Saturday, 16 April 2011

Spinoza's Stone

Spinoza trivia: The title of a bestselling novel taken from Ethicspublished in 1915, with no less than 3 film versions.Trevor Howard and Bette Davis were co-stars in 34, as were Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak in a '63 version. None of those 'treatments' came close to the book Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. The title of the Fourth Part of 'Ethics' is Of Human Bondage or of the Strength of the Affects. It is an excellent novel.
Maugham was a man of wide culture and perhaps it is a fancy of my own that he didn't just take the title in a quasi-ironic way and leave it at that. I imagine it amused him to use what is quite abstruse rationalism as a pattern . For instance we find at 4P.III.:
4P.3: The force by which man perseveres in existence is limited, and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes.

Philip Carey the protagonist, born with a club foot, is orphaned at the age of 9 losing both his father and mother in the same year. At this point he is taken to live with his uncle on his father's side and his aunt, a childless couple in their 50's. The uncle is a C of E. vicar in a seaside town who is at odds with the chapel folk who cater to the lower orders. We are in the tail end of the Victorian era, genteel poverty, coarse poverty and as a special treat the top of the vicar's egg. It is all beautifully rendered with simple language reflecting the consciousness of the child.
Philip is saved by the power of his imagination that is liberated by the travel books which the uncle collects.
4P.IX: If we imagine the cause of an affect to be actually present with us, that affect will be stronger than if we imagined the cause not to be present
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He occasionally lapses under the pressure of misery into the fantasy that his mother has not died and that it all is a dream that he will wake from. The visualisation that Spinoza recommends can be neurotic denial as well as enabling. His school chum breaks a pen of his and he lies saying that it was a gift from his dying mother. Tears flow even though he knows that he bought it for 1s.4d a fortnight before.
There are many such masterful touches throughout the book. As was written:
4PXIX : According to the laws of his own nature each person necessarily desires that which he considers to be good, and avoids that which he considers to be evil.

The discrimination that comes through experience is the gyroscope that corrects the trajectory of Spinoza's stone.
Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. (from letter to Schaller, no.62)
In one thing though Maugham departs from the rubric that Spinoza laid out. It is possible for the deep courses of the soul to be running their own way beyond the reach of the discursive intellect. Without working it out we can arrive at a point of profound importance quite without that engagement of the conscious mind that is the ideal for Spinoza. Without Geometry or even Algebra we are there. Thus it was that Philip Carey arrived at the realisation that his faith has evanesced once the props of culture that support the Church established by Law were no longer in place.
He was surprised at himself because he ceased to believe so easily, and, not knowing that he felt as he did on account of the subtle workings of his inmost nature, he ascribed the certainty that he had reached to his own cleverness.

We know more than we know would seem a willful paradox but is the plain truth. For Spinoza what is reasoned out is the established truth, the other stuff is just truthy or a post hoc abduction. Everything must be brought into the light of reason to truly exist. The name given for this strain of European thought, often associated with the Enlightenment, is alienation in both senses of subreption and estranging. The problem for the novelist is to convince us of those underground streams. Like the twitches of the dowser's rods he must indicate the living water that is under the narrative.


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