realisation following the instruction of his guru to continuously keep his mind on the reality - I am.  I AM THAT the great saying of the upanisad is almost a forced conclusion compared to the immersion in being of I AM.

Sunday, 16 July 2023

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

It would be interesting to see whether the spirit of Greta would not now lie over the novel and spoil it of the Nobel prize.  Man is now viewed as the despoiler of nature, the wrecker who should keep to his already tamed and eviscerated tract.  The emphasis now is of rewilding, of rewetting bogland, of returning to nature.  Hamsun was for the taming of the wilderness, clearing, draining, tilling his land, asking it humbly for a home.  Not every place is suitable to dwell and surely inside the Arctic Circle is inhospitable and forbidding.  A month of darkness in which to interrogate your soul, the sudden Spring and an intense release of the ground to your crops that must be saved to help you survive a snow bound Winter.  Peasants everywhere value work. To say of a man ‘he’s a great worker’ is an accolade, not an irony like ‘ a great timekeeper’. 

The Land is the protagonist of this novel.  Everyone has to wrestle with it and it can be said that only Isak throws it and makes soil which is not a given as in other kindlier tracts of the earth. Fertility has to be earned and man’s domain and dominion is hard won.  This is displayed by means of the drama of counterparts which is an organising feature of the novel. You have Isak and Axel, Inger and Babro, the roving Geissler and Eluses the rambling shopkeeper.  Fertility is frustrated by infanticide another major theme demonstrating the new values of elaborate rationalisation in the developing of the nations consciousness.  That’s interesting and the speech of an official’s wife in the trial for infanticide has a modern ring.  Ja, its the patriarchy. That crime hangs over the valley like a fog which Axel encounters returning in the Winter dark from felling trees.

“He got up, and felt suddenly confused. H'm. What had happened now? Nothing, only that he had been sitting down a bit. Now there is something standing there before him, a Being, a spirit; grey silk—no, it was nothing. He felt strange—took one short, uncertain step forward, and walked straight into a look.  great look, a pair of eyes. At the same moment the aspens close by began rustling. Now any one knows that an aspen can have a horrible eerie way of rustling at times; anyhow, Isak had never before heard such an utterly horrible rustling as this, and he shuddered. Also he put out one hand in front of him, and it was perhaps the most helpless movement that hand had ever made……….

Isak was eager to see what would come next; he was shivering still; a coldness seemed to radiate from the figure before him—it must be the Evil One! And here Isak was no longer sure of his ground, so to speak. It might be the Evil One —but what did he want here? What had he, Isak, been doing? Nothing but sitting still and tilling the ground, as it were, in his thoughts—there could surely be no harm in that? There was no other guilt he could call to mind just then; he was only coming back from his work in the forest, a tired and hungry woodman, going home to Sellanraa—he means no harm….”

 Regret is one thing, expiation is another and all has to be achieved before this deflection into the dark side is straightened out.  As in the beasts that Isak cares for and knows, like the flat eared ewe stolen by trickery, coming of good stock is a moral foundation that not everybody has.  The Bredas are a flighty lot of useless yokes.  Will they ever find a clean path that they can follow?  Maybe, but its not a sure thing this luck business.  It might be stumbled on.  They are the sort you don’t hate but you keep out of their way nevertheless.  

Geissler the Lensmand is an unusual figure without a strict counterpart in the novel.  He is a tutelary spirit, that advises, bestows and grants boons.  He turns up, a genius of improvisations that turn out saving strokes.  He is impatient with gratitude or benefitting by the help he gives and the evidence of his own varying fortunes is displayed by the state of his waistcoat:

“Geissler back again. Years now since he was there, but he is back again, aged a little, greyer a little, but bright and cheerful as ever. And finely dressed this time, with a white waistcoat and gold chain across. A man beyond understanding!”

This ‘filthy modern tide’ (Yeats) comes to the valley in the form of mining and the telegraph.  Anything which distracts from the tilling of the soil is morally faulty and won’t be lucky.  So many themes in this great novel.  Not a lot of jokes but one thing you can say about Hamsun even if he walked on the dark side for a while - ‘he’s a great worker’.


