Friday, 30 December 2011

Thomas Reid on Memory

The common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid has been promoted as the ideal prophylactic against the bizarre theories that infest philosophy according to at least one professional philosopher whose rather hectoring manner decides me against mentioning his name. One notes that haunting by restless spirits begins with the ouija board. This individual also derides believers in God and the proponents of mysterianism. What Reid says about memory, a strangely neglected topic in epistemology brings into question his recruiting as an opponent of all error and fantastical theory.

First, I think it appears that memory is an original faculty given us by the Author of our being, of which we can give no account, but that we are so made.

The knowledge which I have of things past by my memory seems to me as unaccountable as an immediate knowledge would be of things to come; and I can give no reason why I should have the one and not the other, but that such is the will of my Maker. I find in my mind a distinct conception and a firm belief of a series of past events: but how this is produced I know not. I call it memory, but that is only giving a name to it; it is not an account of its cause. I believe most firmly what I distinctly remember; but I can give no reason for this belief. It is the inspiration of the almighty that gives me this understanding.
(from Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785 edn. available on Google Books - ereaders search for Essay III. Then to Chap.II. or pg.320 on Sony ereader)I will have to append a note on efficient search on ereaders that is universally valid.

As Bergson has pointed out in an essay which I wrote about recently
mind energy
the idea of the connection between brain and memory has been well noted for a long time and is not the trump card magicked from the sleeve of modern science. Thomas Reid finds the outline of the theory in a a commentary by Alcinous on the doctrines of Plato.

When the form or type of things is imprinted on the mind by the organs of the senses, and so imprinted "as not to be deleted by time, but preserved firm and lasting, its "preservation is called memory".

Upon this principle Aristotle imputes the shortness of memory in children to this cause, that their brain is too moist and soft to retain impressions made upon it: And the defect of memory CHAP. vii. in old men he imputes, on the contrary, to the hardness and rigidity of the brain, which hinders its receiving any durable impression.

Reid also admits the lesion evidence but rejects the idea that this demonstrates anything about the nature of consciousness because there is no resemblance between nueronal events and the experience. I take this to mean that simply stating that one is the other or causes the other is to use the words 'cause' and 'identity' in ways which we have no experience of, that do not relate to our ordinary uses of these words. He writes:

It is probable that in perception some impression is made upon the brain as well as upon the organ and nerves, because all the nerves terminate in the brain, and because disorders and hurts of the brain are found to affect our powers of perception when the external organ and nerve are found; but we are totally ignorant of the nature this impression upon the brain: It can have not resemblance to the object perceived, nor does it in any degree account for that sensation and perception which are consequent upon it.

Excuse these long citations but it is probably necessary to emphasise the fact that the knowledge which modern neuroscience demonstrates through brain imaging does not evade the 'hard question' which was clear to the savants of the late 18th. century however approximate their physical findings were. Reid's close examination of the absurdities involved in the 'impression' theories of Locke and Hume bring to mind similar analyses in Matter and Memory by Bergson. I found Epistemological Problems of Memory
the Stanford entry on the Epistemological Problems of Memory to be very helpful on this.

Finally to demonstrate how far common sense can take you from the high road of scientism: (from E.I.P. pg.322)
Our Maker has provided other means for giving us the knowledge of these things; means which perfectly answer their end, and produce the effect intended by them. But in what manner they do this, is, I fear, beyond our skill to explain. We know our own thoughts, and the operations of our minds, by a power which we call consciousness: But this is only giving a name to this part of our frame. It does not explain its fabric, nor how it produces in us an irresistible conviction of its informations. We perceive material objects and their sensible qualities by our senses; but how they give us this information, and how they produce our belief in it, we know not. We know many past events by memory; but how it gives this information, I believe, is inexplicable.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Priest in the Family by Colm Toibin

Part of my Xmas haul was The Granta Book of The Irish Short Story edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright. She acknowledges the help of various people including Colm Toibin whom she clearly has a high regard for as she brackets him with Banville, O'Brien and McGahern.

Banville, O'Brien, McGahern and Toibin – those writers become more distinctive as people, even as their sentences become more distinctively their own......As much as possible I have tried to choose those stories in which a writer is most himself.

I have disparaged Toibin here before but I am always willing to be proved wrong and as Enright is a well known writer herself, a winner of the Booker prize a few years ago, her selection might be supposed to represent him at his best. So let's have a look at it.

A Priest in the Family begins inauspiciously with a weather report.

She watched the sky darken, threatening rain.

This flouts Elmore Leonards first rule of writing:
1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

This is all the more so as in Ireland it is always either raining or threatening to rain. When James Joyce told us in The Dead that “snow was general all over Ireland”, that was a form of precipitation which is unusual enough to mark. The old woman who is reacting to the weather is curiously seasonally affected. She doesn't mind cold and wet weather as long as the light level is low. Maybe there is some symbolic blazing being cut here in the story because further on we are told:
'As long as it's the winter I can manage,' Molly said. 'I sleep late in the mornings and I'm kept busy. It's the summer I dread. I'm not like those people who suffer from that disorder when there's no light. I dread the long summer days when I wake with the dawn and think the blackest thoughts. Oh, the blackest thoughts! But I'll be all right until then.'

Her (Molly's) son is a priest and the man to whom she is speaking is a priest also and a friend of his. Despite a little bit of gumption building business i.e. Pulling up his socks, he cannot come to the point of the visit he is paying her.

Instead, he reached down and pulled up one of his grey socks, then waited for a moment before he inspected the other and pulled that up too.

His news which she apparently is the last to know about is that the priest son is going to trial on a charge of sexual abuse which occurred some years before when he was a teacher. This would have been in a secondary school probably though this is not made clear in the story.

After the priest has left Toibin tells us

When he had gone she got the RTE Guide and opened it for the evening's television listings; she began to set the video to record Glenroe.

Given that the last Glenroe episode was in 2001 and this woman is nearly 80, the usage of 'listings' is odd. It is narration I know and not her voice but 'listings' for 'programmes' has a leaden ring. If you're in her world be there. Ask yourself: what would Joyce have done?

Much is made of the fact that Molly is keeping up with things, playing bridge, learning the intricacies of email, visiting people and generally being the active elder, sharp as a tack as they say. What is she missing? It comes out eventually when the priest returns on the following night. It is delivered in the dullest possible way and the reaction to it is not credible. Her son the priest was abusing teenage boys under his care. This would likely be in a boarding school. All she can think of is : “Does the whole town know?” No fainting, no breaking-down, no recourse to tea or prayer or anger only a determination to hold her head up through it all. Pardon my unbelief, but this is not a credible reaction. The daughters, 2 of them, show more or less similar blankness. They are a low-light, crepuscular family but this is ridiculous.

Is this curious lack of affect a reflection of the author's attitude one wonders. He received a great deal of criticism due to his offering a character witness to the court in the case of aggravated sexual assault on a 15 year old boy by the writer Desmond Hogan
Hogan
Being a good writer, which actually Hogan is not,is not a defence in a case of this kind. We had another similar scandal in the case of Cathal Sharkey who was seducing young Nepali boys and who was likewise defended by other fellow members of Aosdana. When priests abuse it is universally condemned by the intelligentsia but they shuffle and temporise when someone they know does the same thing. Perhaps a parity of reasoning is operational in the story. If Mammy threw a wobbly then that would mean it was serious.

It's too poorly written to possibly subvert anyone's moral sense.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Bleak Midwinter

"God bless us everyone" said Tiny Tim, the last of all"

A Christmas Carol has been read into me so much that I was scarcely conscious that I had never read it. It is part of the hope of Xmas that Usura(Canto XLV)Usura will somehow be converted and a humanised market of jolly potlatch prevail. That story can be related to the Children's Christmas Party episode of The Sopranos a marvel of bleak, bleak, black comedy. It is nearer I think to the Gospel account of post-natal flight, blue-collar toil under an alien regime and eventual betrayal and crucifixion. Judas, that rat! How do Christians take anything good out of it?

Happy Xmas.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Reputation

I'm having a look at The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose to see what the editor Frank Muir has to say about Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne. My own view based on readings in different moods and times is that it is a lugubrious piece of drollery. Does stretching a joke count as a longer joke? A partial confirmation of the correctness of my reaction came from a German Professor of my acquaintance who told me that the book was hugely influential and regarded as the pinnacle of wit in Germany in its day.

Frank Muir tells me that I'm in good company. Samuel Richardson and Tobias Smollett did not think much of it. Oliver Goldsmith thought Sterne a bawdy blockhead and Johnson was offended by the occasional indecency but the book was taken up by the fashionable and thereby the judgement of true wits was obviated. And so, I aver, it remains, a mystery of reputation.

Once you allow Professors in they swarm over the gunwales like boarding marines. I met Mickey, whom I know from a boy, down town about his shopping. He runs a post-grad writing course in the local university. By the bye, I said, how does Colm Toibin have the reputation he does? We both shook our heads like the Swedes in the Muppet Show, bewildered by the effrontery of fame. 'He has a great agent' said Mickey. 'That must be it' says I. His sentences are laid down like chains of sausage, dull thoughts follow dull images without ever a sense that his creation may break away and manifest a life of its own like the mind created elementals of sorcery. That golem never breaks out of the cellar.