Tuesday, 11 July 2023

Bergson's Key Insights in 'Matter and Memory'

 I finished Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson recently reading only a few pages at a time, that immersive sort of reading as though I was writing it. Nice idea but unlikely with this author who can turn a few millimetres of definitional space into a football pitch.  You become acquainted with the truth of his description of the difference between the amateur and the philosopher as demonstrated through the approach to a problem field.  The amateur takes the topic as found in the history, 6 reasons for, 6 against and the path through the middle.  The philosopher hears his own Socratic daimon saying ‘don’t go there’, uh uh; maybe the problem is not as posed and the oppositional poles as in the internal/external, idealism/realism dyads are merely a continuously morphing mistake.  I’m probably completely wrong in thinking that this is the key insight in his first chapter.  Broadly stated the internal demands the presence of the external to be itself.  

“The realist starts, in fact, from the universe, that is to say from an aggregate of images governed, as to their mutual

relations, by fixed laws, in which effects are in strict proportion to their causes, and of which the character is an

absence of centre, all the images unfolding on one and the same plane indefinitely prolonged. But he is at once

bound to recognize that, besides this system, there are perceptions that is to say, systems in which these same

images seem to depend on a single one among them, around which they range themselves on different planes, so as

to be wholly transformed by the slightest modification of this central image. Now this perception is just what the

idealist starts from: in the system of images which he adopts there is a privileged image, his body, by which the

other images are conditioned. But as soon as he attempts to connect the present with the past and to foretell the

future, he is obliged to abandon this central position, to replace (pg 15) all the images on the same plane, to suppose

that they no longer vary for him, but for themselves; and to treat them as though they made part of a system in

which every change gives the exact measure of its cause. On this condition alone a science of the universe becomes

possible; and, since this science exists, since it succeeds in foreseeing the future, its fundamental hypothesis cannot

be arbitrary. The first system alone is given to present experience; but we believe in the second, if only because we

affirm the continuity of the past, present, and future. Thus in idealism, as in realism, we posit one of the two

systems and seek to deduce the other from it.”

Staying at that level of analysis leads to a constant oscillation, the result of the apparently inescapable dualism between me and my world.  Here the philosopher says no, perhaps there is a path to non-duality in which there is what Bergson calls ‘pure perception’. 

If that isn’t knowledge as we know it Henri then what is it, a transcendental swiss penknife or something?  What would make you think it exists unless it evinces itself in some manner. And are you cher Maitre Bergson really saying that we perceive our perceptions?

Friday, 7 July 2023

The Unclassed by George Gissing

 Let me first of all deal with the problem of coincidence in novels, Victorian novels in particular.. The Unclassed by George Gissing is full of them. Does not that flagrant breach of likelihood ruin verisimilitude?  Yes if you view the novel as a tranche of life, a piece of social history using the characters as lay figures.  Of course its not that, it is a story, a world enclosed in a narrative, pure fabulism. It is a restricted world and the relationships of the characters must be worked out within it.  Therefore they must all meet in whatever likely or unlikely way they do. Its a small world..

A good way to bring disparate characters together is school. Right away the enmity which is a central element is established by Ida Starr skulling Harriet Smales with a writing slate knocking her out.  The row has come about through Harriet declaring Ida’s mother to be no better than a street woman which is actually true.  Though Ida who is about 10 or so does not know what this means having been sheltered from this life by a mother who wants to rear her gently being herself from a well off background but a little wayward, seduced at age 18 and by refusing to give up the child, Ida,  is cast out by her father, Abraham Woodstock.  Maud Enderby is a friend of Ida’s and she is being reared by her Aunt who is a strict ascetic non conformist. Maud believes that her parents are dead . Harriet’s father is a compounding chemist, sickly of course as per usual in the novels of Gissing a good percentage of the characters will be ailing.  Harriet is the only child but there is a nephew Julian Casti a few years older than her.  Mother is dead.