The story gets away on Flannery O'Connor regularly. In The River the boy tells the woman who is going to mind him for the day that his name is Bevel.

His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought before at any time of changing it, "Bevel", he said.
Mrs.Connin raised herself from the wall. "Why ain't that a coincident.!", she said. "I told you that's the name of this preacher!".

How did O'Connor think of that? I've a feeling that it wasn't her, it was young Ashfield the confabulist that thought of it, she didn't know until he said it. That's what having genius is.

Young Tommy Joe, aged 5, of my acquaintance, future Professor of the Strange but Untrue phoned up his grandfather Martin:
- I can't see you today.
- Why's that Tommy?
- I'm going to the doctor.
- What's wrong with you.
- I don't know, the doctor 'll tell me.

There was nothing wrong with him and naturally he was not going to the doctor but the circumstance of phoning required 'news'

Monday, 19 December 2011

Mulliner

Mulliner's BUCK-U-UPPO is to be found in the collection Meet Mr.Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse. I got it for 5€ brand new at my local 2nd. hand bookstore. The Mulliner Collections are not in the Wodehouse selection at the Gutenberg Project though I suppose diligent searching might turn them up elsewhere.

Mr. Mulliner the chronicler of the vast Mulliner clan to whom the oddest things happen, is introduced in the following manner:

He was a short, stout, comfortable man of middle age, and the thing that struck me first about him was the extraordinarily childlike candour of his eyes. They were large and round and honest. I would have bought oil stock from him without a tremor.

It is never stated but that oil stock might be infused with essence of serpent. Mr. Mulliner's brother Wilfred is a chemist of note who has produced some renowned patent preparations one of which comes to the rescue of a timid curate nephew Augustine. His normal tendency towards windiness and funk is eliminated by a spoonful of this elixir. I fear that a summary will not do justice to the ineffable nature of the plot which has emerged momentarily from the sphere of the apophatic It is a lift from De Profundis to Excelsior.

We later find that Augustine through a clerical error has been sent the B preparation of BUCK-U-UPPO which is designed to eliminate funk in elephants who decline to face the tiger in the hunt. A mere spoonful added to their morning mash turns the perturbed pachyderm into a fearless tusker. This over-egging of the curate, mea culpa, does not stop him from ordering after this fashion:

Send immediately three case of the 'B'. 'Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. Deuteronomy xxviii.5

Friday, 16 December 2011

Buck-U-Uppo

You are sheep without a shepherd. To parse that differently, what are you with a shepherd? You are not a sheep you are egregious ie. above the flock, you stand out, you count or are countable or accountable and have taken responsibility for your own destiny. People have been jumping on poor Mr. Marks like the bland following the bland for forgetting the overwhelming power of social conditioning. Mr. CoatesAtlantic chides him for lack of proper humility and bids us ask why we wouldn't have done anything back in the days of slavery. Yes indeed because rightly seen life is a 12 step program. We are powerless to change without intercession. Ta-Nehisi Coates has the spirit of his father to be for him the spiritual analogue of Mulliner's 'buck-u-uppo', Carter who manumitted his slaves had Swedenbourg's teachings and the Quakers were guided by the Holy Spirit. The latter is non-confessional by the way. End of homily.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

So what do you do when you wake up at 3:30 from a dream of poor quality, drowning came into it, do you set yourself to twitch as your life passes before you, a series of tableaux of failure, ignominy and desolation? No, you get up, make a cup of tea, take 3 sweeties from the Roses tin, no more, and read Everything that Rises must Converge.

In checking the source of the title I discovered that it is from a book by Tailhard De Chardin, The Future of Man. I wrongly guessed Plotinus who has something of the same sort of pneumatics in his Enneads. In Good Country People O'Connor quotes from Being and Time by Heidegger. She is fond of lay scripture and finds therein ironic themes and inverted doxology.

I note that the Googleamus throws up various glosses on the text called notes. Such explication de texte I never read and on reflection navigating over the reefs of political correctness must be so hazardous for the high school teacher that they would love to leave it out or leave it to the Spark or Monkey interpretations.

There is some shape shifting in this story and exchange of sons. One is reminded of the ancient practice regulated by Brehon law of Tanistry and fosterage. Here of course it is the feeblest of the ancient blood, the liberal son, that inherits. However he is not without an image of Tara's Halls animating his reveries.

Being O'Connor her endings tend to be definite and final, the middle seems to have less of the aggregation of detail of the inveterate fabulist that she was. It was a late story and her illness may have been affecting that energy. As Micheal O Muircearthaigh said about the Clare hurler who went on a severe diet.

You know the ways it is, when you lose a lot of weight, some of your strinth goes with it.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Good Country People by Flannery O'Connor

As a rest and a relief from John Cowper Powys I am reading in Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories. With her you will never know how consciousness is to be distributed but it may switch from soul to soul like a vile oppressing spirit that produces the grim atrabiliousness that breaks out as laughter. Good Country People has that constellation of which O'Connor is particularly fond, Mother, intellectual child with solipsistic tendencies and a stranger that is passing strange. Just when you think Hulga is about to discover her misplaced Joy she loses something other than she had perhaps hoped for. Mother is generally a put upon creature of determined good will. The vast country cunning of Mrs. Freeman who must match each affront to flesh is pitted against Mrs. Hopewell her employer. Her various stands in the kitchen; against the gas heater in the winter, in the doorway in the summer, at the refrigerator: are perfectly noted. This brooding and capping ubiquity - 'I always said it did myself':

All this was very trying on Mrs.Hopewell but she was a woman of great patience.

The bible salesman, a collector of curiosities, a wandering nihilist who passes for good country people entices Hulga who herself affects a belief in Nothing. Her Phd. in Philosophy is not a match for his powers of abstraction.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Thought Experiments

Back in the day when I was a boy philosopher the only thought experiment you might encounter was Locke's soul swap of the cobbler and the prince as a way of promoting the idea that what made you uniquely you were your memories, attitudes, abilities etc and not this all too solid flesh.

In eastern lore Shankara is supposed to have been debating a woman on the kama sutra but being a celibate was at a disadvantage so he arranged a soul swap with a multiwived nabob using his yogic powers. The wives noticing the increased interest of their jaded spouse suspected that this was the result of sorcery or yogic mischief. 'Look' they said, 'for a sadhu in trance and despatch him leaving him trapped in the body of the rampant rajah'. Shankara got back and reanimated his usual form in time to triumph in debate over the saucy housewife.

The moral of these stories is that fables do not function as 'intuition pumps' but merely serve to reflect underlying dogmas. Worse than that, they conceal this dogma by adding the spurious persuasiveness of the factitious. There is something in a story which disables the critical faculties and allows us to accept time travel, buttons which pause time, the salvific properties of obese folk and the like.

Instead of thought experiments let's try thinking.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Parmenides and Satkaryavada

In A History of Philosophy Vol.1, Greece and Rome, Part 1 by Frederick Copleston S.J. the theory of Parmenides is described succinctly and with admirable clarity:

His first great assertion is that "It is". "It", i.e. Reality, Being, of whatever nature it may be, is, exists, and cannot not be. It is, and it is impossible for it not to be. Being can be spoken of, and it can be the object of my thought. But that which I can think of and can speak of can be, "for it is the same thing that can be thought and can be". But if "It" can be then it is. Why? Because if it could be and yet were not, then it would be nothing. Now, nothing cannot be the object of speech or thought, for to speak about nothing is not to speak, and to think faout nothing is the same as not thinking at all. Besides if it merely could be, then, paradoxically, it couldnever come to be, for it would then have to come out of nothing, and out of nothing comes nothing and not something. Being, then, Reality, "It" was not first possible, i.e. nothing, and then existent: it was always existent - more accurately, "It is".


In the Sankhya-karikas of Isvarakrishna we have this expression of the doctrine of Satkaryavada also known as the doctrine of the non-difference of cause and effect:

The effect already exists in the cause for the following reasons: what is nonexistent cannot he produced; for producing a thing, a specific material cause is resorted to; everything is not produced by everything; a specific material cause capable of producing a specific product alone produces that effect; there is such a thing as a particular cause for a particular effect.

As in the injunction frequently encountered on Irish building sites Think of the next man, this doctrine leaves much to be done in the way of ingenious exegesis by subsequent sages. We can however discern through the fog something of the form of a like insight to that of Parmenides. What is, is, and what is not has no traction on reality in order to come to be. It can't get started.
As mentioned in a previous note on this topic
advaitic causalitythis idea of causality comes from the narrow focus of what in the Aristotelian system would be termed material causality. In a curious way the materialist monism of Parmenides throws a light on the Satkaryavada doctrine which bundles together material and efficient causality and treats them as one. Because potential is wrapped up in the nature of the material which is then what is to be formed out of that material must somehow be in existence. Otherwise it could not come to be because it would be nothing and as we are told nothing cannot gain traction.

Satkaryavada is a confused likeness of the doctrine of the impossibility of change espoused by Parmenides in that it accepts change but only as mithya i.e. real as an appearance.

By knowing a single lump of clay, everything that is made of clay would become known. A modification begins with speech, it is a (mere) name. The clay alone is true i.e. real.
Commentary on Chandogya Upanishad VI.i.4

In the commentary of Shankara on the Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya the impossibility of something coming out of nothing is unequivocally stated.

Existence does not come out of non-existence. If something can come out of nothing, then it becomes useless to refer to special kinds of causes, since non-existence as such is indistinguishable everywhere.
B.S.B. II.ii.26

This general principle is used externsively both in the discussion about material causality and the possibility of change and also as a method of refutation of the Buddhist doctrines of Annata and Annica. In this note I am concerned with material causality. An important citation on this topic is B.S.B. II.i.18 in which he states his views on potency:

Again, when some potency is assumed in the cause, to determine the effect, that potency cannot influence the effect by being different (from the cause and effect) or non-existent (like the effect), since (on either supposition) non-existence and difference will pertain to the potency as much as to the effect. Therefore the potency must be the very essence of the cause, and the effect must be involved in the very core of the potency.

Grasping these ideas is like lifting mercury with a fork because we are so primed with the Aristotelian concept of Cause & Effect. I'm not even sure that they conflict with Aristotle's views because they are more onto-theological than ontological. Brahman in the Vedic schema is the material cause of the universe. Brahman as pure act is the cause and the effect of all manifestation. Just as all the potential for items made of clay is in the clay, all the potential for what is, is in Brahman. There is a unity of act and potency in Brahman and because Brahman is the reality of anything whatever this non-difference of cause and effect is reflected in matter of all kinds.

It is not the case that Shankara ignores the idea of efficent causality claiming that everything just happens. He accepts the role of actors but still subordinates their causal importance to the material cause or the nature of things. That is the supervenient reality.

Moreover, if it be admitted that something can come out of nothing, then on the same ground even the indifferent people who are inactive should attain their desired results, for non-existence is clearly evident even there, and so a husbandman who does not engage in cultivation should get his crop, a potter who makes no effort for preparing the clay should get his vessels ready, and a weaver who does not make any effort for weaving the yarn should get a cloth just as much as one that weaves. And nobody need in any way strive for heaven or liberation. But such a position is neither reasonable nor is accepted by anybody. Therefore the assertion of something coming out of nothing is unjustifiable.

These topics of substance, identity and change refracted through a vedic medium are puzzling and pondering on them gives one a sense of how Plato confronted by Parmenides tried to save the appearances.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Bergson Thing

So this Bergson thing, isn't it all a bit esoteric, the province of Levinas and Deleuze, those masters of obfuscation? That would be an error because with Bergson you always know what it is that you don't understand or rather it hovers there on the tip of your mind. You feel yourself in a physical state of unease as the consciousness attempts to enter you by neural pathways that have yet to be set up, pathways that would make you ready for a perception or a reaction.

If this experience is as commonplace as Bergson maintains and shown by him to be manifest in the searching for the right word, or putting a name to the face then such strategies as we deploy in these cases ought to be universal. Hatha Yoga has many techniques one of which is pranayama or breath control. It was noticed early by yogis that states of ecstatic consciousness and oceanic feeling were accompanied by a suspension of breathing. Could a replication of such breathing lead to a facilitation of a like consciousness? Yes so it seems and even for a beginner some pranayama leads to a quieting of the neural traffic that facilitates meditation.

The materialist will claim that this merely proves his point. What point? That we evoke in the brain we know not what, in an area we know not where, an incommunicable awareness that has no adaptive advantage. When an explanation is more complex and contains more imponderable elements than the explanandum you can be sure that you are a lost puppy. It's worse than dormitive, it's, it's, I know not what. Oh, yeah, it's continental or even orientalist. It's Buddhist monks with electrodes. What do these deep meditation experiments show? In the words of the title of M.R. James's story Whistle and I'll Come to You.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Mind Energy by Henri Bergson

When Bergson talks to a general audience the categories of realism and idealism which are so fraught by fundamental disagreements are set aside and he brings to bear his acute forensic intelligence on the experimental suggestions which seem to establish a materialist view. The other thing is that his later writing on the subject which was covered in a philosophical context in Matter and Mind shows an awareness of its difficulty. Fifteen years had passed by the time he came to give the Huxley Lecture to the University of Birmingham from the publication of that very difficult work. No doubt the multitude of questions and rebuttals that he had faced in the meantime enabled him to enhance the clarity of his exposition. Life and Consciousness is the title of his lecture and it is collected in the book entitled Mind Energy (pub. 1920) A copy of it is available at Internet Archive in various formats: mind energy

There is also out there on youtube an individual reading The Soul and the Body from that same collection reading
He stops to clarify from time to time. There is an energy that communicates itself.

Bergson says in that first lecture something that gave Wittgenstein an odd feeling:

It is literally impossible for you to prove, either by experience or by reasoning, that I, who am speaking to you at this moment, am a conscious being. I may be an ingeniously constructed natural auto maton, going, coming, discoursing; the very words I am speaking to affirm that I am conscious may be being pronounced unconsciously. Yet you will agree that though it is not impossible that I am an unconscious automaton, it is very improbable.

In each of the lectures he focuses on some aspect of behaviour, conscious or unconscious, and turn a light on its underside.

The amoeba, for instance, when in presence of a substance which can be made food, pushes out towards it filaments able to seize and enfold foreign bodies. These pseudopodia are real organs and therefore mechanisms; but they are only temporary organs created for the particular purpose, and it seems they still show the rudiments of choice.

Here we come to the panpsychism which has been castigated as vitalism or a dormitive explanation. In Creative Evolution Élan vital was translated as vital impetus. 'Whatever' as the man said to the turnip, the difficulty is that when something is 'pan' contriving an explanation which does not include the explanandum is tricky. Can the concept of 'telos' be avoided here? In the ordinary understanding of teleology by its critics it is taken to mean an end or objective that is aimed towards, something to be achieved in the future. In the Aristotelian account of causality the 'end' is something that is operative now. The end of poetry is pleasure or the end of rhetoric is persuasion. The 'what is it for' is the telos. And that is a present experience.

We have good ground, then, for believing that the evolving force bore within it originally, but confused together or rather the one implied in the other, instinct and intelligence.

Things have happened just as though an immense current of consciousness interpenetrated with potentialities of every kind had traversed matter to draw it towards organisation and make it, notwithstanding that it is necessity itself, an instrument of freedom.

The second lecture in the book is entitled The Soul and the Body delivered in Paris in 1912. It covers in a general way the topics first dealt with in Matter and Memory. For those who wish to engage with the startling idea that memory is not wholly stored in brain tissue this is a good place to start. Over several pages he recapitulates the lesion evidence:

Let us go further: science can
localize in definite convolutions of the brain definite
functions of the mind, such as the faculty of perform-
ing voluntary movements, of which you spoke just now.
Lesions of particular points in the Rolandic area, be-
tween the frontal and the parietal lobes, involve the
loss of movements of the arm, of the leg, of the face,
of the tongue, according to the exact spot affected.
Even memory, which you consider an essential function
of the mind, has been partly localized. At the foot of
the third left frontal convolution are seated the mem-
ories of the movements of the articulation of speech ;
in one region between the first and second left temporal
convolutions is preserved the memory of the sound of



THE SOUL AND THE BODY 41

words ; at the posterior part of the second left parietal
convolution are deposited the visual images of words,
and of letters, etc. Let us go further still. You said
that in space, as in time, the soul overflows the body
to which it is joined. Let us consider space. It is
true that sight and hearing go beyond the limits of the
body. But why? Because vibrations from afar have
impressed eye and ear and been transmitted to the
brain; there, in the brain, the stimulation has become
auditory or visual sensation; perception is therefore
within the body and not spread abroad. Let us con-
sider time. You claim that the mind embraces the
past, whilst the body is confined within a present which
recommences without ceasing. But we recall the past
only because our body preserves the still present traces
of it. The impressions made by objects on the brain
abide there like the images on a sensitive plate, or the
records on gramophone disks. Just as the disk repeats
the melody when the apparatus is set working, so the
brain revives the memory when the requisite shock is
produced* at the point where the impression is re-
tained. So then, no more in time than in space does
the soul overflow the body. But is there really a soul
distinct from the body? We have just seen that
changes, or, to be more exact, displacements and new
groupings of molecules and atoms are continually go-
ing on in the brain. Some of these express themselves
in what we call sensations, others in memories ; without



42 MIND-ENERGY

any doubt brain-changes correspond to all Intellectual,
sensible and voluntary facts. To them consciousness
is superadded, a kind of phosphorescence ; it is like the
luminous trail of the match we strike on the wall in the
dark. This phosphorescence, being, as it were, a self-
illumination, begets strange internal optical illusions ; so
consciousness imagines itself to be modifying, directing
and producing the movements when in fact it is itself
the result of them. The belief in free will consists in
this. The truth is that could we look through the
skull and observe the inner working of the brain with
instruments magnifying some billion times more than
our most powerful microscopes, if we then should wit-
ness the dance of the molecules, atoms and electrons
of which the cerebral cortex is composed, and if in
addition we possessed the rule for transposing the
cerebral into the mental, — a dictionary, so to speak,
which would enable us to translate each figure of the
dance into the language of thought and feeling, — we
should know, quite as well as the supposed * soul,' what
it was thinking, feeling and wishing, what it would be
believing itself doing freely, though it would only be
acting mechanically. We should know it, indeed, much
better than it could know itself, for tbis so-called con-
scious * soul ' lights up only a small part of the intra-
cerebral dance ; — the soul is only the assemblage of
will-o-the-wisps which hover above certain privileged
groups of atoms ; — whereas we should be observing all



THE SOUL AND THE BODY 43

the groups of all the atoms, the whole intra-cerebral
dance. Your * conscious soul ' is at most an effect
which perceives effects : we should be seeing the effects
and the causes."