That is one assemblage of characters. The other element is the lone figure of Osmond Waymark.who brings them all together by writing an ad in the newspaper looking for a friend of literary bent to meet for conversation and company.  This is some years later than the opening scene. . 

Now this sort of review through dramatis personae is not my usual way of dealing with a novel.  I’m doing it to remind myself that this was the work of a 26 year old man and  his second novel.  It was an extremely complex narrative retaining interest in the characters as they developed over several years.  In some ways the novel is like a therapeutic journal plotting his own internal drama.  Waymark represents the authori himself as the strong writer able by the force of his personality to turn the prostitute Ida to purity and love unsullied by lust.  At the same time he is attracted to the religious Maud Enderby.  Casti represents the side of Gissing easily imposed on by a scheming woman dragged down and neglecting his talent.  At the time of the writing of the novel he had broken with Nell the alcoholic prostitute that he had married.  The intensity of the energies released in the writing creates a like absorption in the reader.  We want the fantasy to correct the sordid aspects of his life and the visualisation to achieve reality.  The speed with which it was written and its journal aspect mitigated the usual writerly orotundity which can make the prose the analogue of lumpy porridge.

Do all the characters meet? Yes they do, of course. There are many well drawn evil characters.  Harriet is a monster of passive aggression, and vengeance, Slimey a Caliban clown, and Mrs. Sprowl an instigator of vile plot.  As in many of Gissing’s novels there are slums noisome, crooked, rotten and with defective plumbing causing night soil to be cast into the yard.  This is a good novel. 


Saturday, 24 June 2023

'The Three Imposters' by Arthur Machen

    First of all you will have to pay attention to the prologue.  Do not regard as a long winded introduction to the main story.  It holds the key and introduces you to the imposters and their aliases.  You are  therefore primed to disbelieve everything they may say and enjoy the irony of their fabrications while seeking to discover why they go to such lengths to tell Dyson and Phillipps egregious rigmaroles.  That reason you will never discover  because it is opaque to the profane.  In this realm causality operates on another level not the normal billiard ball one which is a matter of transmission of gross force on the material plane. The imposters lie out of sheer jouissance in the activity.  To impose and rook the stranger is a goal in itself.  Its what they do and they are good at it.  But why do Dyson and Phillipps meet them to be the objects of their imposture? My intuition is that the gold Tiberius, that coin a lone survivor of coinage struck as the celebration of infamy is accursed and has brought destruction on its possessors down through the centuries, generally hidden from sight and fought for when it occasionally turns up. It has therefore become karmically magnetized and though the Three Imposters do not know that Dyson has the coin their will to evil draws them into his company and to Phillipps’s who also knows about the coin.  

The action of the energies evoked by the coin are an example of what Hindu ritualists call ‘apurva’. Why, they asked, do rituals which must fructify appear to act with a non-linear causality? Are there subtle seeds which act to  create a catenary of action or must we accept that this action is apurva or unprecedented, uncanny if you will?  Shankaracarya the great teacher demurs.  It is the will of God that makes everything happen.  

The evil will and the vile energies that surround the coin make me fear for the future of Dyson and Phillips or whoever chances to bring it into the light of day.  The novel is a masterpiece of irony and palindromic fabulism.

Phillipps is most certainly wrong:

"I certainly think," replied Phillipps, "that, if you pull out that coin and flourish it under people's noses as you are doing at the present moment, you will very probably find yourself in touch with the criminal, or a criminal. You will undoubtedly be robbed with violence. Otherwise, I see no reason why either of us should be troubled. No one saw you secure the coin, and no one knows you have it. I, for my part, shall sleep peacefully, and go about my business with a sense of security and a firm dependence on the natural order of things. The events of the evening, the adventure in the street, have been odd, I grant you, but I resolutely decline to have any more to do with the matter, and, if necessary, I shall consult the police. I will not be enslaved by a gold Tiberius, even though it swims into my ken in a manner which is somewhat melodramatic."