How he proceeds from this acceptance of the facts of lesion injury and aphasia to his account of Memory and duration is ingenious. An invidious observation perhaps but would Bergson be employable by any Anglo-American philosophy department today? In any case this collection of lectures has the broad brush nature that is a very useful and accessible introduction to the thought of a man who is unfairly relegated to the ranks of the higher hand wavers.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

I was going to go on to read some Joyce Cary bringing in more of the Anglo-Irish literature side of things but having started Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (1929) Internet Archive have lots of his work:
Wolf Solent
I'll continue with it. I feel the need to nourish my soul at that fount of oddness and really for precipitate alteration of focus that is yet somehow right he has no equal. Don't look for a pattern, that's what a tornado does. Yes, of course, but if you go out far enough out and squint according to a theory you will see it. Rely on it, Powys will be there before you in earnest colloquy with the myrmidons of his kingdom - Selena Gault and Darnley Otter. But no one is left unnoticed.

He gave up his ticket to an elderly station master whose air, at once fussily inquisitive and mildly deferential suggested the manner of a cathedral verger.

The technique of creative absence which Wolf practises he calls 'sinking into his soul'.

This 'sinking into his soul' - this sensation which he called 'mythology' - consisted of a certain summoning up to the surface of his mind, of a subconscious magnetic power which from those very early Weymouth days, as he watched the glitter of sun and moon upon the waters from that bow window, had seemed to answer such a summons.

This secret practice was always accompanied by an arrogant mental idea - the idea, namely, that he was taking part in some occult cosmic struggle -- some struggle between what he liked to think of as 'good' and what he like to think of as 'evil' in those remote depths.

I'm going down the universe, I may be gone for some time.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Palladian was Taylor's second novel (1946) and it is a playful homage to some of the themes which have concerned the great English women writers. The heroine is Cassandra Dashwood aged 20. She is to be a governess to Marion Vanbrugh's child Sophy. He,Marion by the way is pronounced Merrion, is the owner of a mouldering demesne and a residence with a Palladian applied front. Marion is still grieving over the death of his wife at the birth of Sophy who is now about 11. He reads Greek verse in the original and has a fin-de-siècle aestheticism which marks him as vaguely effeminate. His household is composed of Tom his cousin, drunkard, artist specialising in surreal anatomical sketches, failed medical student, handsome and dissolute. Also there is Tom's sister Margaret, a medical doctor, residing for the duration of her pregnancy and Tom's mother who is the housekeeper and an ancient Nanny. Clearly the big house regiment has fallen in strength but it still has representative members from all ranks.

The amusing thing about this book is that the ancient women retainers and staff are used as a hag's chorus gibbering by the range in the kitchen sustained by stewed tea and grievance, sinking betimes into the unity of weird sisterhood and then bethinking themselves to grovel or assert distinctions. The sister Margaret is a monster of tactless confrontation and sublime greed. Being pregnant she has to eat for four and her sorties against a gooseberry pie and a latticed jam tart in the larder together with her inept covering of tracks in the matter of assaults on bread and dripping are depicted with transgressive fascination. Being a lady she massacres the bread.

How far can you take homage before it turns into pastiche? Any writer but Elizabeth Taylor would have gone into that area and succumbed to it. She is able to manage it by an ironic subversion. Marion is no brute Rochester, Tom is no Heathcliffe howling on the moor but the lover of Mrs.Veal the Landlady of the Blacksmith's Arms. She is first met on the train in the compartment with Cassandra:
She had a way of settling her blue fox across her breast and smiling down with pleasure and approval - it might equally have been pleasure at the fur or the bosom, since both were magnificent. A dusky, pleasant perfume came from her as she stirred, and the little charms hanging from her bracelet jingled softly.

The other Elizabeth Taylor. Quite!

Cassandra, a bookish girl whose recently deceased father was a schoolmaster with a personal library of 2000 volumes, is well prepared to adhere to the template and fall in love with her employer particularly when he turns out to be a scholarly man. He is haunted by the death in childbirth of his wife Violet who he claims read Homer in the original at the age of 8. Will their love be crossed? Now there's an expression that Taylor would never permit herself.

She (Cassandra) had come a long way from the life of yesterday, of the day before that - the shabby home, the traffic, the bush full of tram tickets, the crowds on the pavements, clotting, thinning out, pressing forward; travelling across time, Marion had called it, but they were really going to work, or going home from work, or shopping, or wooing one another. 'Quite separate', she thought. 'Each quite separate. That is the only safe way of looking at it. And we can never be safe unless we believe we are great and that human life is abiding and the sun constant and that we matter. Once broken, that fragile illusion would disclose the secret panic, the vacuity within us. Life then would not be tolerable.'

This is a short novel of 191 pages with plenty of white. It's quite good. The Virago edition I borrowed from the library has an Introduction by Paul Bailey that is littered with spoilers. Taylor has written better novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in my opinion, but her good is very very good and she's never horrid.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

House Arrest in Paris

Having finished The House in Paris and not wishing to spoil your reading of it; if you haven't already read it, I will reserve my remarks to generalities.  In the crime novel of the puzzle sort everything is explained in the library at the end by the Poirot like figure who shows you that everything you needed to discover the killer was given to you in the plot.  There is no knowledge that is his alone.   Realistic fiction is different, like life itself motivation 'unknown' to the reader/observer can sometimes lead to strange and uncanny twists.   People do the unexpected and swerve without signalling.  The great writers can depict that without leading us by the nose, others place finger-posts so that we don't get too much of a shock.  That sort of writing need not concern us here.   How did Bowen manage in that test of writers justification?  Very well I think, but it is a fact that you have to sink into the characters and below the surface fabric of the novel to feel the greater archetypal tides.  Mme Fisher as malign anima  is how 'unknown' earns its quotes.  She is one of those spiders in Baudelaire's 'Spleen'
And the dumb throngs of infamous spiders spin
Their meshes in the caverns of the brain,
But she herself is webbed down by illness and can only marshal her minion, Miss Fisher, by rapping on the ceiling, like a communication from beyond that does not lack authority.
Mrs. Michaelis, Karen's mother is also of the sort who manages by creating default avenues of permission, that channels the lives around her into patterns that she considers appropriate. She eliminates from consideration that of which she does not approve:
On Sunday night, when - '
Mrs. Michaelis put a hand to her face. 'You know I never ask you to tell me everything, Karen.'
'On Sunday night when I came in, I really did see Ray's letter. I left it where it was because I felt bad, because I am not going to marry him.'
'I think you will want to, Karen.' said her mother

Karen's aunt Violet, her mother's sister has kept from Karen's parents the fact that she is very ill and is to undergo an operation that she may well die from. They live in Ireland and when at the start of the Past section Karen visits them her uncle Colonel Bill blurts it out but his wife says nothing. The complex pattern of secrets is another way of webbing down.

Mme. Fisher tells Leopold much more than he needs to know as a form of post-mortem oppression. But now I'm telling and here I am re-reading it already.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

The Anglo in Anglo-Irish is very different from the Anglo in Anglo-Indian. The latter is a racial mixture, the former is a marked racial aloofness that when mingled with the native Irish loses caste as definitively as a Brahmin who has touched a plough. The Vikings and the Normans went bush early and became more Irish than the Irish themselves the only trace being their towns and castles and of course that strange uvular r that lingers round some areas. Brendan Behan, puer Borstalus for his Republican sins, referred to the Anglo Irish as a protestant on a horse. Yeats tried to identify with 'hard riding country gentlemen' whereas his stock was of the clerical protestant, professional adjuncts to the land owing class. Perhaps it is that wariness and otherness, that aloof noting of the correct distance that brings out the writer in a group that discovers when they go to their putative mother-country that they really are not English at all. They need to be in Ireland to feel that they are after all English.

I've been reading Joyce Cary and Elizabeth Bowen recently and though it may seem that their connection with Ireland is exiguous, their writing has a specific gravity, a weighting that is Irish and a glancing off the surface that is unmistakable. I'm reading The House in Paris from 1935 at the moment. It is achieved in the sense that it creates precisely those harmonics between Past and Present which form the structure of the book. The Present is represented by the young of the Past and the interplay between the 11 year old girl and the 9 year old boy has some of the fatality of replication.

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck on them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday that they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks.
(Karen from The Past section)

It is a subtle book requiring a vigilant meditativeness to enjoy.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Spots of Time

There's a steroscopic aspect to realisation. What gives depth and fullness to experience is an an ability to immerse ourselves in it in a non-dual way. The object of experience is set against the subject of experience but at the same time what makes experiencing possible is the underlying ontological unity. The object can come to be in the subject. Clearly this non-dual realisation is a rare event in the lives of most of us but as Wordsworth has said in his 'spots of time' passage they are vital.

There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying Virtue, whence, depress'd
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repair'd,
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced
That penetrates, enables us to mount
When high, more high, and lift us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life in which
We have deepest feeling that the mind
Is lord and master, and that outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will.
Such moments worthy of all gratitude,
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood: in our childhood even
Perhaps are most conspicuous.
(Bk.XI. ln.258 foll.)

There is no claim in this passage that such epiphanies are the domain of elite adepts. We all can visit and experience recreation and renewal yet there are what the Buddhists call 'upaya' or skillful means. Alienation and banishment from the garden is always a possibility. I shall have to look at the later poems in the era after the great decade to find if there is a clue to Wordsworth's decline in them.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Prelude to Reality

The challenge of realism is to show that we experience reality even if this experience has limitations. There is always the possibility of error and there is always more to know. Contrasted with this is idealism which is never naive perhaps because it is all naive. Idealism turns our conviction that we are experiencing reality into an experience of experience and the perception of perception and reduces 'common' sense into a complete mystery which arose we know not why from we know not where. Obviously there is an 'internal' side to experience, neuronal traffic and the like, and there is an 'external' side, the conceptual, the common. Wittgenstein ought to have put paid to the excessive weight that idealism puts on the internal beam of the scales with his beetle in the box but like a powerful virus it is a cunning adversary that mutates. However I don't think that it is the business of philosophy to deal with every manifestation of ontological error however solidly empirical it seems. Don't panic, it's perfectly safe to remain in your armchairs.

There is that perennial conundrum – if you can pose the question, can you not by that very fact resolve the question? Yes I would reply if you accept realisation as a comprehension. The aporia of how there can be a non-numerical identity between the experience and the reality is resolved by the fact of poetry.

Nor should this, perchance,
Pass unrecorded, that I still lov'd
That exercise and produce of a toil
Than analytic industry to me
More pleasing, and whose character I deem
Is more poetic as resembling more
Creative agency. I mean to speak
Of that interminable building rear'd
By observation of affinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
To common minds.
.....
......
To unorganic natures I transferr'd
My own enjoyments, or, the power of truth
Coming in revelation, I convers'd
With things that really are, I, at this time
Saw blessings spread round me like a sea.
(The Prelude Book II. 396 foll.)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Prelude by William Wordsworth

I am reading The Prelude by Wordsworth regularly and consecutively. The bathos that attends excessive solemnity like an awkward acolyte is there but for me it humanises the lofty and impassioned passages that are normally anthologised. "Keep her going Liamie, don't stall the digger", I cry from the pit.

Nor will it seem to thee, my Friend! so prompt
In sympathy, that I have lengthen'd out,
With fond and feeble tongue, a tedious tale.
(Bk.1.645..)

Not so Dear William inveterate companion of my earlier years,
A form glimpsed in the tumbling cataract of Glencar,
hanging in the mist, its own moment,
given, complete and no presage of future states.

Wordsworth often asks, was I being led on, was this part of an unfolding initiation? In the monist philosophy which he informally espoused everything already is whatever it's going to be. 'Become who you are' said Kierkegaard somewhere. The end or final cause, the telos of Aristotle is not an objective to be attained but what is the case now. Everything is to the point.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meet the Bensons

I mentioned recently the work of Robert Hugh Benson. The Bensons were an extraordinarily gifted family. Of the four surviving members of the family of six the 3 boys were writers and the daughter Maggie an amateur Egyptologist of note. It was a complex family and I would say that if 7 shrinks with 7 couches worked for 15 years I do not think at the end of it they would get it all quite clear. The Dodgson/Carroll nod will be clear from the link below. Robert's brother Arthur writing in one of his essays of which there are 70 volumes has this to say about his family and particularly about his father the late Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson:

Let me speak, then, plainly of what that life has been, and tell what my point of view is. I was brought up on ordinary English lines. My father, in a busy life, held a series of what may be called high official positions. He was an idealist, who owing to a vigorous power of practical organisation and a mastery of detail was essentially a man of affairs.

Read this
and you will be aware of the level of heroic denial the foregoing entailed.

As well as writing novels, ghost stories and essays Arthur prepared for publication the letters of Queen Victoria and 'arranged' the papers of his brother Robert ka Hugh, and his sister Maggie. The other brother Edward ka Fred was also a prolific writer of novels and ghost stories and a personal friend of Queen Victoria. I pass over with a sniff the opportunity for cheap ribaldry here. Actually this brother may have been the best writer of the three. His Mapp and Lucia novels are quite readable and amusing. I'm reading Queen Lucia (Gutenberg Project) which seems to be the start of the series. They were made into a miniseries by Channel 4 back in the 80's which I haven't seen. The eponymous Lucia is the apotheosis of 'twee'.

In the garden behind the house there was no attempt to construct a Shakespearean plot for as she so rightly observed Shakespeare who loved flowers so well would wish her to enjoy every conceivable horticultural treasure. But furniture played a prominent part in the place and there were statues and sundials and stone-seats scattered about with almost too profuse a hand. Mottoes were also in great evidence, and while a sundial reminded you that "Tempus Fugit" an enticing resting place somewhat bewilderingly bade you to "Bide a Wee". But then again the rustic seat in the pleached alley of laburnums had carved on the back, "Much have I travelled in the realms of gold" so that meditating on Keats you could bide a wee with an clear conscience.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

First, let's be clear, Stoker was not moving about the lay figures of Marxist/Feminist/Freudian criticism when he wrote Dracula, he was working straight out of 'the foul rag and bone-shop of the heart'. The mind of a civil servant is a strange and hideous place, a lair of filth, corruption and latterly, brown envelopes. I never, ever read the introductions to novels in the fancy academic editions lest the wearisome lucubrations of the scholastic infect me with its turbid literalness: but having read Dracula for the nth. time I invited Maud, Daughter of Richard, Ellmann into the clean well-lighted place that is my mind. Alas! I think a first reading at least should be a naive one - in which our reader encounters this novel for the first time. Besides the critic may be careless of spoilers.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will". He made no motion of stepping to meet me but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The moment however that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said
"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely and leave something of the happiness you bring."

Ah yes, was ever a more prophetic invitation made. Note the quiet old-world dignity of the formula and the implication that all motions of the soul are fundamentally free. Can there be such a thing as a willing victim? When you join the ranks of the Undead you do so by invitation. He invites you to a mockery of eternity, you accept. As Dr. Van Helsing makes clear later in the case of Lucy she must first have let the Count in.


The conventions that create the illusion of verisimilitude are freely used in this novel. The Bradshaw Railway timetable both English and Continental is plied freely, we can be certain that the indefatigable Van Helsing can do those journeys to fetch his kit in the time that is allotted to him. In a sort of a way the normal narration of a novel is subverted and real history with its profusion and methodology of documentation is aped. Even the phonograph, the latest killer app of the day is pressed into use. Nobody knows what anybody else is thinking unless they are told and we do not know unless that is recorded by one or other of the participants. There is an inevitable muting of character development using this sort of narration but the point of Dracula is the play of forces.

It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which 'modernity' cannot kill.

However it is Mina Harker nee Murray using all modern methods who collates the evidence in 'a mass of typewriting' that allows each to know of the adventures of the other. Only Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Dr. Sewards old professor, appears in the annals of the rest having none of his own if I rightly remember.

It is surprising how many people think that Dracula is an ill written farrago or pulp and just don't bother with it taking the movie with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the fons et origo. That is a mistake. There is much excellent stuff in it. Here is the passage where Jonathan Harker discovers that his host dispenses with stairs:

What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had some many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.......

There is some humour also, perhaps unconscious, but I think not. In Dr. Seward's Diary we are told of the first meeting with Mina Murray of the mad zoophagite Renfield who is in clairvoyant contact with the Count :

She came into the room with an easy gracefulness which would at once command the respect of any lunatic for easiness is one of the qualities mad people most respect.

Extract from Ombhurbhuva's journal:
I have finished Dracula today, and now I see that it is the Day of the Dead. Of course I observed the usual precautions and only read it during the hours of daylight. I am comforted by the wild rose in the hedge and an abundant supply of garlic in the kitchen. As ever I was relieved that Kukri and Bowie knife accomplished their grim task giving peace at last to the Count who in his day, we must not forget, was a great patriot.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Mirror of Shalott by Robert Hugh Benson

This is the season of the pooka, a good time for stories of the supernatural. In a paperback anthology I found a slight tale by Robert Hugh Benson benson excerpted from a book called A Mirror of Shalott. This is available on Internet Archive. IA The suite of stories are told by a group of Catholic clerics meeting in a house in Rome I'm not sure that everyone would consider them real chillers, there are no fat boys like the one in Pickwick that will make your blood run cold, with a recitation of the blood drinkers burial in character but in an understated way that sharpens your sense of both the supernatural and the infranatural, they have a power.

Benson was a priest himself so the material plane was merely a diaphane that could be backlit on occasion. My sense is that these tales are more or less the true stories that he had heard from his colleagues in the ministry. It is the near irruptions into the everyday of other worlds where you can't be quite sure whether it was imagination or not that are the most effective. One story of a dream told by Father Stein :

He was slow of speech and thought and movement, and had that distressing grasp of the obvious that is characteristic of the German mind.

However the story that he tells of an archetypal dream is worthy of the best of Carl Jung.

Another story involves the concept of mystical substitution which a man proposes to the priest who is recounting it, a practical man not well up on the idea.

Well, I didn't understand him at first, but we talked a little, and at last I found that the idea of mystical substitution had seized on his mind. He was persuaded that he must make an offering of himself to God and as to be allowed to bear the temptation instead of his brother. Of course, we know that that is one of the claims of the Contemplative but to tell the truth, I had never come across it before in my own experience.

Not a good idea as it turned out. This man had previously gone for the priesthood and we are told:

The man's health simply could not stand it. But he led a most mortified and interior life with his wife in his London house, with a servant of two to look after them and was present daily at mass at the church that I served then.

Diverting and edifying. Quite!

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eca De Queiroz

The Amateur Reader (Tom) at Wuthering ExpectationsARin his exploration of Portuguese literature mentioned Eca De Queiroz favourably and I spotted his famous novel The Sin of Father Amaro in a tottering pile on the floor of the second-hand book shop (€5). In the later translation I note that it is called The Crime of Father Amaro which seems an odd variant as sin and crime are readily distinguished from each other.

The Sin of Father Amaro is a swingeing attack on the clergy of Portugal in the 19th.C. both individual members and institution. They are what their Lord and Master Jesus Christ would have called whited sepulchers using the Church as a cover for their sordid plotting, lusts and avarice. The ‘beatas’, that band of addled women oppressed by scruples and in thrall to the priests that batten on them in a spiritual vampirism meet at the house of a lady who is the the mistress of the Canon. This individual is also the mentor of a young priest who has been appointed to the local cathedral. De Queiroz’s description of the old ladies and the leech priests are like illustrations from Lombroso’s people to avoid supplement.

Dona Josepha, the canon’s sister, was also there. She was nick-named the Peeled Chestnut. She was a little withered creature, crookedly formed, with shrivelled, cider-coloured skin and a hissing voice; she lived in a state of perpetual irritation, her small eyes always alight, her nervous system eternally contracted, her whole attitude full of spleen. She was dreaded by all. The malignant Doctor Godhino called her the Central Station of the intrigues of Leiria.

In the woman’s house in which Fr. Amaro is staying is the 22 year old daughter; beautiful, fresh, virginal and prone to sentimental religiosity. Clearly in liturgical terms, a ‘suitable victim’.

Amaro is at first given charitable indulgence by the author; he has been, after all, press ganged into the clergy by a sponsor in the nobility who reared him and his sister. He is a fine vigourous handsome fellow whose health has markedly improved since his curacy in the mountains. The chief element of his cure was wrought by a facilitating shepherdess.

The leniency of the author becomes strained as he delineates beautifully the insidious seduction by the paroche of Amelia. From this point in our history we know how cult leaders can prey on the impressionable and devout. It is true that there are clergy who use the office to cloak their abuse but the author seems a misanthrope who finds no good in anyone, lay or clerical. This is perhaps a weakness in a purported realist. All the characters without exception are hypocrites, fools and knaves, the priests in particular combining all those traits in an odious melange. The progress towards tragedy is inevitable and the ebb and flow of the tide of guilt and ecstasy is closely observed.

First published in 1875, my translation by Nan Flanagan is from 1962. In 2002 Dedalus Books presented a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. They have issued more of her translations of Eca De Queiroz which I shall be looking out for.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Broad and Low

Anton Rubenstein's lush opera on the same subject was also banned by censors who deemed it sacrilegious and stupid.
I read this in a Wikipedia article on Lermontov whose A Hero of Our Time I am starting to read in the translation by Wisdom & Murray(from Gutenberg Project). It made me laugh, out loud even, in an unironic fashion. But why? Do we need not access to the stupid as a matter of free speech. It ought not to be kept from us. I demand the right to be baffled.
Speaking of free speech one recalls that it was our President-elect Michael D. Higgins that abolished Section 31 which kept Sinn Fein off the airwaves in Ireland. How karmically appropriate that it was Martin McGuinness in a television debate that delivered the election to Michael D. when he sunk the front runner ,by all polls, Sean Gallagher. As with all Sinn Fein truth it was larded with lies but precisely timed to be too late in the campaign to counter.
Michael D. will be fine. I met him a couple of times at funerals. We had a chat and a laugh. I was recalling to him the previous funeral. Because Pat's woman was away in Europe at the time his sisters took charge of the laying out of his body and had entwined his hands in sturdy rosary beads. Pat affected to believe in fairies and paid out good money for an advanced course in TM; spiritually eclectic would be a fair description of his religious views. Many and wandering paths. Probably not Marian. I said to Michael D that Irish funerals had a tendency to fall into low comedy. We laughed and then we talked of his efforts to secure the release of Kenneth Bigley who was a hostage in Iraq. In the end Bigley was beheaded but I think that contacts and middlemen from Gaza that Michael D would have known were used to try to reach Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the leader of the group.

Somehow Pat's teeth were lost and his jaws had a Schopenhaurian chapfallen visage that gave him a peevish look as of one who had just noticed a dog pissing on his shoe. I liked Pat, God rest him, and I think that he would have enjoyed the broad and low element.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Bridge in the Jungle by B Traven

We love mysteries and even when the mystery is solved we are inclined to doubt the solution. The mystery of B Traven is such an open and we leave it open case.
B Traven - a mystery solved
is a fascinating documentary from 1978. It's the great old style B.B.C. Documentary with Robert Robinson in what looks suspiciously like a bush jacket or a safari shirt, some sort of intrepid tailoring anyway. He speaks slowly and projects a lot in foreign speak to a number of people who knew B Traven in his various avatars.

Other B Traven musing is to be had in a witty story by Rudolfo A. Anaya B Traven is alive and well in Cuernavaca available complete at story

One of the people he meets is of course John Huston who filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Reading the book I find that famous piece of dialogue practically unchanged but put in the mouth of Curtin rather than Dobbs:
'All right,' Curtain shouted back, 'If you are the police where are your badges? Let's see them.
'Badges, to god dammed hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don't need badges, I don't have to show you any stinking badges, you god-dammed cabron and ching' tu madre.

I imagine that the reason that I don't see B Traven in any of the barrows that I frequent is that they have been read to bits. I found his novel The Bridge in the Jungle from 1928,(English publication in 1938,) in a Penguin 1975 reprint. B Traven covers are good. Here's a selection of them from
just seeds

I haven't quite finished The Treasure yet but I would say as a novel The Bridge is the better of the two. The construction is tighter, less yarny without side-trips here and there which the former is subject to. A hard bitten prospector who goes after what the jungle will provide, gems, gold,crocodile hides, medicinal plants, meets up with another gringo who is pump master in a village. There is to be a fiesta and while they wait for the music to begin one of the kids that have been hanging about the bridge goes missing. The fear is that he , though a good swimmer has fallen into the water and getting into difficulties may have drowned. So they drag and probe a little to satisfy the natural search methods that must first be utilised before the humility before the supernatural can come into play. An old Indian who knows the way of these things takes command and looks for a thick candle. Such candles are hard to find but someone offers what the old 'brujo' hardly hoped for.

'A consecrated one' the old Indian gasped. 'A consecrated one, a real consecrated one! Woman be thanked, that's exactly the very one I am looking for. Now we can't fail. Bring it! Quick! Hurry! Please let me have that candle, senora!'

He fixes the candle,a thick one, like the sort the about to be confirmed carry in procession, to the precise centre of a board and sets it off in the river the idea being that the calling to the light of the spirit of the dead child trapped in the river will bring the candle to hover over the spot. Here is where Koves/Traven brings to bear the ethnological lore that he gained from his expeditions to the jungles of Southern Mexico. But his respect is not that one might have for a reliable native informant, it is their dignity before the rigours of life that has him abandon observation and become immersed in the mystery.

He brings too that element of low comedy that ameliorates the funeral, Taintgonnarainnomo as suitable music for the ragged process to the grave. Which, really, it is.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Going by the author information in the front of the book there is some congruence between the life of the author Richard Yates and the protagonist of Revolutionary Road. They are of a similar age, war experience, job experience. Whether the picture window was part of the vista I don’t know but in the large corporation , Remington Rand, where he worked, there would be plenty of suburbia to go around.

The focus of the book is on the Wheeler family, Frank & April parents, Jennifer and Michael the children up in Connecticut. That perennial American stranger, the absent father, is in both the Wheelers lives. The novel opens with an amateur drama production of Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest. Being a Googleamus I find that it is a sort of key or ‘clef’ if you will. (from the play)

Gabby (undeterred): We could go to France, and you’d show me everything, all the cathedrals and the art—and explain everything. And you wouldn’t have to marry me, Alan. We’d just live in sin and have one hell of a time.

Squier: That’s a startling proposal, Gabrielle. I hadn’t expected to receive anything like it in this desert….

Gabby: Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?

Also foundmarin

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, April.

Both the Wheelers are in the Holdenesque argot of the era (1955) phonies, actors in search of a character or something. The little grace notes of observation honed by empirical acquaintance are delicate. Frank Wheeler drinks dry sherry on a Sunday. It is I suppose almost Calvinist after the hard liquor of the week and slightly brittle and sophisticated. Not that they are narcissistic, Narcissus had an image that he loved, they are looking for one that someone else can love.

I won’t say anything about the plot. Period note: She decamps to the couch. Let’s not be too snotty about Suburbia, how do you think you got to College, punk. This is a very fine novel by someone I had never heard of. It is one I will reread.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Causality in Advaita

What happens when you have a restricted diet of examples? Ontological malnutrition no less. Such is the ‘clay and vessels’ of Shankaracarya which has become the standard paradigm of causation in Advaita. The problem is simply stated. Material causality is taken as the paradigm case of causality. Clay is the material cause of a clay vessel of which the pot, dish, plate etc is the effect. Gold is the material cause of rings, bangles, necklaces etc. They are its effects. That particular line of thinking is further developed into reflections on Brahman and what is real but for a start let me focus on the causality issue.

The westerner has an advantage here of having Magister Aristotle as a pedagogue telling him that causality has four aspects to it, material, efficient, formal and final. He reminds us that potency is not act. A lump of clay left there will not transform itself into a vessel just because it can so be transformed. An efficient cause is required for that. The formal cause of the particular vessel will be the standard type that is required for whatever function is desired. Form follows function as is said. The actual material as such does not effect anything in a causal sense but it must of course be a suitable material. It is therefore not correct to speak of Material Cause and its Effect as though the latter flowed from the former. The material cause is not an actuating principle on its own.

Both material and formal elements are intrinsic to the effect as existing ie. this particular plate, that particular pot. Neither element on its own is an adequate explanation for the particular existent. The extrinsic causes of the the particular existent or effect are the efficient and final causes.

In the Thomist manual by Coffey Ontlogy the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding is put succintly:
Ontology

In what does the positive causal influence of a material cause consist? How does it contribute positively to the actualization of the composite reality of which it is the material cause? It recieves and unites with the form which is educed from its potentiality by the action of efficient causes, and thus contributes to the generation of the concrete, composite, individual reality.

With that background limned in the consideration of the text from the Chandogya Upanishad VI.i.4 will be in a separate post:

By knowing a single lump of clay, everything that is made of clay would become known. A modification begins with speech, it is a (mere) name. The clay alone is true i.e. real.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Karma and Evolution

Shankaracarya (788-820 A.D) of course had no idea of Darwinian evolution. Extracting the implication of the doctrine of karma he declares that the transmigratory state has no beginning. Rebirth is on the basis of karma so there will always have to be prior births for the whole machinery to operate, it can’t just suddenly start up. In reply to an objection :

From Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya II.i.35

It is only after creation that results of work, depending on the diversification into bodies etc., could be possible by depending on the result of work........

Reply:

That is no defect, since the transmigratory state has no beginning, This defect would have arisen if transmigration had a beginning. But if that state had no beginning, there is nothing contradictory for the fruits of work and the variety in creation to ac t as cause and effect of each other on the analogy of the seed and the sprout.

In that view of the cosmos man and all the species were always there. It’s interesting that some Hindus find themselves aligned with Christian fundamentalists in the denial of evolution. Others seem not to have a coherent position on the matter. Probably they are waiting for some authoritative pronouncement.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

De Quincey, Coleridge and Yeats meet the Keswick carrier.

De Quincey and Wordsworth had gone out to meet the carrier from Keswick (Lake District) bearing newspapers with the latest reports of the war in Spain. It was a clear night and Wordsworth stretched himself upon the ground and had an experience which he related to De Quincey:

"I have remarked, from my earliest days, that, if under any circumstances, the
attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady observation, or of
steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly
relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection
of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known
under other circumstances.Just now my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road; at the very instant when I raised my head from the ground, in final abandonement of hope for this night, at the very instant when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy brightness fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the infinite, that would not have arrested me under any other circumstances".

Here you have the perfect example of the natural movement from the one-pointed state (ekgratha) to the expanded state of consciousness. This is a standard practice in meditation and it occurs spontaneously and is the more effective the greater the disjunction.

The embowered Coleridge, (from) This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark'd
Much that has soothed me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch'd
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov'd to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut tree
Was richly ting'd, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy,

Yeats's movement is from a rapt examination to a release into a state of expansion that burns off the fogs of yea and nay. He writes:
At certain moments, always unforeseen, I become happy.... Perhaps I am sitting in some crowed restaurant, the open book beside me, or closed, my excitement having overbrimmed the page. I look at the strangers near as if I had known them all my life, and it seems strange that I cannot speak to them; everything fills me with affection, I have no longer any fears or any needs, I do not even remember that this happy mood must come to an end. It seems as if the vehicle had suddenly grown pure and far extended.
(from Mythologies)

Vacillilation, IV

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blesséd and could bless.

Friday, 14 October 2011

More on A.E. Coppard from V.S. Pritchett and Frank O'Connor.

Frank O’Connor and V.S. Pritchett speak highly of Coppard and they are both of them masters of the short story. There’s peer review. Pritchett talks about him in an interview from 1985. I came across it looking for Irish influence in the work of Coppard. Irish characters crop up and theres a Celtic aspect. He was part of a group called the New Elizabethans in Oxford along with W.B.Yeats The universal element in folk stories which Lady Gregory and Yeats were discovering and recording seemed to grasp that chthonic power which eluded the over elaborate productions of the modern mind. James Stephens comes to mind as one tuned to the same station.

B.F.: I'd like to ask a little more about the first short stories you read. You said that in Dublin you read D.H. Lawrence and Joyce's Dubliners.

V.S.P.: Yes... yes, I read them, and I also read an English writer who is now rather forgotten but who was an extremely gifted writer of stories, in a very small compass, a man called A.E. Coppard. I admired his stories enormously. And in fact I used to know him, when I was living in the country. He was a nearby neighbour. And he was a very strange man; he was a warehouse‑man's clerk or something like that who had decided to be a writer, so he had gone out and lived in a shed in the woods in Buckinghamshire, entirely on his own, with no sanitation and his drinking water from a well, in a shallow well in the earth. And he was a natural perfectly spontaneous man, not muddle‑headed he was absolutely clear‑headed. I don't think he had any views about life in general, any kind of intellect, but he had a marvellous appreciation of the instant; he could describe a squirrel very well, he could describe a game‑keeper, he could describe a couple of old farmers arguing about whether, beef is better than veal to eat, or what pork is like, and things like that. He had a great decorative sense of comedy. He was unfortunately, when I look back upon it, a rather folkish writer; he came at a period when the peasantry were dead really and they only existed in pockets in England, in little places, and their traditional customs by that time had almost gone. It was when suburbia spread out and the countryside died. That curious old England went out. Another writer who was very good, in the same way, in his early stories, who came later, was H.E. Bates. He wrote very well, very good English, had a good style, but was also brief.
from Journal of the Short Story
journal of the short story


I can see where the folkish which has a disparaging tone could come from. There is a narrative quickness, a blending of worlds, a suspension of ordinary judgment of the probable and the possible, beggars, pilgrims and beautiful shy girls. Pritchett is a master of penny plain truth, Coppard will do you a nice tuppence coloured and thrupence de luxe. Can’t do better than that guv’. What you often get is a fragment like the flow of a stream around a rock where there is an order wrought by the nature of all the elements in the event but this order is never repeated.

Frank O’Connor in The Paris Review 1957 has this to say (
Yesterday I was finishing off a piece about my friend A. E. Coppard, the greatest of all the English storytellers, who died about a fortnight ago. I was describing the way Coppard must have written these stories, going around with a notebook, recording what the lighting looked like, what that house looked like, and all the time using metaphor to suggest it to himself, “The road looked like a mad serpent going up the hill,” or something of the kind, and, “She said so-and-so, and the man in the pub said something else.” After he had written them all out, he must have got the outline of his story, and he’d start working in all the details
paris review

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A.E. Coppard

Ah, sir, wisdom was ever deluding me, for I’m not more than half done - like a poor potato. First, of course, there’s the things you don’t know; then there’s the things you do know but can’t understand; then there’s the things you do understand but which don’t matter. Saving your presence, sir, there’s a heap of understanding to be done before you’re anything but a fool.
(from Simple Simon by A.E. Coppard)

This is from a short story collection, Black Dog by A.E. Coppard (1878 -1957) first published in 1923 then issued in the pucca ‘Travellers’ Library’format put out by Jonathan Cape in 1926, reprinted in 1926, 28, 29, 51, 57. My copy looks like it came out of a box in the back of a warehouse. Nice 7“ x 5“ cloth that can slip into the pocket of your coat, print beautifully struck. No.2 in the series. I also have Adam and Eve and Pinch Me in the same format, also republished several times. Penguin brought out a selection in 1972, Dusky Ruth and Other Stories from his various collections. It has a short introductions by Doris Lessing who is a big fan. By the bye is Doris Lessing the worst writer in English ever to have won the Nobel Prize?

The Penguin selection mostly stays clear of the mystical, magical, fabulous stories which are a distinct element in his work. In these times we don’t Adam and Eve it. In that title story Adam and Eve and Pinch Me a man travels in his astral body through his house and thinks that he does it in his corporeal form. There’s a wonderful flowing exalted sense conveyed by the writing and at the same time the stress of the man who tries to communicate with the others who are in a different plane but whether that plane is this sublunar one is not quite clear.

There was Bond (the gardener) tinkering about with some plants a dozen yards in front of him. Suddenly his three children came round from the other side of the house, the youngest boy leading them, carrying in his hand a small sword which was made, not of steel, but of some more brightly shining material; indeed it seemed at one moment to be of gold, and then again of flame, transmuting everything in its neighbourhood into the likeness of flame, the hair of the little girl Eve, a part of Adam’s tunic; and the fingers of the boy Gabriel as he held the sword were like pale tongues of fire.

These volumes are what I call ‘barrowed’ treasure. Never having heard of him I could only find them there. Due a revival.

PS: Adam and Eve and Pinch Me is available to download from Internet Archive A&E and Pinch Me with some extra stories compared to British Edition.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Praxis and Doctrine

It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to pull it all into a phrase I say 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.' I must embody it in the completion of my life.

Yeats wrote this in a letter some days before he died. There is a truth in it that surpasses the theological wittering about Praxis and Doctrine. The meanings that are mined out of the ground of Religion or Yoga, words which have union as their root, are finally abstractions. Even the eternal truths of mathematics are abstractionst according to Bergson who held that lived duration, is real. Duration is merely gestured towards by a recognition of the paradoxes generated by conventional truth. We can always disagree about the meanings that we take out of stated doctrine but the embodied reality comes out of a fundamental union. This is implicit even in the theological acceptance of the basis of doctrine.

However, in the event that the Church might not yet have enunciated a decision, consequent to the conclusions of some universal council, the principles of ecumenicity, antiquity and agreement are to be invoked. In other words, the reliable standard for orthodoxy must be what has been believed in the Church everywhere, always and by all.
(from Cardinal John Henry Newman and the development of doctrine by Fr. Peter Waters)
http://www.ad2000.com.au/articles/1998/aug1998p10_553.html

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe. Something passed at that moment, a wave, a motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual, between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage of the twelve-nineteen train from London, and divine-diabolic source of the First Cause of all life.

Is this the oddest and yet quite truthful start to a novel that has ever been written? Scholiasts of recurring heresies will note the Gnostic element but that is but a facet of the ingredients in the cauldron kept bubbling with clippings from The Thorn. To say that it is complex and a worthy proposal in its anfractuosities as a special subject on Mastermind would be to claim that a clock that builds new cogs as required and is lubricated by the best butter is nevertheless a sure chronometer. Nay sir, this novel includes history and concludes it.

There are 1120 pages in all, don't take less, and it would not be giving too much away to say that The End is not a conventional marker but a part of the novel. This requires strategy. Mine is baptism by immersion. Simply allow each paragraph to draw you on to the next and soon you will be attuned to its, and here I doff my cap step back and with a deep bow and flourish say, its cosmic vibrations.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Mohanty on Advaita

I had always taken the aporia of awareness i.e. how the world is somehow in our consciousness as it is, in its reality, as my fundamental orientation. I then moved from that towards an attempt to come to grips with the consciousness itself. One redaction of the problem is that the mental state is transparent, in a sense we see 'through' the mental experience directly to the object. That has an attraction. It is simple but its simplicity evades the multitude of appearances that we are supposed to see through. The unity and singularity of the object must be assumed and therefore we have to expand our account to explain that unity. We know that the object has an identity. How?

Advaita moves in the direction of that expansion but it first begins with an exploration of consciousness as such. The intentionality of consciousness is what strikes one first. If we are not thinking about something it won't be in our minds. If we are not paying attention then we will not take in what is occurring in our physical presence. What we are aware of is a selection. We know what is in our minds. In all modes of consciousness this is known to us immediately without the intermediation of an ego. J.N. Mohanty puts it well in his paper on Consciousness and Knowledge in Indian Philosophy in the journal Philosophy East and West, Vol.29, No.1(jan.'79).

....how can two such things be together, that is, how can pure self-revealing consciousness, whose essence is exhausted by this self-revealing character be also the intentional empirical consciousness, which is of an object and belongs to a subject? Intrinsically, consciousness is objectless and subjectless; owing to avidya, it appears to be of an object and as belonging to a subject. Again avidya is the source of intentionality.

This approach solves the question of whether it is a native or primitive faith that there is an identity of some sort between what is in our minds and the actual object that existed before we turned the light of consciousness on it. Both subject and object arise from the split in primal consciousness. They implicate each other.

Suspicion

Have you noticed that slightly irritating academic locution ‘I suspect’ cropping up a bit or is it just me? Those illative antennae are waving again. Is this a manifestation of timid academic soul, a hedging of bets against positions which are edgy and windswept where a strong gust might pitch you into an abyss of scepticism or radical doubt? Unless you inhabit a position how are you going to feel the force of it? Being a charitable person I reject as unfounded this suspicion as condescension or as a pat on the head, a letting down gently into the pit of the unfounded, the dubious, the inchoate or as a wrinkle on the brow of bland certainty.

Take it down town and book it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

ME CHEETA, the autobiography (as told to James Lever)

James Lever admits that in the middle of the writing of a previous novel that was too beautiful to let go off as though the adhesions would tear too much of his soul away and leave him raw and unable to efface the world; he read Infinite Jest and remained impaled on his couch abandoned to the despair of perfection. But then an editor gave him a deadline and an idea - write the biography of an animal star as though by that animal. Thereby Me Cheeta was born. At first Lever was kept from the limelight, you know what stars are, till it finally leaked out that it was an ‘as told to’ James Lever.

It’s a classic and I’m going to go out on a limb here (don’t bounce up and down) and say that it moves into the region of greatness. No, no, I mean it,Cheeta’s a wonderful person and a beautiful human ape. There’s the standard spoof of the genre which is itself classical Yiddish self-deprecation allied with sprinkles of bombast and comfort pleat ego. Cheeta sees the goings on of the stars and is a favoured guest at their parties with many a salacious aside but there is a genuine pathos in his worship of alpha male Johnny Weismuller. He sees but he doesn’t get the meaning of what his heroes do, a bit like us, and he misses the obnoxiousness of Niven and Flynn and their pranks. His original capture he understands as a rescue from the jungle which is a dangerous place for animals.

You liked Black Beauty you’ll love this. It will touch your heart.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Gissing and The Nether World

George Orwell might have written the biography of George Gissing. He was asked to do so by a publisher in 1946 but he was on his way to the island of Jura and so had to decline the offer. Instead he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four which is a decent swap. Orwell was born in 1903 the same year that Gissing died and they both lived to the age of 46 each succumbing finally to lung disease. I am relying here on the biography George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany. Therein the point is made that whereas Orwell took to tramping to research his books on poverty, Gissing merely walked the streets and visited the workshops of Clerkenwell to do research for his novel The Nether World but it could also be maintained that Gissing had no need of sentimental immersion as he had just buried his first wife Nell two weeks before starting that novel. He had first met and fallen in love with her when he was a brilliant young student and she a young prostitute. Though he, through the multiple scholarships which he had won, was well off, for a student, still that was not enough to keep her off the streets and he began to steal from his fellows at Owens College (later Manchester University). The month in goal that he received for his crime was the beginning of his real research into the nether world. Expelled from college in disgrace he went to America that place of dubious sanctuary but when he came back after a year took up with Nell again. His plan was to turn her into a ladylike companion but she kept up with her trade and her drinking throughout their marriage. Delany suggests that she infected him with syphilis, the disease that finally killed her and may have exacerbated the weakness of his lungs.

There are many of us who have been scorched by the fire of a fatal relationship but have come out the other side with a here be dragons map engramatically engraved on our brains . Gissing continued to explore that territory. What he needed was a nice intelligent work-girl that he could mould to a suitable companion. His second wife went mad and fought with the servants.

By being expelled from Owens College he had lost his chance to rise in the world. He later wrote in a letter:

The life of a Fellow at Oxford or Cambridge is, I should think, almost ideal. He has his man-servant, his meals either in private or at the public table, an atmosphere of culture and peace.

The way that the clever student can con his lessons well and deliver them back in the same diction as the professor, that sincere flattery that brings academic honour, could be the very mimesis that hobbles his style. It’s not there all the time, that constraint that makes him seem like a foreigner that was attempting the speech of a class always beyond him and that he could never be sure he was getting right. There is a concept of what is ‘writerly’ that stifles the life of his prose sometimes but I do not deny that this may be a function of his hurry. He began the novel on 19th.of March and finished it on the 18th. of July. In our more leisurely days that would probably be the time allotted for a first very rough draft .